Kevin Dooley on Canal Workers ceremony


A commemorative plaque to honour the workers who

built the Rideau Canal is a class act on a class question

A nation-wide campaign won public support for recognition

By Kevin Dooley
Canal Workers Commemorative Group
  Photo: Kevin Dooley and ?? with Rideau Canal commemorative plaque
  Husband and wife team Onagh and Kevin Dooley share a moment of triumph at the official unveiling of a plaque in honour of the workers who built the Rideau Canal 1826 to 1832. After years of rejection by bureaucrats but with mounting cross-country public support, the plaque will be found at the Rideau Locks where Rideau River waters enter the Ottawa River on the east side of Parliament Hill. The ceremony that included Peter Kent, Minister of Environment and Parks Canada was held under a tent at noon, Thursday 20 June, 2013. A similar plaque will be found at Jones Falls near the Kingston end of the canal. — Image by Catherine MacGregor, Ph.D., Writing, Editing, and Instructional Services.

21 June 2013 OTTAWA Canada — On Thursday 20 June, 2013 at 12 noon, Minister of Environment and Parks Canada, Peter Kent, unveiled a plaque honouring the National Historical Significance of the Rideau Canal Workers (1826-1832) at the Rideau Locks in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. 

It was a short ceremony featuring a Scottish Piper, an Anthem singer, plaque readers in both official languages and speakers, Minister Kent, Dr. Richard Alway, Chairman of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) and Master of Ceremonies, Kevin Dooley, Canal Workers Commemorative Group (CWCG), Sarah Thorenton, Cultural Officer of the Embassy of Ireland, Royal Galipeau, MP for Ottawa-Orleans, and Tony O'Loughlin, representative of the Ireland Canada Monument Society, Vancouver.  

A similar plaque will be erected at Jones Falls, near the Kingston end of the canal.

This poignant and profound ceremony finally honours the workers who helped build a National Heritage and Historic Site and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that helped Canadians attain nationhood.

The canal was an engineering marvel in it's day and is still in use. It was cut out of virgin rock and bush by hand in very primitive, harsh and hazardous conditions by thousands of labourers, mainly recent Irish immigrants and French Canadians. Disease, injury and death were commonplace. More than 1,000 were killed on the canal or died of disease.  Gross exploitation and oppression was their lot under a harsh colonial military regime.  The dead were buried in unmarked graves and their names destroyed, but thousands did survive and went on to become Canada's first large working force as distinct from it's farmer pioneers.

Many of these navvies worked to build other canals, later railways, and others toiled on small farms and in the lumber camps.  Today, an estimated 100,000 descendants of canal labourers live in North East Ontario and Western Quebec. The navvies heritage and sacrifices only became known in recent decade, mainly through the work of the Rideau Canal Celtic Cross Committees (RCCCC) of Kingston and Ottawa.

Though an older organization “Friends of the Rideau” has existed for decades, no efforts were made on behalf of the workers. Lt. Col. John By, the Royal Engineering Officer in charge of the canal, and the canal itself were declared Historic People and Sites in 1925.

This designation has now been amended to include the workers.

Photo: Kevin Dooley speaks at plaque unveiling.  
Kevin Dooley, the driving force behind a campaign that won national support, speaks at the official unveiling of a plaque honouring the workers who built the Rideau Canal 1826-1832.  Image by Catherine MacGregor, Ph.D., Writing, Editing, and Instructional Services.  

The RCCCC (Kingston) erected a Celtic Cross Memorial in 2002 at Kingston, and the RCCCC (Ottawa) through the auspices of the Ottawa and District Labour Council (ODLC) erected a Celtic Cross Memorial in 2004 at Ottawa. 

An ad-hoc committee, the Canal Workers Commemorative Group (CWCG), drawn from the RCCCC and the Irish Society of the National Capital Region (ISNCR) was formed in 2007 to celebrate workers in the 175 anniversary celebrations of the City of Ottawa, to publish the landmark definitive history of the workers (Parks Canada documents never before published) in 2009. The CWCG also applied to the HSMBC for this special designation in 2007.

The application was rejected in 2008, and again in 2010, by the Board.  The first reason lumped the Rideau with other canals of the period (Lachine and Wellington) refusing to distinguish the Rideau.

The CWCG challenged this to a reopen. The second decision simply lumped the workers as common labour of the day and nothing memorable about them, or their work. At this stage, 2011, the CWCG went public to its members and friends in Ottawa and across Canada and the media.

The result was magnificent. The public and media responded in outrage. The HSMBC again reopened and in December 2011 decided on the present designation. It was then simply up to Minister Kent's office to sign off on it, but here delays occurred and it went “off the radar”.

After further media and public support, Minister Kent officially announced in November 2012, the decision. It even took some further media attention in June 2013 to get a plaque ceremony date set after several postponements. All along through this saga, the CWCG was at work.

What can be ascertained from all of this is, that a culture of Historical revisionism, sanitizing, if not outright censorship exists in our establishments and too, some kind of shame and denigration of ordinary working people.

For it's the Blood, Sweat and Tears of Canada's early working class people that built this great Country, not to honour them and always remember them simply reflects a blight and lack of basic integrity in our Country's  psyche.

Hopefully now, in this very important designation of the hapless Rideau workers, their contribution and their class has it's rightful place.

Photo: Rideau Canal commemorative plaque
The wording of the plaque to commemorate the workers who built the Rideau Canal speaks in honour of their labour and and of the hundreds who died in the process of its construction. Image by Onagh Dooley, CWCG.