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February 16, 2009

Obama's visit to Ottawa: What to expect

The Globe and Mail has an article today about the preparations for Barack Obama's visit to Ottawa this Thursday, February 15. Here's an excerpt:
The advance team — having followed the pre-advance team and joined by a massive security detail — will even now be racing around the nation's capital, finalizing scripts and scenic touches like a movie crew. This will be the most meticulously planned seven hours ever: from stripping the travel route along the airport of garbage cans and mailboxes to arranging the flags at the afternoon news conference.

"It will be planned within an inch of its life," said Norman Hillmer, professor of history and international affairs at Carleton University, who recalled how during one visit the Secret Service even brought toy cars to map out the motorcade for the RCMP.


Canada is usually the first foreign stop for a new president, and Mr. Obama is making strictly a working trip of it — without the black-tie balls and ceremonial tree-plantings of a state visit, and no sampling of the President's rousing oratory skills in the House of Commons. But that won't deter crowds from gathering on the Hill for a brief glimpse of Mr. Obama heading inside, where he will have his first closed-door meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

On Thursday morning, the President will land in Air Force One at the VIP hangar of the Ottawa Airport, where he will be greeted by Governor-General Michaëlle Jean and then travel downtown. Several alternative routes will have been mapped out by security officials and be closely monitored by police. The city's Winterlude festival may make the presidential route busier, and therefore more complicated than normal for security.

Mr. Obama will be driven in one of the fortress-like presidential limousines that will be airlifted to Ottawa for the visit. Called Cadillac One, and nicknamed the Beast by the Secret Service, the vehicle has armour almost 13 centimetres thick, run-flat tires and a high-tech communications system, and can be sealed off in the event of a chemical attack. The Secret Service brings its own gas and the motorcade usually contains several similar-looking cars to disguise the one in which the president is travelling.

On Parliament Hill, Mr. Obama will be greeted in Confederation Hall just beyond the Peace Tower by the Prime Minister and representatives from the Senate and House of Commons. The two leaders will have lunch in the dining room of Senate Speaker Noël Kinsella. (The Prime Minister does not have a dining room on the Hill, and the cabinet room, which has been used in the past, is not as elegant a spot for lunch.) They will host a joint news conference in the afternoon. At the airport, before flying back to Washington, Mr. Obama will have a brief meeting with Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff — protocol dictates that a visiting president meet with the leader of the Official Opposition.

In that down-to-the-wire schedule, there isn't much opportunity for a public sighting of the President. In May of 1961, when another celebrity president, John F. Kennedy, visited Ottawa, 50,000 people lined the streets for a peek at the passing limousine — although a good portion of the crowd was likely just as interested in Jacqueline Kennedy following behind in her bubble-topped vehicle. This time, Michelle Obama is staying home, and the sky is threatening snow, but city police and RCMP are still prepping for packed sidewalks. Last week, the Ottawa police politely asked anyone planning a protest to let them know first. "Only in Canada," a security expert chuckled.

Related: Ottawa Politics Guide

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