Built into a promontory at Ottawa’s Rideau Falls, 50 Sussex Drive stands on a river confluence long used by Indigenous hunters and traders and mapped by explorers Cartier, Brûlé and Champlain. It also overlooks Ontario and Quebec’s Ottawa River border and shares a stretch of Confederation Boulevard, the capital’s ceremonial and discovery route, with Parliament Hill, the National Gallery of Canada, the Prime Minister’s residence and Rideau Hall.
This historic backdrop is where The Royal Canadian Geographical Society has found its grand new Ottawa home. “There are few places in the national capital that speak ‘geography’ the way this location does,” says RCGS CEO John Geiger.
A National Capital Commission property that was once a museum dedicated to Canadian contributions to culture, sports, peacekeeping, science and other fields, 50 Sussex has stood vacant since 2005. As the new RCGS headquarters and a campus for geographic education and exploration of Canada and the world, the building will have a new and vital role.
“Canada’s Centre for Geography and Exploration will create a dynamic new platform to engage Canadians in celebrating their incredible physical and human geography,” said Alex Trebek, Jeopardy! host and Honorary President of the RCGS, at the October 24 announcement.
Joining Geiger and Trebek on site to reveal the plan for the new centre were Andrew Leslie, Lt.-Gen. (ret’d) and Chief Government Whip, NCC CEO Mark Kristmanson, RCGS Vice-President Élisabeth Nadeau and other VIPs and Fellows of the Society.
“On behalf of the Government of Canada, I wish to congratulate the National Capital Commission and The Royal Canadian Geographical Society on their partnership,” said General Leslie. “This will bring new life to 50 Sussex Drive and allow the public to once again enjoy this magnificent space in the heart of our great Capital.”
The RCGS will occupy its Sussex headquarters in two phases, first in 2017 with the opening of an exhibition space and then fully by 2018, just in time for the Society’s 90th anniversary the following year. Renovation of the main-level exhibition spaces means the building will serve as one of the official Confederation Pavilions throughout Canada’s 2017 sesquicentennial, with exhibits on the country’s geography and on the National Capital Region open to the public for next summer.
“The NCC is proud to partner with The Royal Canadian Geographical Society to bring new vitality to one of the capital’s signature properties, and to present an exhibit on the Plan for Canada’s Capital 2017-2067,” said Kristmanson.
In the months following, refurbishments and renovations will see the instalment of a permanent interpretive geography centre incorporating immersive technologies and spaces for teacher institutes and students, as well as Canadian Geographic’s editorial offices. A 210-seat, multi-screen auditorium will serve as a state-of-the-art venue for Can Geo Talks and other lectures by geographers, explorers, photographers and educators, and for film screenings and conferences. The idea, says Geiger, is that visitors will be able to experience Canada within the centre’s four walls — and not by merely looking at objects in glass display cases.
The Society has never had a public space, explains RCGS President Paul Ruest. “So this is a new era for us. We now have, as we say in French, our pignon sur rue. That means we’re now on the ‘Main Street.’ We are showing our colours; we can be seen and we are accessible. Sussex is the street in Canada, and this will be a world-class centre for our programs and events, for exhibits and more.”
“This building will rank with the iconic landmarks home to the Royal Geographical Society in London and the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C.,” said Geiger. “It takes the RCGS — which has always done a great deal to promote geographical literacy and educate Canadians about their country, its people and its physical landscapes — to another level altogether.”
An artist rendering of what 50 Sussex will look like. (Illustration: Andy Mora)