Ottawa’s Ghostly Past

Most people react with laughter or scepticism when they hear about Ottawa’s guided ghost walks. But the Haunted Walks tour guides shrug off such cynicism, for they have an unshakeable belief in what they do, and in the spooky tales they tell as each tour unfolds.

Lantern in hand, standing outside buildings where chilling murders occurred long ago and misbehaving ghosts allegedly dwell to this day, the guides recount spellbinding stories about Ottawa’s darker past. Every story has been checked and double-checked, verified through archives, old newspaper clippings and, where possible, actual interviews with the people involved. “Each of our stories is thoroughly researched and documented,” says company founder Glen Shackleton. “Before adding a new story to a tour, we always seek out the evidence to substantiate it.”

Shackleton and his tour guides – unarmed ghost busters, if you will – have been roaming the streets of Sandy Hill and other Ottawa neighbourhoods since 1995, trailed by small groups of people who start out intrigued and end up looking over their shoulders nervously. In 2004, 30,000 people joined one or another of the Haunted Walks tours.

Some are rious about the west wing of the fourth floor of the Canadian Museum of Nature, which remains empty because it’s reputedly haunted. Others have heard about the séances the late Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King used to hold. Still others want to know whether the rumours are true about repeated apparitions of the ghost of Bishop Joseph-Eugène Guigues, founder of the University of Ottawa. But there are many other spine-tingling anecdotes as well.

Bumps in the Night
Of all the ghost stories told on the tours, the one about the Ottawa Jail hostel, housed on the old Carleton Country Jail premises, makes your blood run coldest.

Hostel managers used to inform arriving guests that if they wanted to spend the night in a cell on the old Death Row, and if they could make it all the way through to dawn without freaking out, they’d get the night’s lodging for free.

But nobody ever managed to do it. One guest swore he’d felt the weight of a body across his legs. Another complained of so much kicking from under the bed, he had no choice but to bolt. Countless others simply ended up racing down the stairs from Death Row, screaming, to flee the hostel in terror.

Although the policy helped make the hostel famous, it was eventually abandoned lest people hurt themselves in their headlong rush to get away. But you can still visit the eighth floor – in daytime – where Patrick James Whelan, the presumed assassin of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, was held. Whelan steadfastly proclaimed his innocence right up until his trip to the scaffold.

“There are a lot of stories about Patrick Whelan,” says Shackleton. “One time, two young boys at his gravesite were making fun of him, when suddenly they both developed nosebleeds at exactly the same time. And on three separate occasions on our tours, someone on the tour also developed a nosebleed just as one of our guides was recounting the story about the boys.”

Crime Capital
But why does this orderly and rather sedate city have so many ghost stories? “Maybe because there are many public buildings here, and ghosts like to be seen by lots of people?” Shackleton jokes. “Or maybe,” he adds more seriously, “it’s because Ottawa was once the North American capital of crime.”

Indeed, Ottawa was godless, lawless and without a police force for the first 40 years of its existence. Crime was rampant and murders commonplace. “Everyone laughed when this city was chosen as the federal capital,” recalls Shackleton, “because they wondered how MPs would survive in such a hostile environment!”

On top of that, before 1809 the British laws in effect in Ontario provided easily 100 reasons to hang anyone who broke the law. So maybe Ontario’s nooks and crannies are populated with lost souls still angry about having been executed for a petty crime.

Whatever the reasons for Ottawa’s haunting, every year the tour company adds new scary stories to its stock of terrifying tales. “Customers are often a great source of information,”  Shackleton notes. “Some of them take a tour because they’ve had a strange experience themselves, and they tell their stories to our guides. The guides then verify and authenticate them, and eventually add them to the tour.”

Shackleton himself has encountered a ghost first-hand, or at least experienced a paranormal encounter. “It was at the Bytown Museum, where I’m chairman of the board of directors. There were four of us that night. We were leaving the museum and there was nobody behind us. We closed a sliding door. It began to vibrate, really strongly, as if someone on the other side was hitting it. If anyone had been there, the security camera would have picked him up. But there was nobody, although we heard heavy steps walking away.” Shackleton believes it might have been the ghost of Duncan McNab, once the building custodian and a reputed prankster.

Brrr! Whether you’re a sceptic or a believer, whether the stories are true or not, a Haunted Walks tour is a thrilling, chilling foray into another world, a realm of terror, mystery and the unexplained.

For more information on this or other Canadian destinations, visit the Canadian Tourism Commission’s website at

Haunted Walks
Haunted Walks of Canada offers guided walking tours in Ottawa and Kingston. Ottawa tours include The Original Haunted Walk, Ghosts and the Gallows, and The Naughty Ottawa Pub Walk. Tours range in length from one hour to two and a half hours. Tickets are $10 to $14 for adults, less for seniors and children. For reservations, phone (613) 232-0344 or visit

Ontario Tourism: 1-800-668-2746 or

Hugo Paradis is a Montreal-based freelance journalist. He’s been travelling since childhood and is always on the lookout for the new and the offbeat. His interests include architecture, culture, outdoor activities, history, fine dining and, of course, ghosts.

Photo credit: 2002 Ontario Tourism