Canada to finally recognise 19th century labourers

Thousands of Irish labourers who worked, suffered and died in a massive 19th century construction project in Canada have finally been acknowledged.

The workers mostly from south Munster, toiled alongside French-Canadians in carving, through an unforgiving wilderness of bush, rock, swamps and lakes the 202-km Rideau Canal.

The amenity between Ottawa and Kingston had been completed during the period 1826-32.

More than a thousand workers reportedly died during the project which was sparked by a fear of invasion by America. But it helped to establish Ottawa as the nation’s capital.

Canadian environment minister Peter Kent says the workers efforts will be formally recognised as “historically significant”.

The announcement followed a six-year campaign in which Canada’s Historic Sites and Monuments Board initially rejected appeals for such recognition, arguing the work represented a typical form of labour at the time that was neither unusual nor remarkable.

However, a torrent of public criticism persuaded a reversal and two plaques either end of the canal will now be installed to honour the workers.

Amid fears of on America invasion via the St Lawrence River, Britain designed the Rideau Canal in 1812 as an alternative inland supply line.

When construction began under the supervision of Lieutenant Colonel John By, 2,000 French and British stonemasons and 6,000 mostly Irish navvies signed up to the task. One in six did not live to see the job finished.

Working 15-hour days, six days a week, most died from disease, others from floods, mudslides and falling trees and gunpowder blasts. Pay was poor, medical attention virtually non-existent and victims were simply buried where they fell.

Deemed one of the world’s greatest engineering feats, the canal was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2007. It features 50 dams, 47 limestone locks and 22 lock stations and is the oldest continuously operating canal in North America.

Much credit for acquiring official recognition for the workers lies with Kevin Dooley, an Irish author and musician from Mullingar who settled in Canada in 1977. The former machinist and marine engineer co-founded the Rideau Canal Celtic Cross Committee which, supported by Ottawa organisations such as Comhaltas Ceolteoiri, the Knights of Columbanus, the Anglican Church and the Francophone community, erected a giant cross, in 2006, in memory of the labourers.

“As an Irish immigrant and an injured worker myself, these men and women resonate with me,” he said, while welcoming the official recognition.

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