Glebe women of distinction

Janet Irwin loves to share stories
Catherine McKenna and the future we want for our children


Janet Irwin loves to share stories

By Eleanor Crowder

Crowder, Eleanor Up to Low April 2015 Jan8x10-2155 Janet Irwin greets me at her front door, and we take a moment to enjoy the retro ambience of her building. The Clemow Avenue walk-up is perfectly poised between walkable city neighbourhood and quick flight to the Gatineau. Irwin enjoys that intersection of possibility in the Glebe. She says the love affair with the Gatineau is more recent for her, while the Glebe has been home ever since she came to Ottawa.

Irwin has always had a strong sense of place. Born and bred in Cornwall, she used to drive the back roads of Glengarry County as a girl. Her interest in who lived there, how their lives unfolded, led to A Seaway Story. The collective theatre piece became a co-written script, then a revised script. That is very much how she works: from inspiration and a gut instinct for story, to an evolving theatrical expression, finding the best way to engage an audience in the piece.

She has become the doyenne of Ottawa’s theatre makers. As director, writer and librettist, Irwin has worked with the National Arts Centre, the GCTC, Odyssey Theatre, St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival and her own Easy Street Productions.

Capture Irwin’s current work-in-progress is Up to Low. The novel by Brian Doyle is truly a love song to the Gatineau Hills. Doyle’s hero, young Tommy, heads north with his dad, to meet family he has not seen since before his mother died. He encounters vivid characters, a moonlit river, a girl who needs him and a face-on brush with his own fears. Doyle’s telling combines the flair of tall tales with a deadly accurate map of early adolescence. Irwin says, “Brian really speaks for that valley in the voice of a young narrator. To Tommy, all is normal. These are the neighbours!”

Up to Low has been two and a half years in the making, and 20 years in the thinking. It will debut at the Magnetic North Theatre Festival in June at Arts Court Theatre. The performance will draw very strongly on a workshop held last summer. Irwin and her actors were invited to Brennan’s Hill Hotel, where on a Sunday afternoon they tried out the story on a local crowd. They found a magical combination of storytelling, a comfortable tavern and local community flavour, tangible in the lunch spread put on for them that day. That welcoming mix will carry forward to the show. Irwin describes it as part kitchen party, and all about the close connection to the audience. Of course there will be fiddle music, she says.
She says that in our busy modern lives, everyone finds themselves a bit lonely. Her theatre creation brings people together. She says we find a consolation in the fun of shared stories. For her, theatre must have beauty, and always a sense of humour. Oh, and music. Always music if possible.

I tell her how much I admire her tenacity, to drive a huge project like Up to Low through to production. Irwin laughs and says she has learned a lot! When she began work on the show, she expected a larger theatre would pick it up. Currently, tight budgets keep established theatres away from large casts; so Irwin has undertaken the organizing work of partnerships and fundraising to get the show up and running. Her co-producer is Amanda Lewis of Ottawa Children’s Theatre, based at the Avalon on Bank Street. And near neighbour Monica Sapiano chairs the steering committee. As we end our conversation, her laptop pings: the Indiegogo campaign at work. The total is running at $4,900, just a week into the campaign. The goal of $10,000 looks nearer!

If you have never seen Irwin’s work onstage, you are lucky enough to have two opportunities to see Janet Irwin stage Brian Doyle novels in 2015. Up to Low opens May 23. Tickets are available through www.uptolow.com. Angel Square will play at GCTC, December 3 to 20, 2015. Tickets are available at www.gctc.ca.

Irwin laughs as she says she had to do Doyle’s Easy Avenue. After all, she lives on Clemow, the easy street of the title. With Angel Square, she immerses us in a mystery tour of Lowertown and Up to Low takes us on a Gatineau road trip, where we come to fully appreciate the neighbours.


Eleanor Crowder is a writer, actor, director and Glebite who is engaged in all facets of theatre for all ages.

Janet Irwin has adapted and is directing the play Up to Low, based on Brian Doyle’s book.

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Catherine McKenna and the future we want for our children

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of personal profiles of political candidates in the federal riding of Ottawa Centre.

By Ian McKercher

Catherine McKenna in Ottawa, August 24, 2010. Photo by Blair Gable.

