RIDING THE RIDEAU: Capital Cruising
Exploring Ottawa via its scenic canal
By Margaret Deefholts

As I stand in Ottawa's Confederation Square on this sun-drenched July morning, the sidewalks are a shifting kaleidoscope of colour and movement. Tourists wearing shorts and jazzy T-shirts pause to click their cameras at the massive granite archway of the 1914-1918 War Memorial, or zoom in for a shot of the sepia-walled Parliament Buildings standing four-square against the sky, the Canadian flag a-flutter at the apex of its clock tower. Others squint at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier, its burnished copper turrets lending it the aura of a fantasy castle. As I stand at a parapet looking down at the Rideau Canal, two Japanese girls near me laugh and chitter excitedly as they point to the boats tethered at the dockside.

In both a literal and metaphorical sense the Rideau lies at the centre of Ottawa's past and its present, and the buildings which flank its route reflect the city's history, its educational aspirations, its cultural inclinations, its tastes in shopping, dining, entertainment, sports and recreation. Like the many visitors to Canada's capital city this summer, I am about to play deck-chair spectator by cruising the Canal from its starting point at the top of the Ottawa locks to Dow's Lake - a distance of about nine kilometres.

Once on board the Miss S.B.J. II, the cityscape takes on an altered perspective. At Canal level the buildings around Confederation Square have vanished, replaced by the large beige building housing the Rideau Centre Shopping Mall to my left, and the National Arts Centre on the right. The opera hall of Arts Centre, as I discovered at a performance the previous night, is the second largest in North America, and its seating capacity of 2,300 is surpassed only by the New York Metropolitan Opera House.

Just beyond the Mackenzie King Bridge, a concert of a different kind is in progress at Confederation Park. Ottawa's annual International Jazz Festival is in full swing (!)and the beat of drums, wail of tenor sax and amplified shock of electric guitar, all but drowns out the chug of our boat engine.

Further along the Canal, past the Laurier Bridge (named after Sir Wilfred Laurier, Canada's first Francophone Prime Minister), the campus of the University of Ottawa sprawls along the banks to our left. Built in 1848 by the Bishop of Ottawa, it was run then by the French Oblate Fathers who managed it until 1965. Today its population runs to almost 30,000 students, and its law faculty is unique in that it offers both French (particular to Quebec) and English civil law as practiced in the rest of Canada.

The University, although it was built 16 years after the completion of the Rideau Canal, is a link with the past. Its original name, 'Bytown College' harks back to the days when the area was settled in 1826 by Lt. Colonel John By of the British Royal Engineers.

The previous decades had witnessed the Anglo-American War with American units seething across the waters of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and the British had grown increasingly alarmed at the prospect of being cut off from two major ports - Montreal in Upper Canada and Kingston in Lower Canada. Colonel By's mission when he arrived in 1826 and assembled a construction crew of 4000 Irish and French Canadian workers, was to construct a 202 kilometre waterway which would provide an alternative route for the transport of military supplies and personnel, between the new settlement known then as Bytown on the Ottawa River and Kingston in Lower Canada.

That he succeeded in doing so within a space of six years -1826 to 1832 - is a measure of Colonel By's extraordinary tenacity and ingenuity. The odds were formidable - swampy areas caused concrete walls to sink under their own weight, an epidemic of malaria decimated his men; the rugged terrain necessitated the placement and engineering of 47 locks along the length of the Canal - but, worst of all, a budget over-run that had ballooned from the original 169,000 pounds approved by the British Treasury, to about 776,000 pounds at the end of project, was raising eyebrows in Westminster.

On completion of the Rideau Canal the Colonel returned to England, his health undermined by the harsh Canadian winters, the daunting wilderness, and the intense pressure of work. He died four years later at the age of 56, battered in mind and spirit by charges of financial irresponsibility, and the bitter fact that his remarkable engineering feat was never accorded the recognition it deserved. Little did he know that his name would endure in the annals of Canadian history, not only as the builder of the Rideau Canal, but also as the founding father of the brawling little settlement of Bytown that would be re-named Ottawa in 1855, and eventually become the nation's capital city in 1867.

The Rideau never fulfilled its original military purpose, but as Bytown (bisected by the Canal into "Upper Town" and "Lower Town") grew to a population of 10,000, the Canal became a bustling industrial waterway for steamers carrying lumber, coal, ore and a variety of consumer goods. Later improvements to the St. Lawrence Seaway and the introduction of railway routes, weaned the Rideau of commercial traffic, but passenger steamers continued to service the towns that lay along its route. Today, however, it is a pleasant recreational waterway for paddle boats, pleasure craft and tour boat operators.

Paved pathways run along the green belt verge of the Canal, and we pass joggers, cyclists, kids on roller-blades, mothers pushing strollers, and folks sitting on shady benches, nibbling on peanuts and popcorn as they watch the world go by. A light breeze springs up stiffening the Canadian flag on the aft of the boat, and setting a-quiver the leaves of willow trees and poplars along the pathway.

At one time the flagpoles of fifteen foreign countries were mounted on buildings lining the Rideau, but today the only one we pass en-route is aloft the German Embassy building. Although the Embassy was built in 1952 (well after the end of World War II), the Germans were still apprehensive about hidden listening devices. To make sure the place was "clean" all their construction materials down to the last nail, were imported from Germany.

Another construction curiosity along our route is the Pretoria Bridge. It is a swing bridge with stone stanchions that stand like castle ramparts on each side. Originally built in 1917 and dedicated to the Canadian soldiers who fought and died during the Boer War, the bridge underwent a major renovation in 1982. In the process of dismantling it, each and every stone and metal piece was meticulously catalogued so that it could be re-assembled in its original form. The boat engine echoes as we pass under its low archway, and I duck instinctively as a pigeon flutters agitatedly past us.

