NCC Blunders

Millenium Celebrations

Safe to say this production won't make it to Broadway

What do you get when you combine $800 000, some earnest bureaucrats, and the millenium? Something meaningful, obviously. And it should be educational. And multicultural. And it should appeal to all Canadians, regardless of race, religion, or sexual preference. Right?

Forget that. It's New Year's Eve, most people are drinking their faces off, and it's 20 below. Something with a steady beat probably would have done the trick. Instead, folks on Parliament Hill on December 31, 1999 were treated to the NCC's extravaganza "In Motion -- A Story of Time". Well, to give them credit, the title tells you everything you need to know, i.e., let's head to the Hull Casino tonight.

Citizen: Show was an Embarrassment [4 Jan 2000]
Citizen: Spectators pan 'Dirge' [4 Jan 2000]
CBC: Millenium Bash a Bust [5 Jan 2000]
Citizen: NCC Defends Flop [5 Jan 2000]
Citizen: Budget too Small [6 Jan 2000]

The pageant was an artistic interpretation of the history of time. Or something. Many people couldn't see anything, speakers cut in and out, and the countdown, just about the only thing that matters on New Years, was botched.

Ottawa Business Journal: NCC's reputation will recover [10 Jan 2000]
Ottawa Business Journal: NCC Scales back Celebration [30 Aug 1999]

No doubt the performers and directors did their best with the material at hand, and various technical problems didn't help. The moral would seem to be, there's a time a place for grand concepts, and New Year's Eve on Parliament Hill isn't it.

But you'll be relieved to learn that "the National Capital Commission's millennium celebrations on Parliament Hill shouldn't do any long-term damage to Ottawa's reputation as a tourism destination." Phew.

Fast forward a year, and the Canadian Press obtained the NCC's own review of its "national disgrace":

Documents describe New Year's Eve fiasco; No 2001 event for Parliament Hill after 'national disgrace' last year

Jennifer Ditchburn. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont., Dec 26, 2000

Parliament Hill, last New Year's Eve: 50,000 revellers crowded the lawns in front of the venerable government buildings for a huge party to usher in the year 2000.

On television, thousands more watched as the cameras focused on the Peace Tower as two soldiers scaled the structure at the approach of midnight.

Ten . . . eight . . . nine . . . or was that a six?

Suddenly, the projected numbers became mixed up. Some were shone on to the buildings upside down, and the tower with its climbers was left in total darkness for the big moment.

Television and radio anchors were confounded some had to switch to countdowns in other cities because they simply could not see Parliament Hill.

That millennial glitch became the "icing on the shortcake," as one bureaucrat put it, in a major celebration panned as a national disgrace by some angry tourists.

Internal documents from the National Capital Commission, obtained by the Canadian Press, provide a blow-by-blow description of the technical and organizational problems that plagued the celebration.

But any lessons learned won't be applied to this year's event - there won't be one. Thanks to the fiasco, the commission plans to focus on its traditional Canada Day and Winterlude festivities.

The commission's reports describe how many revellers who flooded the Hill last year could not even see the theatrical show playing out on several low-level stages.

Documents showed the commission had reserved giant screens, but cancelled them because of budgetary constraints.

"We were aware of risk (low stage, packed density, etc.) and took a gamble," read the minutes of a meeting by organizers after the event.

Many spectators had to strain to hear the show because of an inexperienced sound crew and inadequate equipment. One of the massive speakers didn't work at all, and another buzzed constantly.

"The actual cause of these problems was not found and the sound crew was completely dumbfounded by this problem," wrote Patrick Doyle, special events co-ordinator.

To make matters worse, some of the lighting technicians scheduled to work that night had come down with stomach flu. That meant some of the spotlight operators had never worked with the show before. Doyle explained that at midnight, a technician "screwed up" and did not open doors that allowed a light beam to shine on the tower, leaving the Centre Block building and tower in total darkness.

But perhaps the most vexing problem for the commission was failure of the show, which reviewed the evolution of society and art over the centuries, to captivate the audience.

It featured large images projected on to Parliament buildings, and larger-than-life puppets on stages.

The commission had determined, through a series of polls conducted in 1997, Canadians were looking for a modest event with a universal theme.

But after the show, many wrote to newspapers or called talk shows to say they were upset there wasn't more Canadian content and the national anthem was not sung or broadcast. "I was bitterly disappointed in the show on Parliament Hill to see in the new millennium," wrote one person. "There was nothing Canadian about it whatsoever."

From the beginning, the National Capital Commission was hamstrung for the millennium celebrations by an anemic budget. The federal government made it clear it was not going to help fund parties, so the commission was forced to count on its own resources and try to court corporate sponsors.

"We would have been damned whatever we did," said one frustrated commission employee, unidentified in the minutes of the post-event meeting.

"I think we found that it was probably setting ourselves up for a lose-lose situation," commission spokesperson Laurie Peters said in an interview.

"There would have been critics who said you spent too much... but then there would have been those who said, 'If you're ever going to do it, that was the night to do it.' "

With so many competing events for Dec. 31, and no firm promise from broadcasters they would carry the event live, those sponsors never materialized.

The commission was forced to find a way to produce the show for less than $900,000, at a time when costs for productions were inflated.

Peters said the experience taught the commission the public likes the successful formula used for Canada Day and Winterlude events.

"People expect a party, a celebration," Doyle wrote in his final report. "The show offered, being a retrospective that explored certain joyous moments and other doubtful moments in our human evolution, was not always of a joyous nature."

Copyright 2000 Toronto Star, All Rights Reserved.