Letter from Canada capital and its key economic hub

Children play outside the Parliament of Canada (under renovation). [Xn Iraki]

Many people think Toronto, Canada’s largest city, is its capital. Like the US, Australia, Brazil, and closer home Nigeria, Canada has an economic capital distinct from political capital.

This is Ottawa. The name is Algonquin, the indigenous people who owned this land before mzungu came ashore. The city is about 450km (kilometres) from Toronto. I set to explore this capital by taking a drive.

A dual carriage road takes you through greenery that would be an envy of any developer, nature lover, or land grabber. This time, unlike my trip around Lake Victoria, I was driven and had enough time to take notes and reflect.

Every town on the way no matter how small, advertises itself giving the population what it’s known for. Tourism is big and you must let tourists know what you offer.

I saw no big billboards that distract your driving. And no roads pass through a town. Ever driven through Ongata Rongai, Nakuru, or Eldoret? Walls on the roads keep off noise not intruders or thugs. 

Several museums, zoos, theatres, and art galleries are advertised along the highway including tanks, canoes, and military communications museums. Several golf courses add to the allure of this country.

Add wellness centres for summer and winter weather (indoors). Clearly, life in Canada is not just about money, capitalism is muted. Malls open at 9am and close latest 10pm. Canada seems culturally closer to Europe than the US. Orchards and wineries are advertised too. I thought that wine was from Niagara and Okanagan Valley? Why should grapes grow so far north? Global warming or genetic engineering? 

I saw a goat farm but could not check for nyama choma! Dairying is big with cheese factories. What happened to all the cheese factories in the white highlands before Uhuru? Farmers’ markets are advertised too. The 450km trip is made easier by rest areas with washrooms and eateries. A Delamere’s sort of. Speeding is punitive with a fine of 10,000 Canadian Dollars (Sh1.06 million) if you exceed the speed limit by 50km. 

I noted lots of roads under repair; it’s the winter effect. Remember your Form Two physics? Water expands when it cools, the anomalous expansion of water. That’s why icebergs float.


During winter, any water seeping into small cracks on the road expands making them bigger and needing repair in summer. We repair our roads for different reasons. Carpooling is heavily advertised. 

The big sports utility cars we love in Kenya like V8 are used for towing loads not showing off. And I never saw any policeman on the 900km trip. 

Canada is a green country with plenty of water and forests. One resident of Quebec told me they do not pay for water! There is too much of it! Quebec which is predominantly French and Catholic has another peculiarity, cars have number plates only at the back. Do we really need both in Kenya?

There are no deserts in Canada. I wonder why Canada does not export water - piped to the US. The answer is economic, it’s not profitable.  One Canadian told me bottling and exporting it is more profitable. Remember value addition?

The town names have links to England but some indigenous names like Oshawa, Ganonoque, or Napanee are still used. Sorry, I saw 798 acres on sale. Kindly don’t speculate about my ethnic group; my economic eyes never close. 

I came across solar farms - a clear indicator that renewable energy is still welcome. I finally rode in a Tesla and loved it. Canada’s provinces are divided into counties that seem to work together like the united counties of Leeds and Granville. 

Two languages English and French are used in road signs and other places. Even public speeches are in both languages. But there are hundreds of indigenous languages. 

Canada has national parks like 1000 islands. In addition, Canadians are proud of their many world heritage sites like the Rideau Canal in Ottawa.

Patriotism rings loud too. Road signs remind you of veterans. In the Parliament which we visited in Ottawa, there are eight books of remembrance with the names of all Canadian soldiers who have died serving the country.

A page of the book is turned every day to show different names. How do we remember our veterans? 

Canada is a dominion with the King of England as the Head of State. We visited the Parliament which is not fenced and is a major tourist attraction with several groups waiting for a tour. So open and free is the place where we found school children playing on the open lawns. Never saw any policemen shepherding people or razor wire.

Ottawa, the capital is less crowded, unlike Toronto with its forests of high-rise apartments. Professor Tom Ross, emeritus of the University of British Columbia explained this phenomenon.

“There is a desire in Canada, and many other places, to build more sustainable and affordable cities.  And with this, a related desire to protect and expand green spaces (parks, forests, farms).

This has led to plans for more dense housing, better public transit (less expensive with higher population densities), and legal protections for large tracts of land to preserve them for recreational or agricultural use and to block residential or commercial development.”

 Kenyan Embassy

Some surprises in Ottawa included a China Bible church, lots of joggers, dog walking, and monuments to celebrate the history of Canada.

A courtesy call at the Kenyan Embassy made us feel at home. Our mission was to promote more investments and trade between Kenya and Canada.

Let’s end on three notes. One is that Canada is the second largest country in the world with only 40 million people. Two, despite sharing almost 9,000km of border with the US, the country has not been drowned by the US culture.

And three, the invasion of Ukraine is a concern to Canada, not just because of hosting Ukrainian refugees, but because Canada shares a maritime border with Russia. Check from the North Pole.

I would have loved a drive beyond Ottawa to St John Newfoundland (and take a boat) to see the remains of the Titan that imploded on its way to see the Titanic. That is a good reason to return to Canada. Shall we one day get our Ottawa?

Next week; Letter from Niagara Falls.  

The writer is an Associate Professor from the University of Nairobi.