Replacement monument to Rideau Canal workers unveiled

Nearly nine months after a monument to the workers who died building the Rideau Canal was mysteriously destroyed, its replacement was unveiled at a solemn ceremony.

Original cross was erected in 2004 but was mysteriously destroyed last August

From left to right, Brian Daly, president of the Irish Society of the National Capital Region, looks on as Ottawa and District Labour Council president Sean McKenny and Michael Hurley, the Irish Embassy's deputy head of mission, unveil a monument to the workers who built the Rideau Canal. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Nearly nine months after a monument to the workers who died building the Rideau Canal was mysteriously destroyed, people gathered on the historic waterway Sunday to see its replacement unveiled.

The Celtic Cross monument had originally been placed near the canal in 2004 as a memorial to those who who died building the canal between 1826 and 1832, said Sean McKenny, president of the Ottawa and District Labour Council.

But in August 2017, the cross was found knocked over, shattered into several pieces.

"It was pretty devastating for us to see the cross [like that]," said McKenny ahead of Sunday's rededication ceremony.

People read the inscription on a restored monument to the workers who built Ottawa's Rideau Canal. The original monument was destroyed in 2017 and the new one installed April 29, 2018. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Likely not vandalism

McKenny said it's not known how the cross was destroyed, although it didn't appear to be an act of vandalism.

It's also unclear whether police ever opened an investigation, he added.

Regardless, when the damaged monument was discovered, McKenny said thoughts turned immediately to erecting a replacement.

After calling the company that had originally cast the cross, he was told it would be a costly fix — the entire monument, all four parts, would have to be remade.

The replacement came in at $80,000, four times what the labour council paid for the original monument — although McKenny said an insurance policy saved them from having to shell out the entire cost.

The base of the monument earlier in the week. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Died of accidents, disease

The Rideau Canal was originally built in response to the War of 1812 with the United States.

During the war, ships travelling along the St. Lawrence River near the state of New York were vulnerable to attack, according to information from the Canadian Canal Society.

So the canal was constructed to serve as an alternate transit route between Montreal and Kingston, keeping ships out of the line of fire.

The workforce was made up in large part by Irish immigrants, French-Canadians and Algonquin peoples, said McKenny, many of whom brought their families with them to homes near their work sites.

Most of the work was done by hand, with thousands of workers involved in its construction. At least 1,000 workers died — some in accidents, others from diseases like malaria.

The Rideau Canal is pictured here in an archival photo from 1920. The Celtic Cross monument pays homage to the workers who lost their lives building the canal in the early 1800s. (Library and Archives Canada)

'A good day'

"These would've been recent immigrants to Canada and [they] would've been engaged in labour of the most menial form," said Michael Hurley, the deputy head of mission with the Embassy of Ireland.

The monument marks not only an important chapter in Ottawa's history, Hurley said, but of the Irish experience as well.

It is important to remember those stories.- Michael Hurley, deputy head of mission for the Embassy of Ireland

"Our immigrant story is one of Irish [people] who went abroad and very much became part of building the cities that they adopted," said Hurley, who helped unveil the monument Sunday afternoon.

"It is important to remember those stories."

McKenny said that there's been a lack of attention paid to the people who built the canal, and that the original cross was designed to rectify that.

"It was to pay homage to those individuals, to recognize that for all the beauty that we have in our Rideau Canal, a lot of lives were lost," he said.

Despite the cold and gloomy weather for Sunday's ceremony, McKenny called it "a good day."

"We're getting back the Celtic Cross," he said. "I think, more importantly, those workers are too."​

Michael Hurley, deputy head of mission at the Embassy of Ireland, stands beside a newly-restored monument to the workers who built the Rideau Canal. The monument was unveiled at a small ceremony on April 29, 2018. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)