After a six-year campaign to secure official recognition for the Irish workers who lost their lives building Canada’s Rideau Canal, author and activist Kevin Dooley was happy to share the news that Canadian Minister for the Environment Peter Kent, whose department oversees Parks Canada, has confirmed that the workers’ legacy will be honored.
One hundred and thirty-two miles in length, the Rideau Canal stretches from Montreal, Quebec to Kingston, Ontario. Its construction, from 1826 to 1832, brought thousands of immigrant workers, a great number of whom were Irish, to the Ottawa Valley, forever changing the region’s physical and cultural landscape.
Approximately 4,000 laborers toiled each year to bring the canal to completion, and as many as 100,000 people living in the area today are thought to be descendants of the canal workers.
When Rideau received its UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2007, Dooley, a Mullingar, Co. Westmeath native who settled in the Ottawa Valley in the late 1970s, formally requested that the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, which has sanctioned other monuments and plaques, including one of the canal’s designer, Lt. Col. John By, recognize the close to 1,000 workers and their family members who died over the course of the canal’s construction. Three years later, his move to nominate the workers for recognition was denied in a letter from HSMBC, stating that what the workers achieved was “a typical and common form of labor at the time. It was not unusual, nor was it remarkable,” and that they were of “no national historic significance.”
Following numerous complaints from descendants of the laborers and consistent coverage by the Ottawa Citizen, the HSMBC and Parks Canada agreed to re-consider. Minister Kent’s announcement in early November offered a different take on the merit of the Rideau Canal workers. In a news release, recognized that the laborers “worked in extremely difficult and dangerous conditions, and hundreds paid for it with their lives.
“The workers are integral to the story of the Rideau Canal,” he continued, “which is why I decided that the original designation should be expanded to honor their contributions.”
For Dooley, who has spearheaded the campaign, the victory is especially meaningful. He told Irish America, “This official designation in recognition of our Irish ancestors who built the early canals and infrastructure in Canada and North America – and paid dearly for it, in blood, sweat and tears – ensures that they will never be forgotten again. They will always be an inspiration to us.”