Canal undergoes $40-million facelift

It may be the end of road-construction season, but a $40-million infrastructure restoration project along the Rideau Canal is just getting started.

Work started at the beginning of November to repair damaged concrete, and the project will initially focus on a 500-metre stretch of the canal walls on the Queen Elizabeth Drive side near the Bronson Bridge. Parks Canada announced this summer that they would be spending $40 million over the next five years to repair the canal, which is a national and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Infrastructure updates are needed because concrete on the canal becomes worn down due to the freeze and thaw cycle, said Parks Canada.

“The Rideau Canal has been a popular recreation destination since the 1870s. Today, tourism is the single most important economic activity in the Canal corridor,” Meaghan Bradley, spokesperson for Parks Canada, said in a written statement. “Based on a 2010 Rideau Economic Impact Study, the Rideau Canal contributes $43 million to Canada’s gross domestic product each year and supports the equivalent of over 600 full-time jobs a year.”

This current construction project is expected to continue until next April, said Bradley. Estimates by Parks Canada suggest that the Rideau Canal sees more than 1 million visitors per year by water and by land, and between May and October 2015, nearly 60,000 vessels used the waterway, which stretches about 200 kilometres between Kingston and Ottawa. Other updates included in the overall infrastructure announcement include various masonry repairs from Ottawa to Kingston, as well as construction to repair parts of the concrete of the Hogs Back Dam and Weir. Parks Canada has not yet released a timeline for specific events, noting that it is expected to be completed within the next five years.

The Rideau Canal was opened in 1832 for military purposes to establish a secure supply line and communication between Montreal, Quebec, and Kingston. A reaction to the War of 1812, 19 kilometres of the canal was dug by hand. During the six years of its construction, approximately 1,000 workers died of malaria or accidents. Although no longer used for military operations, it is an important historic waterway in Canada.

Hunter McGill, chair of the Friends of the Rideau, said the construction was a positive step in preserving the historic site.

“It’s very necessary and needed — repair work is needed in a number of sites,” he says. “It’s an important part of our history and heritage – it opened 183 years ago and has been in operation ever since.”

McGill adds: “It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007, and it reminds us that in asking for the designation, Canada has agreed to protect and preserve the canal… We have a responsibility to maintain it and to learn about Canada’s history.”

Meanwhile during the restoration project, the National Capital Commission is preparing for the 2015-16 skating season. During the winter, the Rideau Canal becomes the world’s largest skating rink, operating 24 hours a day when the ice is deemed safe by the NCC’s safety committee.

“Every year in mid-October, Parks Canada drains the Rideau Canal by opening the sluice valves at the Ottawa Locks near the Fairmont Château Laurier,” said NCC spokesperson Jasmine Leduc in a recent press release. “In just a few short days, vehicle-access ramps, skate facilities are installed along the canal before beams are placed at the locks and the water is raised to skating level.”

Once the ice has frozen, the canal maintenance crew will start to remove snow and flood the ice as needed for the 46th Rideau Canal Skateway season. The skateway sees approximately 183,000 visitors per year, with a daily average of 17,000 skaters and others who use the ice.