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 wit Read More
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. All Rights Reserved.

Photo of the Bytown Museum and Rideau Canal Locks, 2006

One of the first buildings John By built was the Commissary, today the Bytown Museum and the oldest masonry structure in Ottawa. It is located to the left of the step locks in this photo, with the Ottawa River and the Canadian Museum of Civilization in the background.

National Capital Commission
c. 2006
© National Capital Commission. All Rights Reserved.


Photo of the Rideau Canal locks, 2007

From the lowest level, the locks appear to climb the hillside like a staircase. The Fairmont Château Laurier (left) is a hotel; the Bytown Museum (right) is housed in a building that John By constructed. The winches that open and close each lock are in the foreground.

National Capital Commission
c. 2007
© National Capital Commission. All Rights Reserved.


The British government was worried about disruptions to their supply lines if a war with America broke out. Using library and Internet resources, find out why the British were worried about this. Did they have a strong case? Argue your opinion in a short paper outlining the British position and exploring any alternatives to a massive construction project like the Rideau Canal.
The British government was worried about disruptions to their supply lines if a war with America broke out. Using library and Internet resources, find out why the British were worried about this. Did they have a strong case? Argue your opinion in a short paper outlining the British position and exploring any alternatives to a massive construction project like the Rideau Canal.

© National Capital Commission. All Rights Reserved.

Is the Rideau Canal used today? Draw a map of the canal from Kingston to Ottawa and include the types of activities that visitors can experience along the way. Imagine the region 50 years from now. What would the canal be like in the future?
Is the Rideau Canal used today? Draw a map of the canal from Kingston to Ottawa and include the types of activities that visitors can experience along the way. Imagine the region 50 years from now. What would the canal be like in the future?

© National Capital Commission. All Rights Reserved.

In his lifetime, Colonel John By went from hero to villain. Remembering his ingenuity and dedication can be done in many ways, from monuments to special events. As a class, discuss the pros and cons of permanent monuments versus more transient events or commemorations. With a small group, propose an event, monument or other commemoration to celebrate By’s achievements.

Alternative activity: Many others helped Colonel By, including the labourers who built the canal and the Royal Engineers who came up with solutions to the various technical challenges. Propose a method to commemorate their achievements.
In his lifetime, Colonel John By went from hero to villain. Remembering his ingenuity and dedication can be done in many ways, from monuments to special events. As a class, discuss the pros and cons of permanent monuments versus more transient events or commemorations. With a small group, propose an event, monument or other commemoration to celebrate By’s achievements.

Alternative activity: Many others helped Colonel By, including the labourers who built the canal and the Royal Engineers who came up with solutions to the various technical challenges. Propose a method to commemorate their achievements.

© National Capital Commission. All Rights Reserved.

Capital cities around the world are selected for numerous reasons. As a class, brainstorm some of them. Some cities are created specifically to be capitals, others are the oldest or most successful cities in the country. Think about why Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the capital What other cities were considered? Imagine that a new capital was needed for Canada. Divide into five or six groups. Choose a potential city such as Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montréal or Halifax, or suggest another location (including a purpose-built capital) and, as a team, argue the benefits and potential of your city. How do you think a decision should be made?
Capital cities around the world are selected for numerous reasons. As a class, brainstorm some of them. Some cities are created specifically to be capitals, others are the oldest or most successful cities in the country. Think about why Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the capital What other cities were considered? Imagine that a new capital was needed for Canada. Divide into five or six groups. Choose a potential city such as Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montréal or Halifax, or suggest another location (including a purpose-built capital) and, as a team, argue the benefits and potential of your city. How do you think a decision should be made?

© National Capital Commission. All Rights Reserved.

Building the Rideau Canal involved many engineering firsts. Research the scientific aspects of building the canal and present them to the rest of your class. Preserving our history is an important way not only to remember the past, but also to learn from it. Research UNESCO world heritage sites. What types of sites receive the designation? Are there any near your community? In a short paper, discuss a Canadian UNESCO heritage site, and outline why it received the designation.
  1. Building the Rideau Canal involved many engineering firsts. Research the scientific aspects of building the canal and present them to the rest of your class.
  2. Preserving our history is an important way not only to remember the past, but also to learn from it. Research UNESCO world heritage sites. What types of sites receive the designation? Are there any near your community? In a short paper, discuss a Canadian UNESCO heritage site, and outline why it received the designation.

© National Capital Commission. All Rights Reserved.

Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • discover more about Canadian-US relations, particularly in the 19th century;
  • use mapping skills to outline an annotated journey;
  • find out more about planning a commemorative monument;
  • understand that a variety of places, including waterways and landscapes, can reflect aspects of heritage, history and culture.

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