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Canada's Literary Capital
by Steven Artelle, Library and Archives Canada
Postage stamp entitled Ottawa, 1857–2007, May 3, 2007
As a literary site, Ottawa's earliest traces may be found in Samuel de Champlain's journal entries of 1613. These were recorded during his exploration of the river that came to be known as the "Ottawa" after the Aboriginal population who controlled trade in the region. In 1855, the communities around the mouth of the Rideau Canal on the Ottawa River adopted this name for their newly incorporated city. Poet and historian Benjamin Sulte would later suggest that this choice was "the consecration of an error," as the Ottawa peoples in fact originated in the Great Lakes region. Two years after Ottawa's incorporation, the city was selected by Queen Victoria to serve as the capital of the Province of Canada. With Confederation in 1867, the young city became the proud capital of the Dominion of Canada.
A number of writers were among early settlers in the region, such as William Pittman Lett, the author of Recollections of Bytown and its Old Inhabitants (1874). However, it was only after the Dominion's parliamentarians and civil servants settled in the city in the mid-1860s that a substantial literary community took root. One of these civil servants, poet Archibald Lampman, became synonymous with Ottawa's literary culture, following the publication of his first book, Among the Millet and Other Poems (1888). In Poets of the Capital (1974), Wilfrid Eggleston stated that "since the arrival of Lampman at Ottawa in 1883, the nation's capital has never lacked at least a small group of talented writers." Across Ottawa, Lampman is recognized in numerous historical plaques, and he appears in the grand stained glass window at the main branch of the Ottawa Public Library together with the likes of Shakespeare, Byron and Tennyson.
Duncan Campbell Scott, May 10, 1943
While Lampman continues to be an important source of inspiration for local writers, the city has been touched by the lives and imaginations of many other poets and novelists who have called Ottawa home since the 19th century. These include Duncan Campbell Scott, William Wilfred Campbell, P.K. Page, Carol Shields, Elizabeth Smart, Norman Levine, Madge Macbeth, Elizabeth Hay, John Newlove, Frances Itani, Seymour Mayne, and Rob Mclennan.