Labourers on the Rideau Canal

From the Desk of Kevin Dooley

Labourers on the Rideau Canal

1826-1832: From Work Site to World Heritage Site

Edited By Katherine M.J. McKenna

Introduction by Katherine M.J. McKenna

Image: Cover of Labourers on the Rideau Canal  
Labourers on the Rideau Canal:
1826-1832: from work site to World Heritage Site
Borealis Press, 2008
135 pages, Paperback
ISBN: 9780888873552
$19.95 CA

The Rideau Canal has finally achieved the recognition it deserves with its designation as a World Heritage Site in 2007. Originally built in the event of war with the United States as an inland supply route connecting the Great Lakes with the mouth of the St. Lawrence, it thankfully has never been used for that purpose.

For a time it served as a major transportation and trading route, but this was short-lived. Completed in 1832, less than twenty years later it was superseded by a better water route constructed along the St. Lawrence and by the advent of the Canadian Railway age.

The Rideau enjoyed a second life beginning in the late nineteenth century as a recreational resource and a tourist attraction, but was neglected and fell into disrepair. In Canada’s centennial year, 1967, it was finally declared to be of national historic significance, and was placed under the care of Parks Canada beginning in 1972. Much of what we know today of the history of the canal is due to research undertaken by Parks Canada is due to research undertaken by Parks Canada, and the canal has been restored and well maintained under its care.

The Rideau extends 202 kilometres (123) miles from Ottawa to Kingston on Lake Ontario, an interconnected network of rivers and lakes connected by locks and channels carved out of swamp, rock, and wilderness forest. As an engineering achievement it is unsurpassed. Today, it remains the only North American canal still in use, with most of its original features intact.

The British military engineer who built the canal, Lieutenant-Colonel John By, was far from celebrated in his day for his achievement. The original estimates for the construction of the Rideau were under £200,000. Between 1826 and 1832, the cost increased fourfold, with the final expenditure coming in somewhat more than £800,000. Lt. Col. By was recalled to England in disgrace and severely censured for these cost overruns. This was treatment that one historian called “extremely harsh” due to the formidable difficulties By faced during the canal construction.

Lt. Col. By died in 1836, supposedly with a broken constitution due to the poor treatment he had received. Surely he would have felt vindicated if he could have known that in 2007, 175 years after he completed his Herculean task, his achievement was to be recognized as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Calling the canal “monumental,” UNESCO lauded it as the only intact and working exemplar of the great age of canal construction in North America, and noted its historic significance, bearing “witness to the fight for the control of the north of the American continent.

This volume is intended to celebrate the international recognition which was accorded to the Rideau Canal upon 175th anniversary. It also suggests that the canal might be remembered for other reasons than its than its staggering feats of engineering and proposed role in the defence of British North America. This book also seeks to commemorate the ordinary folk who were instrumental in creating such a world treasure.

Honour those who paid for the canal with their lives

The difficulties of building a massive public work such as this in the Canadian wilderness created huge cost overruns, but it also took a toll in human lives. It seems appropriate in this time of celebration of the achievement of the canal that their role in this great accomplishment be noted.

Who were the men, many of them with families, who lived and worked along the Rideau Canal during its construction from 1827 to 1832? Across North America, it was the Irish immigrants who were the mainstay of the labour force in canal construction. This is unsurprising, since it has been established that they composed the bulk of the immigrants streaming into British North America in the first half of the nineteenth century, even before the most significant Irish potato famine of 1847.

Economic circumstances in Ireland drove them to the New World in ever increasing numbers. Most of these newcomers were not paupers, and would eventually settle on their own farms. However, the temporary lifting of the British Passenger Act in 1827 and its subsequent repeal under pressure from ship owners resulted in a lowering of standards of shipboard accommodation and cheaper fares which for the years 1826 and 1827 resulted in an upsurge of Irish immigrants, among whom were an unusually high percentage of the destitute. These men provided a willing and eager pool of labourers just as Lt. Col. By’s contractors were wanting to recruit men to work on the Rideau Canal.

