Heritage, Graves, and the Afterlife of Colonial Infrastructure: The Case of the Rideau Canal

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Editor’s Note: This post by Gabrielle Mclaren is the fourth installment in the Parks and Profit series, which explores the complex relationship between profit and parks historically and in present-day. Looking at the case of the Rideau Canal, Mclaren argues that the Canadian park-making process breathes new life into colonial infrastructure projects in an attempt to further legitimize Indigenous land dispossession.


One of the facts one’ll often read about the Rideau canal is that it was never used for its original purpose. Warships never sailed down this ambitious and complex British military project (1826-1832). But if we think of the canal as more than a military project and, rather, as a piece of colonial infrastructure built by settlers on unceded and stolen Algonquin land, it becomes clear that this canal was also an especially effective settler colonial project.

A painting of the Rideau Canal. Looking over a lock.
Old Slys Locks, Rideau Canal. John Burrows, circa 1835. Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1979-12-6 Source: Mr. R.W. Henwood, Montréal, Québec.

Deborah Cowen’s definition of colonial infrastructure focuses on the long-term spatial, urban, political, and racial consequences of infrastructure built by empire.1 For Cowen, a railway like the Canadian Pacific Railway is not just the sum of its spikes and rails: it structures city growth, enables the dispossession and genocide of Indigenous peoples, devastates the environment, and exploits racialized labour for settler gain. Similarly, the Rideau canal was never just a canal. Surveyor and chief clerk of the works John Mactaggart imagined the canal as “the means of opening an important tract in the interior of Canada” years before its completion.2 He predicted that the canal would open Upper Canada to unprecedented settlement from loyalists, retired soldiers, and other European immigrants—which it did, despite historical and ongoing Algonquin protest and resistance.

Heritage Tourism: Neocolonialism

The Rideau Canal’s UNESCO World Heritage Site designation is “a celebration of colonial presence.”

Responsibility for the canal passed from the departments of defense and transportation to Parks Canada in 1972, cementing its afterlife as a site of historical memory, recreation, and national identity. In 2007, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to local activism.3 This designation has frozen in time the ways the canal signposted modernity’s advent in British North America; it celebrates the Rideau as the first canal built for steam-powered boats, highlights the large-scale implementation and use of European technology, and signals an ongoing technological success. In other words, it’s a celebration of colonial presence; one that implicitly agrees with Mactaggart that the damming, clear-cutting, digging, and blasting of a landscape is “an object, surely, of much more consequence than the preservation of sickly and unfertile swamps.”4

A pleasure boat floating on the Rideau Canal.
View of Rideau Canal above Bank Street, Ottawa, Ontario. Credit: Canada. Dept. of Interior / Library and Archives Canada / PA-043486.

Today, Parks Canada facilitates access to the canal for pleasure boating and paddling and maintains a cross-provincial public history infrastructure that includes a visitor’s centre, children’s programming, and museums. In Ottawa, a city built around the barracks of canal-era military engineers, the canal fits into a $2.2 billion tourist industry. If, as Glen Coulthard writes, settler colonialism’s goal is “to shore up continued access to Indigenous peoples’ territories for the purposes of state formation, settlement, and capitalist development,” the Rideau Canal’s transformations flag tourism as an ongoing mode of settler colonial capital accumulation—one that colonial infrastructure easily inhabits.5

In part, this is because infrastructure evokes the technological sublime: a version of the overwhelming awe the natural world sparks, turned towards human technologies and constructions. Simply put, there’s a public interest in seeing the canal—and a market to go with it. UNESCO’s designation essentially celebrates this sublime as the conquering of a previously empty and valueless landscape—though if that were true, the federal government, the government of Ontario, and some Algonquin communities wouldn’t be negotiating a complex 36,000 km2 land claim and contemporary treaty that includes Canada’s National Capital Region.

Forefronting Labour

The deaths of (largely Irish) canal labourers have made the canal a site of national origin and memory for settlers. As Casey Gray wrote, the remains of workers who died (in industrial accidents, of disease) loom large in public understandings of the canal, especially for locals who contribute to cemetery stewardship.6 A wealth of folklore  has developed related to the canal, workers’ graves, and their ghosts. In 2012, the federal government expanded the canal’s National Heritage Site designation to commemorate workers. In their messaging, labour was reduced to “contributions” and structures responsible for deadly working conditions were sanitized as “challenges.”7 Empire and capital disappeared from the picture, as the former often does in Canadian labour history which “has been largely silent on the . . . structuring influence of settler colonialism and the ongoing theft of Indigenous lands and resources” on, by, and through the working-class.8

“Because infrastructure marks landscapes physically and sublimely, the stories settlers tell about them legitimize and naturalize the occupation of Indigenous land.”

These changes cauterize the brutality of construction and foreground the sublime. Palatable, self-sacrificing labourers (as opposed to sacrificed labourers) add an emotional layer to an otherwise steel and concrete history, one which ties settlers to the canal’s landscape in a compelling, if self-fulfilling, way. Jean O’Brien writes about how settlers legitimize their presence through histories of activity and modernity, saying: “Stories about land and the events that transpired in particular places [perform] the cultural work of seizing Indian homelands.”9 Because infrastructure marks landscapes physically and sublimely, the stories settlers tell about them legitimize and naturalize the occupation of Indigenous land. Parks can, and do, enable this constructed belonging by providing an afterlife to colonial infrastructure. In this way, the Rideau canal continues doing what it was meant to do, but by vehiculating stories instead of steamboats.

Feature Image: The Rideau Canal, also known unofficially as the Rideau Waterway, connects the city of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on the Ottawa River to the city of Kingston, Ontario, on Lake Ontario. 27 September 2014. Photo Credit: Suwannee.payne, Wikimedia Commons.

Notes

  1. Deborah Cowen, “Following the infrastructure of empire: notes on cities, settler colonialism, and method,” Urban Geography 41, issue 4 (2020): 469-486.
  2. John MacTaggart, Three Years in Canada: An Account of the Actual State of the Country in 1826-7-8, Volume 1 (London: H. Colbourn, 1829), 105.
  3. Aurélie Élisa Gfeller and Jaci Eisenberg, “Scaling the Local: Canada’s Rideau Canal and Shifting World Heritage Norms,” Journal of World History 26, 3 (2015): 491-520.
  4. MacTaggart, 124.
  5. Glen Coulthard, Red Skin, White Mask: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 125.
  6. Casey Gray, “Sites of Grave Meaning: The Heritage of Human Remain Sites on the Rideau Canal,” MA Thesis (Carlton University, 2018), 84.
  7. “Harper Government Recognizes Rideau Canal Construction Workers,” Marketwire (Toronto), November 2, 2012: http://proxy.lib.sfu.ca/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/trade-journals/harper-government-recognizes-rideau-canal/docview/1125370206/se-2?accountid=13800.
  8. Fred Burrill, “The Settler Order Framework: Rethinking Canadian Working-Class History,” Labour/Le Travail 83 (2019), 174. 
  9. Jean O’Brien, “Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 102.
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Gabrielle Mclaren

Gabrielle (she/elle) holds an MA in History from Concordia University, where her thesis dealt on malaria's impact in Upper Canada, using the construction of the Rideau Canal as a case study. She graduated from Simon Fraser University in 2020 and will be starting a PhD at York University in Fall 2024. She is currently based in Tio'Tia:ke, Montréal.

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