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Canada and the Rideau Canal
Ken W. Watson

Note: This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2017 edition of Rideau Reflections, the newsletter of the Friends of the Rideau (

Our Flag Among the Pines
Our flag flies proudly among the tall pines on Newboro Lake (photo by: Ken W. Watson)

This year, as Canada celebrates its 150th birthday, the Rideau Canal enters its 186th year of operation. It’s a time to both look back and to look forward at what the Rideau Canal means to Canada.

We are a young nation, continuing to evolve. As with all nations, our Canadian culture and identity is rooted in our past. There are very few things that we can look at today that directly speak to that evolution into nationhood. The Rideau Canal is an element from our past that operates today much as it did when first built. It’s not a diorama in a museum, it’s the real deal, and it speaks directly to our journey into becoming an independent nation.

The Rideau is first and foremost a waterway, one that has seen continuous use by humans since shortly after the glaciers retreated and the Champlain Sea drained about 10,000 years ago. The lakes and rivers of the Rideau were attractive fishing and hunting grounds, we have direct archaeological evidence of humans on the Rideau dating back at least 8,000 years.

By the time of European colonization of North America, the Rideau was both a significant native summer hunting and fishing area, and a travelway between the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers. A few physical elements of that travelway still exist on the Rideau today, such as portions of the old native portage around what was formerly the extensive rapids at Jones Falls.

Rapids along the Rideau provided power for European technology; sawmills and grist mills. The King’s Mills at Cataraqui Falls, built in 1784, were the second saw and grist mills built in Ontario. Those government mills were followed by entrepreneurs bringing mill irons into the wilderness and setting up their own mills at places such as Merrickville and Morton. Settlers, United Empire Loyalists from the U.S. and immigrants from the British Isles and Europe, were arriving in every increasing numbers. The Rideau region was turning into a frontier.

War with the recently formed United States, in 1812- 14, sparked a military need for a safe supply route to the naval base at Kingston, which meant a canal to allow the passage of larger boats. The military elements of the Rideau Canal, the blockhouses and defensible lockmaster’s houses that we can see today, speak directly to our very rocky early relationship with the U.S.

The Rideau Canal played a significant role in shaping the demographics of Ontario with thousands of loyal British settlers travelling into then Upper Canada via the Rideau Canal in the 1830s and 40s. And of course it was directly responsible for the founding of Bytown, later named Ottawa. In 1857 when Queen Victoria was asked to choose the capital for the Province of Canada, she picked Ottawa. Of the several reasons for this decision, the Rideau Canal was a major factor, since it provided a direct waterway connection to the new capital from both the former Upper and Lower Canadas.

The commercial use of the Rideau, thousands of barges travelling up and down every year, provided the basis for community development – products could be easily shipped to markets far and wide. We even see rocks from the Rideau (apatite), barged to Kingston and then down the St. Lawrence to Montreal and shipped to England for use as fertilizer.

As commercial use waned in the late 1800s, the Rideau was transitioning into a recreational waterway. Summer homes and cottages were starting to be built on Rideau lakes by the late 1870s. Canadians were just starting to have leisure time available to them and were taking advantage of all the wonderful outdoor activities the Rideau could provide. We were again being invaded by Americans, but this time as tourists, with resorts being built on the Rideau to accommodate them. The evolution of communities along the Rideau reflected this change in usage.

When Canada celebrated its 100th birthday in 1967 there was much reflection on our past and a recognition of the significant contribution made to our nation by the Rideau Canal. That put machinery in motion that directly led to the transfer of the Rideau Canal to Parks Canada in 1972, due to the heritage value it represented to Canada and the need to protect and present that heritage. Now in the 21st century, in our age of virtual communication and increasing urbanization, the Rideau Canal serves as a physical reminder of the early development of our nation – you can step into the past at any lockstation, see and touch those elements that helped shape what we are today.

The Rideau Canal remains relevant to Canada on many levels, from its continued significant economic contribution to the communities in the Rideau Corridor to its authenticity as a heritage site, one with “universal values” (our UNESCO World Heritage Site designation) which speaks directly to the many stories of our past and our development as the nation of Canada.

I’ll add some wonderful words written by Sheila Fraser, Canada’s former Auditor General, about Canada’s National Historic sites, including the Rideau Canal, and why we should care about them.

“These places recall the lives and history of the men and women who built this country, and they foster awareness of how Canadian society evolved. They help us to better understand the present and prepare for the future. They contribute in important ways to Canadians' sense of belonging to their community.”

The Rideau Canal, if properly preserved and presented, will continue to remind us of our rich past as we move into Canada’s bright future.

-Ken W. Watson

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©1996- Ken W. Watson