Two Tales of Two Neighbourhood Benches

John Dance

Old Ottawa East has a growing number of benches that invite pedestrians to pause a moment and enjoy our community’s sights and sites. Although sitting on these benches during the pandemic is discouraged by the City administration, weary walkers often succumb for a moment to catch a break.

Many of these benches exist due to the generosity of residents who, through the bench installation, memorialize the death of a friend or family member.

Dona Bowers and her dog Sandy enjoy the Echo Drive bench she had installed in honour of her late husband, Bob Gagnon. Photo by John Dance

Dona Bowers and her dog Sandy enjoy the Echo Drive bench she had installed in honour of her late husband, Bob Gagnon. Photo by John Dance

In the case of the “Life is Good”, bench on Echo Drive between Mount Pleasant Avenue and Mason Terrace, Bob Gagnon, the husband of Echo Drive resident Dona Bowers is remembered.

“He was very gregarious – he would sit on the porch and talk with everybody going by,” says Dona. When Gagnon died in 2014, Dona’s brother Roy from Invermere, B.C. suggested that a bench overlooking the Canal would well commemorate his life.

Initially, Bowers checked whether the National Capital Commission had a program for memorial benches, but it didn’t, and the City of Ottawa’s memorial bench program wasn’t relevant since no City parkland exists near the Echo Drive location.

Recognizing that Echo Drive residents’ property extends right to the edge of the sidewalk, Bowers decided to install a bench in front of her house– complete with a plaque with the simple message “Life is Good” – Gagnon’s motto in life.

“It has been so well used – people of all ages just stop and take a break. Bob would be thrilled,” says, Bowers. The view is superb: beyond Echo Drive, Colonel By Drive and the Canal wind their way downtown, with the Flora Footbridge in the distance and Lansdowne Park with its Aberdeen Pavilion off to the west.

The story behind the Nadia Kajouji bench near the foot of Clegg Street is more complicated and tragic but, in the end, consoling.

In 2008, Carleton university student Nadia Kajouji drowned herself in the Rideau River and her body was found on the riverbank near Clegg Street.

The sadness of her death was compounded by the fact that a former nurse in Minnesota had encouraged her to die by suicide. The malicious individual “posed online as a woman and trolled suicide-themed chat rooms, counselling others to take their lives,” noted Bruce Deachman of the Ottawa Citizen.

Following Kajouji’s death, an informal memorial was made with a bench and an urn of plastic flowers. The Old Ottawa East Community Association approved the expenditure of $500 for the creation of a permanent memorial bench, but in the absence of other contributors, a permanent bench was not erected.

Walkers take a quick break to enjoy the view from the new Nadia Kajouji bench in Brantwood Park. Photo by John Dance

Walkers take a quick break to enjoy the view from the new Nadia Kajouji bench in Brantwood Park. Photo by John Dance

Last June, Deachman wrote a lengthy article on Kajouji’s death and how the informal bench had become derelict. This article prompted Ashling Cassidy and Katie Ambler, the latter a resident of Old Ottawa East and both employees of eQ Homes of The Regional Group, the developer of Greystone Village, to check out the derelict memorial.

“My colleague Katie and I had remembered the story of Nadia from years past and both of us being mothers of teen and preteen kids, we were saddened by her story and the state of disrepair that the original bench was in,” says Cassidy.

Their concern led them to contacting the City of Ottawa and to eQ Homes covering the approximately $3,000 cost of a memorial bench. Last fall, the bench was installed just to the south of the original memorial. The wording on the bench’s plaque was written by Kajouji’s brother who lives in the United States, and it reads, “You will never be forgotten.”

The plaque memorializes a life lived but not forgotten. Photo by John Dance

The plaque memorializes a life lived but not forgotten. Photo by John Dance

So, this second bench tale was born of very sad circumstances but lived on through the efforts of the initial memorializers; diligence of a curious journalist; and the compassion and generosity of two empathetic parents and their employer.

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