AN ESTIMATED 1,000 IRISH LABOURERS AND THEIR CO-WORKERS DIED BUILDING THE RIDEAU CANAL
The Rideau Canal was built during 1826-1832 as part of a defence strategy so that troops could be moved quickly from Montreal to Kingston to defend Upper Canada from attacks coming from across the border. The bulk of the 202 km-long canal containing 47 locks and linking Ottawa and Kingston, was carved out of virgin forest and built using nitro-glycerine and primitive hand-held tools. It was a great engineering triumph. The bulk of the estimated 2-5,000 a year labour force was made up of recently arrived Irish labourers and French Canadians. Some estimate the total labour force including skilled workers as 60% Irish, 30% French Canadian and 10% Scottish workers.
Deaths by accidents were common but during the sick season, i.e. mid August till mid September. Malaria claimed the lives of an estimated 1,000 Irish workers, including the lives of their wives and children who had accompanied them. During the ‘sick’ season, French Canadians and Scottish workers went home, but recently arrived Irish immigrants had nowhere to go.
Most of the deaths occurred between Kingston and Newboro. This area contained extensive marsh areas, which are prime location for mosquitoes to breed. The Irish labourers were mainly used to clear this area and, because the mosquito spread the malaria from person to person, the death toll in this area was very high. Quinine, an effective remedy for malaria was expensive and only available to the Royal Sappers (i.e. British army engineers) and skilled workers (only 162 Sappers worked on the Rideau Canal). In May 1977 a plaque was erected to the 2 Sappers who died in Newboro, but no mention was made of the hundreds of Irish who died in the same area.
Because of the low wages, the labourers had a constant struggle to feed themselves and their families. They were employed by contractors, some of whom, through inexperience, where not good at their job, and as a result, periodically, the workers would not get paid for work they had completed. A painting at a Kingston Hospital erroneously depicts the Sappers and labourers working together to build the Rideau Canal. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Sappers were there mainly to keep order and to quell riots when the labourers demanded more humane working conditions.
The newly arrived Irish immigrants were totally unprepared for the weather extremes during summer and winter. Penniless and weakened from their recent long journey across the Atlantic and from exposure to the elements because promised accommodation was not provided, some of them lived in caves on the banks of the canal. Exploited by their employers through low wages and the high prices in the company stores, the labourers where very susceptible to illness.
Exact numbers of the labourers who died may never be known. This is partly due to the fact that Colonel By refused to keep track of the large numbers of labourers who died. He was afraid that new immigrant workers would not come to replace the sick and dying labourers working on the project if they knew large numbers of their fellow countrymen were dying under such horrendous working conditions.
In May 2000 the Kingston Irish Folk Club, Tir na nOg Irish Pub, Kingston Brewing Company and Ontario Public Service Employee Union erected the first monument anywhere along the length of the canal in memory of the labourers who died building the canal. It is a Memorial Drinking Water Fountain in Confederation Basin, across from Kingston City Hall, with the following inscription:
DRINK THIS WATER IN MEMORY OF AN ESTIMATED 1,000 IRISH LABOURERS AND THEIR CO-WORKERS WHO DIED BUILDING THE RIDEAU CANAL 1827-1832.
(This inscription also appears in the Irish language because it was the spoken language of most of those who perished during the canal construction.)
A commemoration was held at Chaffey’s locks in July 2001, in memory of over 100 Irish labourers who died building the Rideau Canal and were buried in a recently discovered gravesite at Chaffey’s Locks.
The second Rideau Canal monument, a Celtic Cross in memory of the estimated 1,000 Irish labourers and their co-workers who died building the Rideau Canal, was also erected in Kingston in November, 2002. The monument, made possible because of a grant from the Government of Ireland, was erected in Doug Fluhrer Park, located on Wellington Street. This 8-foot high granite Celtic Cross monument was erected by Kingston Irish Folk Club, Tir Na nOg Irish Pub, Kingston Brewing Co., City of Kingston and the Government of Ireland.
