26 March 2009

Labourers on the Rideau Canal

The launch of this new book took place on Tuesday evening, accompanied by a generous helping of Irish music, poetry and good humour.

Labourers on the Rideau Canal tells the story of the people involved in its construction, not the engineering achievement it represented which has been Parks Canada's normal approach.

It's in three main parts. William Wylie from Parks Canada contributes a chapter "Poverty, Distress and Disease: Labour and the Construction of the Rideau Canal 1826 - 1832." Katherine McKenna writes on "Working Life at the Isthmas, Rideau Canal, 1827-1831." Bruce Elliott's chapter is "Tracing Your Rideau Canal Ancestors: Records of Labourers, Squatters and Tenants on the Rideau Canal."

It's the final chapter that will be of most interest to those researching their Rideau Canal ancestors. Although many people claim canal workers as ancestors most of those employed on the project, including more than 1,000 thought to have died, remain unidentified. But this chapter goes beyond the construction phase to cover records for people involved with the canal, or who lived adjacent to it, after construction. There is an amazing wealth of records, including some that mention Bruce's ancestors and that he only found out about after years working in the field.

It seems clear that the majority of workers on the Canal were not of Irish origin, although the Irish probably suffered disproportionately.

The book, which contains some nice reproductions of early canal watercolours by Thomas Burrowes, is published by Borealis Press. There's more information here.

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