By Charlie Senack
Jim Watson is busy packing up his office after sitting in the Mayor’s chair for the past 12 years.
First elected to the top city position back in 2010, Watson was no stranger to politics: He served as a city councillor from 1991 to 1997, when he then became Mayor of Ottawa for the first time. He served in that capacity until 2000, when he took a short break from politics.
Watson returned to public life in 2003 after becoming the member of provincial parliament for Ottawa-West Nepean, a role he served in until 2010. During that time he was an Ontario cabinet minister, including as the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing under Dalton McGuinty.
Now after a lifetime of representing others, Watson said it was time to step aside and let new blood run the City of Ottawa.
“It’s bittersweet; On the one hand I’m looking forward to a less stressful job,” he told the Barrhaven Independent. “It’s also a little bit sad because you stay in one job for a long period of time and you develop a lot of good relationships with your staff, the city staff, community associations, and community leaders. I’ll miss the aspect of getting out in the community.”
During his time as Mayor of Ottawa, Watson saw Barrhaven grow from a population of 77,000 in 2012 to over 100,000 today. Throughout that decade, community centers were built, urban sprawl expanded, and new local job opportunities were created.
“There is a lot going on. Barrhaven is one of the fastest growing communities in not just Ottawa, but Ontario,” Watson said. “We had the Caivan home facility (built) and the Amazon fulfillment center which has created over 1,000 jobs in Barrhaven.”
Watson also highlighted the Minto Recreation Centre which opened in Half Moon Bay in Dec. 2014.
“I was actually there with Jan (Harder) just last week as we released the swimming program and I think we are going out to bury a time castle sometime this week,” he said. “That’s been an amazing facility for the people of Barrhaven and it’s a beautiful facility. It looks like a resort; you got the two ice pads, the swimming pool, and the gymnasium. A new fire station has been built just next door.”
While Phase 2 still isn’t complete, Watson hopes the next term of council will move existing plans forward to see Phase 3 of light rail transit reach Barrhaven. If the project is approved, construction wouldn’t begin until after 2026, with a completion date sometime after 2030.
Watson said his only regret while in office was not doing more to combat loneliness, particularly in seniors. It’s an issue that was made worse during the COVID-18 pandemic and he credited former British Prime Minister Theresa May for creating a ministry of loneliness.
Throughout the last 12 years, Watson, Ottawa’s longest serving Mayor, has been at the forefront of many crises which have struck the city. From the 2013 bus-train crash at Fallowfield train station to the tornadoes which struck in 2018, and a global health pandemic two years later, Watson has had to deal with many emergency operations scenarios.
“It can be an emotional roller coaster because in some of the instances, lives were lost and that is tragic in itself,” he said. “In other instances, property damage was extensive — whether it was from the flooding, the tornadoes or the big storm from a couple months ago. People of Ottawa have been through a lot but what it’s taught me is the generosity of the public.”
After multiple tornadoes touched down in the Ottawa region in Sept. 2018, Watson held an emergency press conference alongside Ontario Premier Doug Ford and other emergency personnel at Larkin Park. It was a neighborhood gathering spot for those seeking a warm meal and community connection.
More recently, Watson was in Barrhaven this spring to dedicate a new street after Les Emmerson, the lead guitarist and vocalist from the Five Man Electrical Band. Emmerson was a longtime resident of Barrhaven who died earlier this year from COVID-19.
In September, Watson attended a tree planting ceremony in Neil Nesbitt Park, and was back in Barrhaven weeks later to speak about local politics to a Longfields Davidson Heights high school class.
“They asked me what the best part of being Mayor is. I said I really enjoy going and talking to classes when they start learning about government. I’ll really miss that,” Watson said.
Not worrying about his future yet, Watson said he plans to take time off and travel. After that, he wants to get involved in local community organizations and charity work.
“I still have a lot of energy and I’m still relatively young,” the outgoing Mayor said. “That’s one of the reasons why I thought if I’m going to have another career, I better decide to stop being Mayor and move on to something else. I haven’t really talked to anyone about that. I think it’s important to finish this term and then worry about my future after that.”