Canada’s Aquinas loved a good joke

Bernard Joseph Francis Lonergan SJ, CC,  liked to laugh. He liked Goldie Hawn in the movies. He liked Jane Jacobs too. Not because she was funny but because she was smart. He called her Mrs. Insight. Not as smart as he was, of course. In that he stood alone.

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Some volumes in UofT’s Lonergan Series

Pammy’s great2granddaughter Eileen had dinner with Lonergan the evening of February 19, 1981. That afternoon he asked to borrow a copy of Eichner’s Guide to Post-Keynesian Economics from the library at Montreal’s Thomas More Institute. He explained that it would be good to have at hand for his visit with Eileen. They knew each other well. Eileen had written her doctoral thesis on Lonergan’s economics. But she was somewhat shy and he was somewhat introverted, neither of them big on table talk. Economic theory would be easier for both.
He was in town from Boston College, where he held appointment as Distinguished Professor. He had consented to a week of interviews by disciples who wanted to mine the fatherlode before it petered out. He was 76 years old, a survivor of cancer surgery with one lung carved away from three decades of pipe smoking, who would be in declining health during the few years left before he died in November 1984.
The outcome of the talks at TMI would be a slim volume of Q&As, Caring About Meaning, privately printed by the Institute and dealing with “patterns in the life of Bernard Lonergan.” This transcript “moves around,” writes the editor, “as in any good conversation. There are frequent and abrupt changes of topic, some repetitions, and the casual use by Father Lonergan of Latin, Greek, German and French,” some of the languages in which he was proficient.

Lonergan shuffling

Lonergan shuffling

In marked contrast to the simplicity of this memoir are the academic surroundings in which the boy from Buckingham is enshrined today. There are gatherings worldwide to discuss his meaning. The Lonergan Research Institute in Toronto and the Marquette Lonergan Project in Milwaukee are jointly digitizing and preserving his papers, sponsoring seminars and publishing newsletters to describe the thriving world of Lonergan studies. There are Lonergan Centres at seven universities and at least another seven independent Lonergan Institutes in places as diverse as Nairobi, Mexico City, Montreal, Sydney and Innsbruck. The University of Toronto Press is publishing a compendium of his works in 22 large volumes at a cost north of $1 million. They’re on the market for prices as little as $18 for a paperback, or up to $114 for clothbound major works. More than 500 hours of his lectures, delivered and taped between 1957 and 1980, are being remastered to CDs. Three decades after his death he has become an academic industry with branches on all continents.
Major international collocutions are scheduled on topics such as “Lonergan’s Insight After Fifty Years: Its Origins, Its Meaning, Its Reception and Prospects,” on the agenda for one of the annual symposia at Marymount U. in Los Angeles. In 2013, for the 40th annual workshop on his work at Boston College, the Lonergan lens is on the “50th anniversary of Vatican II.” Workshops are also scheduled this year for Jerusalem and Melbourne, Australia.
He was the great grandson of a saloonkeeper. Hugh Gorman was among the early settlers of the lumber town of Buckingham, on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. It was largely an Irish community to begin with but later became and remains primarily French speaking. Lonergan’s father was an engineer and surveyor who was away much of the time, marking ways for rail lines through the Canadian northwest. His mother, remembered even today as particularly pious, prayed the rosary three times daily and was the foundation of the home, assisted by her spinster sister Mollie.

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Fleming Mackell followed his Dad into the NHL

A precocious student, he was reading Treasure Island at six and went through four years of high school in two. Much of his drive for learning he attributed to formation at the Buckingham primary school, where the Christian Brothers organized students into three sets of three grades. “I had the advantage — in the ungraded school you kept working. If you had one teacher talking all day long, you just wasted your time.”
Young Bernie enjoyed all the usual pursuits of small town Canada. His delight in winter sports was amplified by the exploits of his cousin, Ed Gorman, who would go on to play in the mid-1920s for the original Ottawa Senators. One of the founding clubs of the NHL, contender for 11 Stanley Cups in 17 years of which it won five, this team was voted the greatest of the first half century by Canadian sports editors in 1950. Another player among the Silver Seven, as this great team was known by fans and sportswriters, was winger Jack Mackell, who married Pammy’s great-granddaughter Margaret (Kate’s niece) in 1922. Their son Fleming Mackell, Pammy’s great2grandson, also won a couple of Stanley Cup rings. Ironically, he got both during his three season run with the Toronto Maple Leafs, while he made his reputation in the game as a rugged all-star centre and alternate captain with the Boston Bruins.
In summer Bernie Lonergan went river rafting on the Lièvre River, which drained a vast region of virgin forest and flowed to the Ottawa River four miles south. He wasn’t altogether free of mischief. He taught his two younger brothers to play poker and took their money at cards, returning it only after they threatened to tell their parents. One of these siblings, Gregory, also joined the Society of Jesus and was able to stay with Bernie at the Jesuit infirmary in Pickering to provide palliative attention during the distressing last year of his life (1984), when he was afflicted by depression and a long-simmering addiction to alcohol as well as the ongoing effects of the cancer surgery.

Boy from Buckingham ready for Loyola

Boy from Buckingham ready for Loyola

He waved goodbye to Buckingham at fourteen to study at Loyola College in Montreal, now a division of Concordia University, but then a Jesuit-run liberal arts college which was organized, he would write some years later “pretty much along the same lines as Jesuit schools had been since the beginning of the Renaissance, with a few slight modifications.” After schooling, he would return home only occasionally as his work took him further and further afield (late in life he would count that he had been “across the Atlantic about forty six times”). But Buckingham remembers him. The town’s public library is the Bibliothèque Municipale Bernard Lonergan and a plaque at the door reads, “Born in Buckingham, member of the Order of Canada and considered by many intellectuals as the best philosophical thinker of the twentieth century, he was a Canadian Jesuit philosopher and theologian of world renown.”
A philosopher and theologian indeed, also an economist of original perception, though most who look carefully at the vast expanse of his work conclude that none of these labels really capture him. He was essentially a methodologist, whose vocation was to teach how we can “appropriate our own rational self-consciousness,” by which he meant understanding the operations of experiencing, understanding, judging and deciding as we perform them in our daily routines. But first and foremost he was a Jesuit, which provided both his greatest support and his greatest frustration.
At Loyola “I acquired great respect for intelligence,” he would say years later. “The Jesuits were the best educated people I had ever met.”
As much as anybody, once Jacques Cartier had found the place for Europeans, the Jesuits made Canada. The Society of Jesus was founded in the mid-16th century by Ignatius Loyola and immediately set to work to counter the reformation being promulgated by Martin Luther. Their primary tool would be education  — Ignatius Loyola, founding “general” of the Society and his first half-dozen recruits were all doctoral students at the University of Paris  —  that they deployed in order to strengthen faith, gain converts and cultivate influence, both within the Church and beyond. Education was the hottest product in the cultural arena as literacy began its run following Gutenberg’s marvelous invention barely a century before.  As the Society’s origin coincided with a great age of exploration, discovery and settlement in new worlds — the age of Cartier, Columbus, Cabot, Verrazano, Hudson and hundreds more — its schools spread worldwide, some to become major universities (Université Laval in Quebec City, among the oldest institutions of higher learning in North America, would evolve out of the Collège des Jésuites). Many members of the order through the centuries became renowned scholars and scientists, making significant contributions particularly in fields such as astronomy and anthropology. And they became inveterate travelers, carpetbaggers of the church, seeking to spread the Roman Catholic faith throughout North and South America, and in the far east, particularly China (even today the largest Chinese dictionary in a western language is a Jesuit publication of 9,000 pages).