Catherine McKenna in Ottawa, August 24, 2010.
Photo by Blair Gable.

Catherine McKenna was born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1971, the eldest of four children born to a Quebec-born mother and an Irish father. “My Dad loved Canada from the get-go,” says McKenna. “He always remained proud of his Irish heritage, but he valued Canadian multiculturalism and bilingualism. He insisted that my three siblings and I drive 45 minutes to attend a francophone school in Hamilton even though he didn’t speak a word of French.”

From competitive swimming to the U.N.

McKenna credits competitive swimming as a defining characteristic of her youth. “From the age of 12, I practised 12 times a week, so I pretty quickly developed an understanding of self-discipline, endurance and time management.” McKenna went on to captain the University of Toronto swim team that won the Canadian International Athletic Union championships three of the four years she was on the team. She made it as far as the Olympic trials for the Seoul Summer Games in 1988. She still swims two to three times a week at the Y and continues to compete in Masters swimming for athletes over 25.

Her undergraduate degree is in French and International Relations, which she followed up with a master’s degree in international relations at the London School of Economics. She came back to McGill to study law, and wrote her New York bar exam when she graduated so she could practise internationally. She practised law in Indonesia and then worked for the United Nations mission in East Timor, where she was on the team that concluded a treaty with Australia.

Glebe roots

McKenna and her daughters, Madeleine and Isabelle, work on their soccer drills. Photo courtesy of Catherine McKenna.

McKenna and her daughters, Madeleine and Isabelle, work on their soccer drills. Photo courtesy of Catherine McKenna.

McKenna and her husband, Scott Gilmore, moved to the Glebe in 2002 where they started a family. They now have three children, Madeleine, Isabelle and Cormac, who attend First Avenue Public School. When McKenna returned to Canada, she practised competition and trade law at Stikeman Elliott, and was the senior advisor to former Chief Justice Antonio Lamer during his review of Canada’s military justice system. Meanwhile Gilmore, a former Canadian diplomat, founded Building Markets, an NGO that creates jobs in developing countries by championing local entrepreneurs.

Community service

In 2004, McKenna co-founded Canadian Lawyers Abroad (CLA) with international trade lawyer, Yasmin Shaker. CLA is a charity that uses law to improve lives and support good governance, rule of law and human rights work in Canada and abroad. “I learned a lot working for the U.N. in East Timor,” she says. “At the time, there were virtually no Timorese lawyers, yet a desperate need for them in all areas, from human rights to international to corporate law.” As the non-profit organization grew, CLA expanded its work to partner with Aboriginal communities and organizations. CLA’s “Dare to Dream” project engages the Canadian legal community in initiatives that support and empower Aboriginal students and their families. Leaving Canadian Lawyers Abroad after close to a decade, McKenna went on to become executive director of the Banff Forum, a non-profit organization that brings together emerging leaders to tackle pressing public policy challenges facing Canada.

McKenna has also served as co-Vice President of the Glebe Community Association. “The Glebe’s best-kept secret is the countless hours spent by their community association’s members promoting local issues. One of our sweetest victories was working with the community to save the Mutchmor playground for kids when the school board wanted to convert part of it into a parking lot.”

McKenna has served on the board of the Elizabeth Fry Society, which supports women in conflict with the law, is a board member of the Trudeau Centre for Peace, Conflict and Justice, and teaches at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

Politics

McKenna’s interest in politics is rooted in a passion for public policy. “I’ve always been interested in finding solutions to the big challenges we face – whether it’s the constructive role that Canada should be playing internationally or how to balance the environment and the economy,” admits McKenna. “It’s easy to be cynical about politics but it’s up to us to play a role in creating the future we want for our children.”

Her decision to run stems from her belief that Canada is headed in the wrong direction, and that the country needs to change course. “The Liberal Party has a new generation of leaders who are reaching out and listening to Canadians in order to build better communities and a stronger country. I want to be part of that change.”


Ian McKercher is a Glebe resident, author, former teacher and frequent contributor to the Glebe Report, as well as a former chair of the Glebe Report board.

Catherine McKenna is the federal Liberal candidate for Ottawa Centre.

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