Irish Memorial

The Rideau Canal closed up last week, marking the longest open skating season in recorded history. A lengthy season brings with it more time for friends and family to experience the world heritage site, employment for seasonal businesses and an increase in tourism for the area. 

“Every Rideau Canal Skateway season is a partnership with nature and winter,” said Dr. Mark Kristmanson, chief executive officer of the NCC. “Ideal weather conditions, combined with 45 years of ice maintenance expertise, allowed residents and visitors to enjoy an unprecedented 59 consecutive days of skating. NCC staff, the maintenance crews, skate patrol and concessionaires were proud to welcome the tens of thousands who visited and gave us all a season to remember,” according to the NCC's website. 

After a season to remember, some people worry there is a history we may be forgetting.   

The canal was originally built as a supply route from Kingston to Montreal. In 1826, Lieutenant Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers was tasked to design the canal and to supervise its construction. Colonel By is now viewed as Ottawa’s founding father, and his presence is notable in the nation’s capital. 

Although the 'Canal Stones' plaque describes By as "The Builder of the Rideau Canal," he didn’t construct the canal by himself. Many immigrants—mostly Irish with some French-Canadians—spend years working in the trench, and some remain there. 

 

All along the sides of the canal bodies were dumped, graves remain unmarked, and the resting places of workers continue to be disturbed. From Kingston to Ottawa, there are numerous unmarked graves and many other resting places of workers who died from exhaustion, challenging working conditions and malaria. 

 

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One major disruption happened downtown at Major Hill’s Park. The beautiful park was once home to Colonel By, before his house burned and the remains were relocated.   

The view is one of the best in the city; looking down onto the opening of the most northern lock from the canal and across to the province of Quebec. 

But what you can’t see from the cliff is the Celtic cross, marking the burial grounds for the Irish workers who died right below. 

Tucked below Major's Hill Park sits a lone cross to commemorate the workers who died building the canal.
A pick and shovel, a mosquito, a wheel barrow and an explosion represent the different challenges the workers faced.

Bryan Daly, President of the Irish Society for the National Capital Region, believes there is more to be done to recognize those who died building the canal. 

 

Bryan Daly

The difficulty Daly is talking about refers to Kevin Dooley's fight to get a plaque along the canal that would recognize the Irish workers. 

 

It has been a year and a half since Irish-Canadian Kevin Dooley was able to present the city with a plaque commemorating the efforts of those who died building the canal. Dooley is a labour activist and has been fighting since 2006, trying to convince the City of the value of these plaques. 

 He was turned down more than once with challenges of the importance of 1000 people’s deaths, says Daly. 

After his hard work, there is now a plaque that does mention the Irish.

"Each year, as many as 5,000 workers, mainly Irish immigrants and French Canadians, toiled under the supervision of civil contractors and the Royal Engineers. Working in extremely difficult conditions, they endured injury and, and hundreds died."

"It ended in 1832 and there was no recognition of the contribution...and this is how many years later," says Daly. 

Daly believes more can still be done, proposing memorials at each of the lock sites so people can read about the entire history of the Rideau Canal. 

So while you walk home along our UNESCO World Heritage site on St. Patrick’s Day, take a moment to remember those who are below you, and above. 

 

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