How Ottawa's new nightlife commissioner aims to boost the social scene after dark

Mathieu Grondin knows many people think of Ottawa as a place that shuts down early, and as the city's first ever "night mayor," he's looking to change that.

Grondin was appointed as the nightlife commissioner earlier this month. His mandate? To enhance the city's social scene once the sun starts to set.

"My job is to amplify the voices of people who live at night, residents who live at night, cultural operators, business operators," he said in an interview with CBC.

That includes voices of people across the city, Grondin says — not just in the downtown core.

"It's important to have nightlife hubs or programming in every neighbourhood in the city," he said. "That is what makes it interesting."

Grondin was born and raised in Montreal, where in 2017 he founded MTL 24/24, a non-profit organization that advocates for improved nightlife in that city.

According to the City of Ottawa, he's widely realized as a global leader in nightlife advocacy.

After arriving in the nation's capital just a few weeks ago, he says he's been testing out the nightlife for himself — including the Ottawa Jazz Festival, the Escapade Music Festival and the ByWard Market — and says he likes what he's seeing.

"I like to be in the field. I work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then I go out at night and I meet the people. We make a personal connection with these [business] operators," Grondin said.

"If you think Ottawa is boring, maybe it's because you don't go out and you're not interested. And so if we want a vibrant city at night, just go out and check it out. There's a lot of stuff going on in Ottawa."

Fans watch Kathleen Edwards perform at the Ottawa Jazz Festival in Confederation Park on June 25, 2024.
Fans watch Kathleen Edwards perform at the Ottawa Jazz Festival in Confederation Park on June 25, 2024. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

'Be proud' of Ottawa's offerings

Grondin's job is a key one: each year, the nightlife sector generates approximately $1.5 billion of spending, according to the city.

That's predominantly from locals, but 16 per cent of that spending comes from tourists as well.

Zachary Dayler, executive director of the ByWard Market District Authority — which oversees the downtown tourism hotspot — said his team will be connecting with Grondin's in the coming weeks.

Dayler said the expanded LRT network that will arrive in the years ahead and the potential downtown NHL arena makes Grondin's work especially important.

"We want to get out there and we want to be proud of our offerings," Dayler said. "Not just between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but from 5 p.m. till, you know, 4 a.m."

A server works on the patio of a pub in the ByWard Market in Ottawa on June 23, 2023.
A server works on the patio of a pub in the ByWard Market in Ottawa on June 23, 2023. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The public's take

Some people in the ByWard Market on Thursday shared their thoughts with CBC on how Grondin could improve things.

Charlene Cieslik currently lives in Toronto and says Ottawa could learn something from their nightlife.

"I used to live here, like, 23 years ago, and I come back for work sometimes and I look around and I'm like, why [are] there no new bars or restaurants? It's the same place we went to 20 years ago," she said.

"Kind of dying, kind of boring. Nothing new has opened up."

Others said they hoped bars or clubs would open for 24 hours, or at least stay open beyond 2 a.m.

Amelie Hill, a London, Ont. resident, has been in Ottawa for three years for post-secondary studies and works in the ByWard Market.

She suggested making the city's social scene more bilingual.

"I know that Ottawa is still working on incorporating French into the nightlife, but it's still an important part of who we are as a city," Hill says. "So that would be really cool."

Zachary Dayler is the executive director of ByWard Market District Authority. Stéphanie Plante, the ward's councillor, sits next to him.
Zachary Dayler, executive director of ByWard Market District Authority, speaks at an event last year. (Francis Ferland/Radio-Canada)

While Grondin is responsible for Ottawa's nightlife, he decided, with only three weeks to relocate, to settle down in Gatineau, Que.

When asked about that decision, Grondin said it wasn't a huge deal — and that while he might sleep on the other side of the river, most of his waking hours are spent in the nation's capital.

"Would I be closer to nightlife if I lived in Nepean?" he asked. "I spend my life, I spend my nights, I spend my day in Ottawa."