Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Obama's visit was short and sweet

Ottawa goes gaga for new U.S. president

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OTTAWA -- O Obama. How does Canada greet thee? Let us count the BeaverTails.

Yes, it was an impromptu visit to the fabled Ottawa institution which caused the most buzz Thursday, when U.S. President Barack Obama visited Canada.

In his first foreign trip since being sworn in as president 30 days ago, Obama surprised everyone by veering off course to stop in at the Byward Market for souvenirs and a BeaverTail after his day of meetings on Parliament Hill.

He doffed the dark overcoat and burgundy scarf he arrived in earlier in the day and braved the snowy Ottawa afternoon in only his navy suit and blue tie, wandering the shops, shaking hands and posing for photos with surprised onlookers, while looking for a key chain and snow globe for his daughters.

He tried to buy some cookies at a bakery but his money was refused by the owner who insisted he take the maple-leaf-shaped cookies for free.

As he left, he was handed a special ObamaTail, which the outlet made to mark the occasion of his visit to Ottawa, and comes complete with a chocolate "O" on the fried, sugary, doughy treat.

For days ahead of the visit, many Canadians and particular Ottawa residents, were expressing growing disappointment there would be no opportunity for the public to glimpse the president, who has been rated incredibly popular among Canadians in several polls.

"We are disappointed there's no public event," said Hinsermu Geleta, who was waiting on the lawn of Parliament Hill to catch a glimpse of Obama's motorcade as it arrived.

Realizing the lack of public access to the president, the White House apparently made some quiet inquiries about when there might be a chance for a public pit stop and the Beaver Tail plan was hatched.

One can hardly imagine another person alive on the planet today who would generate the buzz and excitement Obama did in Ottawa. Everywhere he went there were big smiles and palpable levels of excitement.

When he arrived at the airport, and emerged from Air Force One, he was greeted by a giddy-looking Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean.

His motorcade, which had at least 15 cars, including two identical limousines to throw possible attackers off, was greeted by people along the route downtown who cheered and yelled as he passed by.

On Parliament Hill, more than 2,500 people showed up, each one of whom was individually searched by RCMP officers before waiting excitedly on the lawn, chanting "Yes We Can" and displaying all sorts of Obama-friendly signs.

Donneil Baker stood proudly showing off his sweatshirt -- "Barack by Popular Demand" -- and pointed at the photo underneath the caption.

"This is the face of change," said Baker.

At least eight sharpshooters and police looked down on the crowd from on top of the Parliament Buildings, and others were glimpsed on the roofs of nearby buildings.

The crowd was kept well back from the driveway where the motorcade, but it didn't seem to matter. They cheered when a van drove up. They cheered when the clock tower chimed. And then they almost looked up in concert at the sky when a police helicopter was heard overhead, knowing exactly what that meant.

"He's here," shouted one onlooker, as others climbed up on mounds of snow they had assembled to get a better view of the motorcade.

"That's his car right there," shouted another.

The cars drove passed and the crowds cheered and they stood hopefully staring at the front entrance to Centre Block for any sign of the president.

Then they got what they wanted, when he and Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to the glass window specially put up for the visit, and waved.

Bertha Aururelien could not contain her emotions.

"Oh my God," she shouted. "This is unbelievable! There are no words to describe this!"

Obama disappeared inside, walked a hallway lined with red carpets and flags, signed two guest books and met with Harper in his office.

The two spent 10 minutes alone, with no officials or aides present -- a rarity according to Harper's press aides -- then held more photo ops and meetings with officials and aides on everything from trade and the environment to Afghanistan. They lunched in the Senate dining hall, on tuna and arctic char and applewood smoked plains bison.

All around them were flags -- 90 each from both countries not including the lapel flag pins each leader wore on their suits.

Parliament Hill was practically on lockdown for the day. Ottawa Police shut off all the streets leading up to the Parliament Buildings, buses were rerouted and airspace over the city was restricted while Obama was in town.

Two helicopters hovered overhead at all times.

Entrances to Parliament Hill were barricaded. Staffers who work in the building were accredited again just to go in to work and had to go through metal detectors to gain entrance.

Cellphones were inspected, and people were asked to take sips of any coffee or water bottles they were bringing in with them.

More than 600 journalists were given background checks to get a pass into the building, but most of them got nowhere near the president.

Only 100 or so got to attend a joint press conference. After tripping over the word "Ottawa" -- he accidentally said he was glad to be in "Iowa" -- Obama professed his love for Canada, noted his brother-in-law is Canadian and so are two of his key staffers. He even kibbitzed with a journalist who added a few extra questions to her query.

"You snuck about six questions in there," he teased, before answering them all.

He also said he wanted to thank all the Canadians who came down to the U.S. to help work on his campaign, and promised he'd be back soon.

"I'm looking forward to coming back as soon as it warms up," he joked.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 20, 2009 A5

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