Jesuit college and church, Quebec City, 1761 (Nat. Archive of Cda)

Jesuit college and church, Quebec City, 1761 (Nat. Archive of Cda)

The first Jesuits to reach the land that would become Canada were Pierre Biard and Ennémond Massé on May 22, 1611. They and many who came after them went to live among the native nations. They followed the wanderers through forests, along waterways and across long portages. They acquired some fluency in aboriginal languages and customs, and served as interpreters, guides and go-betweens for the early traders and colonizers, who could hardly have survived the harsh climate, rocky soil and distant treks to fur-bearing resources without this assistance. Some blackrobes set out to explore the vastness of the American continent. Jacques Marquette, a Jesuit priest, and Louis Jolliet, who studied eleven years with the Jesuits but backed away from ordination at the last minute, were the first Europeans to reach the Mississippi. Others taught, baptized and ministered to the settlers and “sought to insulate the Natives from the consuming ravages of greed.” The annually published Jesuit Relations, begun as reports from missionaries in the field to superiors back home, gradually evolved into travelogues and adventure tales circulated in Europe to attract immigrants and enlist support for the mission. As colonial powers began to negotiate treaties with aboriginal inhabitants during the 18th and 19th centuries, Jesuits acted as counselors and interpreters in an effort to protect indigenous interests. That they were not always, or even often, successful was acknowledged by Peter-Hans Kolvenback, the General of the order, in 1993. He offered the Society’s apology to American Indians for “the mistakes it has made in the past (when) the church was insensitive toward your tribal customs, language and spirituality.”
The million or so Canoriginals today are proportionally much more numerous than their cousins in the United States. There, indigenous peoples were not regarded as trading partners but as barriers to western expansion. They were cut down like trees in the forest so that white Americans could achieve their manifest destiny, range their cattle and farm their fields. Jesuits were among those who imprinted a pattern in Canada that moderated the military violence and wanton massacres so common south of the border. (Which is not to say that Canada treats its indigenous peoples fairly and justly. It doesn’t.)
Jesuits were intrepid to the point of sacrificing their lives. Jean de Brébeuf and seven companions are canonized as saints of the Catholic Church. In their memory each year on Sept. 26 a reading of the religious ‘office’ proclaims that their lives were “like a martyrdom because of the character and wretched conditions of the Huron Indians of that time.” In the mid 17th century the Hurons were wiped out by the Iroquois and blackrobes were among the casualties of conflict, some of whom “endured almost unbelievable tortures with such invincible courage as to arouse the admiration of the savage executioners themselves.”

The Canadian Encyclopedia says “the torture and death of blackrobes Gabriel Lalemant (left) and Jean de Brébeuf (right) in 1649 was one of the most powerful images distributed of the New World, not least for its value as propaganda.”

It should not be hard to imagine why impressionable young men are attracted to this adventurous, historic band of brothers. I dare say that almost everybody who spent as much time at Loyola as Lonergan did, or I did, gave some thought at some time to joining the Jesuits. They are figures of authority and of mystery, a fraternity with great traditions, who opened many frontiers for European civilization in new found worlds and ancient. They had been advisers to emperors and teachers of princes. They also had been persecuted, martyred and, for forty years in the 19th century, disbanded under a papal prohibition. There were some places in the world where the ban was not rigidly enforced and one of them was Quebec. By going underground and keeping the dream alive the Jesuits survived and eventually were allowed to raise their head again. They were a magnetic draw for boys (there were no girls at Loyola then, nor in the Society of Jesus).
I gave it a few days consideration before concluding that the strict vows of poverty, chastity and obedience required of Jesuits were not for me. The fathers bent little effort to persuade me otherwise. Some of the more courageous among my friends took the spiritual path, among them David Asselin, who would have become a brother-in-law had he not died so young; and Jean-Marc Laporte, a philosophy wunderkind who dazzled us in caf and coffee shop sessions with his grasp of subtleties in Aquinas, Scotus, Kant and other lights, including the recently published Bernard Lonergan. After long apprenticeship (the road to full membership in the Society of Jesus stretches fourteen years) Laporte would become Lonergan’s personal secretary and in 2002 he was appointed Provincial, the highest administrative post of the order in English Canada (Jesuits long ago divided Canada into just two provinces, English and French). Provincials report to the Jesuit General in Rome, who reports to the Pope. In fact the General is referred to by scoffers as the black pope. Jesuits are the papal legion, canonically speaking. (This was written before the election of Pope Francis, an unexpected event that likely portends more change for the Church than for the Society, which seems to be dong better than its founder Ignatius could have dreamed.) 

Former Chapel (now F.C. Smith Auditorium) on Loyola Campus

Former Chapel (now F.C. Smith Auditorium) on Loyola Campus. Mary Blickstead and I were married here in December 1958.

When I was at Loyola, through most of the 1950s, the Thomas More Institute was a centre of continuing education and intellectual discourse for adults, and so it remains. Founded by Eric O’Connor, a Jesuit and Harvard-educated mathematician, it was here in 1945 that Lonergan began to think through a centrepiece in the ever-expanding universe of his thought. Though Insight: A Study of Human Understanding , would not be published for another dozen years, it was in a series of lectures at TMI that the brilliant, middle-aged professor found inspiration to begin writing what would quickly be recognized as one of the most original and profound philosophical works of the 20th century. Of its origins at TMI he would later say, “It seemed clear that I had a marketable product not only because of the notable perseverance of the class but also from the interest that lit up their faces.”
The spark had been struck but it was soon in danger of being extinguished as year after year, for more than a decade, he was consigned by the order to teach in institutions that he found intellectually stagnant. His personal standard for education was set somewhat higher than the Society’s. When he was sent to Europe as part of his Jesuit training he found he had to work harder just to catch up. “I read Thackeray and made a list of all the words,” he said, “to know the meaning well enough to use them myself. I looked them up in the dictionary and wrote them down and went over these lists; if I still didn’t know the meaning I would look up the dictionary again. I improved my vocabulary tremendously. But I went to England for philosophy, and all the lads there were talking that well!”
Years later he would write to a superior, “At the parish school I always had to work my hardest. At Loyola my acquired habits did not survive my first year: by the mid-term exams I was in 3rd High; by the end of the year I was fully aware that the Jesuits did not know how to make one work, that working was unnecessary to pass exams, and that working was regarded by all my fellows as quite anti-social. For my remaining three years at Loyola I loafed and passed exams with honours . . . Now do not tell me that I am exceptional. I have more than average ability, but not so much more that I did not have to work when confronted with the standards of the parish school in Buckingham or the University of London.”

