Three Rivers

Ottawa Magazine - - THIS CITY - BY ROY MACGRE­GOR Roy MacGre­gor is a Globe and Mail colum­nist and au­thor of 50 books, in­clud­ing Ca­noe Coun­try. He has writ­ten more books than he’s read.

They are, rather ap­pro­pri­ately, the three most po­lit­i­cal rivers in the land. Taken to­gether, they em­body set­tle­ment, the econ­omy, the first great spend­ing scan­dal, the first tax re­volt … And, of course, the na­tion’s cap­i­tal. It is not by ac­ci­dent that the po­si­tion­ing of By­town, later to be­come Ot­tawa, was where the three rivers — the Ot­tawa, the Gatineau, and the Rideau — con­verge, their wa­ters be­com­ing one as the cur­rent heads south and east to join the St. Lawrence River and, even­tu­ally, reaches the At­lantic Ocean.

It was the Ot­tawa River that al­lowed First Na­tions’ travel and hunt­ing routes from the St. Lawrence to the Great Lakes, the Ot­tawa that took the Euro­pean explorers to the Mat­tawa River and then west, the Ot­tawa that made fur and tim­ber pos­si­ble and then be­came the orig­i­nal high­way for set­tle­ment.

Yet the Ot­tawa has been de­scribed as “the great­est un­known river in the world.” Com­muters us­ing the Chaudière Bridge as they move be­tween Ot­tawa on the On­tario side and Gatineau on the Que­bec side do not even no­tice the spec­tac­u­lar falls — con­sid­ered a sa­cred place by Al­go­nquins — where, in 1860, more than 20,000 loyal cit­i­zens cheered the Prince of Wales as he flew through the Chaudière slide on a tim­ber crib guided by ex­pert river­men.

Be­ing rel­a­tively un­known, how­ever, can be seen as a bless­ing for those priv­i­leged to en­joy the Ot­tawa River’s long stretches of near wilder­ness, its fab­u­lous whitewater chal­lenges, as well as fish­ing, sail­ing, beaches and, closer to Ot­tawa and Gatineau, fab­u­lous bi­cy­cle and walk­ing paths that fol­low its eastern and west­ern shore­lines.

Even less known is the Gatineau River, which is not only the clean­est and the least in­hab­ited of the three but has a lesser-known place in Cana­dian his­tory: a tax re­volt that was put down by the ex­traor­di­nary act of send­ing in the army.

It hap­pened at Bren­nan’s Hill in late 1895. For 15 years, the hard­scrab­ble farm­ers and set­tlers of the area — largely of Ir­ish de­scent — had re­fused to pay their taxes. They had fled Ire­land to es­cape over­lords and op­pres­sion, they ar­gued, and damned if they were go­ing to let it hap­pen again here.

They threw one bailiff in a root cel­lar and locked him there for two days. When a po­lice­man showed up at a farm owned by a Miss O’Rourke, said to be all of $2.35 in ar­rears, she grabbed a stick of fire­wood and chased him down the lane, vow­ing if he showed up again, she’d pour boil­ing wa­ter over him.

The Bat­tle of Bren­nan’s Hill came to an end when fed­eral au­thor­i­ties de­cided to dis­patch the army — 120 sol­diers “armed to the teeth,” ac­cord­ing to a head­line in the Nov. 14, 1895, Ot­tawa Evening Jour­nal.

The army reached the nearby vil­lage of Low, pitched tents, and in a very Cana­dian end­ing, the rev­o­lu­tion came to a close with ev­ery­one pay­ing up — even Miss O’Rourke — and apol­o­giz­ing for the in­con­ve­nience.

The Rideau River, on the other hand, is world-fa­mous. Its 47-lock canal sys­tem, run­ning be­tween Kingston’s Old Fort Henry and Ot­tawa, was des­ig­nated a UNESCO World Her­itage Site in 2007.

That would have stunned Col. John By, builder of the canal and founder of By­town, the rough-and-tum­ble lum­ber town that, in 1857, would be Queen Vic­to­ria’s sur­prise choice to serve as cap­i­tal of the North Amer­i­can colony.

By, an of­fi­cer of the Corps of Royal En­gi­neers, was sent here in 1826 to com­plete a project that grew out of British ner­vous­ness con­cern­ing its south­ern neigh­bour on the con­ti­nent. The United States had been through a war with Bri­tain that had ended only a dozen years ear­lier. British strate­gists be­lieved a canal could be built along the Rideau water­way that would al­low for mil­i­tary trans­port well away from the Amer­i­can border.

By ar­rived at a bud­get pro­jec­tion — £169,000 — that seemed plucked out of thin air. He was im­me­di­ately doubt­ful it could be done for that cost but went ahead any­way.

By was a bril­liant, de­mand­ing en­gi­neer sub­ject to ar­bi­trary de­ci­sions, from the lo­ca­tion of the first eight locks — he be­lieved the high ground near present- day Château Lau­rier would be eas­ier to de­fend — to widen­ing the canal be­yond what had been rec­om­mended. To­day’s boaters are grate­ful for the widen­ing, but Lon­don was out­raged at what they saw as cost over­runs.

Within the first year of con­struc­tion, the Duke of Welling­ton — yes, the very same who de­feated Napoleon at Water­loo — was say­ing, “It ap­pears to me that Lieut. Colonel By has lost sight of the Plan and Es­ti­mates.” It was an ex­traor­di­nary feat to build the canal through so much swamp­land. By em­ployed as many as 6,000 labour­ers a year, mostly poor Ir­ish and French, and it is es­ti­mated up to 1,000 died from ac­ci­dents and malaria. By him­self came down twice with the dis­ease they called “bad air,” but he re­fused to quit.

So they fired him. In late spring of 1832, just as By was fin­ish­ing up, the British Trea­sury de­cided to take “im­me­di­ate steps for re­mov­ing Colonel By … and for plac­ing some com­pe­tent per­son in charge of those works.”

The canal had been com­pleted at a cost of £777,146. In 2012, Parks Canada es­ti­mated the re­place­ment value of the as­sets of the Rideau Canal sys­tem at nearly $1 bil­lion. To­day, more than 1 mil­lion vis­i­tors a year come to en­joy the Rideau water­way, cot­tag­ing on the lakes in the sys­tem, boat­ing through bu­colic coun­try­side and charm­ing vil­lages and, in win­ter, skat­ing on the world’s largest rink.

By, of course, could know none of this. Twice British au­thor­i­ties held in­quiries into the so-called fi­nan­cial scan­dal but could find noth­ing for which he could ac­tu­ally be charged. He felt “dread­fully il­lused,” and with him barely 56 and clearly dy­ing, both he and his wife pe­ti­tioned the gov­ern­ment for “some pub­lic dis­tinc­tion as will show that my char­ac­ter as a sol­dier is with­out stain, and that I have not lost the con­fi­dence or good opin­ion of my Gov­ern­ment.” He got noth­ing — in Bri­tain. In Canada, how­ever, he has a statue in Ma­jor’s Hill Park and world recog­ni­tion from UNESCO for what they call “a mas­ter­piece of hu­man cre­ative ge­nius.”

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