Skating on the Rideau Canal has long been a staple activity for people living in the National Capital Region. Since the frozen waterway first opened for skating in 1970, it has attracted enthusiasts from across the city, the province, the country and beyond.

However, the 2021 season on the canal — which officially ended after nearly four weeks of skating after a heavy snowfall and warm spell in late February — was unlike any other that visitors to the ice of the UNESCO World Heritage Site have experienced before.

The COVID-19 pandemic introduced new challenges for skaters, and the National Capital Commission implemented various changes to ensure safe distancing and minimize the risk of coronavirus transmission.

The Rideau Canal Skateway’s food and drink vendors were not permitted to open for the 51st season. Concession stands for BeaverTails and hot chocolate — as well as skate rentals and change rooms — were all closed for the month the ice was used.

The NCC explained that because it wanted to avoid people gathering, refreshment stands and changing huts had to remain closed in order to keep everyone safe.

As the skating season was nearing its end, the NCC stated: “We’re committed to ensuring that all NCC assets — including the Rideau Canal Skateway — can be safely used during the pandemic.” In order to make skating on the canal safe this winter, the NCC required everyone lacing up and hitting the ice from downtown to Dow’s Lake to cooperate and follow the rules.

Although the NCC had limited capacity to enforce public health measures, officials frequently urged canal users to wear a mask and to practice safe social distancing. To make sure people were following the directives, the NCC partnered with the City of Ottawa to patrol the skateway and discourage people from gathering in large groups on the ice.

On the weekend of Feb. 6-7, the NCC and city bylaw officers monitored the canal to make sure everyone was following the rules.

Roger Chapman, director of bylaw and regulatory services, stated at the time: “By-law and Regulatory Services issued 22 verbal warnings in relation to gatherings, and one in relation to individuals playing hockey in contravention of the provincial regulations.” No fines were issued to skaters. 

The city’s bylaw department said there was a very high level of compliance with pandemic safety rules and added that the presence of bylaw officers was well received by members of the public using the canal. Skaters expressed gratitude at the sight of patrol officers, said Chapman.

Socially distanced skating

The Ottawa Public Health precautions that the NCC implemented included staying at least two metres apart from people outside of your household bubble, wearing a mask, washing/sanitizing hands and follow directional signage.

But some confusion about what was allowed persisted with some skaters. Matthew Jewell, a fourth-year student at Carleton University who skated on the canal regularly this winter, said he was unsure about exactly what the rules were and that he hadn’t “seen any enforcement whatsoever on the canal.”

The season was a short 26 days, opening on Jan. 28 and closing on Feb. 22 due to warmer weather.

The NCC reported that there were nearly 20,000 visits per day on the skateway by mid-February. That number was under the daily average of 22,000 from 2019-20 skating season.

In spite of the COVID-19 restrictions, local residents were still getting out to skate on the canal in significant numbers.

In a Feb. 25 statement, the NCC said it was “saddened” to report that the skating season was over, blaming “a snowstorm and warmer temperatures in the forecast” for the shutdown and stating that “continued maintenance efforts would unfortunately not return the Skateway to safe conditions.”

But the commission noted that, after opening, the skateway “lasted continuously for 26 excellent skating days, creating additional space for exercise and well-being in the densely populated urban core.”