Lonergan laughing, as often he did

Lonergan laughing, as often he did

Only the strict vow of obedience he had taken kept him on course. In the Society of Jesus, he would say in later years, “you have to do things that are rather hard and you need a lot of grace to do them. That is the advantage of a religious life.”
In the early 1950s the advantages were not evident. The grind of teaching scholastics (Jesuit apprentices) year after year in Montreal and Toronto was wearing him down. Then his superiors relented. In 1953 he was dispatched to begin a dozen years as professor of theology at the world-renowned Gregorian University in Rome. Apparently he had passed the test of obedience.
He finished the last seven chapters of Insight in a white heat between December 1952 and August 1953, fired by the titanic orchestrations of Ludwig van Beethoven. Insight sold out its first printing within a year, “a best seller of its type,” he once quipped. It has since been translated into all European and several Asian languages and still sells thousands of copies annually. I fear to put it this simply, but since he repeats it a couple of times in Insight, I’ll say its premise is that by understanding what it is to understand “not only will you understand the broad lines of all there is to be understood but also you will possess a fixed base, an invariant pattern, opening upon all further developments of understanding.”
Putting Insight behind him, Lonergan turned to shedding new light on old theological questions. At the Gregorian as many as 650 students would crowd into his classes, and the works he produced there had an unusual feature for a modern author. They were written in Latin. He was also fluent in Italian, German and classical Greek, all important to pursue his theological and philosophical studies, and French. Perhaps not surprisingly for a Quebec-born Canadian of his era, he didn’t learn French at home. In Buckingham “we didn’t speak French. That depended on what part of the town you were from. And the hardest place to learn French is Montreal. I learned French in England.”

Receiving the Order of Canada

Receiving the Order of Canada

In fact Insight had never been the end that Lonergan had in mind. His overriding concern was to bring to the 20th century the kind of synthesis of modern thought with theology that Thomas Aquinas had achieved in the 13th century and that had endured, sometimes in observance sometimes in ignorance, for some 800 years. He agreed with Aquinas that philosophy did not consist in knowing what others have said, but in seeking and finding what is true. Bringing to bear the findings of physics and mathematics, often in dialogue and exchange with Eric O’Connor, he built on Aquinas with practical examples just as Aquinas had built on Aristotle’s first principles.
He didn’t delude himself that altering the classical perspective would be easily accomplished. “Centuries are required to change mentalities,” he would say, “centuries. You don’t get a change of mentality by introducing a few fads.”.He found it necessary first to consider the fundamental question, “What is it to know?” The answer he put forward in Insight would have effects far beyond philosophy and theology. His long-time Jesuit friend and biographer, Fred Crowe, points out, “his political thought has been found relevant to problems in the Philippines; his social thought was the focus of a study group in Mexico; his notion of values was used in an analysis of rural development in Ethiopia; doctors and nurses are applying his ideas in their field of health care; there have been similar applications to Anglican moral theology, to Quaker spirituality, and to Australian and Chinese contextualization of theology; to theories of architecture, chemistry, feminism, to jurisprudence and to psychotherapy . . .” In Ottawa his method is used to train border guards how to tell who’s slippery in the line. There is no end in sight.
His shift forward into theology was given a hard check in 1965 when lung cancer was diagnosed while he was on a return visit to Toronto. He remained for radical surgery, first to remove the lung and then to reshape the ribcage. Recovery was slow. He never returned to his Rome professorship. Instead he began to formulate what would become his second masterwork, Method In Theology, which would be published in 1972.
Theology, he points out “is a reflection on religion, it isn’t being religious.” In Lonergan’s view “contemporary theology and especially contemporary Catholic theology are in a feverish ferment. An old theology is being recognized as obsolete.” Not just theology, but all handed-down classical ‘truths.’
“What breathed life and form into the civilization of Greece and Rome, what was born again in a European Renaissance, what provided the chrysalis whence issued modern languages and literature, modern mathematics and science, modern philosophy and history, held its own right into the twentieth century . . .
“Classicist philosophy was the one perennial philosophy. Classicist art was the set of immortal classics. Classicist laws and structures were the deposit of wisdom and prudence of mankind. This classicist outlook was a great protector of good manners and a great support of good morals. But it had one enormous drawback. It included a built-in incapacity to grasp the need to change and to effect the necessary adaptations.”
Lonergan does not attempt a new or revised theology per se. Rather he creates a process, a method of drawing on the past to enlighten the future. It is not confined to theology but can be applied, as Fred Crowe puts it, “in philosophy or theology, in the pursuit of any project in the field of human studies and human sciences, be it theoretical or practical, present or future, peculiar to one culture or another.”
Though his strength had been sapped by the surgeries, he believed that his desire to finish this project “was a psychological factor in my recovery.” Writing didn’t come fluidly to him. “I write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, eh . . . I could have written more by taking another ten years. But you get sick and tired of a subject and you call it off. Books aren’t finished; authors get tired.”
For relaxation Lonergan often saw films in the company of younger Jesuits who wouldn’t pester him to expound philosophy, and developed an appreciation for the talents of Goldie Hawn. He enjoyed a good joke and could tell one. He read widely, chuckling through Waugh, Chesterton and Lewis Carroll. He championed the work of urban guru Jane Jacobs, whom he dubbed “Mrs. Insight.” Insight occurs with respect to concrete images, not abstractions, and Jacobs is very much grounded in what’s real. But he was no casual conversationalist. In general he displayed a modesty approaching shyness. And while he had a photographic memory and amazing powers of retention for what he read, he was not swift at repartee. The telling comment or response to a question often would occur to him hours after a conversation had ended. He described himself as a “forty eight hour man, strong on l’esprit d’escalier, the witticism you think of when you’re going down the stairs.”
Lonergan’s interest in economics was stimulated by social disruption in the first instance and, in the second, by the quandaries that the profession was experiencing. These instances were separated by some forty years. “When I came back to Canada in 1930,” he said, “the rich were poor and the poor were out of work. The rich were trying to get money selling apples on the street. Many theories were floating around.”

