Working Conditions

Canal labourers faced harsh, dangerous working conditions, with each season bringing its own unique challenges. In the summer, extreme heat and vicious swarms of mosquitoes left workers bloodied, agitated, and even malarial; in the winter, extreme cold and snow brought such discomfort that free supplies of whisky were distributed to encourage men to keep working. Since each lock station was operated by a different private contractor with his own standards for workload, wages, and accommodations, workers often moved around in the hopes of finding an employer who offered better pay for less dangerous work. With such an abundance of cheap labour at their disposal, most contractors got away with offering low wages, gruelling work conditions, and no medical assistance, while charging workers a premium for room and board. Although steam power machines existed at the time and might have been a safer alternative, the abundance of labourers and their willingness to work for low wages made the machines a less desirable option.

Points of Interest

Painting of the lock at Davis Mill with men repairing the gates and wooden bottom of the lockEnlarge

[Source: Archives of Ontario, C 1-0-0-0-51. Thomas Burrowes fonds. Repairing the Lock at Davis Mill in Winter [1843].]

Winter Working Conditions

During the hot and humid conditions of the summer months, labourers often toiled for fourteen to sixteen hours a day, six days a week. Manual work was often mundane, repetitive, and of course dangerous. While some work sites closed for the winter, Thomas McKay, who was awarded the masonry contract for the first eight locks in Bytown, along with his partner John Redpath, were known to keep their sites open during the cold winter months. The painting above depicts a lock at Davis Mills being manually repaired in the wintertime.


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[Source: T.W. J Connolley, History of the Royal Sappers and Miners [microform] : from the formation of the corps in March 1772 to the date when its designation was changed to that of Royal Engineers in October 1856, London : Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans and Roberts, 1857, Carleton University Library, FC18.C15.N.16766]

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Military Men Killed While Working on the Rideau

While some historical accounts claim that most construction accidents and fatalities could be blamed on the lack of skill and discipline of the Irish labourers, even specially trained military workers were not immune to injury or death during blasting. At one site, blasting accidents killed six of the 21 Royal Sappers and Miners stationed there-a particularly stark illustration of just how inconsistent and unpredictable explosive materials were at the time.

Watercolour showing Lt. Col. By watching the building of the Rideau CanalEnlarge

[Source: Colonel By Watching the Building of the Rideau Canal, 1826. Charles William Jefferys, Imperial Oil Collection series, Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1972-26-795, C-073703]

Lt. Col. By Overseeing Construction of the Rideau Canal

There was a clear division between craftsmen and labourers as the canal was being built. While the former were in short supply and commanded respect for their trade skills, the latter were largely treated as expendable workers who could easily be replaced by a long line of others willing to take their jobs. Labourers’ wages depended on the contractor in charge of their work site, but were usually barely adequate to survive on. If room and board were included, wages dropped even lower, and workers were often bound to restrictive contracts that withheld payment until the specified work term was completed. Unable to read or write, some workers signed these contracts with an “X,” having only a vague idea of the terms to which they were committing.

Living Conditions» Making the Voyage«