For Money & Country: Speculation, Profiteering and the Rideau Canal

We first began considering the idea of creating accessible historic content in January of 2020. We were living in Ottawa, and out of interest, Alex had begun researching the construction of the Rideau Canal, because we lived right on it. This research grew into a hybrid photobook, which grew into a passion, which grew into what you see today! We spent the summer of 2020 exploring and rediscovering the region Alex was reading and writing about, unshackled from a desk and typical line of thought. We tucked ourselves within its least known corners, time travellers, enjoying a slow-moving season of nostalgia. From the heavy stonework of the locks to the silence of a still, forested river; you could allow yourself to fall back in time. Maybe, nothing had changed…

The Rideau Canal is a 202km long man-made, inland waterway, connecting the Ottawa River with Lake Ontario in Ontario, Canada. It was built by the British between 1826 and 1832, in order to provide safe passage to military vessels traveling between Montreal and Kingston. This engineering feat relied on thousands of migrant workers, labouring day and night, converting millions of acres, of yet unsettled Canadian wilderness, into a navigable waterway. Constructed during a time of “empire building,” the Canal was integral to continued European settlement and occupation of Canada, all the while ensuring a safe method of transportation and communication between remote communities.

Fueled by the lingering fear of American hostilities, as a result of the War of 1812, the planning and building of the Rideau Canal should have been a catalyst for civic cooperation and common purpose. In reality, the construction of the Canal was a vehicle by which those with power prioritized the physical and financial exploitation of large swaths of land and the people who resided on them. Interactions and negotiations between the Crown and Indigenous people, and businessmen and workers, exposed underlying motivations to make a profit, outstripping the desire for the prosperity and safety of the region’s inhabitants. The process in which the Canal, and in turn, Canada, was built, ultimately devolved into a get-rich-quick scheme, championed by many, with few benefiting. While admiring the prominent few who indeed benefited from the successes of the Canal, we’ve forgotten the many who were failed by its very construction.

My investigation of the planning and building of the Rideau Canal does not focus on the incredible engineering methods required to build one of North America’s greatest canals, nor will it focus on the UNESCO world heritage site as it stands today, enjoyed by so many. In examining some of the motivations behind the planning and building of the Rideau Canal, I will unpack the behind the scenes land-grabbing, speculation and profiteering efforts surrounding the construction of the Canal. In doing so, I will explore the question; what were the true underlying motivations guiding the planning and building of the Rideau Canal? All while highlighting the socio-economic and political challenges faced by the Indigenous people, early settlers and workers alike.

The planning and building of the Rideau Canal is a story of land, speculation and profiteering; what the Crown could take, what industry could make and what settlers and workers could endure. What was intended as a military engineering project to safeguard Canada from attack, devolved into a get-rich-quick scheme for those with power, resulting in a loss of land, identity and life for those without. It is a story of how Indigenous peoples, settlers and labourers, found themselves in the middle of a deadly gambit to make money and secure the colonies. The story of the building of the Rideau Canal reveals who we really were, while shedding light on how we’ve since changed.

If you are interested in learning more about this history, and maybe getting a glimpse of how we got started doing the work you see today, please see below or our Gallery & Shop page, where you can purchase a copy of For Money & Country: Speculation, Profiteering & the Rideau Canal. This is a hybrid photo-history book that does a critical, deep dive into the construction of the Rideau Canal. This is done all while visually taking the reader along the entire length of the Canal, on our journey to discover its past. Accompanying this book is a trailer, which we filmed over the course of this research and photographic exploration, and you can watch right here.

We have learned so much since this first research project, and we can’t wait to keep growing! We hope you’ll come along for the ride!

Interested in purchasing For Money & Country: Speculation, Profiteering & the Rideau Canal?

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