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<i>Tired Paws & Weary Wings</i>, paintings by Gwendolyn Best at Orange Gallery in Ottawa through June 9th.  Photo: Gwendolyn Best
Tired Paws & Weary Wings, paintings by Gwendolyn Best at Orange Gallery in Ottawa through June 9th. Photo: Gwendolyn Best

Remembering the Cats of Parliament Hill in art

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An Ottawa artist has painted a series of works celebrating the Cats of Parliament Hill. Gwendolyn Best's cats are on display through June 9th at the Orange Gallery, in the Hintonburg neighborhood. The paintings were created to honor the many felines who made Parliament Hill their home. The sanctuary closed in early January when there were only four cats remaining in the colony. Those four joined the other dozen or so cats who over the years were adopted by volunteers.

The cats' ancestors arrived in the early 1900's to help control pests in nearby government buildings. The Canadian government and local volunteers had provided a place for them to take shelter and receive food and water since the 1970s. The cat sanctuary even had the Queen's blessing.

A couple of years ago, Todd Moe played tourist on Parliament Hill and met some of the cats and their caregivers. Brian Caines was one of the many volunteers who had visited the cats daily.

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Todd Moe
Morning Host and Producer

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An autumn 2012 cat nap in the shadow of Canada's Parliament building. Photo: Todd Moe
An autumn 2012 cat nap in the shadow of Canada's Parliament building. Photo: Todd Moe
The cat sanctuary was founded by Irene Desormeaux in the 1970s, who Caines refers to as “your typical cat lady” and “not very friendly.” She fed and took care of them on her own for several years.

After she became ill an older gentleman named Rene Chartrand took over the sanctuary in the early 1980s. Chartrand was fluent in both English and French, and promoted the sanctuary to the public. He became known as “The Cat Man of Parliament Hill” throughout the city. The Cats of Parliament Hill became a tourist site under Chartrand’s care. Although Chartrand had never officially been granted permission by the government, he used the space to build small huts where he could feed and take care of his charges.

Caines first became involved at Parliament Hill in the 1990s. Because he worked nearby, he was able to visit Chartrand during his lunch hour and help care for the cats. During this time, various organizations also expressed interest in volunteering at the cat sanctuary. Eventually, Caines took over the business aspects of the establishment.

Volunteers frequently dropped by to help care for the cats. The cats were “very well cared for and very spoiled.” Elaine, who joined the group a few years ago because it is her “therapy against stress,” often dropped by just to say "hello" to the cats.

Other animals such as raccoons, groundhogs, and squirrels had taken up residence at the establishment and used to steal the cat’s food. Parliament Hill became a comfortable community for critters to come together in a safe environment. The cats lived on Parliament Hill year round. During the winter, they would bundle up with each other for warmth. Caines later built insulated huts for the cats to protect them from the wind.

While some citizens were happy that the cats were on Parliament Hill, others wondered if this was a waste of their tax dollars. Parliament Hill was run by strictly voluntary donations from the public. And most of the general public appreciated that their government wanted the cats to remain. The cats of Parliament Hill had become a special part of Ottawa’s history.

Another volunteer, Sally, who adopted two of the cats from Parliament Hill said, “There is nothing better than leaving a meeting frustrated and coming here and petting a cat.” Over the years, many of the volunteer caregivers adopted the cats that lived at the sanctuary. After the establishment closed last January, the four remaining cats in the colony were adopted by volunteers.

Gwendolyn Best, an artist from Ottawa, has created a new exhibit of art that celebrates and commemorates The Cats of Parliament Hill. The exhibit is called “Tired Paws and Weary Wings” and is on display through now through June 9 at the Orange Gallery in Ottawa in the Hintonburg neighborhood.

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