This profile was part of the Faculty of Public Affairs’ 75 for the 75th series, which highlighted 75 notable alumni in FPA in honour of Carleton University’s 75th anniversary. These stories were published in 2016 and 2017.
Jim Watson, Mayor of the City of Ottawa
Bachelor of Arts, Mass Communications (’83)
When Jim Watson arrived at Carleton University in 1980 to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications, he had dreams of becoming a journalist, motivated by his experience writing for his local newspaper during summer breaks.
But it wasn’t long before he encountered his true calling while living on the first floor of the Russell Building in Carleton’s residence housing.
“It was the first time I was elected to anything,” recalls Mr. Watson, who was elected president of the Rideau River Residence Association (RRRA). “It was my first taste of politics and a great learning experience because you’re really running a small business. The association ran a licensed bar, the Bree’s Inn, programming in Fenn Lounge and had 80 part-time employees.”
Mr. Watson says he preferred the “more pragmatic” decisions made in the RRRA to the debates happening within the students association. It’s the same reason he likes city politics.
“This is where the action is and where you really have the ability to affect change in a positive way,” he says. “I have a sign in my office that asks, ‘How many people have you helped today?’ We are very much in the helping business.”
That ability to have a direct impact on important social issues prompted Mr. Watson to return to politics again and again. He was first elected to Ottawa City Council in 1991 and became the youngest mayor in Ottawa history in 1997.
He also served three years as President and CEO of the Canadian Tourism Commission before Mr. Watson was finally offered his “dream job” as the host of a noon television show in Ottawa. It didn’t last long.
“I thought, ‘Finally, at long last, I’ve reached my goal to be a journalist,’” he recalls. “Then I was asked to run for the provincial parliament in Ottawa-West Nepean.”
In 2003 and again in 2007, he was elected as an MPP and was eventually appointed as Minister of Health Promotion. In that role, Mr. Watson implemented the Smoke Free Ontario Act.
But by 2010, he was ready to return to Ottawa and devote his efforts to improving his home city. He was elected mayor in 2010 and again four years later.
“I love this job because every day is different. One minute you’re greeting Princess Kate and the next you’re at a snowmobile banquet,” he says. “People ask if I would run federally, but I have no desire. It’s astounding the number of provincial and federal politicians who are now mayors. That’s because this is where the real action takes place.”
For Mr. Watson, the “action” has included the building of a new light-rail system in Ottawa, a convention centre and a network of cycling paths. But even with his dawn-to-dusk schedule, he still maintains his connection to Carleton.
“I always try to make time for journalism students to interview me and I have lunch on campus after every election,” says Mr. Watson, who has served on the Board of Governors and as president of Carleton’s alumni association. “I also encourage students to volunteer on election campaigns. It’s a great chance to network. In fact, some of my best staff members were volunteers for my campaign.”
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