Wel­come to Canada’s new Cen­tre for Ge­og­ra­phy and Ex­plo­ration

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - By Nick Walker

Wel­come to Canada’s new Cen­tre for Ge­og­ra­phy and Ex­plo­ration

W in­ston Churchill once said “We shape our build­ings; there­after they shape us.” Lo­ca­tion, of course, adds to that ef­fect. This is how the new head­quar­ters of The Royal Cana­dian Geo­graph­i­cal So­ci­ety and Cana­dian Geo­graphic at 50 Sus­sex Drive in Ot­tawa is trans­form­ing the 90-year-old or­ga­ni­za­tion’s abil­ity to carry out its man­date: bring­ing knowl­edge of Canada’s phys­i­cal land­scapes, peo­ple and in­no­va­tions to a na­tional and global au­di­ence. There’s more to this build­ing than a prag­matic mod­ernist ar­range­ment of stone, glass and steel over­look­ing a water­fall, three rivers and two prov­inces. “This build­ing ranks with the iconic land­marks home to the Royal Geo­graph­i­cal So­ci­ety in Lon­don and the Na­tional Geo­graphic So­ci­ety in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.,” says John Geiger, the CEO of the RCGS. “It takes the RCGS, which has al­ways done a great deal to pro­mote geo­graph­i­cal lit­er­acy, to an­other level al­to­gether.” Read on to find out how 50 Sus­sex — Canada’s new Cen­tre for Ge­og­ra­phy and Ex­plo­ration — is blend­ing an iconic nat­u­ral back­drop, a his­toric chunk of the Na­tional Cap­i­tal and a who’s who of trail­blaz­ing sci­en­tists, ex­plor­ers, ed­u­ca­tors, In­dige­nous lead­ers and other cul­tural in­no­va­tors from across the coun­try to change how we un­der­stand our home­land.


For thou­sands of years be­fore Jac­ques Cartier, Sa­muel de Cham­plain and other Euro­pean ex­plor­ers, traders and mis­sion­ar­ies ever paused their pad­dles be­neath Rideau Falls, this point on the Ot­tawa River was a fre­quent gath­er­ing place of the Al­go­nquin Peo­ples. Less than 1.5 kilo­me­tres south­west of the falls — in the vicin­ity of the Cana­dian Mu­seum of His­tory — lies an an­cient burial ground with an es­ti­mated 4,900 years of his­tory. In­dige­nous fam­i­lies came to the delta where the Rivière Gatineau meets the Ot­tawa, di­rectly across from the present lo­ca­tion of 50 Sus­sex, to hunt game, pick berries, fish, gather other re­sources and trade. By the 1800s, log driv­ers and vast tim­ber rafts com­ing down the river on slow east­ward jour­neys to the St. Lawrence and Que­bec City were a com­mon sight to the early res­i­dents of By­town (Ot­tawa) and Hull (Gatineau). A pulp-and-pa­per mill next to Rideau Falls was re­pur­posed to ac­com­mo­date the first of­fices and re­searchers of the Na­tional Re­search Coun­cil Canada in the 1920s, the Na­tional Film Board of Canada was founded on the site at the start of the Sec­ond World War, and the Canada and the World Pav­il­ion, built to show­case Canada’s ac­com­plish­ments on the world stage, was built in 2000, but stood va­cant by 2005.


Lo­cated along an im­por­tant cer­e­mo­nial route in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal that con­nects Par­lia­ment to Rideau Hall, 50 Sus­sex counts among its clos­est neigh­bours the Em­bassy of France, the South African High Com­mis­sion, 24 Sus­sex Drive (the of­fi­cial res­i­dence of the prime min­is­ter) and the Gov­er­nor Gen­eral’s res­i­dence. The boule­vard is also con­nected to the rest of Canada by The Great Trail: it was added as an of­fi­cial sec­tion and “spur” of the coun­try-cross­ing trail net­work in 2017.


Sa­muel de Cham­plain was the first to record the twin Rideau Falls’ re­sem­blance to cur­tains ( rideaux in French). The epony­mous wa­ter­way drops into the Ot­tawa River on the south side of 50 Sus­sex. It was the in­ac­ces­si­bil­ity of this por­tion of the Rideau River to ves­sels that ne­ces­si­tated the con­struc­tion of the Rideau Canal’s Ot­tawa locks, the last sec­tion of which lies less than two kilo­me­tres to t he south, ad­ja­cent to Par­lia­ment Hill. Across the Ot­tawa River and just be­yond a fringe of river­side park­land and a wedge of the city of Gatineau, Que., Gatineau Park spreads north and west for 50 kilo­me­tres. The park — Canada’s old­est fed­eral park west of the Rocky Moun­tains — is the finest ex­am­ple of any of the Na­tional Cap­i­tal Re­gion’s pro­tected forests, and pre­serves ma­jor stands of his­tor­i­cally im­por­tant trees and other flora that grow widely across the re­gion, in­clud­ing on the 50 Sus­sex grounds: red maple, white spruce, red pine, white pine and elm.


