[Source: Dr. Alexander James Christie, Unknown Artist, Library and Archives Canada, accession number: MIKAN 2933576, C-115785]
Dr. Alexander James Christie
Dr. A. J. Christie, the canal’s resident physician, did what he could with limited resources as he travelled up and down the construction line. With only a handful of drugs at his disposal, Christie was often forced to resort to the archaic practices of bleeding and blistering to treat patients. In May of 1827, Christie’s notes indicate that he treated more than 1,200 men along the canal, with treatment times lasting as little as a day, or stretching to as many as 25 days. Christie also treated many of the women and children who had fallen sick, often at his own expense.
[Source: Mère Bruyère Typhus, Archives des Sœurs de la Charité d’Ottawa]
Caring for the Poor
At one site, to see a doctor cost one pound-a price within the reach of the military and upper class, but beyond the means of common labourers. After seeing his poorer labourers suffer without treatment, Lt. Col. By wrote a letter to the Board of Ordnance and proposed a system of health insurance similar to that established for military employees. The board denied By’s request out of fear that it would invoke litigation issues, as this type of insurance was never part of the original agreement struck with contractors. Most poor patients would have to wait until the arrival of the Grey Nuns in 1845: they were the first to offer free medical care for the sick and poor, as shown in this illustration.
[Source: Lumberman’s shanty – Interior view. Unknown Artist, Illustrated books, albums and scrapbooks, Library and Archives Canada, accession number: MIKAN 2952988, C-048663]
Lack of treatment, crowded living conditions, and long work hours increased the likelihood of labourers getting sick or being reinfected. In the spring of 1827, with the rainy season just around the corner, Lt. Col. By wrote to his superiors out of concern that the rags labourers used for bedding were insufficient. In this letter, he proposes distributing proper bedding to workers in the hopes it would help stave off further infections. By was granted his request, and ultimately distributed some 1,000 sets of new bedding. The bedding may have helped ease the suffering of some, but many continued to experience illness. After the construction was complete, many of the shanties were used by workers in the lumber trade. This image depicts the inside of a lumberman shanty from the 1870s which would have been similar to those used by canal workers.