Officials estimate that 750,000 people surged around the moving action as giant mechanical monsters roamed Ottawa’s streets for four days near the end of July. La Machine was a spectacle different than any other the city has hosted, and onlookers, including me, couldn’t help but compare the crowd control used July 27 – 30 to that used on July 1.
On Canada Day, fearful (some might say paranoid) bureaucrats, politicians and four, count ‘em four, levels of police services turned what was meant to be the country’s biggest party into a disappointing schmozzle for thousands of visitors. Late strict changes to the security procedures, against the strong advice of event organizers, resulted in visitors standing in ludicrous lineups for hours. The pouring rain didn’t help any, and didn’t seem to have been considered as a possibility. Nor did accommodating children, seniors, the disabled or the thousands of tourists to the nation’s capital who didn’t know where to go or what to do.
In contrast, during La Machine, police were very visible in prominent places, mostly directing visitors, City of Ottawa trucks parked sideways at intersections provided secure blockage of streets La Machine was using, and the main form of crowd control was a ribbon.
Yes, a ribbon. Two ribbons in fact. Held by volunteers. A large ribbon encircled each of the mechanized monsters, and the volunteers, along with a few La Machine staff, walked ahead, beside and at the back of the machines, politely asking crowds to “step back please.”
From a personal perspective, it was one of the coolest events I have been to. Giant spider Kumo and dragon-horse Long Ma were piloted openly by teams of puppeteers and followed by a 50-piece live band travelling three storeys above the crowd. Part of the appeal and excitement came from being able to move freely, to run from one location to another, or to choose a shady place to wait, and most of all, to get right up close.
The steampunk sensibilities, the dramatic musical accompaniment, the fantasy elements, and the huge crowds surging naturally along the routes, gave the impression of being part of the epic story being played out for hundreds of thousands of people.
Okay, maybe comparing a one-day static celebration to a four-day moving event isn’t fair, nor is comparing pouring rain to bright sun and stifling heat, but the thing that most impressed me about the whole affair was crowd control for hundreds of thousands using a ribbon.
Since then, praises for the simple solution (which was no doubt far less simple to plan than it appeared) have poured in. There is a lesson for any city, but Ottawa with its overblown levels of government in particular.
Don’t keep crowds lined up, penned in, kettled or uncomfortably stuck for hours. And do not use security as an excuse for draconian measures. When security must be invoked, do not use the airport model, which is widely considered humiliating and infuriating – two things no tourism bureau wants visitors to feel. Let people have free movement, and then we can enjoy the show.
Candice Vetter

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