Two ma­jor gal­leries fill the main and up­per storeys, both of which fea­ture panoramic views of the Ot­tawa River. Hav­ing opened as one of the Na­tional Cap­i­tal Com­mis­sion’s Con­fed­er­a­tion Pavil­ions for the Canada 150 cel­e­bra­tions in 2017, a year be­fore the rest of the head­quar­ters, the spa­ces have al­ready wel­comed thou­sands of Cana­di­ans, in­ter­na­tional tourists and dig­ni­taries. The open­ing year saw an in­ter­ac­tive ex­hibit on the NCC’S 50-year Plan for Canada’s Cap­i­tal, as well as the de­but of Thir­teen Moons, a stun­ning work of pan­els painted and ar­ranged in an open cir­cle by renowned artist Alex Jan­vier, a mem­ber of the group known best as the In­dian Group of Seven. Most re­cently, the spa­ces were ded­i­cated to an ex­plo­ration of how Nor­we­gian Roald Amund­sen’s ex­pe­ri­ences with the Inuit of the Cana­dian Arc­tic were ap­plied to his ex­pe­di­tion to be­come the first to reach the South Pole, and to a show by con­tem­po­rary vis­ual artist Chris Cran — EX­PLORE, his oneof-a-kind take on many of Canada’s great­est his­tor­i­cal and liv­ing ex­plor­ers, all of them Fel­lows of the RCGS. (Ex­hibit spa­ces at 50 Sus­sex are also used for pri­vate events, booked through 50sus­sex.ca.) The Main Gallery also con­tains the first Google Earth Wall in Canada, a more than three-me­tre-high screen that al­lows users to not only fly around the globe and key in on high-res­o­lu­tion im­agery of any lo­ca­tion, but to en­gage with geo­graph­i­cal and so­ci­etal is­sues — such the Res­i­den­tial School sys­tem or the orig­i­nal In­dige­nous place names of our land­scapes — through pow­er­ful em­bed­ded sto­ries.


Named for the Hon­orary Pres­i­dent of the RCGS, Jeop­ardy! host ex­traor­di­naire and proud Sud­bury na­tive, the theatre de­buted its first Can Geo Talk on Sept. 13, 2018. Fit­tingly, the in­au­gu­ral lec­ture was about Roald Amund­sen, first ex­plorer to cross the North­west Pas­sage and to reach the South Pole, by Geir O. Kløver, the world’s lead­ing Amund­sen ex­pert and di­rec­tor of the Fram Mu­seum in Oslo, Nor­way. On Oct. 19, travel se­ries host, Monty Python leg­end and au­thor Michael Palin came to re­count his own po­lar ad­ven­tures in writ­ing a new his­tory of HMS Ere­bus, the first of Sir John Franklin’s sunken ships to be re­dis­cov­ered in Canada’s cen­tral Arc­tic. The 280-seat au­di­to­rium will be the venue for Ot­tawa Can Geo Talks and other lec­tures by ge­og­ra­phers, ex­plor­ers, pho­tog­ra­phers and ed­u­ca­tors, for film screen­ings, Can Geo Ed­u­ca­tion stu­dent events such as the Cana­dian Geo­graphic Chal­lenge quiz com­pe­ti­tion and ge­og­ra­phy re­search con­fer­ences.


Built into the promon­tory be­neath the up­per-level ex­hibit halls and be­yond the pub­lic spa­ces, the of­fices of the RCGS and Cana­dian Geo­graphic un­fold for three storeys that look out across the Ot­tawa River. On one level, the So­ci­ety of­fices and col­lec­tions — among them the wood-pan­elled and leather-up­hol­stered Sir Christo­pher On­daatje Read­ing Room, hous­ing many ar­ti­facts and archives. On the next, the ed­i­to­rial and de­sign hubs, where Cana­dian Geo­graphic, Cana­dian Geo­graphic Travel, dig­i­tal con­tent, Gi­ant Floor Maps and ed­u­ca­tional re­sources used in class­rooms across the coun­try are con­ceived and shaped. Watch drone videos of 50 Sus­sex Drive and its na­tional cap­i­tal sur­round­ings at can­geo.ca/jf19/50sus­sex.

Clock­wise from op­po­site: 50 Sus­sex as seen from the Mac­don­ald-cartier Bridge; the Main Gallery; the Google Earth Wall; Michael Palin dur­ing his Can Geo Talks event; a vis­i­tor looks at Chris Cran paint­ings of astro­naut Roberta Bon­dar and an­thro­pol­o­gist Wade Davis.

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