Empty Nest? Start Refeathering!

by Julie Harrison
photos by John Major

When Peter McKinnon realized Toronto’s sky-high cost of living put a comfortable perch out of reach for him and his wife, he moved his career in television production to Ottawa and set up nest here. Twenty-five years later, with one son having flown the nest and the other on the precipice, Peter shares how his family life has evolved — and continues to evolve — with all that Ottawa offers.

It was 1989. Interest rates for mortgages were hovering at around 14 or 15 per cent. And Peter and his wife Maryann were newlyweds who wanted to establish a nest and start a family. The reality of a very small but very expensive home in Toronto was just not appealing to them, so they began to consider other Canadian cities that might offer similar work opportunities. When Peter landed a job on the Sunday Edition with CJOH-TV, it solidified their decision and off to Ottawa the young couple went.

What did Peter notice first about Ottawa? Funny as it might sound, he recalls being amazed by the quality of the roads. You see, he and his wife are avid cyclists. (In fact, it was a four-month cycling tour through Europe that really cemented their relationship.) “When I first moved to Ottawa,” Peter explains, “I used to regularly bike from my home up to Meech Lake to take a swim. I couldn’t believe the quality of the roads! In Toronto, you’d have to travel for hours to find these kinds of trails and untouched forests and lakes.” Many years and many cycling trips later, Peter still believes Gatineau Park offers some of the most beautiful trails in the world.

But biking was just one in a long list of activities Peter embraced in Ottawa. During his first month at work, his office desk was near the one of famed Ottawa sportscaster Brian Smith and Smith invited him to join a lunchtime pickup hockey team. Since then, Peter has changed jobs a number of times, but the lunchtime games remain. “I still play … with these guys.”

Birds of a Feather

Peter describes himself and Maryann as “kind of jock-y and outdoorsy.” So, it’s no real surprise that they’ve raised their two sons in an active way. Over the years, the McKinnon family has consistently taken advantage of all the city’s recreational offerings⎯from cycling, Ultimate Frisbee and swimming to skiing, ice-skating and hockey. “There’s such a great quality of life here in Ottawa. Any sport, any time, any level — there are opportunities to play.” Grady, now 19, is passionate about skateboarding and snowboarding, while Kieran, 22, has turned into an avid cyclist and has spent many a summer working as a lifeguard.

Raising kids in Ottawa is a joy,” says Peter. “I used to take the kids to the museum on Saturdays … Aviation, Science and Tech, Museum of Civilization. If I was at home with the kids, I would always feel pressured to get chores done. But by going out, we spent more time together.” Undoubtedly, some of that time was spent introducing the boys to another one of his passions: music. Peter plays guitar and jams regularly with friends. And like dad, his sons learned to play musical instruments as well as sports. Piano lessons came first, then Kieran took up the drums and Grady switched to bass. Today they can play together.

The Changing Nest

While work, raising the kids and coaching minor hockey used to fill Peter’s hours, things are changing at the McKinnon nest. “I was a volunteer coach for 13 years, but my sons have moved on, so I wanted to try something new,” he explains. “I’ve recently started volunteering with the Catholic Immigration Centre (www.cic.ca). Since I’ve always been drawn to people’s life stories, I’m really enjoying meeting new immigrants and refugees and welcoming them to Ottawa.”

Both Peter and Maryann continue to enjoy their careers as entrepreneurs, Peter as a writer and producer (www.pmck. ca), and Maryann as a landscaper and owner of van Buuren Landscaping. When they have breaks in their schedules, they play a game of tennis at their local club or enjoy a long-weekend road trip now that there are no young children at home needing care.

Their older son has moved out and lives in downtown Ottawa with roommates while he attends Carleton University. “Kieran really likes ‘deep dive’ thinking. His undergrad was in English and human rights, and he is about to start a master’s degree in English and gender studies. He’s very aware, and I really enjoy our conversations about international issues.”

Grady, their younger son, is also attending university locally, but is still living at home with Peter and Maryann. While working towards an undergraduate degree in environmental studies, he also works parttime at a skateboard shop. “Both of the boys have turned out to be real critical thinkers,” notes Peter. “But it can be harder to relate and keep conversations going now that they’re adults. It used to be easier … casual chatter at dinner time.” Now, he admits, advance scheduling is required to get everybody to the dinner table at the same time.


Since Kieran and Grady have reached adulthood, Peter and Maryann are moving into a new phase of life. It’s not an “empty nest,” rather it’s a different nest. Especially since Peter’s now part of a musical band.

“A couple of years back, someone I was working with invited me to jam with his band. So I showed up one Sunday afternoon at a house in the Glebe, and that’s when I met Sarah Burnell — by far the best musician I’ve ever played with.” There was one problem: hers was a Celtic band. Peter had played guitar for 35 years, but he’d never played Celtic music. Still, it was love at first sound. “The hair was standing up on my arms … this music was just so beautiful.” He went home with some discs and charts and started to learn the Celtic genre. “I’ve had to be really disciplined; it’s been really good for me musically. I’ve had to work hard to not suck.”

The work paid off and Peter was recruited into the band, taking to the stage with Sarah Burnell and Graham Lindsey. They’ve since done about 40 gigs together. “It’s been a great opportunity and a great adventure.” Sounds like exactly what this bird needed to help re-feather his nest.

The Sarah Burnell Band

This Ottawa group debuted in 2006, earning Sarah Burnell the Canadian Folk Music Association’s Young Performer of the Year award. With an ever-evolving folk-music sound, the band, a musical trio that includes Peter McKinnon on guitar and vocals, retains its Celtic roots. It’s set to release a new CD in 2014. For details and show dates, see www.sarahburnellband.ca.

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