Can a stretch of water be a national symbol? If it’s the Rideau Canal, it can!

Defined by a series of 47 locks and two dozen dams, the Rideau Canal connects Kingston to the Ottawa River, a distance of more than 200 kilometres. Built between 1826 and 1832, it remains an engineering marvel, and the longest continuously operating waterway in North America — not to mention its winter transformation into the world’s largest ice rink!

But this UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site is more than just a series of facts and figures: the canal defined a nation, created a capital and symbolizes Canada’s dedication to preserving its historical past.

The city of Ottawa grew at the confluence of the Ottawa, Rideau and Gatineau rivers. Long used as transportation corridors by Aboriginal peoples, the waterways led into the vast hinterland of the Canadian Shield. After the War of American Independence, Britain feared that supply lines along the St. Lawrence River could be easily disrupted by any conflict with America. In 1826, the British government sent Colonel John By to build an alternative transportation route linking central Canada with the Atlantic, via Montréal.

Over the course of the next six years, Colonel By and his team of Royal Engineers mapped out a daring course through wilderness, swamp and tough Canadian Shield rock. French Canadian and newly immigrated Irish workers supplied most of the back-breaking labour. Accidents and illness claimed the lives of many.

The canal joined the Ottawa River with one last engineering miracle: the step locks just below what is now Parliament Hill. At the locks, the Rideau Canal is more than 24 metres above the river. Without a solution, the canal would have ended in a waterfall. Instead, By built a series of eight hand-winched step locks that raise and lower watercraft like a slow-moving escalator. Attempts to modernize the mechanism were met by the vocal opposition of the heritage community; today, the locks are still opened and closed by hand.

In creating a transportation corridor linking central and eastern Canada, John By accomplished the close-to-impossible. Surely his British taskmasters celebrated his military and engineering triumph? Unfortunately for By, unauthorized expenditures led the British government to blame him for canal cost overruns. Today, By is regarded as the ingenious hero who created Canada’s Capital, but his final years were spent attempting to clear his name of accusations of financial mismanagement.

Thanks to By’s tenacity and an influx of canal workers, the little lumber town on the shores of the Ottawa River became Bytown. By 1852, the growing community was renamed Ottawa and, a few short years later, Queen Victoria selected Ottawa as Canada’s capital. The queen had five cities to choose from: Toronto, Montréal, Kingston, Québec and Ottawa. But Ottawa’s advantages were clear: the city was on the boundary between Upper and Lower Canada; it was a safe distance from the U.S. border; and it was easily accessible, mostly because of the Rideau Canal.
National Capital Commission

© National Capital Commission. All Rights Reserved.

Teachers' Centre Home Page | Find Learning Resources & Lesson Plans