In recent months there has been much excitement over the announcement to build a memorial for the workers who lost their lives while building the Welland Canal. In fact, the Department of Canadian Heritage confirmed that $150,000 would be given for the project through its Legacy Program funding. This amount will help towards the $450,000 goal that the Welland Canal Fallen Workers Task Force has set to raise for the design, construction and installation of the project. There are also several private donors making contributions to help push the project into fruition. It is set to be unveiled in 2017 on a site along the canal north of Lock 3 in St. Catharines.[i]
The Welland Canal: A Brief History
The Welland Canal is important to Canadian history because it links Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, allowing easier transport of goods. Work began with construction of the first canal in 1829 and ended with the completion of the fourth canal in 1932. Prior to its creation, goods were transported overland between Queenston and Chippawa along Portage Road, a longer and more laborious process.[ii] Since its completion, over three thousand vessels have used the canal as a passage.[iii] The canal is also significant because many cities began to grow along its banks- most notably St. Catharines and Welland.
This project was a dangerous and difficult one to complete. Numerous immigrant men (many of them Irish) laboured in poor conditions in order to drastically alter the landscape to create this passage. Rob Foley in his book, “The Welland Canal: The Niagara Story Vol. 3” paints a scene of what these men experienced:
Men with hundred pound sacks on their shoulders struggled up the slippery slope to load wagons that would get bogged down in the bottom. Many a man lost his footing and tumbled back to the mud below. If he were lucky he lifted the sack to his shoulders and started again, but many were injured, losing their jobs. There was no such thing as workman’s compensation to feed the sick and injured. No work, no pay was the cruel reality that they faced every day.[iv]
Working on the canal was so dangerous that the City of St. Catharines declared that it is “believed to be the largest loss of life on a federal government infrastructure project in Canadian heritage.” One tragic case worth noting is that of Antonio Collini, who was just fifteen years old when he died on the job. Sadly, he was buried in a suit that he purchased with his first pay cheque.[v] It is important to note that the number of recorded deaths by accident (137) is not entirely conclusive. St. Catharine’s Mayor and Co-Chair of the task force, Walter Sendzik acknowledged that many workers were killed in the building of the first, second and third canals that were not recorded.[vi] Many also died from diseases like Cholera and Typhoid that resulted from poor living conditions, and thus can be considered indirect casualties of the perilous project.
Tying Memories to Physical Places
Although the tragic events occurred many years ago, it is important to commemorate these workers’ experiences. Connecting memories with a physical place allows communities to incorporate the stories into its collective narrative. Grounding these stories in a physical location connects them with the community’s identity. Additionally, the monument will serve as a vehicle used for healing. In the article, “Sites of Hurtful Memory” Gabi Dolff-Bonekamper discusses what Sigmund Freud termed “working through.” This notion suggests a parallel between individual trauma therapy and collective work on traumatic events in history. Essentially, once a community has allowed the truth to be revealed, in this case, by public commemoration, healing seams achievable.[vii] Judging from the Niagara this Week newspaper article, “Welland Canal Memorial a long forgotten promise” this process has already begun. The article shares stories from relatives remembering those who perished while building the canal.[viii] As the nation approaches the celebration of its 150th year since Confederation, such stories are important for remembering the grand, sometimes dangerous projects that shaped our economy and connected Canadians, and are an essential part of our national tapestry.
[i] City of St. Catharines. Welland Canal Fallen Workers Memorial, http://www.stcatharines.ca/en/governin/Fallen-Workers-Memorial.asp (accessed February 3, 2016)
[ii] Pritchard, Jean and Allen. The Welland Canal in Story and Picture: Yesterday, Today Tomorrow (Port Robinson: Jean Pritchard Publications, 1975), 1.
[iii] City of St. Catharines. Brochure, http://www.stcatharines.ca/en/livein/resources/wcfw-fund-brochure-v2.pdf (accessed February 3, 2016)
[iv] Foley, Rob. The Welland Canal: Niagara Story Vol. 3 (Niagara Falls: The Haunted Press, 1941), 25.
[v] Legislative Assembly of Ontario, Monday April 28, 2014, https://mail.google.com/mail/?zx=f1781k6z7sh2#inbox/1529358331c0dff6 (accessed February 3, 2016)
[vi] Forsyth, Paul. Welland Canal Memorial a long forgotten promise, Niagara This Week, August 6, 2015, http://www.niagarathisweek.com/news-story/5786979-welland-canal-memorial-a-long-forgotten-promise-/
[vii] Dolff-Bonekämper, Gabi. “Sites of Hurtful Memory.” Conservation 17, no. 2, 2002, 4-10. Los Angeles: Getty Conservation Institute, 10.
[viii] Forsyth, Paul. Welland Canal Memorial a long forgotten promise