Heather Thomson

Manager Heritage Program

Last Updated: Wednesday, May 22, 2024

As a manager of the Heritage Program at the NCC, I have had the pleasure of hearing some of the stories of the Mile of History’s past. The Mile of History is located along Confederation Boulevard, a ceremonial and discovery route which is in the heart of the National Capital Region. Many of you may have walked along the boulevard without realizing that the buildings have a lengthy history and fascinating stories behind them. If these storefronts could talk…


Many cities have adopted the strategy of adorning utility boxes with colourful artwork to deter vandalism and beautify the landscape. The NCC partnered with Carleton University on a project that used the utility boxes along Confederation Boulevard to tell the stories of the historic buildings and people that have had an impact on the Mile of History. 

Every year, we hire students to gain hands-on experience in their fields. One of these students, from Carleton University, Nicholas R. Leckey, spent his summer digging up historic tales of the Sussex Courtyards. At the end of his term, he hosted a walking tour for NCC employees, where he shared some of these stories. This sparked the desire to dig deeper into the Mile of History’s past.

We felt it was a great opportunity to continue to work with Carleton University. With this in mind, we spoke to Professor David Dean at Carleton University about the idea of wrapping the utility boxes along the Mile of History with a piece of the Courtyard’s history.

And so began our work with the History Program’s students, who would research the past of Confederation Boulevard, along the Mile of History.

Digging up the stories

We wanted to share stories that would connect with locals and highlight the role of the NCC.

Students were free to dig through boxes full of archives from the NCC to uncover the stories of the past. It was a fun challenge for the students to take their research offline and to get their hands on tangible documents, newspaper clippings, reports and photos.

Since there were only 12 utility boxes available for the project, each group of students was asked to submit two stories per utility box.

An NCC committee has been created to select the 12 winning stories. It was a difficult decision.

The outcome

What was really exciting is that some of these stories have yet to be told. Here are my three favourite stories.

  • From 1961 to 1975, Le Hibou was a café located at 521 Sussex Drive which hosted artistic talent of all kinds, including poets, actors and musicians. World-renowned artists such as Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters and Jimi Hendrix graced the stage at Le Hibou. The café was an important hub for musical talent in Ottawa — a place not typically known for its music scene. And yet, Le Hibou’s long and rich history of hosting some of the world’s best musicians challenges this “dull” reputation.

  • LGBTQ2+ Activism in Canada’s Capital: Ottawa has a lengthy LGBTQ2+ history, including the first large-scale demonstration for gay rights. On August 28, 1971, about 100 marchers from Ottawa, Toronto, and Montréal gathered on Parliament Hill. Standing in the pouring rain, they issued 10 demands for equal rights and protections for the queer community. These demands were very important, as discrimination was commonplace in Canadian society at the time. For example, from the 1950s right up until the 1980s and ’90s, thousands of federal workers and people serving in the military were fired or persecuted because of their sexuality.

  • Malak Karsh immigrated to Ottawa from Turkey in 1937. He soon became a renowned landscape photographer and beloved public figure who founded the Tulip Festival in 1952. With regard to his beloved tulips, he remained honorary president of the Tulip Festival until his death in 2001. Malak Karsh is an instrumental figure in Canada’s history. He was able to showcase Ottawa’s transformation from an industrial lumber town to the blooming capital it has become.

A walk through history

This fall, Carleton University will be launching the utility box stories.

Grab a coffee, and take a walk along the Mile of History to discover the buildings’ stories and learn about some of the leading characters.

Utility boxes map

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