Defending the Canadas

In the War of 1812, American forces took up arms against the British Empire, shaking British military confidence and throwing Canada’s territorial security into question. The British rightfully feared that a successful invasion could push the American border north, effectively annexing Upper and perhaps even Lower Canada. The construction of the canal therefore began under the pretext of military necessity, with the goal of establishing a secure route for transporting personnel, munitions, food, and equipment between Montreal and Kingston. The new route spared soldiers a dangerous passage through the St. Lawrence River, which put them in plain view of the Americans.

Points of Interest

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Source: ‘Unknown Artist,“Sketch of the Canadas (II)”, The National Archives of the UK, MPGG1-71(1)

Duration: 45 seconds
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Military Posts in Upper and Lower Canada

Prior to the Rideau Canal’s construction, the St. Lawrence River along the American border was the British military’s primary means of transporting soldiers and supplies – an increasingly risky endeavour as tensions between the British and the Americans mounted in the early nineteenth century. As this map (drawn November 1840) depicts, the positions of the military posts in Upper and Lower Canada at the time of the canal’s construction made an alternate route from Kingston to Montreal far safer and more desirable.

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Source: Royal Sappers and Miners Uniform Jacket- Sgt. J. Coombs, 1820- 1830, wool & brass, Bytown Museum, M107.

Duration: 10 seconds
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Royal Sappers and Miners Uniform

Renowned as skilled tradesmen and artisans, the Royal Sappers and Miners were a division of the British military that specialized in engineering and technical projects. At By’s request, two companies of Royal Sappers and Miners – 162 men in all – arrived in Bytown during the summer of 1827. Given their engineering expertise and knowledge of certain trades, By originally intended the men to play a crucial role in the canal’s construction. Thanks to Bytown’s complete lack of law enforcement at the time, however, By’s skilled tradesmen were instead forced into the role of policing and guarding military property.

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Source: Unknown Artist, Shortt-Haydon Collection series, Queen’s University Archives, accession number V009-PGc-10-1523; “Bytown Barracks” [Animation]. Dr. Stephen Fai. Carleton Immersive Media Studio. 2012.

Duration: 28 seconds
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Bytown Barracks

The Bytown Barracks were built atop present-day Parliament Hill in 1827 to house military personnel working on the Rideau Canal project. Consisting of three small barracks made of rubble stone, one building was used as a temporary hospital, the second as lodging for the project’s service staff, and the third as accommodations for a detachment of 30 British infantrymen. With the arrival of the Royal Sappers and Miners in the summer of 1827, all three buildings were converted to barracks and a separate hospital building was commissioned.

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Photograph of a Royal Engineers plaqueEnlarge

Source: Royal Engineers’ Plaque, n.d., brass, Bytown Museum, N96 a,b.

Royal Engineers Plaque

This plaque bears the Royal Engineers’ motto, “Ubique,” Latin for “Everywhere Where Right and Glory Lead.” The Royal Engineers (which included the Royal Sappers and Miners), like other regiments under the Board of Ordnance, served all over the world alongside their compatriots in the British military and in the Commissariat

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Sketch depicting the first Camp BytownEnlarge

Source: John By (1826). © McCord Museum. M386. Drawing. First Camp, By-Town (Ottawa), Ontario.

First Military Camp at Bytown

The first military camp was set up on the south side of the Ottawa River, near where construction of the canal would begin. In this drawing, French-Canadian voyageurs secure canoes, transport provisions, clear the land, and start a fire. Military officers in the background gather around a makeshift table, consuming what is most likely a celebratory drink. The camp was only a temporary waystation for soldiers and labourers until a larger housing plan was created.

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