Canada’s Capital and the Rideau Canal: The Irish Connection

My remarks for the Annual Commemoration at the Rideau Canal for those whose labours created this wonderful feat of engineering and the many hundreds of Irish and other emigrants who died in its construction. The commemoration is held on the first Monday of August, organized by the Irish Society of the National Capital Region in association with the Bytown Museum. Lieutenant-Colonel John By was the military engineer in charge of construction. It was an engineering masterpiece, as can be seen to this day. However allegations of budget overruns unfairly cost him his reputation. His legacy and that of all of those who helped build it is not only the canal. Without the canal there would be no Ottawa. He constructed a town for the workers which became Bytown. When Queen Victoria had to chose a capital for the Province of Canada in 1857 she faced a tricky choice. The provincial capital had since the creation of the Province in 1841 bounced from Kingston to Montreal, to Toronto, to Quebec, reflecting the inherent political turbulence of relations between the English and the French of Canada. The Province was split between the Anglophone and Francophone worlds. The great and good of Canada had deadlocked on a choice for the capital and with it the building of a parliament. It was left to the ‘Queen’s choice’. To the dismay of many, she boldly but wisely chose Ottawa, a small and rough town dominated by the lumber trade. Far from the threat of a US invasion, defensible and connected to much of the Province via the four valleys of the Ottawa, Gatineau, Rideau and St Lawrence, Ottawa was half-way between Anglo Toronto and French Quebec. John By certainly deserves the various landmarks in Ottawa called after him, most notably the lively Byward Market. In honoring him, we remember those who laboured in the mud and rock to turn his engineering expertise into reality. Canada owes them all their capital city.

A dhaoine uaisle, Ladies and Gentlemen, Dia dhaoibh go leir.

I am pleased to be with you all today for this important annual commemoration of those Irish workers and their families who tragically lost their lives during the construction of the Rideau Canal.

I would like to thank all those involved in organising this event today, particularly Sean Kealey, President of the Irish Society of the National Capital Region.  Thanks too to our MC Clare O’Connell Noon and piper Bethany Basillion.

I would like to welcome  Sean McKenny, President of the Ottawa & District Labour Council: and Robin Etherington, Executive Director of Musée Bytown Museum.

As we can see here today, the Rideau Canal is a wonderful piece of civil engineering.  We marvel at its ingenuity, at the harnessing of the power of water.  Looking at the locks lifting and lowering boats is almost hypnotic.

Today it is used for pleasure craft.  But when it was conceived and constructed it was designed as a strategic part of the defence of Canada against an attack from the United States.

The canal also formed a key link in Ottawa’s economic life, enabling the transportation of heavy goods from the Ottawa catchment to Lake Ontario, the St Lawrence and from there to the wider world.

If we were to build it today, we could all imagine the massive machinery involved, the heavy equipment, and the safety standards to protect workers.

It is virtually impossible for us to imagine constructing this with human labour alone.  Yet every load of soil, every stone hoisted, was moved by human energy and muscle at some point in its journey.

That energy and muscle was provided by emigrants and many of those were from Ireland. 

They came to Canada from an impoverished Ireland.  They came to build better lives for themselves and their families. 

Often too they sent money home.  These remittances sometimes made the difference between life and death.

They earned that money anyway that they could, often working in the most brutal and dangerous of environments. 

In many ways, their story is a timeless one.  It is, too often, still the story of immigrants today around the world. 

When work began on the Rideau Canal in 1826, it provided employment for thousands of Irish immigrants for the following six years.

The death rate here was high, as those workers succumbed to illnesses such as malaria and cholera.  Work-place accidents took a heavy toll.   

For those families left behind, such a death would be a disaster in a society that did not provide much if anything by way of support.

This Celtic Cross is a symbol of Ireland.  Its form dates back to the early Christian period beginning when St Patrick came to Ireland in the fifth century.

These crosses have always told stories, carved in stone.  This cross tells the story of the hundreds of people who died building this wonderful canal.

In helping to build it, they helped too to build Canada as a free, strong, and prosperous country.

It is right that we enjoy the canal today.  It is right too that we recall the price paid in human toil and toll in its construction.

Many more Irish would come to Canada and find shelter here and a new life.  Today, some 7 million Canadians have Irish ancestry, 14% of the population overall.  Some 40% of Quebecers have Irish ancestry. This cross reminds us of one part of that epic story. 

May all those who died here rest in peace.

Go n-eirí libh go leir.

Thank you.

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