Colonel John By Day – Ottawa

The 10 Canadian Heroes…


On the first Monday in August, ten men are celebrated in Ontario because they have left indelible footprints on the sands of Canada’s time. In July and August, we will remember these heroes. These Canadian heroes  are worth remembering. And in case you don’t know who they are, here’s the list:

  1. Burlington – Joseph Brant
  2. Coburg – James Cockburn Day (Father of Confederation)
  3. Guelph – John Galt Day (Founder of the city)
  4. Hamilton – George Hamilton Day (Founder of the City)
  5. Oshawa – McLaughlin Day (Brought General Motors to Oshawa)
  6. Ottawa: Colonel John By Day, in honour of the man who founded Ottawa when it was first called Bytown, and constructed one of the greatest wonders of the world – the Rideau Canal system from Ottawa to Kingston.
  7. Peterborough – Peter Robinson Day (he settled Irish immigrants in Lanark county. Scotts Plains re-named Peterborough after him)
  8. Sarnia -Alexander MacKenzie Day (2nd Prime Minister)
  9. Toronto – Simcoe Day in honour of John Graves Simcoe (advocate against slavery and founder of Toronto which was then the town of York).
  10. Vaughn – Benjamin Vaughn Day (the founder of Vaughn

Tribute to John By

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 while driving 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. Could you imagine? From May to August (120 days) If we were to have 60 days of busy traffic (4,800 boats) and 60 days of not-so-busy traffic (1200 boats) roughly 6,000 boats pass through the locks every year. These very locks which were supposed to serve a military purpose, have now become the greatest leisure waterway in Ontario and probably all of Canada. 

Threats from South of the Border

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. 

False Accusations

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. But 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.

Rideau Canal Museum – Smiths Falls

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 the picture below to see the 8 locks.

Bytown Museum

The building to the right in this picture is the oldest building in Ottawa. And while you’re at it, read about the amazing stonemason,  Thomas McKay ,who built the Bytown Museum WITHOUT A SINGLE NAIL, and it is the longest standing building in Canada. 

It was used by John By to store materials and resources he needed to build the canal. You can visit ‘The Bytown Museum‘, 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 Ottawa Tours I organized around 2012, 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 in Ottawa, it is because of Colonel John By.

So when you visit the locks, from Ottawa to Kingston; when you skate each winter on the Rideau Canal; when you cross the Ottawa River via the Alexandria Bridge from the Bytown Museum to 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 7th 2023!!!

Across the Dominion…

You might be wondering what happens in the rest of Canada… Historically, 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 

Alberta calls it HERITAGE DAY

So WHY are so many people celebrated in Ontario?

I suspect that Ontario, as one of the ‘Canadas’ BEFORE Confederation, had more than its fair share of pioneering heroes. These all played pivotal roles in laying the foundations of Canada as we know it, as the colonies moved from colonialism to nationhood. 

I encourage NEW CANADIANS in Ontario, and especially those living in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) to learn about these great men who literally laid down their lives for others. Their acts of self-sacrifice and service contributed greatly to the Canada you enjoy today. You are standing on their shoulders.

Colonel John By, John Graves Simcoe, Joseph Brant and Benjamin Vaughn, we salute you! 

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. 

‘Happy Civic Holiday’, whoever you may be celebrating.  Enjoy your long weekend!

Author’s Note: Lynette is the owner of ChristianRoots Canada. Blogger. Publisher. Course Creator. Passionate about Canadian History from the perspective of God’s Providence.

Remember, I am NOT the last word on History. I am just a compass pointing you in the right direction. Be a Berean. Do your own research. Follow links. Challenge everything.

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