Pammy's great2granddaughter Eileen

Pammy’s great2granddaughter Eileen

Eileen, his dinner companion while visiting Montreal to be interviewed for Caring About Meaning, wrote in her review of the economics volumes in the collected works, “Both the 1930s and 1970s were periods of ferment in economic theory because of the major structural changes and crises that were not explained satisfactorily.”
His response was to identify two separate but interactive levels in the economy that produce wealth and income in different ways. The surplus sector produces goods for further production, e.g. rails for railroads. The basic sector produces goods for consumption. As well, when prices rise, workers demand more and the wage-price spiral begins. When prices fall, producers pull back from investing and recession begins. The result is often panic and “panic doesn’t get you anywhere; it is just stupidity, loss of nerve.” He proposes an economic policy based fundamentally on a strategy of education, generating widespread understanding of the way these cycles work and the natural interconnection between them.
He was far from embracing socialism, “which doesn’t work very well.” He believed that “the trouble with the welfare state is that it crowds out investment, and if you crowd out investment the economy goes to pot.” But he favoured creation of benevolent enterprise, small-scale industries that employ people who can’t be taught much, or who can’t find jobs elsewhere. Also, “If you can have government deficits to conduct wars, you can have government deficits for a war on poverty, a war on ignorance, a war on ill health, and so on.”
The first International Lonergan Congress was held in Tampa, Florida in 1970, attracting eminent theologians and other thinkers from around the world. One of the participants was former senator and presidential hopeful Eugene McCarthy, a devoted Catholic who once had given thought to becoming a Benedictine monk. When an eminent intellectual remarked, “there are large gobs of Insight” he didn’t understand, McCarthy quipped, “You’re the first to admit it at breakfast. Most of us wait until afternoon.”
The following year Lonergan was invested as a Companion of the Order of Canada, the highest rank.
Lonergan’s invitation to self-appropriation is also an invitation to self-development through self-criticism and self-evaluation. Professor Ken Melchin at Ottawa’s St. Paul University writes in his introduction to ethics, Living With Other People, “More than any other author, Lonergan makes self-discovery the central activity of philosophy and theology. While much of his writing is theoretically complex, it is everywhere guided by a single purpose, the understanding of ourselves in our everyday acts of understanding.”

Delphi today

Delphi today

It sounds straightforward yet, as Fred Crowe says, “the full extent of his influence will not be seen for many years yet. His chief contribution was the creation of an instrument of mind and heart for others to use, whose worth will be discovered not only in study but also in implementation. Only the slow process of history can measure the enduring stature of this great thinker who belongs to the world as much as to his native Canada.”
In a lecture just after Insight was published, Lonergan said: “Your interest may be to find out what Lonergan thinks and what Lonergan says, but I am not offering you that, or what anyone else thinks or says, as a basis. If a person is to be a philosopher, his thinking as a whole cannot depend upon someone or something else. There has to be a basis within himself; he must have resources of his own to which he can appeal as a last resort.”
Know Thyself. It was inscribed on Apollo’s Temple at Delphi in southern Greece and has been a precept for human action since before the time of Socrates. But it has famously defied easy doing. Lonergan doesn’t promise to make it any easier. But he may well be the first and only oracle to nail precisely how it can be done.

A century standing by

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On a warm summer day in 1985, Pammy’s great3grandson* looked on as Elmer MacKay, solicitor general of Canada, inaugurated the recently established museum of prison artifacts at Kingston Penitentiary, on the occasion of that cruel dungeon’s sesquicentennial. He was a member of the ministerial party because he had co-authored a history of KP. A hundred and fifty years before, on June 1, 1835, Matthew Tavender became Inmate Number One, sentenced to three years for grand larceny. Tavender and the convicts who followed him inside were forced into labour gangs that would greatly expand the fortress-like prison on the shore of Lake Ontario, but the earliest work on the massive stone building was done by local tradesmen. (A generation later the ancient stone walls would give up their last inmates at the instigation of Elmer’s son, Peter MacKay, minister of justice. KP, which overlooks the harbour where the sailing events were hosted during the 1976 Olympics, was one of the oldest prisons in continuous use in the world when it closed finally on September 30, 2013.)

+ For an explanation of the convention designating various generations of Pammy’s family, see About Rideau Canal And All That on the bar above.

In Kingston, the local workers who knew best how to work with stone were those who had just finished the Rideau Canal. The new pen, destined to be still in use in the twenty first century, wasn’t the only lucrative construction contract in those days in Kingston. Fort Henry, which commands the city’s entrance heights was — is — an imposing fortification. Some of the last Martello Towers ever built are in Kingston. It was a bit late for these defensive forts when they went up — another example of the military preparing for its last war — but they still stand tall for tourists. These were massive works of construction and times were good in Kingston, which in another half-dozen years would be the first capital of what would become Canada and where the young John Alexander Macdonald was entering upon a legal career, his thought not yet turned to politics. It was a bonanza for stone workers. Good times would come again for their descendants in the 1860s with work on Parliament buildings for the new country then being born. In the meantime they built many great houses along the Rideau corridor between the first Canadian capital (Kingston 1841) to the one we have now (Ottawa 1867), including the official residences on Sussex Drive for prime minister and governor general.

Many of the stone workers were among or had been trained by those who came to work on the canal in 1826. There were two companies of Royal Sappers and Miners recruited to assist Lt. Col. John By (right) in his great task, a complement of a hundred and sixty two men. Fifty seven were lost to accident, disease and desertion through the six years of construction. When the work was finished, seventy one of those remaining accepted hundred acre grants of land and settled along the corridor of the canal, planting outposts of settlement where none existed. And then there were the lucky few who got the land and a job as well. But few were as fortunate as William (Pammy) Fleming, who got all of that and the lady too.

Everything Jim Simmons owned was sold after he was killed in a blasting accident on the canal at Newboro in 1830. His wardrobe and kit and ‘necessaries’ went to provide some relief to his family.  Pammy, who had been a friend and fellow bricklayer among the sappers, bought a pair of regimental trousers for twelve shillings. Elizabeth Simmons, mother of a girl and seven-year old Jim Jr., received thirteen pounds, eight shillings, ninepence. Not a fortune but a tidy sum and with a widow’s pension from the military Elizabeth could bide her time. There was no shortage of suitors. There were many more men than women in Upper Canada. Women could choose. She waited two years, until it was sure that the colonel would give Pammy the job at Chaffey’s Lock. He wasn’t a big man, just five and a half feet tall, but strong. (It wasn’t a time of tall men, then or for a long time after. The mean height of a company of British soldiers en route to India in 1865 was 5’5. Winston Churchill, who was almost a teenager when Pammy died in 1887, was well short of 5’7.) He hadn’t been a non-com. Sergeants and corporals were getting preference for canal jobs. But Pammy was made an acting corporal before discharge. And she knew he had one of the essential requirements. Pammy could read and he could write, one of the few who could.

