Ottawa Free Tours - André LaFlamme
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started.
I started this company in May of 2015. In my younger years I worked in a number of jobs where I would regularly speak in front of large crowds. Once I started working in an office I realized that I really missed doing that, so I decided to start up the company. I had been on a number of free walking tours in different cities around the world, and I knew that no one in Ottawa was doing it. I've always been fascinated by Ottawa's surprisingly colourful history, so it seemed like a natural direction for me.
Did you always know you wanted to run your own business?
No, I wouldn't say so. I always knew that I loved speaking in front of groups, and I've always been a bit of a know-it-all, so running a tour guiding business seems natural, but I always thought that I'd be working for someone else rather than running it, myself.
How did you find the right group of people to help lead the tours?
When I hire guides, the single qualify I look for the most is enthusiasm. I've been told before that my interview and application process is quite a bit different than most jobs. I try to ask questions that will help evoke how the applicant really feels about Ottawa and about interacting with others. While things like experience and knowledge are always nice assets, I think that passion is what makes a great guide. I've been on tours before with guides who clearly knew a lot, but you could also tell weren't necessarily enjoying themselves. I think that when a guide is happy running tours it really makes a difference in the visitors' experience.
You mentioned you were a tour guide in Europe. Tell us about your time there and how it influenced Ottawa Free Tours.
I got to spend a period of time as a tour guide at the Juno Beach Centre in France. It was amazing to be able to share stories with visitors from all over the world. I think that I learned 2 important things in that position: 1) that I loved speaking in front of people and running tours, and that 2) when running a tour, developing a narrative is much more important than just listing facts.
How did your time as a public speaker for MADD prepare you for this business?
When travelling with MADD Canada, you're on your own with a bunch of equipment in a car and a schedule of schools to get to. I was living out of hotels for 2 years going from town-to-town by myself. It takes a great deal of autonomy and self-motivation at times. I think that this experience really helped me develop the confidence that running a tour company was something that I could do on my own. Also, learning how to grab and hold the attention of hundreds of chatty high school students certainly helped...
How many tours do you run each day?
During the summer we run 1-2 tours per day. We have a few different offerings, including our flagship Capital City Tour, as well as the Ottawa After Dark Tour and the Historical Tavern Tour. We try to spread them out during the week so that we're running some form of tour almost every day.
Is each tour the same?
Each tour varies quite a bit. I give my guides direction and guidance, but at the end of the day they're responsible for developing their own interpretation and voice on the tours. Each guide will tell different stories and have different ways of forming narratives between all the stops.
Tell us a bit about Ottawa’s history.
Ottawa has a surprisingly seedy and colourful history. Many people look at it today as a clean, safe city to raise a family, but back in the day Ottawa (or Bytown as it was known) was considered one of the more drunken, violent and seedy cities in North America. It was mostly settled by hard-nosed lumberjacks and heavy drinking canal workers, none of whom ever really got along.
You called yourselves “storytellers not historians.” What does that mean to you, and why is it important to you to be storytellers?
No one wants to go on a walking tour and just get bombarded with facts and figures. What I believe my company does better than anyone else is to find the interesting narrative behind the historical facts. Of course all of our stories are based on hard historical facts, and we never say anything that isn't true, but we like to find ways that stories intertwine and relate to each other. By the end of one of our tours, I like to think that visitors can walk around Ottawa and it in an entirely different light.
What about Ottawa’s history surprises people the most?
Visitors are generally surprised to hear how debaucherous and seedy Ottawa used to be.
What part of Ottawa’s history fascinates you the most?
I really get a kick out of Ottawa's political history. Canada has a surprising history of drunk, womanizing, and violent Prime Ministers.
What is your favourite stop on the tour, and why?
I really like taking visitors to the Nepean Outlook. It's the last stop on the tour and the tour group is usually getting a bit tired, but they're always blown away by the gorgeous view when they get up there. I love seeing their reactions when we first arrive. I also like to save the best stories for last, and that's where I get to tell all of them!
What are some of your favourite Ottawa facts?
I think that it's funny that we were called Bytown until 1855, and we really only changed our name to Ottawa in an effort to re-brand and distance ourselves from Bytown's seedy reputation. Also, there's the fact that Ottawa was the first place in North America to get golden retrievers; they all came from a dog breeder in the city. And of course, there's the fact that the Canadian flags that are flown on top of the Parliament Buildings are given away to Canadian when they are changed.
When you’re not guiding tours, where in Ottawa do you like to spend your free time?
Where I like to spend my time in Ottawa informs a great number of my tours. The Nepean Outlook, for example, is one of my favourite places in the city. I take groups to some of my favourite bars on the Ottawa Historical Tavern Tour. And I recommend most of my favourite restaurants to my tour groups. That said, Ottawa seems to have new bars, restaurants, and cafés popping up every week and I always like to try out new places!
What are the top 3 things visitors to Ottawa absolutely have to do?
Well the #1 thing to do is obviously one of our tours! But if that doesn't count...
1) Do a free tour of Parliament's Centre Block. Tour guides take groups into the Parliament buildings and show them all the amazing architecture and art in our legislature. Also, they're going to be shutting down Centre Block for the next 10 years, so this is the last chance for members of the public to see the interior of the Parliament Buildings for a decade!
2) Go see Lucky Ron at the Chateau Lafayette! Every Saturday at 4pm he plays to a packed bar that seems to know all the words to all his songs.
3) Grab some snacks in the Byward Market and then bring them to one of Ottawa's amazing green spaces for a picnic.