Parks Canada

Parks Canada

November 02, 2012 12:00 ET

Harper Government Recognizes Rideau Canal Construction Workers

OTTAWA, ONTARIO--(Marketwire - Nov. 2, 2012) - The Honourable Peter Kent, Canada's Environment Minister and Minister responsible for Parks Canada, today announced that the construction workers who built the Rideau Canal will be formally recognized by the Government of Canada. Minister Kent announced that the existing Rideau Canal National Historic Site of Canada designation will be expanded to commemorate the construction workers - largely Irish immigrants and French Canadians - whose work in difficult and dangerous conditions carried this monumental feat through to completion.

"The Government of Canada is proud to recognize the contributions of the construction workers who made the Rideau Canal a reality," said Minister Kent. "These workers, the majority of whom were Irish immigrants or French Canadian, worked in extremely difficult and dangerous conditions and hundreds paid for it with their lives. The significant contribution of the canal workers to Canadian history deserves to be recognized for the benefit of future generations of Canadians."

With this recognition, the contributions of the Rideau Canal construction workers will be commemorated within Canada's family of national historic sites, persons and events, designated on the recommendation of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC). During its discussion, the HSMBC noted the need to reflect on how the construction workers' story fits into the commemoration of the Rideau Canal in all its complexity. Larger-than-usual plaques and interpretive panels will be erected at two prominent locations along the canal to tell the story of the Rideau Canal and the construction workers who made it a reality.

"The Rideau Canal is one of the main reasons Ottawa is today the capital of a G-8 nation," said the Honourable John Baird, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs. "We owe those responsible for the Canal's construction an immense debt of gratitude and respect."

Parks Canada has begun the process to create the plaques and interpretive panels that will help visitors to the Rideau Canal to understand its complex history, including the noteworthy contributions of the construction workers in bringing this monumental achievement through to completion.

"The workers are integral to the story of the Rideau Canal, which is why I decided that the original designation should be expanded to honour their contributions," added Minister Kent. "I look forward to a formal commemoration ceremony in the coming months with representatives of the various communities who contributed to making this a reality."

Built between 1826 and 1832, today the Rideau Canal is a National Historic Site as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site managed by Parks Canada for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations.

The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada was established in 1919 and is supported by Parks Canada. It advises the Minister of the Environment regarding the national significance of places, persons and events that have marked Canada's history. On behalf of the people of Canada, Parks Canada manages a nationwide network that makes up a rich tapestry of Canada's historical heritage and offers the public opportunities for real and inspiring discoveries.

For additional information, please see the accompanying backgrounder at under Media Room.


Recognizing the Contributions of the Rideau Canal Workers

The Rideau Canal was first designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1925. Since then, the canal has been the focus of a great deal of historical research that has thrown considerable new light on the canal's significance and meaning in Canadian history. The contributions of the workers who built the canal were not formally recognized in the original designation. In 2006, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada was asked to consider the contributions of the workers for designation as an event of national historic significance. In its deliberations, the Board felt that the contributions of the workers were integral to the story of the Rideau Canal and therefore recommended that the original designation be expanded to reflect their work. The Rideau Canal and its builders will be commemorated with two plaques and accompanying interpretive panels to be installed at prominent locations along the canal.

The Rideau Canal

Built between 1826 and 1832, the Rideau Canal is the only canal to have survived largely intact and remain fully operational from the great canal-building era of early 19th-century North America. The Rideau Canal exemplified the cutting edge of canal design because of its innovative "slackwater" approach and its ability to accommodate steam-powered vessels. It secured a transportation route from Lower Canada through the Great Lakes by providing an alternate and more defensible route to that along the St. Lawrence River. While built primarily for military reasons, the Rideau Canal also served a social and economic function. Until the 1850s, it was a key artery for the movement of goods and people in and out of Upper Canada/Canada West and, though its military importance declined as cross-border tensions eased in the second half of the 19th century, it continued to serve a commercial purpose for communities along its route until the 1930s. Since then, the canal has been largely used for recreational purposes. As well as being a National Historic Site, the Rideau Canal was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 2007.

The Workers

Built through a wilderness of bush, swamps, and lakes, the completion of the 202-km Rideau Canal was a monumental feat. Responsibility for the construction of the canal was largely undertaken by private contractors who bid on one or more of the 23 sections that were put out to tender. However, the physical work itself depended overwhelmingly on the indispensable labour of artisans and labourers whose contributions made the Rideau Canal a reality.

Each year, an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 workmen assembled at over two-dozen worksites along the long waterway. While some skilled workers, such as stonemasons or blacksmiths, were of English or Scottish descent, the great majority of the workforce were Irish and French Canadian labourers. They worked almost exclusively with hand tools such as axes, picks, and shovels, supplemented only by the aid of animals for heavy hauling. Toiling 12 to 16 hours a day, six days a week in summer - and, in some cases, working at quarrying and tree felling in winter - the labourers cleared the bush, excavated lock pits and channels, helped masons to quarry stone, erected wooden weirs and bridges, and built rubble embankments and masonry locks and dams.

The most serious threat to the well-being of the workers was disease. On the Rideau, the chief problem was "ague" or swamp fever, since diagnosed by medical historians as malaria. Suffering from malaria or through injury in their work, large numbers of Irish and workers of other backgrounds died during the construction of the canal. Some estimates put the number as high as 1,000, though no reliable statistics were kept.

In spite of the challenges, the workers and their employers successfully completed an extensive engineered canal system, which constituted one of the largest construction projects in 19th- century British North America. These labourers participated in the creation of a military engineering system of unprecedented complexity: the Rideau Canal.

Contact Information

  • Adam Sweet
    Press Secretary
    Office of the Minister of the Environment

    Media Relations
    Parks Canada