Winter festivities in Ottawa go beyond just New Years

Governor General's Winter Celebration in Ottawa
Horse-drawn wagon rides in the park around Rideau Hall at the Governor General’s Winter Celebration.

Winter in Canada can seem unbearably long and miserable if you don’t find something fun to do in the outdoors. Although I’ve always loved skiing and skating, I’ve never properly taken advantage of all the different winter festivals and activities that happen throughout those cold snowy months.

This year, for the first time, my friend and I went to the Governor General’s Winter Celebration in Ottawa. It was as though mother nature decided to let us have our day in the snow — not too warm and not cold, but just right.

The white landscape of Rideau Hall’s park grounds was dotted with small tents that stretched from the main gates out towards the residence of the Governor General. People streamed in, following the strings of multi-coloured flags that flapped quietly in the tree branches and in between tents. Several embassies and organizations had set up stations offering free food and games as a way to showcase their winter cultures.

At the Inuit tent, there was a group of students. They had come to Ottawa from Nunavut to participate in a college program called Nunavut Sivuniksavut, where they learn about Inuit history, traditions and culture. In turn, they share their culture with visitors at the festival though singing, dance and games.

Many of the students wore traditional clothes made from caribou skin or from brightly coloured fabrics with intricate patters. Every half hour or so they gathered together to perform and play traditional games, such as weighted skipping games and leg wrestling. By the end of the day, some of them had shed their heavy coats, keeping only the leg coverings from their costumes, as they tumbled around in the snow.

One song they performed mimicked an encounter with a polar bear — staccato drumming and loud shouts accompanied the dancers as they hunched over and swayed like bears. In another, the girls took up a fast-paced tempo, in a song that traditionally had been sung by mothers to tire out their children before bed. The boys danced frantically, trying to keep up with the music. One by one they sat down until only one was left standing, still dancing to the frenzied tempo.

Once the students finished their dance, two girls walked into the cleared space and gestured at the audience to draw in close. The two of them came together, standing less than a hand-width apart and held each other by the arms in a loose embrace. And then they began to sing.

Inuit throat singing at the Governor General's Winter Celebration in Ottawa.
Inuit throat singing at the Governor General’s Winter Celebration.

Inuit throat singing is unlike anything else you’ll ever experience in the world. If you’ve never heard it before and just closed your eyes, you might think you were listening to an instrument rather than a human voice. Traditionally, Inuit throat singing is a breathing game played between two women, where the winner is the one that lasts the longest. One girl sets the pace and rhythm, leaving gaps for the other to fill in.

It’s a very intimate performance. Growling notes and humming were infused with sharp inhales and exhales. The sounds bounced back and forth between the girls, melding together into a guttural and husky pattern that resembled wordless chanting. They went on like this for a while until they ran out of breath and finally burst out laughing.

Inuit throat singing at the Governor General's Winter Celebration in Ottawa
Inuit throat singing at the Governor General’s Winter Celebration.

The laughter took everyone by surprise, rippling out into the audience. The crowd had slowly come together in a tight circle around the girls, pressing close to one another. As if surfacing from a trance, people smiled, applauded and slowly dispersed.

Noise from the winter festivities filtered back in. The nearby Norwegian tent had set up what looked like an elaborate giant ski race. Two teams of eight people were strapped into one set of skis each. In a truly impressive show of teamwork, amid lots of shouting and cheering, they manage to stay standing long enough to reach the finish line. One of them even won.

In the crowd of spectators there were people holding cups of hot chocolate and we knew right away what our next stop would be. In our search for hot coca we got free cookies from Switzerland, linden tea with honey from Slovenia, pastries, chocolates and even some strange noodle soup-in-a-cup. Going from tent to tent made for a delicious and interesting lunch. We never did get our hot chocolate, but all the other sweets more than made up for it.

Hockey game on the ice rink near Rideau Hall at the Governor General's Winter Celebration.
Hockey game on the ice rink near Rideau Hall.

There was no shortage of things to see and do at the festival. At the skating rink beside Rideau Hall a group of skaters had started a game of hockey. At some tents you could borrow snowshoes or cross-country skis to explore the park. Other activities included obstacle courses organized by the Governor General’s Foot Guards, curling, Viking-inspired games and sledding.

Governor General David Johnston at the Winter Celebration in Ottawa
Governor General David Johnston at the Winter Celebration.

We were also lucky enough to see the Governor General himself. He was wandering through the crowds of visitors and said hello to us. I didn’t even realize who he was right away because it all seemed so casual — a cheery looking older man enjoying the festivities with his dog. It was only afterwards that I noticed two Foot Guards following him around as he stopped to chat with visitors.

My friend and I headed further into the park along the main road. Beautiful horse-drawn wagons went up and down the laneway, ferrying visitors around the grounds. As we walked up to the entrance into Rideau Hall, we passed a group of Syrian refugees being shown around by a guide. I don’t know what they made of all the snow but I hope the festivities made them feel welcome and accepted in their new home.

This was also the first time I had stepped inside Rideau Hall, which is frankly a gorgeous building with beautiful decorations and paintings. What really struck me was a strange hall called the Tent Room. With its huge chandeliers and striped fabric walls, it looks like something out of Alice in Wonderland. The Queen of Hearts might have felt at home there. Originally, the room was supposed to be an indoor tennis court.

The Tent Room inside Rideau Hall in Ottawa
The Tent Room inside Rideau Hall.

In the reception hall there was a series of paintings about immigrants settling in the prairies of Canada. All the imagery of Ukrainian homes and traditions mixed in with Canadian landscape gave me a personal joy to see.

The last room we saw was the ballroom. It has high gold ceilings with tall arched windows and mirrors that give the room this glowing airy feeling. The Embassy of the People’s Republic of China was set up in there with a lion dance troupe, art vendors and a stand offering green tea — all in anticipation of the Chinese New Year.

My friend and I didn’t spend more than a couple hours at the Winter Celebration but it felt so jam-packed that it could have been an entire day. We barely skimmed the surface of this one winter festival and it makes me wonder what else I’m missing out on. I’ll definitely be keeping a closer eye out for days like this in the future. : )

Totem pole in the park at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.
Totem pole in the park at Rideau Hall.


  1. Harold Rhenisch says:

    Somebody needs to give that ancestral pole a down jacket!

    1. 🙂 Hahaha, it wasn’t too cold actually. I think it was okay.

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