Unfortunately, many of them were also in poor physical condition on arrival as a consequence of the deplorable on-board conditions they experienced. As a consequence, a new Passenger Act was implemented in 1828 by the British government. It was not as tough as the one that had been rescinded, but it did make for some improvement in on-board conditions for immigrants from the British Isles.

Some of these Irish newcomers composed an itinerant labour force which moved across the American and Canadian border, going wherever work was to be had on the canals. Although Roman Catholics were not the majority of Irish immigrants in this period, they appear to have dominated the canal workforce. They developed a rough and ready boisterous male culture which involved arduous labour in unspeakably difficult conditions, a cheerful indifference to their own safety on the job, heavy drinking and, on rare occasions, violently disruptive behaviour.

The workforce of the Rideau, however, was not exclusively Irish. There were smaller numbers of English and Scottish, but the other group that dominated was French Canadian. Two of the main contractors at the Bytown (Ottawa) end of the canal, Philemon Wright and Sons of Hull and McKay and Redpath of Montreal, were also very involved in the timber trade. Since they employed many French Canadians in lumbering in the winter months, it was only natural that they would keep on their own labour force for summer works on the Rideau.

Lack of records makes it difficult to assess the relative numbers of workers of each cultural background on the Rideau but it would appear that French-Canadian workers dominated at the northeast end of the canal and Irish immigrants at the southwest end near Kingston. Although the Quebec habitants had families to return to in rural Quebec, and all indications are that the Irish did not gravitate to the cities any more than did most other immigrants, it is still fair to say that together they composed the first true proletariat in Canada, characterized by their “separation from the land or craft shop and thus from the control of the means of production.”

As Bryan Palmer has said of canal labour, “This was the first truly mass employment of labour in the Canadas, prefacing in its impersonality and sheer size the factory experience of later years.”

It may be that at least some of the occasional incidents in violent behaviour recorded along the line of the Rideau by canal workers were a means of venting frustration with working conditions that were at times horrific. The work was undeniably grueling and dangerous to one’s health. One contemporary observer described the desperate lot of the canal worker in terms that apply equally to the construction of the Rideau.

The industry and virtue of the labouring poor appear undeniable, from the fact, that there is no occupation, however deleterious or disgraceful, at which there is any difficulty in procuring labourers, even at the most inadequate wages. The labour on canals in marshy situations, in atmospheres replete with pestilential miasmata [malaria], is full proof on this point. Although almost certain consequence of labouring in such situations is a prostration of health, and danger of life; and that no small portion of the labourers, as I have already stated, return to their families in the fall or winter with health and vigour destroyed, and laboring under protracted fevers and agues, which in many cases undermine their constitutions, and return in after-years, and too often hurry them prematurely into eternity: their places are readily supplied by other victims who offer themselves up on the alters of industry.

The three papers that compose this slim volume focus on these workers who undertook the monumental task of building the Rideau Canal. The research for the first two was undertaken under the auspices of Parks Canada in the early 1980s. Bill Wylie’s work was originally published in Labour / Le Travailleur, while an earlier version of mine was included in Parks Canada’s Microfiche Report Series. Bill Wylie’s paper  provides an excellent overview of the life of the labourer on the Rideau Canal, while mine is a more focused study of a particularly difficult site that exemplifies many of the problems that workers experienced on the canal.

The third paper is an original piece by Bruce Elliott based on decades of work researching Irish emigration to Canada in this period. It is intended for those readers who may be drawn to the story of the workers on the canal because they have a historic family connection. Elliott’s article provides a rich resource that will set the aspiring genealogical researcher on the right course to uncovering their own ancestral link to the building of the Rideau.

Together, these three papers represent a modest tribute to the ordinary person whose back-breaking effort produced this impressive World Heritage treasure in the midst of the Canadian wilderness.

It is gratefully noted that the impetus for this book came from Kevin Dooley of the Ottawa Irish community. He was also instrumental in obtaining generous funding from the Embassy of Ireland in support of this publication.