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Meet the lovers behind the locks on Ottawa's Corktown Footbridge

·7 min read
Claire Poulin and Devin Empey met in a first-year math class at the University of Ottawa. Now about to begin their fourth year, they plan to move in together in September. (Devin Empey - image credit)
Claire Poulin and Devin Empey met in a first-year math class at the University of Ottawa. Now about to begin their fourth year, they plan to move in together in September. (Devin Empey - image credit)

It's a time-honoured symbol of everlasting love, even if the symbol itself doesn't always last forever: padlocks attached to a bridge railing, often painted with the initials of the starry-eyed sweethearts who left them there.

In Ottawa, this romantic ritual takes place on the Corktown Footbridge, which spans the Rideau Canal between the Golden Triangle and the University of Ottawa.

Hundreds of the "love locks" now festoon the bridge's handrails, but lovers beware: the city does come along and shear them off every once in a while.

Alistair Steele/CBC
Alistair Steele/CBC

We got to wondering about the stories behind them, and whether the couples, like their locks, remain firmly attached.

Earlier this week, we put the call out on Instagram. Here are some of the responses. They have been edited for length.

Daniel Perry
Daniel Perry

Emily and Daniel

Daniel Perry and Emily Grant have been together since January 2018. That August they placed a lock on the Corktown Footbridge to mark Emily's 21st birthday.

"She tossed the key into the canal because she has the key to my heart. Cheesy as it sounds, it's a moment I won't forget," Perry wrote.

I would always tap our lock and thought of Emily as I walked past it. - Daniel Perry

"At the time I lived in the Golden Triangle and walked over the bridge and passed the lock every day on my way to classes at uOttawa. I would always tap our lock and thought of Emily as I walked past it.

"Our relationship is interesting because not only are we on the opposite ends of the political spectrum, but we both work in politics and applied to the same grad program together (and got in thankfully). After three and a half years, we're going strong and planning for the future."

Sarah van Hooydonk
Sarah van Hooydonk

Sarah and Max

"My husband proposed to me with an engraved love lock in the summer of 2013 on the Corktown Footbridge, on a warm Wednesday evening after a downtown walking date and dinner out at The Manx," wrote Sarah van Hooydonk.

"He had the ring, champagne, and champagne glasses stowed in a backpack for the evening and pulled out the proposal on the bridge while we were on the way home."

Van Hooydonk and Max Bedard married in 2014.

We were able to visit our love lock many times over the years and even showed it to our daughter while on a family bike ride. - Sarah van Hooydonk

"We were able to visit our love lock many times over the years and even showed it to our daughter while on a family bike ride (she remembers seeing it when she was around three years old). It was eventually cut off with all of the other locks at some point in 2018-2019."

The lock may be gone, but the fond memories remain, van Hooydonk wrote.

"We have pictures of the lock from the proposal and when we visited it with our daughter, and always smile when we pass by."

Robyn Smith
Robyn Smith

Robyn and Paul

Robyn Smith and Paul Grant first met through a dating site in 2015, but it took a second chance encounter to get things going.

"We went on a date and it didn't go anywhere, and then we saw each other at a triathlon and I reached out to him," recalled Smith, a preschool teacher.

That lock on the bridge really represented ... our commitment, and our belief that we will have our time together. - Robyn Smith

They began training together, and before long romance bloomed. One day in 2017, the couple cycled from Grant's home in Bells Corners to the Corktown Footbridge. Grant had brought along a padlock he had painted bright red so it would stand out, and "because red represents love," Smith said.

The couple lives apart, and during the COVID-19 pandemic stuck mostly to their separate households. Smith says they're waiting until their children — each has two, ranging in age from 17 to 21 — find their own paths and Grant retires in two years before taking the next step.

Robyn Smith
Robyn Smith

"We've had many ups and downs in the six years, and the most recent is that he was diagnosed with cancer just recently … but we're going to get through that and start our life together," Smith said.

"That lock on the bridge really represented how we feel about each other and our commitment, and our belief that we will have our time together."

Devin Empey
Devin Empey

Claire and Devin

Claire Poulin first noticed Devin Empey in a math workshop for first-year science students at the University of Ottawa in September 2018.

"Calculus brought us together. I don't think you hear that very often," Poulin joked. "I say it was love at first sight because I just knew there was something about him, like I needed to know more."

Empey had noticed her, too, and soon the two became inseparable. Well, almost inseparable: each summer, Poulin returned to northwestern Ontario to work and save money while Empey stayed behind in Ottawa.

"We were actually in different time zones," Empey said.

We walk by it all the time and we always make sure to look for it. - Claire Poulin

One day they were walking over the Corktown Footbridge when they noticed all the love locks had been cut off. Their lock, marked with their initials, was one of the first to replace them.

"So we have a very central spot, right near the middle of the canal," Poulin said. "We walk by it all the time and we always make sure to look for it."

Devin Empey
Devin Empey

Now they're entering fourth year at university and a new stage in their relationship.

"We're moving in together in the beginning of September, so it's very exciting," Poulin said.

But what if their lock is also removed one day?

"We'll put another one on," Empey said.

"We're not going anywhere," Poulin added.

Peter Levesque
Peter Levesque

Penny and Peter

For Peter Levesque, the love locks on the Corktown Footbridge stir bittersweet memories.

Levesque met Penny Johnston at a party in Ottawa when they were still in their teens, but she lived in Montreal and they soon lost touch. Several years later, when she was studying law at Osgoode Hall in Toronto and he was finishing a master's degree at the University of Ottawa, they became reacquainted.

"We wrote postcards and spoke on the phone for a few months and then met again during the winter break," Levesque wrote. "It was a boom moment. We went on exactly two dates and I asked her to marry me. She said yes."

She was the absolute love of my life and I don't quite know what the future looks like. - Peter Levesque

They married in 1990 and had a son and a daughter. They travelled the world together and enjoyed fulfilling careers.

On their 25th wedding anniversary, they went for a walk through Sandy Hill, where they had first lived as a couple, and found themselves on the Corktown Footbridge. Levesque had brought along the padlock he used to secure his Vespa scooter and clasped it to the railing.

In December 2018, the couple returned from a Caribbean cruise to spend the holidays with their family. On New Year's Eve, Penny Levesque started feeling unwell. She was rushed to hospital on Jan. 3, and died in intensive care the following evening.

Peter Levesque
Peter Levesque

Levesque sold their house in Orléans and gave his kids enough to buy their own homes. He moved to Brockville, Ont., in December, where he recently suffered a heart attack.

"My cardiologist says that having a broken heart is a real thing," Levesque wrote.

"As with any relationship we had to work through some things, but she was the absolute love of my life and I don't quite know what the future looks like," he wrote. "The lock is a reminder of the bond we created."

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