In his survey of the Rideau route in 1826 John MacTaggart, Colonel By’s clerk of works, wrote that at Chaffey’s “I am not ashamed to own that I was more puzzled to know how to act, than on any other part of the route.” This was because MacTaggart wanted to bypass the mills that Sam Chaffey and his brother had built on both banks near a waterfall of thirteen feet. It would be too expensive to expropriate the distillery and the grist, carding and sawmills that the Chaffeys had put up in the six years they had been in the area. “High banks on either side of the river, and mills choking up that river, seemed to defy the science of engineering to pass them with the Canal . . .”

But the problem would be resolved by tragic circumstance just a year later when Sam Chaffey died of malaria. His widow decided to sell the millworks and two hundred acres of land to Colonel By for two thousand pounds. His brother Ben had already departed for the United States and the family spread later to Australia, producing significant memorials wherever they settled. They are inveterate builders. One of Sam’s nephews was back at Chaffey’s in 1872 to construct a stone gristmill.

The contract to remove the mills and build a lock with nine feet of lift and a twenty foot high dam went to John Sheriff & Co. The project became known as Haggart’s Job after Sheriff’s partner, “a jolly bachelor of that name, well known for convivial hospitality to all travellers by this route.” Another year, another tragedy, when John Sheriff succumbed to malaria in 1828, along with several labourers on the lock.

Over the six year construction period more than five hundred men and an unknown number of women and children at and near the canal works died of malaria. It was a disease that had been present in eastern North America for many years. The mosquito that transmitted it could and did live here. But it was groupings of people that helped to spread the disease. In construction camps one worker to another was a zip for a mosquito. No one escaped, from Colonel By down through the ranks to the wives and children of workers. Everyone suffered. During the “sickly month” of August, six out of ten workers took to their beds with terrible pain, stomach upset, vomiting and general debility. The only known antimalarial treatment was quinine but it was quite rare and very expensive. It was hard to get in Canada and few had it. The old Chaffey’s graveyard is said to contain the remains of more unrecognized malaria victims than any other. (In the picture, Mary Anne Chaffey’s plot is fenced in, with fieldstones and headstones in the distance marking early graves where wood crosses have rotted away.)

But the work continued. And what a work it was that the colonel had conceived. To build the canal, John By had two options. The conventional and proven option was to use excavated channels of considerable length to link existing waterways that were navigable, bypassing falls, rapids, swamps and rocky shallows. By dismissed this approach as being too expensive and time-consuming, given the terrain, geology and configuration of the lakes and rivers.

Through what would be called “a fundamental stroke of creative genius” he envisioned another option, the relatively untried technology called ‘slackwater’. It would use a large number of embankments and high dams to inundate shallows, swamps, and rapids, creating a series of basins deep enough to navigate the full length of the canal. This dramatically reduced the need to excavate channels. Costs and construction time were greatly contained and compressed.

Slackwater techniques had never been attempted in North America near the complexity of what By conceived to join the Rideau and Cataraqui rivers into a corridor linking the Ottawa River with Lake Ontario. This would become the swiftest route of the day from Montreal, where most British troops were stationed, to the frontier opposite the United States at Kingston. It was the threat from the U.S. that By was addressing. He never forgot that. Speed was essential. His Corps of Royal Engineers designed an ingenious system to exercise unprecedented control over water levels. They included seventy four dams and forty seven locks at twenty four lock stations, allowing vessels to ascend eighty five metres to the summit of the canal from the Ottawa River, and then descend fifty metres to Lake Ontario.

Part of By’s genius was his foresight in planning for the future dominance of steamboats. The specs for the canal that he was given called for locks just sufficient to pass durham boats, flat-bottomed vessels propelled by sail or oars. By sought and got authorization to build larger locks able to accommodate the bigger boats that would use the emerging technology of steam power.

“It is the best preserved example of a slackwater canal in North America,” UNESCO wrote in designating the canal a World Heritage Site. “It is the only canal dating from the great North American canal-building era of the early nineteenth century to remain operational along its original line with most of its original structures intact.”

Once built, with what even today would be considered blazing speed, the problem became one of operations. By’s final task before departure was to ensure that key posts along the waterway were filled with the best candidates available. Literacy was a prime requirement for a lockmaster, but not the only one. They are outlined by Ed Bebee in his original and masterful portrayal of the workers who have kept the canal operating almost the way it was built for almost two centuries. His book is entitled Invisible Army: Hard Times, Heartbreak and Heritage, and he writes:

“What were the qualifications to be a lockmaster? First, military experience, generally as a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO), either Corporal or Sergeant; second the ability to read and write, because of the flood of written orders and the extensive record-keeping; third, basic arithmetic and some sense of book-keeping to be able to manage the accounts of tolls and local rents; fourth, robust good health; fifth, ‘steadiness’, which could mean anything. Sobriety was not a requirement, as soon became evident.”

Canal jobs were the pick of the province. The Army built the canal. The Army owned the canal. There was nothing more stable in all of Canada than the British Army. The pay was not bad and it came in cash, a rare perk in an economy that operated almost entirely on barter and long-term credit. Pammy was a lucky man and knew it the year the widow and the colonel said yes. It was 1832.

Lockmasters initially got housing (or materials to build their own) and permanent lock labourers had small houses or stayed in dormitories at larger stations. Garden plots were also provided. Lockmasters and workers were strictly admonished to avoid political partisanship and even voting. They were front line public servants and expected to behave as such. Patronage was endemic in the early days of colonial semi-self-government. The Rideau Canal was one of the few major generators of jobs and contracts in eastern Ontario. Politicians were very much aware of the opportunities. The local MP, or the defeated candidate if his party happened to be in power, would provide a list of acceptable candidates.

Pammy and his bride Elizabeth (later Gammy) had little time to consider their circumstances in those first months at Chaffey’s, after the military had departed and the first ceremonial passage was through the lock, en route from Kingston to Bytown. Colonel By and his family were joined by aides and dignitaries aboard the canal tug Pumper, renamed Rideau for the journey, greeted all along the great waterway he had built with rousing cheers that fell not far short of adulation. In this place and time he had made a wonder of the modern world. The people along the Rideau corridor, some who had been his soldiers and many who had worked on the canal, sensed greatness. Sadly, he was to fall victim to bureaucrats and petty politics on his return to Britain, his world-class achievement never celebrated by the British, whose taxes had paid for it.

