Lisgar’s Ottawa: Then and Now

By AMY ZHANG

Although we are all aware of the milestone our school is about to celebrate, we rarely stop to think of the gravity of Lisgar’s 175th anniversary: after all, the halls of Lisgar are a fixed part of our reality for only four short years. It represents only a fleeting period in our life, so it is strange to think that it is actually Lisgar (once Ottawa Collegiate Institute) that has seen an unimaginable 175 years. To understand the true significance of its age, we need only to look at the evolution of the city for which Lisgar has been a constant cornerstone. From its creation as a small town named Bytown to its evolution into the capital city that we are familiar with today, Lisgar’s grey stone building bore witness to it all.

In 1843, when Lisgar was first established, neither Canada nor Ottawa existed – at least, not the way we know them now. Upper and Lower Canada had just been united a few years prior and the Dominion of Canada would not come into existence for nearly half a century after the doors of Lisgar were opened to students for the first time. Ottawa, too, was in a completely unrecognizable form: the town of Bytown was far less developed and significantly smaller, both in terms of population and land size. The Bytown of 1843 was almost entirely impossible to associate with present-day Ottawa, save for the Rideau Canal, which was built in 1832. Even Lisgar itself would have been rather difficult to recognize: when it first opened, the grammar school moved several times before it finally found a home in the current building.

100 years later, Lisgar was celebrating somberly. 1943 marked the centennial anniversary, and one need only walk into the Main Hall and look at the plaques on the wall to see the toll that those years had taken on the school. These Lisgarites, barely older than today’s students, were laying down their lives to fight overseas in the Second World War. While their reality seems impossibly different from our own, in many ways, it also feels quite familiar. Students from 75 years ago walked the same halls as we do now: the current Lisgar building was opened in 1874. They saw firsthand the change that Ottawa underwent due to the Gréber plan, shaping it into the city that we recognize today. A few years later, they were among the first to see the first bloom of tulips sent from the Netherlands – a tradition symbolic of friendship and gratitude which persists to this day.

When looking at the Ottawa of the past, the one that exists only in rough sketches and grainy black and white photographs, it is strange to think that it is the same place that we call home. The major capital city Ottawa has become is a far cry from the small town it used to be, but, in many regards, much remains the same. The Rideau Canal remains a fixture in our landscape; the Dutch tulips still bloom in our parks during springtime; and, most importantly, Lisgar Collegiate still stands proud.