August 01, 2005

Happy Whatchamacallit Day

Today is a holiday in most of Canada (except for Québec, Newfoundland, and Yukon), creatively named the Civic Holiday. This is probably why many provinces and municipalities name it something different.

Ottawa is one of those municipalities. I discovered this last time I was at the public library, where a paper taped to the door informed patrons that the library would be closed today for "Colonel By Day."

John By (1779-1831) was a British military engineer who was posted to Canada in 1826 after serving in the Napoleonic Wars, to supervise the construction of the Rideau canal system, intended to be part of a secure supply system between Montreal and Kingston in case of another invasion by the United States. The St. Lawrence River bordering Upper Canada was thought to be too vulnerable.

The canal was to begin in a wild part of the shore of the Ottawa River, so By's first step was to build a town to house the construction workers. This town was later named Bytown in his honour. The Rideau Canal was completed in six years, and considered an engineering marvel in its time. However, it was never used for its intended purpose, as the Americans never attempted to invade Canada again after being repelled at Lundy's Lane in 1814.

Bytown was incorporated as Ottawa in 1855, and in 1857, Queen Victoria chose the town to be the common capital of Upper and Lower Canada; it was thought to be a fair compromise between English and French Canada (being right on the border) and far enough from the States to be secure from invasion.

Though Colonel By's name has disappeared from the name of the city, it still appears on several landmarks: the Byward Market, Colonel By Drive, the usual smatterings of schools and government buildings.

As for By's canal, it remains operational for pleasure craft. It has nearly 50 locks, many of which are within Ottawa and most of which are still operated by hand, such as these at the Ottawa River end of the canal, adjacent to Parliament Hill. In the winter, seven kilometers of the Canal between downtown and Dow's Lake are flooded and turned into the world's longest skating rink.