Martin: On Colonel By Day, a brief history of an unhailed hero

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Martin: On Colonel By Day, a brief history of an unhailed hero
Lt.-Col. John (at right) is shown in this painting conferring with builder Thomas McKay (top hat) as the two men direct early construction on the Rideau Canal in 1826. (National Archives of Canada. C-73703)
Lt.-Col. John (at right) is shown in this painting conferring with builder Thomas McKay (top hat) as the two men direct early construction on the Rideau Canal in 1826. (National Archives of Canada. C-73703) Photo by Painter: Charles W. Jefferys /jpg

While Colonel By Day was first declared in 1996, the post-amalgamation Ottawa Council affirmed the August civic holiday Monday as Colonel By Day in 2009.

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Most know that John By was the British military man tasked with building our much-beloved Rideau Canal, but when he landed at Quebec City in May of 1826 to begin the project, he was hardly unfamiliar with the Canadas. Beginning in 1802, By spent several years developing the defences of Quebec, earning several promotions in rank along the way.

Born in Lambeth, England in 1779, By is sometimes seen as the founder of Ottawa-Hull, though that honour might better belong to Philemon Wright, an American-born farmer and businessman who was regularly floating timber down the Ottawa river even before the War of 1812. It was By’s efforts, however, that really put Wright’s tiny settlement on the map.

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Without the good colonel’s contribution, Bytown, renamed Ottawa in 1855, might never have grown into a viable township, much less one worthy of contention for capital-city status. The selection of a principal home for the province’s government was a perennial debate in the colonial legislature and was only settled after Queen Victoria’s 1857 choice of Ottawa was ratified by the province’s parliament in 1859.

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Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site used primarily for pleasure cruising, the Rideau Canal was first designed to address the major vulnerability in military supply lines between Montreal and Kingston made obvious during the War of 1812. To link the Ottawa River with Lake Ontario, Lt.-Col. By required a workforce of some 2,000 men, many brought from Ireland specifically for the arduous task. Hundreds of labourers suffered gruesome injuries and death across six years of construction. The greatest torment, caused by regular outbreaks of malaria, then termed “swamp fever,” even struck By himself. Work was also regularly interrupted by worker strikes instigated not only by disease and injury, but poor pay and general working conditions in the backwoods of Canada.

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The monumental 202-km project, with its 47 masonry locks and 52 dams, was successfully completed in 1832 but rather than return a triumphant hero, By was received back in England under a cloud of suspicion and scorn. With little cause and less evidence, By was subjected to several government inquiries and accused of recklessly overspending on the massive infrastructure project. Sacrificed at the alter of political partisanship in reform-era Britain, By died a broken man — his achievements unhailed and his reputation irreparably tarnished.

Today, Ottawa is routinely ranked among the best cities in which to live, work and raise a family, so this August long weekend, as we set off for our cottages and campsites, let’s spare a moment not only for Colonel By but for the thousands of engineers, miners, militiamen and labourers who made our great city possible.

David C. Martin is a historian and writer focused on bringing historical background and context to contemporary political and cultural headlines.

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