When Monica Song graduated from high school, in 1987, she left Ottawa and swore she’d never return. At the time, she saw our country’s capital as a bore, a dull small town that wished it had the charm of Montreal or the buzz of Toronto. For a while, she managed to stay away, earning a bachelor’s in international relations and economics at the University of Toronto, a law degree at Western and then a degree in civil law at Laval. But when she was ready to start her career, her hometown beckoned. Rewarding work, affordable housing, a reasonable commute? “Ottawa started looking pretty good,” she says. So, despite her teenage reservations, she went home.
Today, Song is a 48-year-old mother of three and a partner at Dentons’s 25-lawyer Ottawa office. And she, along with her husband, a computer engineer, has no regrets. The average price of a home in Toronto and Vancouver sits at nearly $1 million. Meanwhile, the typical residence in Ottawa costs a mere $450,000.
But the city isn’t just cheaper. It’s also liveable. Song commutes to work in 25 minutes and, on the weekends, she can get lost hiking trails in the wilderness of the lush, 361-square-kilometre Gatineau Hills just as fast.
That natural beauty also drew Daniel Anthony to Ottawa. “I grew up in northern B.C., next to the ocean and forests,” says the 39-year-old associate at Smart and Biggar. “Toronto was too hustle-and-bustle for me.” In Ottawa, he can go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing without a long drive outside the city. “In the winter, I can literally grab my skates, walk out of my office and go skating on the Rideau Canal.”
Anthony and his wife, a stay-at-home mom who used to work for the federal government, have two young daughters, whom they love taking to Ottawa’s world-class museums. He especially appreciates the programming in French, so his kids can practise the language. Anthony is bilingual, but that’s hardly the norm among lawyers in the city. “It is a helpful tool,” he says, “but it’s not essential.”
Professionally speaking, Anthony was attracted to the capital for one of its legal specialties: intellectual property. His practice focuses on trademark and copyright infringement — and his client roster includes both tech startups and multinational corporations. It’s a good thing, then, that his office is close to both Parliament Hill and the Canadian Intellectual Property Office in Gatineau. “Ottawa is a great city for IP law,” he says.
Now for the downside. “If someone wants to make a really high salary, they’re probably going to Toronto,” says Samantha Lamb, a 44-year-old partner at Jewitt McLuckie & Associates LLP, an Ottawa-based labour law firm. The hard numbers bear this out. In Toronto, the largest firms pay their articling students around $75,000, but their Ottawa students earn close to $50,000.
“My counterpart doing the exact same job in Toronto would make more than me,” says Lamb. But she’s quick to point out: “They would probably be working much longer hours.” And besides, she doesn’t need a Bay Street salary. “As a single parent, I can afford a home here and not have a mortgage on my deathbed.”
Better still, Lamb regularly leaves the office by 5 p.m. Barring exceptional circumstances, she’s at home eating dinner with her eight-year-old daughter every night.
There is, of course, the question of nightlife. “Toronto has five times more restaurants and clubs,” says Anthony. But there are some options for foodies. The ByWard Market and Westboro offer charming farmers’ market stalls by day, and trendy cuisine in the evening. “Toronto might have 500 restaurants and we might have 70,” he says. “But do you really need more than 70?”