The Pumper, built for Robert Drummond, one of the primary canal contractors, would be followed through the years by a succession of maintenance tugs well into the twentieth century. The longest lasting and most famous was Loretta, whose captain into the 1930s was Pammy’s grandson. Captain Ned, Kate’s brother, also had captained the Rideau King (left), one of the passenger steamers owned by his brother-in-law. For many years the Rideau King and Rideau Queen, with their musical steam whistles that could be heard for miles, provided a luxurious cruise along the beautifully crafted waterway between two of Ontario’s principal population centres. He was known as the ‘poet laureate’ within the family. When tied up overnight at a station along the waterway, the sweet sound of Captain Ned’s violin would often swell from Loretta’s deck and fill the summer evening all around.

In 1832 the population of York (Toronto) was 5,000, Kingston was 4,200 and Bytown (Ottawa), which hadn’t existed six years earlier, was 3,200. It was the beginning of urban society but not yet an urban economy. As one merchant wrote, “No one here can do business and obtain payment short of a year’s credit.” Almost all sales to farmers were on credit. They had no cash until the crops were harvested. Some debts were settled by a merchant buying land and having debtors supply labour or materials to erect a house or building.

Pammy, who built a ‘log house’ for his family when he arrived, was paid the lockmaster’s wage of $0.80 per day. The days were long, sometimes stretching through the nights and into new days. A lot of labour and time went to stretching the salary. There was a plot to grow vegetables. The potato was a staple of the daily diet, which made for hardship in the mid 1840s when a blight struck. Ireland was being devastated at the same time by this crop failure but the famine that prevailed there was in no way repeated here. Canadians were survivors in the toughest climate of the new world. They kept a cow, pigs and chickens. Fish were plentiful as were venison, ducks, muskrat. Drowned logs or trees from the surrounding forest were fuel for winter fires. They might have been colonists, or even colonials, but they weren’t landless peasants so weakened by life as the 20,000 Irish who died of disease and malnutrition on their way to Canada in 1847, one out of five who sailed.

In the colony the Rideau Canal was about to become an economic lifeline. It would get busier and busier, day and night, week after week, month on month until ice checked the flow. Ultimately, of course, the onset of a navigable St, Lawrence and the railroad combined to overpower the canal as a commercial route. But for a century the scene was the one described by an anonymous writer at Newboro, quoted by Robert Legget in Rideau Waterway. The canal was “crowded with boats carrying the produce of the country and bringing in such goods as were needed and the growing prosperity of the country could afford. City of Ottawa, Rideau King and Rideau Queen were some of the boats that carried passengers and freight and looked to one in their day like monsters of marine architecture. Tugs were towing 2, 3 and 4 barges; about 40 sailing scows carried out wood, lumber, pressed hay, grain, horses, cheese, whatever the country had to sell and brought in goods the merchants sold, the implements that were needed, the foodstuffs not grown in this climate and furnished employment to hundreds of men. Rafts of squared timber and of rough logs running up to hundreds of lock bands, built up with cook and bunk houses, stables for horses gouged by 20 or 30 men made their slow way to mills and market every year and left behind a fire menace. I have seen the men at work without a break for over sixty hours. They slept on the grass while the locks were filling and ate their meals that were brought to them sitting on a swing bar. They worked 24 hours a day, slept when they could. At first the lockmen were paid 60 cents a day for 71/2 months each year. Later their pay was raised to $1 a day and there never was a time when there was any trouble getting men to work on the lock.”

It was non-stop “when the horn blew we’d lock ‘em through” twenty four hours a day, seven days a week until 1871, after which Sunday was allowed off. Sleep between lockages was often snatched on a cot on the lockmaster’s porch. The biggest problem were the “blue barges” of logs, huge flotillas of lumber that had to be passed through the lock bit-by-bit, hour-after-hour.

For more than seven months a year there was no shortage of activity or company at the station. But in the winter it was thoroughly isolated. Distances to Kingston or even Elgin, a few miles away, were over trails rather than roads. The few people in the area had to make do with one another’s company. Pammy’s house, the largest around, was often the centre for euchre games, Christmas parties and impromptu dancing. “One of the high spots during the winter,” Melinda Warren writes in Hearth and Heritage: History of Chaffey’s Lock and Area, “would be when the carpentry crew came. The crew, of about twelve members, would camp at the station, sleeping on bunks in the storehouse. This work force was provided with their own cook, for a crew could live at the lock site for sometimes two months, building a new set of gates or a new dock. Because of their long stay they would become temporary members of the small communities. They provided a friendly diversion from long winter boredom. At night when the day’s work was done the crew, Lockmen and families would sit around the wood stove; stories and homemade bread in abundance. When the families retired for the evening, more stories and other ‘refreshments’ would be in greater abundance!

“It was a special time for the Lock Station when this crew came. The empty space which the crew left in the community when they moved on, would soon be filled by hard work to prepare for the new navigation season; and later new faces to relate the past winter’s tales to. . .”

Lockstations were strengthened in 1837-38 in response to rebellion troubles in both provinces (Upper and Lower Canada at that time, to become Canada West and East in 1841 and Ontario and Quebec in 1867) that pointed to the susceptibility of canal works to attack. Government durham boats loaded with ammunition and troops were passing through. Lock workers were called out to train with the militia. A report in Pammy’s hand describes “the loyal men who turned out to defend the lock and other works at Chaffey’s, Rideau Canal, on the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th of July, 1838,” when the lock was menaced by sympathizers with the rebellion in Upper Canada. Under Pammy’s command twenty seven volunteers, including fifteen-year-old stepson James Simmons Jr., mounted sentries and patrolled the area to deter aggression.

Captain Billy, Pammy’s son, in 1890.

In the meantime Pammy and Elizabeth had a son William in 1833. As a boy he became a lake sailor and earned his captain’s papers at an early age. He would eventually be the first master of the Rideau Queen, owned by his son-in-law, and become widely known along the Rideau as Captain Billy.

As word spread of employment possibilities, good farmland and world class sport fishing at Chaffey’s, immigrant families began to arrive, many of them fleeing the famine in Ireland. Among these were the Doyles, who arrived from near Dublin in 1830 with an infant daughter. Young Billy and Margaret Doyle grew up together and just before Christmas 1854 they eloped and married. Elopement was necessary because the English Protestant Flemings and Irish Catholic Doyles were not ready mixers. They had to get over it eventually though as Captain Billy and his bride made passionate use of the long winters over the next two decades to produce five sons and three daughters, most born in a little log cabin on a section of Pammy’s property. The first born, Mary, married Captain Dan Noonan, who owned the Rideau Navigation Company. Henry, the second, became the third Chaffey’s lockmaster. A younger brother, Edward, would succeed Captain Billy as master of the Rideau Queen and earn his own local fame as Captain Ned.

