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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 8

The Canals of Canada

by John P. Heisler

Canals and the Early Settlement of the Canadas


In any new country occupation of land by the settler is a prime necessity. The Canadian waterways, by making such occupation possible, played a significant role in opening up the country and in creating a viable society in the Canadas. At the conclusion of the American Revolution there were few if any roads west of Kingston. The St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes provided the only highway and a means of cheap transportation to the Loyalists moving into the area and settling in the vicinity of the military posts at Kingston, Niagara and Detroit.

A few years later, following the War of 1812, the Ottawa-Rideau waterway was planned as a military route linking Montreal and Kingston. At the same time it was decided to establish settlements along the proposed route. Disbanded soldiers and Scottish settlers assisted by the British government, of whom 250 settled at Perth in 1816, moved into the range of new townships laid out west of the Rideau River and an industrious and loyal population was soon settled throughout the townships. In 1818, 500 families were established at the village of Richmond; additional Scottish immigrants kept arriving and upwards of 5,000 people were by then settled along the Rideau.1 Two years later another 2,000 unemployed Scottish weavers and their families, assisted by the British government, settled in the Rideau district. It was hoped that from the retired officers and disbanded soldiers there would eventually be formed a military force capable of protecting this wide area back of the St. Lawrence.2

Clearly in this instance settlement was linked with defence. Moreover, there was an additional reason, also relating to defence, for encouraging immigrants to settle along the Rideau. The events of the War of 1812 had clearly shown that the inhabitants of the more distant parts of Upper Canada, especially those in the neighbourhood of Lake Erie, were unable either to participate in the general defence of the province or to defend their property against invading enemy forces. These people suffered heavy property losses from the enemy and, once the war was over, they sought compensation from the provincial government. As a result of this experience, some officials believed that in future it would be wiser to place the immigrants from Britain on lands at the military settlements rather than scatter them throughout the distant parts of the province.3 Once work was started on the Rideau Canal two companies of the Royal Sappers and Miners, each consisting of 81 men, were raised in England to work on the project. These companies arrived on the Rideau during the summer of 1827 and, following the completion of their work, were discharged in June 1831. Many of these men decided to settle along the canal route. "They and their descendants provided a thin chain of British settlers through the still untouched bush between Bytown and Kingston."4


After 1822 there was a revival in Great Britain of interest in colonial affairs and the subject of emigration received much attention. Plans were presented to the British government for the joint purpose of relieving distress in Britain and furnishing settlers for the colonies overseas by a state-fostered and -directed system of emigration. A special committee of the British House of Commons investigated the subject in 1826. The side of the question which held the most attraction for the propertied classes in Britain was that of getting rid of surplus population. The question whether indigent immigrants from the British Isles would make successful and resourceful settlers in Canada received little consideration. Numerous experiments in emigration were made between 1826 and 1832 resulting in a great migration of people overseas as indicated by the numbers of immigrants arriving at Quebec each year, as follows:5





In 1823 the Upper Canada assembly, recognizing the necessity for increased immigration if the province were to develop and prosper, entered into a prolonged debate on the subject. In a series of resolutions passed on 8 March to be forwarded to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, the assembly expressed its opinions regarding the factors which possibly hindered immigration and at the same time made suggestions as to how it might be encouraged.6 The assembly believed that in the past immigration had been retarded and diverted from the province, first by the great increase in fees for grants of land, and second by the system of location of immigrants whereby numbers of poor people were settled on portions of land distant from each other and remote from mills and roads so necessary for the comfort of settlers. The assembly believed that if the land of Upper Canada were to form a safe investment for capital it must be concentrated in order to be useful and not split up into non-productive units of clergy and crown reserves. The assembly held that a tract of 200 acres of land was really a moderate quantity for an industrious man with a family. Anything less was scarcely worth his occupation. On 29 December 1823, the assembly passed a further resolution to the effect "That immigration into the Province has been during the last two years, greatly retarded, and great numbers of British subjects arriving in Lower Canada have been passed into the United States of America."7 A few years later the development of necessary waterways and construction of roads spurred on immigration by opening up vast tracts of wilderness. A considerable number of immigrants came to the Canadas with the intention of buying land and becoming farmers and the majority of these settled in Upper Canada. Just how much capital such immigrants brought into the province is difficult to estimate. However, "official immigration reports gives figures of £250,000 and £600,000 as estimates of funds brought in by immigrants arriving at Quebec in 1831 and 1832 respectively."8

15 Locks at the Ottawa River end of the Rideau Canal, photographed about 1861. (Public Archives of Canada.)

16 Taken about 1862, this photograph of the lower end of the Rideau Canal shows the beginnings of construction of the Parliament Buildings. (Public Archives of Canada.)


