As the population of the United Kingdom ballooned and job opportunities plummeted in the early 1800s, government recruitment programs targeted those who might be willing to start a new life in Canada. In addition to offering financial incentives, recruiters circulated guidebooks that were both a primer and propaganda for life in the New World. What type of soil, weather, and working methods one could expect were included in this material, as were hearty reassurances that the chances of getting lost in the woods were relatively low. Recruiters were also sent to lower-class communities to solicit emigrants – a tactic often necessary with the illiterate poor who were unable to read the promotional materials. But for all the work these recruitment efforts did in painting an idealistic portrait of the many opportunities available in Canada, the reality that awaited most new Canadians – especially those who became involved in the canal’s construction – was far from picture-perfect.

Points of Interest

A cartoon from the Canadian Illustrated News depicting the arrival of immigrants to CanadaEnlarge

[Source: Come To Stay. Henri Julien, Illustrated books, albums and scrapbooks, Library and Archives Canada, accession number: MIKAN 2914941, C-075551]

Diverse Immigration

As this illustration depicts, three types of immigrants were the most common to Bytown. Some were from the British military, tasked with initiating and overseeing the canal’s construction and policing the fledgling community; some were impoverished (mostly Irish) labourers, desperate for work and better living conditions; and some were members of the British upper class, who viewed Bytown as an opportunity to be part of a prosperous new settlement.

Watercolour of The King’s Wharf, Québec CityEnlarge

[Source: The King’s Wharf. Fanny Amelia Bayfield, Fanny Amelia Bayfield fonds. Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1989-287-12, C-002671]

King’s Wharf ca. 1827-1841, Quebec City, Quebec

By 1817, a decade prior to the canal’s construction, emigration to North America was becoming more affordable, thanks in part to Quebec-bound timber ships offering cheap passage for prospective workers. Unlike new immigrants to the United States, who were forced to leave their families behind, each adult emigrating to Canada during this period was allowed to bring three children along. This may have played an important role in encouraging larger families to choose Canada over the United States as their new home. The painting above ca. 1827-1841 shows an active harbour known then as King’s Wharf in Quebec City, Quebec.

Map showing the percentage distribution of immigrants from the different regions of IrelandEnlarge

[Source: Irish at the Rideau Canal, 1829, percentage distribution of petitioners by country of origin. © 2002 Genealogical Society.]

Origins of Irish Immigrant Workers of the Rideau Canal

This map highlights the many different regions of Ireland from which Rideau Canal workers originated. As Peter Robinson recounted after being sent to Ireland on a recruitment mission in 1823, aggressive salesmanship was often needed to convince the Irish to emigrate to Canada: “I began to advertize for emigrants and to distribute copies of the terms on which the Government was disposed to send them to Canada, before the end of the month I had distributed 600 tickets for embarkation, a greater number than I could have taken, but I acted on the presumption that some would keep back from sickness or imaginary fears and apprehensions or the advice of friends.” Robinson presumed correctly: of the 600 tickets he distributed, only 460 were eventually claimed.

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