Support for the Sick

Like many diseases, malaria didn’t discriminate when choosing its victims. In young Bytown, treatment options were limited and the medical system, which was being established, was not yet accessible to all residents. Class in particular played a prominent role in how medical care was distributed. Those who were part of the military payroll during the construction of the canal were entitled to a basic form of health insurance: a certain amount of their weekly pay was deducted so that, in the event they did get sick, their treatment would be covered. Contracted manual labourers and their families could rarely afford to be seen by a doctor, let alone receive sustained treatment if needed. Worse still, the unsanitary, overcrowded living conditions and long work hours expected of the labourers increased the likelihood of getting sick or being reinfected.

Points of Interest

Portrait of Dr. Alexander James ChristieEnlarge

[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.

Sketch of Mère BruyèreEnlarge

[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.

Sketch of a lumberman’s shanty (interior view)Enlarge

[Source: Lumberman’s shanty – Interior view. Unknown Artist, Illustrated books, albums and scrapbooks, Library and Archives Canada, accession number: MIKAN 2952988, C-048663]

Lumberman Shanty

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.

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