The Kingston Rideau Canal Celtic Cross monument, the first to be erected anywhere along the length of the Rideau Canal, could not have been erected without the personal efforts of Donal Denham, Charge d’Affaires of Ireland.
An interdenominational service and commemoration was held on the 23rd of November, 2002 at the newly erected Celtic Cross monument.
Wreaths were laid on behalf of Kingston Irish Folk Club (Kay Bonvie), Kingston Irish Famine Comm Assoc. (Anna Wilson), the Government of Ireland (Noreen O’Sullivan), the Government of Canada (Peter Milliken, MP), the Government of Ontario (John Gerretsen, MMP), Municipal Government (Councillor Steve Garrison), OPSEU local 431 (Maurice Broadfoot), OPSEU region 4 (Gavin Anderson), Knights of Columbus (Mike Foley), Campbell Monuments (Gary Foster) Harp of Tara (Jack Hickman), Brockville Irish Cultural Society (Elizabeth Leighton), Kingston Historical Society (Brian Osborne), Kirkpatrick’s (Ian Nicoles), and Tir na nOg Irish Pub (Jonathan Jaber).
Musicians at the Celtic Cross dedication ceremony included Dennis Wilson, Aralt Mac Giolla Chainnigh, Roger James, Raymond Laforest and Val Hamilton. Ellie Stuart and Ann Toman accompanied the wreath/flower layers to the Celtic Cross monument. The ceremony was enhanced by the presence of 4 Irish wolfhounds, Cleo and Caesar (owned and accompanied by Nancy & Mike Berry), plus Lady Brenna and Tempest (owned and accompanied by Phil Montgomery).
Kay Bonvie led the large number of people present in prayers for deceased members and families of the members of Kingston Irish Folk Club. Archbishop Spence, Rev Borden Purcell and Rev Howard Fraser blessed the monument. Neil Patterson gave a brief history of the Canal. Tony O’Loughlin asked for a minutes silence in memory of all those who died building the Rideau Canal including the estimated 1000 Irish labourers and their co-workers who were “often despised in life and forgotten in death “
OTTAWA RIDEAU CANAL CELTIC CROSS CHALLENGE
In 2001 a challenge was issued by Tony O’Loughlin, at an Irish gathering in Gentle Annies Pub organized by Kevin Dulley, to the Ottawa community to erect a Celtic Cross monument in the Ottawa area in memory of the estimated 1,000 Irish labourers and their co-workers, who perished in horrible working conditions while building the Rideau Canal. This challenge was accepted and eventually a committee was formed. Plans by the Ottawa Rideau Canal Celtic Cross committee, chaired by Sean Mc Kenny from the Ottawa and District Labour Council, to erect a Celtic Cross in Ottawa, were completed and on Sunday 27 June 2004 a Celtic Cross monument, the 3rd monument erected to the Rideau Canal workers, was unveiled and dedicated.
UPDATE ON MONUMENTS TO THE EST 1,000 IRISH LABOURERS AND THEIR COWORKERS WHO DIED BUILDING THE RIDEAU CANAL.
Kingston Irish Folk Club intends to erect more Celtic Cross monuments at various locations along the Rideau Canal including Kingston Mills, Jones Falls, and Chaffeys Lock.
These monuments are in addition to the memorial Drinking Fountain erected in May 2000 and the Rideau Canal Celtic Cross memorial erected in Doug Fluhrer Park in Nov 2002 and the plaques erected at Chaffeys lock in 2001.
A SPONSOR FOR A CELTIC CROSS AT KINGSTON MILLS IS NEEDED.
Estimated cost is $18,000. Your sponsorship or assistance in locating a sponsor would be greatly appreciated.
THE ‘DID YOU KNOW SERIES’ IS SPONSORED BY
KINGSTON IRISH FOLK CLUB (KIFC) TIR NA nOG IRISH PUB