Kate, christened Catharine, was the third, born in 1859. At nineteen she married James O’Brien, fifteen years older, the only son of Little Ned O’Brien, who had arrived in Chaffey’s from Ireland in 1840. Little Ned’s property would become the core of Queen’s University’s Biological Station (pictured) on Opinicon Lake a century later, where Pammy’s great3grandson Roberto would one day pursue studies toward his doctorate in zoology.

Jim O’Brien, who had been a lakeboat captain, tried farming at Chaffey’s as he and Kate started the family that would eventually number eight girls and five boys. But in less than a decade that toil was abandoned and they picked up and left for Montreal, the first ever of the family to move from Chaffey’s. Jim would be a milkdealer at first, then a grocer, and died in 1925. Kate would live to ninety nine in 1958 with the patience and quiet acceptance of the poker player and lifelong fisher she was.

The log cabin they were born and raised in had long outlived its comfort level by the time Captain Billy got around to building a proper home for his fast growing brood. Margaret would reminisce years later about the day in 1870 when the house was ready and what a pleasure it had been “to walk down the hill carrying baby Charles and take my family into our new home.”

And what a home it was. It’s described in a remarkable family manuscript written by Pammy’s great-granddaughter Catherine in 1975. Catherine was born at Chaffey’s in 1899 and knew Captain Billy intimately. They lived in the 1870 house together while she was growing up. Pammy had died a dozen years before but his memory lived strong in the neighbourhood where there were many old friends and much family. Catherine writes of the times, the neighbourhood, the customs, schools, entertainments, home life for the girls and the boys, a full and telling evocation of what it was to grow up and live at Chaffey’s Lock through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. The manuscript is contained in the privately printed genealogical masterwork by Pammy’s great2grandson, James, entitled The Fleming Family Tree. Suffice to say the new home for Captain Billy and family was “the nicest and largest farm house in the community” with an iron roof, room to house a three-generation family of ten and an annex with a winter kitchen. It was still in use more than a hundred years after going up and may be still.

It was in this context that Pammy got the name he was universally known by, and which has descended to a property at Chaffey’s still referred to as Pammy’s Farm. A fourth generation grandson once suggested that it was derived from the derogatory slang for Englishman, ‘pommy’. This was impossible. Pammy was a man of respect in the county around Elgin. He had been discharged an acting corporal. There were very few field promotions in the two companies of sappers and miners of the Royal Engineers working with Lt. Col. By on the building of the Rideau Canal. Pammy was the Lockmaster at Chaffey’s, in command of a link on a vital waterway, holding one of the few permanent, paying jobs in the colony. He wouldn’t have been dissed by his neighbours.

Then, there were hundreds of demobbed sappers after the work was finished. Could Pammy have been a generally used nickname? Well no. Finally, there’s no record of the word ‘pommy’ being used before 1912, and then primarily in Australia. That’s well after Pammy’s day and far away. So how did he come by that nickname? For anyone with grandkids, it’s clear enough.  Pammy (William Fleming) had only one natural son, Billy. But he had eight grandchildren, all born at Chaffey’s, all within hailing distance for most of his life. He lived with one of his grandsons and family in later years. It was these kids who called him Pammy, an easy childish mangling of Papa or Grandpa. One after another they made it stick. Only they would have been innocent enough, and well enough loved, to have dared. For Pammy was far from a figure of fun. He had an aristocratic bent and, according to family account, in retirement “always dressed in a swallow tail coat, wore a high silk hat and carried a cane.”

A one storey, defensible lockmaster’s house was built in 1844 and after a dozen years in the log house Pammy, Gammy and family were finally able to move in. It was completely renovated in 1894-85 for their grandson Henry, another of Kate’s brothers, who was the third lockmaster at Chaffey’s. A second storey was added and a wood frame back kitchen. This house (pictured) is now a museum. Chaffey’s was a Fleming family fief for a century. After retiring in 1856, Pammy was succeeded by his stepson, Jim, who served until 1894. There was some fuss when grandson Henry got the next appointment. Patronage was alleged. Henry was dismissed in December 1896 but rehired three months later. He’d hold the job for more than three decades.

As Ed Bebee writes in Invisible Army, “An affable lockmaster with thirty-five years service at a popular station met a lot of people. When his family is there for generations, then relationships run deep.” Henry was such a person.

A combination of age (65 in 1922) and years of service (39) meant that Henry would most likely retire in the early 1920s. Knowing he’d have to move from the Lockmaster’s house, he wanted to acquire a property nearby where he could build a home. He wanted to get it at a good price and avoid an auction that might increase it, particularly since the CNR had built a station at Chaffey’s and local land prices had soared. So he wrote his good acquaintance, George Buskard, private secretary to Prime Minister Arthur Meighen, enquiring casually after family members and enclosing a sketch of the land he wanted. Within a day, enquiries on Henry’s behalf were dispatched on prime ministerial letterhead. The sale transpired as he had wished, helped by an Order-in-Council that designated him the buyer and sidetracked any other potential bidder. Perhaps most remarkably, the government had changed in the interim. Mr. Meighen had been replaced by Prime Minister Mackenzie King. But the change hadn’t bothered Henry. Rather, he lobbied again to have his retirement postponed. He wasn’t finally succeeded as Lockmaster until 1929. The family had held the job just three years shy of a century from the day Pammy got it from Colonel By.

James and Kate O’Brien. First to leave Chaffey’s, Pammy’s granddaughter Catharine (Kate) Fleming was the motherlink of the clan with thirteen children in Montreal. She lived to ninety nine.

After 1847, when work on the St. Lawrence River canals was completed, the Rideau system gradually lost its commercial prominence, though it long remained a gracious and comfortable route for passengers on the Rideau Queen, Rideau King and their like that plied regularly between Kingston and Ottawa. Until today the Rideau Canal, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, remains a destination for boats and yachts from near and far as well as the focal point for local festivals in summer and, never forget, the largest skating rink in the world in winter.

Pammy’s canal was to prevent another war and help build a nation

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It was fire that cleared the path for a capital that Canada might be proud of. Prime Minister Laurier and his planners used the disaster to advantage and made creative use of destruction.

They planned it around the canal, then as now the most singular feature of a capital rich in monuments. They gave it to the improvement commission to manage, which became the Federal District Commission, which became the National Capital Commission (NCC), which today is the principal real estate owner in the national capital region, with 1,400 properties, including the homes of the prime minister and governor general, four hundred and seventy square kilometers of greenbelt and parkland, and an annual budget pushing a hundred and fifty million dollars.

