How Ottawa became an international LGBTQ destination

Mayor Jim Watson and friends
Mayor Jim Watson (right) and friends

Ottawa is Canada’s capital city, the center of a thriving democracy where in recent years LGBTQ2+ rights and marriage equality have been enshrined in the law.

But the beautiful, charming metropolis is not not just a haven for diversity and freedom. The food, nightlife, culture and proximity to nature make it a great place to discover in its own right. Add it all up, and it’s quite the queer destination for locals and visitors alike.

Maybe you heard the international news right before Pride 2019? Ottawa’s Mayor, Jim Watson, came out in a personal editorial in the pages of the local newspaper.

People in Ottawa were thrilled for him. Come meet Jim and all the welcoming locals, and have the gay ‘ol time of your life.

Here are five reasons to enjoy the city of pride…

The Gay Village

Ottawa has played an important place in the country’s LGBTQ2+ history. It was here on Parliament Hill that the first-ever public demonstration in Canada took place on August 28, 1971. In fact, you can visit a vibrant mural called “We Demand” commemorating that demonstration in the heart of the city’s Gay Village. The Village itself covers a six by two block area of Bank Street downtown—from Nepean to James Streets (north to south) and Kent and O’Connor Streets (west to east). This growing gaybourhood is surrounded by well-established and newly blossoming LGBTQ2+ owned and welcoming bars, restaurants and accommodations.

Ottawa’s No Drag

Drag in Ottawa is exploding, but it’s doing so in a way you don’t see in a lot of other places. Not only are there regular drag shows pretty much every night of the week, but drag kings and drag burlesque performers are also hitting the stage. If late night parties aren’t your thing, head over to the Vanitea Room for their monthly drag brunch hosted by the indomitable Devona. Or try the Vanitea Room drag dinners that happen twice a month – eat, dance, drink and be tipsy. A $35 bottomless dinner (and that’s Canadian dollars!!!) includes 1.5 hour bottomless bubbles, supper and a whole lot of entertainment.

Looking for a different kind of drag dinner? Shanghai Restaurant has you covered. This family owned and operated, old school Canadian Chinese restaurant opened back in the 1971. Head chef Edward Kwan serves up delicious spring rolls, chow mein and other favorites. Every Saturday night at 9pm since 2005, Edward leaves the kitchen and heads to the front of the house in a brand-new outfit, hairstyle and name: China Doll. She’s the Shanghai’s resident Karaoke queen, giving her all for a fabulous evening of song and merriment.

See and be seen

Ottawa is a hotbed of arts and culture, home to seven national museums including the newly renovated National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of History (where you’ll find the unusual “Gay Sweater”), the Canadian Museum of Nature, and the Canadian War Museum. The latter institution exhibits the infamous “fruit machine,” a post-WW2 device that was supposed to help identify gays and lesbians. All it did was ruin lives. You can even buy an Equality dollar coin at the Royal Canadian Mint, commemorating 50 years since Canada took the first step towards decriminalizing homosexuality. To get a full taste of Ottawa’s LGBTQ2+ culture, head over to the recently reopened SAW Gallery. This queer run exhibit space champions diversity in all forms and is one of Canada’s leading contemporary artist-run centres. It also hosts a monthly queer party.

Play outdoors

People in Ottawa enjoy their outdoor activities: hiking, biking, skating, rafting. To see the city on two wheels, visit the LGBTQ2+ owned Escape Bicycle Tours and Rentals. You can join a group tour, book a private one–or just rent bikes for a few hours to discover the city on your own. Ottawa has over 200 kilometres (124 miles) of bicycle paths—easy paths along the city’s rivers and canals, and more challenging ones in beautiful Gatineau Park, only minutes from downtown. Visitors are often surprised to see that there’s a canal running through the city – the Rideau Canal. In wintertime, The Rideau Canal Skateway is the world’s longest outdoor skating rink, right in the heart of the city. Yep, some Ottawans even skate to work.

 There’s always a festival on in Ottawa

Ottawa is a city that’s lucky enough to have not one, but two Pride events: Capital Pride every August and the brand new WinterPride in February. Most winter Prides are all about skiing, but in Canada’s capital, it’s about celebrating the community through shows, a community awards night, outdoor activities and more. There’s also Ottawa Inside Out, the annual queer film festival and in 2019, the Asinabka Film and Media Arts Festival, in association with the SAW Gallery, hosted the world’s first 2-Spirit ball (2-spirit a term used by some Indigenous people to describe their sexual, gender and/or spiritual identity).

This will be an annual event every August, held during the city’s Alternative Pride Week.

To stay on top of all things LGBTQ2+ in Ottawa, visit Tourism Ottawa’s LGBTQ2+ page. The Village Legacy project has also developed a guided tour of Ottawa’s queer history that you can do on your own.