Happy Colonel John By Day

In our household, we have been doing ‘Staycations’ for many years. For those who do not know what that is, it is a vacation ‘in your own backyard’ as it were, not many hours away from your home. 

In July of 2019, we had one of those staycations to Kingston from Ottawa. We enjoyed exploring some of ‘The Locks’ in the Rideau Canal system which were in the same direction of our trip. It was quite the education. We saw an assortment of boats making their way through the locks. It can take as long as 1 hour to go through each locking station. 

The water is let into a ‘dam’ as it were, bringing  the boats up to the height of that dam. Then the gates are cranked open manually by lockmasters. The vessels then move into the next dam which has to fill up again before the next gates are cranked open.

One passenger of a boat from Mississauga, told us that she and her partner had begun their trip on Lake Ontario five days earlier. They entered the Cataraqui River in Kingston to the the Rideau River and were only at the Jones Falls locks when we saw them. They still had another day to go before they got to Ottawa.  

It was her first time making that trip which proved to be a rude awakening for her. What she thought would take just a few days had already taken 5 days and they were not yet at their destination.  

We also got a history lesson from the lockmasters. They said that they process about 80 boats a day on the busiest Summer days, and about 20 boats on slow days. The locks which were supposed to serve a military purpose, have now become the greatest leisure waterway in Ontario and probably all of Canada. 

You see, originally, the locks were built after the War of 1812. They were built in an effort to provide a secure route to move critical military resources from the naval shipyards in Kingston to Montreal.

Did you know that Kingston had naval shipyards? Rumour had it that ‘those Americans’ were planning to cut off access to the St Lawrence from Kingston, jeopardizing Britain’s military defense of her colonies. 

At that time, Canada was made up of a number of British colonies (Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and PEI). Canada became The Dominion of Canada in 1867

It is no historical secret that there still existed a certain amount of animus between the Brits and the Americans in the intervening years between the War of Independence and the birth of the Dominion of Canada. 

Construction of the Canal began in 1826 and was completed in 1831. When finished, it consisted of 47 locks on a 125 mile waterway. Jones Falls – the highest lock, stands at 58.4 feet high.

Unfortunately, John By, whose accomplishment remains one of the greatest engineering feats in the world, died in disgrace. He was falsely accused of embezzlement due to cost overruns in building this magnificent waterway which is still enjoyed by boaters from all over the world.

The British politicians who condemned him, had not witnessed the legacy he left behind. These stone-masonry locks and control dams were constructed under the most inhospitable conditions. Many workers died from malaria while working in the swamps to build these impressive structures.

John By’s work is considered to be ‘one of North America’s best navigable waterways’ and is admired by all the users of the canal to this day. You can read the full history of the Rideau Canal here.

One of the best-kept museum secrets in Ontario, is the existence of the rich history of the Rideau Canal System housed in the Rideau Canal National Historic Site in Smiths Falls Ontario.

There are interactive computer screens, dioramas of the construction of the canal (click on the ‘Image Gallery), maps, and a video which tells about John By’s tragic end.

It is a place for the entire family and the best way to honour a man who should be considered a Canadian Legacy. 

The Rideau Canal system begins in Ottawa with 8 locks, each rising 10 feet tall lifting boats a stunning 80 feet from the Ottawa River to the Rideau River.

Count the white foot-bridges in this picture to see the 8 locks. The building to the right in this picture is the oldest building in Ottawa. It was used by John By to store materials and resources he needed to build the canal. It is now called ‘The ByTown Museum‘ which you can visit, or take a virtual tour here.  

In Ottawa, the park overlooking the Ottawa Locks (see picture below), is called Major’s Hill Park in which there is a statue of Colonel John By. 

After visiting ByTown Museum and hearing about John By’s life, attendees to one of the last group tours of Ottawa I organized, posed at the statue of John By in his honour. 

So there you have it folks. If you did not know WHY the first Monday in August is a holiday, it is because of Colonel John By.

When you visit the locks, from Ottawa to Kingston; when you skate each winter on the Rideau Canal; when you look across the Ottawa River from the museum of History and Civilization in Quebec; when you watch the fireworks from Parliament Hill… REMEMBER JOHN BY. 

So HAPPY JOHN BY DAY on Monday August 3rd 2020!!!


Since writing this article, I have discovered an interesting fact. John BY Day, is celebrated ONLY in Ottawa (which is a shame).

The first Monday in August had been designated as a CIVIC HOLIDAY – a holiday that cities have the authority to declare. It is a public holiday in SOME provinces and territories. Municipalities are free to choose anyone / anything to celebrate on that day. Different municipalities across the country have chosen different reasons to commemorate this day. 

For example, Newfoundland calls it REGATTA DAY; Manitoba calls it TERRY FOX DAY; Saskatchewan calls it SASKATCHEWAN DAY; British Columbia calls it BRITISH COLUMBIA DAY; Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island call it NATAL DAY; New Brunswick calls it NEW BRUNSWICK DAY  and Alberta calls it HERITAGE DAY.

Interestingly, different municipalities in ONTARIO, each call it by a different name. I suspect it has to do with Ontario’s pivotal role in moving the colonies from colonialism to nationhood. 

In Ottawa, it is called COLONEL BY DAY; in Toronto it is called SIMCOE DAY; in Burlington, it is called JOSEPH BRANT DAY and in the City of Vaughn, it is called BENJAMIN VAUGHN DAY

The question new Canadians in Ontario, and especially those living in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) should be asking is, WHO were Colonel John By, John Graves Simcoe, Joseph Brant and Benjamin Vaughn? 

In subsequent blogs, we will explore the impact these lives had on the development of Upper Canada (which is now known as Ontario), in the 17th and 18th centuries. After all, roads, towns and cities have been named after them, and a lake in Ontario named after John Graves Simcoe. 

Should I say ‘Happy Civic Holiday’ instead? Sounds kind of insipid and meaningless.  Just enjoy your long weekend!

Shopping Cart
%d bloggers like this: