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Guest Post: Recognizing the Rideau Canal Workers (1826-1832) December 26, 2012

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, The Left.
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Many thanks to JL for forwarding this on from Kevin Dooley, an Irishman working in Canada – his blog can be found here.

November 2nd, 2012 was an important day in Canada’s national heritage and working class history. Mr. Peter Kent, Minister of Parks Canada announced in Parliament that the workers – mainly Irish immigrants and French Canadians (along with British Scottish and Native Indians) who build the Rideau Canal (1826-1832) – would be formally recognized, as people of National Historical Significance.

The canal was designated a national historic site in 1925, but the workers were not then recognized. It was declared a world heritage site (UNESCO) in 2007, again with no definite worker recognition.

Canada is a huge country of many geographical regions and a harsh climate. It was colonized in the 17th century by French and British settlers, on Native Indian lands, literally stolen. Finally the British conquered all and it became, along with the America’s, a huge colonial area. The American victory of Independence did not affect ‘Colonial Canada’ and led to conflict between them, resulting in the war of 1812/1814. Colonial Canada now needed military defences and to prevent threatened annexation from the Americans, proposed a major military waterway on the Rideau River system. Lt.Col. John By of the Royal Engineers was given this task. It was to be a wartime project to be built at all speed and whatever the cost. It was intended to provide a secure supply and communications route between Montreal and the British naval base in Kingston. The area is one of waterways, of forests, massive granite formations, of virgin land in a harsh climate. It could only be hacked out by hand and crude explosives. For this work, large numbers of common labourers were needed – navvies – and a smaller work force of skilled masons and tradesmen. The navvies were mainly Irish Immigrants and local French Canadian farmers. The skilled workers were English soldiers and a much smaller number of Scottish settlers. These workers enjoyed a relatively privileged status and did not suffer the fates of the navvies.

The fate of the navvies was horrendous for Lt.Col. By could now draw on the poor and desperate of Munster coming over in large numbers. Ireland in those decades was in depression and crisis. All the conditions that led to the Great Famine of 1847 were then in place. The British Government changed the shipping laws to allow lumber ships returning to Canada, in ballast, to take on passengers very cheaply, at Waterford, often subsidized, these immigrants families were drawn into the Rideau Contracted Camps.

Their work was one of desperate, harsh, hazardous hand work in the crudest possible conditions imaginable; pay was poor, they were often cheated, as with food. Medical assistance was non-existent for them, though available for the soldiers and skilled workers. The navvies died on their feet in large numbers and were buried where they fell, in unmarked graves and in unconsecrated ground. A relay of massive accidents, rock slides, drownings, dysentery and deadly malaria ensured this. An estimated 1,000 workers died directly on the canal. How many more died off it, living in festering camps, with their families, is unknown. Evidence in documents show about 8,000 to 10,000 navvies worked on the canal. Today about 100,000 people in the canal’s region proudly claim ancestry of these workers.

The application from the Canal Workers Commemorative Group (CWCG) to Park’s Canada was thorough; the evidence was all there in the records, in Lt.Col.By’s own letters and papers. His spleen and that of his colleagues to the Irish workers in startling. This is the legacy of Irish navvies in British colonies wherever. The Rideau workers were the first of many, many layers still existing to this day. The navvies, along with their French Canadian and other immigrants helped build a huge country, one with a massive infrastructure and all in “blood, sweat and tears”.
The 123-mile long Rideau Canal, built as a military route and incorporating 47 locks, 16 lakes, two rivers, and a 360-foot-long (110 m), 60-foot-high (18 m) dam at Jones Falls is the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America.

Readers can visit kevindooleyauthor.blogspot.com and/or Parks Canada website at www.pc.gc.ca for further information and for some light on this long struggle for the workers recognition.

Kevin Dooley

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1. The Rideau Canal | Irish waterways history - December 26, 2012

[...] Cedar Lounge Revolution has an article about those who worked on the construction of the Rideau Canal in Canada in the 1820s and 1830s. Readers will, of course, recall that Charles Wye Williams [...]

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2. Does progress always have to be savage? « bluedeckshoe.com - January 21, 2013

[...] Guest Post: Recognizing the Rideau Canal Workers (1826-1832) (cedarlounge.wordpress.com) [...]

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