Government works, especially large ones like the Rideau Canal financed entirely by the British government, afforded immediate employment for the indigent immigrants. The Duke of Richmond wrote to Bathurst in May, 1819, that Captain Mann was proceeding with the projected improvements on the Ottawa as far as the limited means of his own detachment would allow and that he (Richmond) intended from time to time to send Mann a certain number of labourers selected from the immigrants who would probably arrive during the summer and who would require immediate employment.9 Richmond believed that employment might be the means of preventing many immigrants from passing into the United States.10 Three years later (1822) in a letter to Bathurst, the Earl of Dalhousie urged the completion of the Grenville Canal on the Ottawa, adding that the work at present afforded employment to many hundreds of starving immigrants, thereby enabling them to settle along the Ottawa near the canal which would in turn greatly advance the settlement of the country between the Ottawa and Kingston, at that time an immense wilderness and forest.11 The following year, 1823, Dalhousie wrote again to Bathurst that 10,000 persons were arriving annually at Quebec, three-fourths of whom were literally paupers. The governor stated that society and country were becoming alarmed and that he had to grant immediate relief and try if possible to get employment for them, possibly on the canals.12 During the construction of the Rideau the contractors needed an immense labour force to do the vast amount of handwork required. A thousand labourers were advertised for at one time.13 In 1829 the canal gave work to 2,700 men, the large percentage being Irish immigrants who for one reason or another were not prepared to go immediately upon the land.14 Still later, two shiploads of Irish immigrants were brought out by Peter Robinson. These people worked on the Rideau Canal and settled along the banks of the river. As one early traveller in the Canadas reported,

The Rideau Canal has annually employed two thousand labourers since 1826, and has been of incalculable benefit to the pauper immigrants; for they seldom remained at the works above a year; but in that time they gained a knowledge of the country, and the kind of work they would have to perform in clearing land for their own farms. Some of the Irish labourers are very troublesome characters; they even threatened on several occasions to shoot the officers superintending and directing the works. "I'll fix my flint for you in the fall! I'll knock the navigation out of ye!" were expressions sometimes employed when they were threatened with punishment or dismissal.15

Not only did the Rideau Canal afford employment to the pauper immigrants, it also presented the settler in the adjacent military townships with a ready market for surplus produce, employment, and at no cost to him, with much needed roads constructed to assist in the building of the canal.

During this period, lack of roads throughout the province meant that internal navigation afforded the principal means of transportation and opening up of the interior. Hence the Welland Canal became an important factor in the growth of Upper Canada. Like the Rideau it stimulated, economically and socially, the area adjacent to it. Small communities stretching along its banks prospered as the canal made water-power available for mills of all kinds. Industry set up along the canal route as well as on the rivers accessible to the canal. One colonization scheme, hoping to make a settlement on the banks of the Rideau Canal, urged that its plan would, by increasing the population, greatly enlarge the business of the canal.16

Besides affording employment to the indigent immigrant, canal construction created a demand for the importation of skilled labour from Britain. Starting with the Cornish miners who were brought from England to do the rock-cutting on the small military canals constructed on the St. Lawrence by the Royal Engineers in the period 1779-83, this trend continued with the construction of the military canals on the Ottawa along with the Lachine, Rideau, Welland and Cornwall canals. Engineers and stone-masons, along with accounting clerks, were among those brought out. Phillpotts reported in 1840 that the necessary enlargement of the Welland Canal to accommodate large steamers could be completed in three years after it had been properly commenced, "provided an adequate number of workmen can be procured for the purpose of carrying it on properly; which can only be done by encouraging emigration on a large scale."17

So long as public works like canals, roads and buildings were under construction, there was employment for the immigrant and an inducement for him to remain in the province. In 1832 over 50,000 persons disembarked on the St. Lawrence, yet at that time the demand for labourers exceeded the supply.18 Three years later it was estimated that at least 20,000 men would be required for public works. These works, however, were mainly connected with transportation and military establishments and themselves gave little permanent employment once they were completed.19 In 1840 the government of Upper Canada decided upon the further expenditure of public money toward the completion of various public works likely to be immediately advantageous both with a view to accommodating the public and to the employment of immigrants then arriving and still expected to arrive.20 Two years later a select committee of the British House of Commons investigating unemployment and poverty suggested government aid for emigration along with the development of public works for Canada which would enable the colony to take in 50,000 persons annually.21 In the same year, however, immigrants and casual labourers were hard hit when work on the Lachine and Grenville canals was quickly finished while that on the Welland Canal and some of the roads did not develop.22

For those seeking work there was available, besides employment on public projects and hiring themselves out as labourers in the lumber industry, employment offered by the older settlers. The prevailing system of settlement in the Canadas, particularly Upper Canada, was that of finding the settlers employment with pioneer farmers for the first season at least. This enabled the immigrant to learn how to clear land, cultivate it and erect a cheap habitation. He would then start upon what was termed a bush farm.23 Throughout this period, however, one of the principal and persistent difficulties connected with the emigration problem in Canada was the lack of capital on the part either of the agricultural class or of those who might have developed the industry of the country. The consequence was that regular employment was altogether inadequate when compared with the numbers seeking it — people who for one reason or another could not themselves go directly upon the land.24


The public works undertaken in the Canadas prior to union were highly necessary for the development of the country and it would have been a mistake to construct them on a more limited scale. At the same time, the general development of the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada did not keep pace with their transportation facilities, It was difficult to build up the country with an impecunious body of settlers who, though physically capable, could hardly be expected to make encouraging progress when simply left face to face with the wilderness and possessing little else than their physical strength.

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