The canal of which I speak is the canal that gave the Yanks pause. They had jumped us twice in thirty years. Some Americans thought their manifest destiny was to own and occupy the whole of the continent. George Washington sent a general to take Montreal, “not to plunder but to protect you” in one of the earliest campaigns of the American revolutionary war. President Jefferson (1801-1809) said they had only to march to take us over, and President Madison (1809-1817) set troops marching to do just that in 1812. Twice bitten, Canada had ample reason to be shy.

Fort Henry commands Lake Ontario and overlooks the southern end of the canal at the mouth of the Cataraqui River

The Rideau Canal was one of the most spectacular engineering feats of the nineteenth century. Carved through a wilderness at considerable loss of life to work accidents and disease, at an incredibly low cost that nevertheless prompted a parliamentary enquiry, it was a measure of defence and defiance. Along with Fort Henry and a handful of defensive Martello towers that had emerged from the Napoleonic Wars, which defend its southern end at Kingston, the canal was the clearest statement possible at the time that no effort would be spared by Great Britain, no cost would be too high, no sacrifice too great, to defend Canada if the Americans were to try again their vicious incursion of 1812-15.

No less a military genius than Field Marshall Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, victor on the field at Waterloo in June 1815 not long after the nastiness in North America had ended, understood this all too well. When the decision was made to proceed with the canal he was serving as Master General of the Ordnance. He picked the man to build it. John By had been with him in the peninsular war. Wellington became prime minister during the years it took to finish the canal.

Martello

Dug by hand and heart and pick and shovel through hundreds of miles of wildlands and swamp, some so malodorous that breath of it could bring on fever, even death, the canal was a sign of determination so emphatic that America had to believe that Great Britain was serious. The motherland would rush in reinforcements and die on the ramparts in defence of Canada, outpost of empire, if attacked. In fact it had not been much more than a calculated bluff. England was stretched thin with European wars and colonial commitments. In only a few years it would be desperate to pull out of colonies that were costly to govern from across an ocean. It gambled that Americans would forget about Canada after a while if it wasn’t fighting Britain, which it had been doing off and on for a half century. It was a winning strategy. Before long Americans were consumed with their civil war catastrophe. The bluff would never be called.

The Rideau Canal, meanwhile, became a key lifeline in the fast growing colony about to become a country. Bob Sneyd tells the story in a masterful thesis at the UofT. But for Mr. Sneyd, who has made his life and his living on the waterway, it might well have been forgotten that the canal was the way of choice for decades for commerce and other traffic between the major cities and two provinces that then existed. The St. Lawrence hadn’t yet been tamed. Barges could shoot the rapids going downstream, but it was a job-and-a-half to get them back upstream. Steam power alone couldn’t beat the current. The best that could be done was to drag small barges, eight to fourteen tons, up the rapids by oxen and horses.

Upper Canadians 175 years ago believed that the Rideau Canal would do more for the commercial strength of the country than anything since its origin. Even as Col By and his family were aboard ship on their return voyage to London, Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Colborne announced at the opening of the legislature that a “profitable return” could be expected and in a resolution a week later, the assembly agreed that the new canal would be of “great national benefit.” Waterborne commerce, as Mr. Sneyd reports in The Role of the Rideau Waterway, 1826-1856, immediately found and followed the easiest, cheapest and safest route. A triangular pattern soon emerged. Imported British manufactured goods were transferred from ocean-going ships to barges in Montreal. They were then towed by steamboats up the Ottawa, through the Rideau, and transshipped to lake schooners at Kingston. In turn, those bulk staples destined for British and European ports were reloaded from schooners to barges and run directly down the St Lawrence to Montreal shooting rapids on the way. Two years after the canal’s opening, three quarters of westbound traffic was using the route, given its cost and security advantage over the St Lawrence, where surly Americans had cannon on their side of the river. The 1830s wasn’t a great decade for the young Canadian economy. Political upset and armed uprisings were disruptive. But one million bushels of wheat and eight tons of flour were being shipped through the canal by 1840. It was clear that it had become the vital link in inter-provincial trade.

The Rideau Canal also carried hordes of European immigrants fleeing famine and oppression for a better life in Canada. The canal was the reason for Ottawa, which became the capital. The canal was a technological wonder for the age, foreshadowing and inspiring ages of technology to come that would awe the world more than once. And the Rideau canal brought William (Pammy) Fleming from Old Swinford in Worcestershire, not far from Birmingham, a city that would drive the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century.

Captain Billy, above, who started early on the boats, came to resemble his father, whom he would never have called Pammy. Sir, more likely, or Master when locking through.

Pammy’s father was a nailer. It had been a decent craft from Roman times, even earlier. There were four nailers among the craftsmen counted in the 1665 Canadian census. But those times were over and nailers were pretty well done for in Birmingham, workshop of the world and city of a thousand trades. Nails would always be essential for fastening materials together, for building things. For centuries they had been fashioned by hand, one at a time, and that work had provided sufficiently for a nailer and his family. Now there were machines that spit them out by the hundreds of thousands. With no future in the family craft, Pammy enlisted. The army sent him here to help By build the canal. The colonel would prove to be a genius. He was an artist of an engineer who would use muscle and blasting powder to sculpt for the ages a waterscape surpassing nature. Pammy was a sapper, obeyed orders, kept his mouth shut, angling to come out of it alive. Many wouldn’t.

Among the Canadian supervisors and contractors on canal construction first generation Scots were prominent, if not predominant. Redpath, Drummond and McKay, who took on frontier construction challenges to build the locks, are names that resonate even today as nation builders, physically, politically and commercially. Skilled workers such as masons, carpenters and blacksmiths were mostly a mix of British, Scottish, Irish and French Canadians. Unskilled workers were Irish not long off the boats — the largest ethnic contingent and most difficult to manage, then and later — and French Canadians. They would wield axe, pick and shovel, push barrows, pump water, clear brush.

John MacTaggart was there as clerk of works and gives a vivid description of the hazards. “Even in their spade and pickaxe business, the [men] receive dreadful accidents; as excavating in a wilderness is quite a different thing from doing that kind of labour in a cleared country. Thus they have to pool in, as the tactics of the art go — that is, dig beneath the roots of trees, which not infrequently fall down and smother them. . . Some of them . . . would take jobs of quarrying from contractors, because they thought there were good wages for this work, never thinking that they did not understand the business. Of course many of them were blasted to pieces by their own shots, others killed by stones falling on them. I have seen heads, arms and legs, blown in all directions . . .”

Unusual as it was for any of these heads to belong to the men of the Royal Sappers and Miners, the soldiers were not totally immune. A blasting accident on May 29, 1830, killed Pammy’s friend and fellow bricklayer of the seventh company, Jim Simmons, at Newboro. Six men of the seventh and fifteenth companies died in the work on the waterway. Another twenty two died of malaria or cholera, which at times came on so violently that whole camps and villages were decimated.