It is obvious that residential property flanking the Canal doesn't come cheap. Two identical brown brick buildings - Canal 111 Condominiums - range in price from $500,000 to $1.4 million. A short way further along, a strawberry pink building - winner of the 1985 Governor General's award for architecture - has 24 apartments each boasting a unique layout with no two rooms identical in shape or dimension. Also, every suite is named after a former Canadian prime minister or governor-general. An elderly co-passenger shakes his head. "Well son-of-a-gun, what sucker would want to live in an apartment named after Brian Mulrooney eh?" His wife is busy clicking her camera at the building and doesn't comment.

Puttin' on the Ritz isn't just living alongside the Canal, it's also dining there. At the Ritz Restaurant. In an earlier incarnation it was the Ottawa Rowing and Boat Club, but today the Ritz is an up-scale Italian restaurant which once played host to Bill and Hilary Clinton.

Lansdowne Park, one of Ottawa's popular landmarks comes into view on our right. This is where visitors - as many as 50,000 people a day - flock to the fairgrounds of the annual Central Canadian Exhibition. Prominent among the complex of buildings on the site is the whimsical silver-domed Aberdeen Pavilion, built in 1897 and now designated a National Historic Site. The Pavilion has been the venue for several agricultural shows over the years which has earned it the tongue-in-cheek sobriquet of "Cattle Castle". Lansdowne Park is also dear to the hearts of Ottawa hockey fans who recall their Stanley Cup victory over the team from the Yukon when the finals were played here in 1904. The cantilevered Z-shaped grandstand of the Frank Clair Stadium rears cobra-like against the sky, and was filled in years gone by with 35,000 cheering fans of the Ottawa Rough Riders football team.

The Lansdowne Park complex has catered to more than sports entertainment. Its Civic Centre has witnessed several political party leadership celebrations: Pierre Trudeau was the winner in 1969, Brian Mulrooney in1983 and Kim Campell in1993. Reaching further back into history, this is where Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry assembled before marching away to the trenches of World War I.

We putter into the sun-glinted deep blue waters of Dow's Lake dotted by recreational boaters enjoying the glorious summer weather. It is hard to imagine that this was once a hellhole of dank swampland which probably gave Colonel By many a sleepless night. That is, until he hit on the ingenious idea of flooding the area from a northern arm of the Rideau, constructing a dam on firm land further ahead and installing locks to raise and lower the water levels.

Abutting Dow's Lake is Commissioners Park which is ablaze with tulips during the Tulip Festival. Thousands of bulbs are sent to Ottawa every spring by the appreciative people of the Netherlands in commemoration of the liberation of Holland in World War II by Canadian troops - and in gratitude for the safe haven provided to the Dutch Royal Family during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Queen Beatrix gave birth to Princess Margriet at the Ottawa Civic Hospital, declared by the Canadian Parliament as being "Dutch territory", so that when she arrived on January 18th 1943 the baby princess was deemed a Dutch citizen by birth.

It is noon by the time we return to our landing dock in the heart of the city. I emerge onto Rideau Street, and the arterial roads converging onto Confederation Square now pulsate to the ebb and flow of mid-day traffic. I pause to look once again at the Rideau Canal. It lies below the level of the adrenaline-pumped streets - a gentle blue vein, threading its way out into the distance.

Canal Tours:
Paul's Boat Lines run several Rideau Canal cruises daily on the Ottawa Queen or Miss S.B.J.II. The tours (with commentary in English or French) run for 1 hour 15 minutes. Tickets cost $12.00 for adults, $10 for seniors, $7 for children. A family pass that includes 2 adults and 2 children, is $30. Phone 613-225-6781 for information and reservations

Getting There:
Via Rail:
While Ottawa is linked by air and road to major Canadian cities, getting there by rail is a relaxing way to journey through Ontario's green, trolling countryside. Old stone churches, red brick houses fronted by white-railing porches, yellow hay bales dotting farm fields, meandering streams, leafy thickets and glimpses of the indigo-blue waters of Lake Ontario, all pass by your window. Treat yourself on one of Via Rail's train services to/from Ottawa to Montreal and Toronto. While they offer comfortable economy class seats, their luxurious first class service (VIA 1) is outstanding. It includes a sumptuous three course meal: appetizer, choice of entrée, rolls, and desert, accompanied by complimentary aperitifs, wines, and after meal liqueurs. Reclining seats are generously cushioned, and there is ample leg room. An electrical outlet allows the use of a laptop computer. Privileges include the use of Via Rail's Panorama Lounge, priority boarding, baggage handling and attentive personal service.

For Via Rail schedules and fares visit and follow the links.

Where to Stay:

Ottawa's hotels, motels and B&Bs cover a wide variety of locations, amenities and price ranges. For detailed information browse through the listings at

The Fairmont Chateau Laurier is more than just a place to stay. It is an experience. Whether relaxing in an opulently appointed room or dining in style at Wilfred's Restaurant, guests are surrounded by elegance and old-world charm. Among the hotel's attractions is a well-equipped fitness centre and spa in addition to an indoor heated swimming pool. The Grande Dame of hotels is part of Ottawa's history and its guest register includes several prestigious names, including heads of state, royalty and world-renowned entertainers. It has also been home to three former prime ministers, and the late Karsh of Ottawa who operated his studio there for nineteen years. Join a tour of the hotel (offered daily until Labour Day, and on weekends thereafter) for a behind-the-scenes look at the background and history of the Chateau, interspersed with anecdotal tales of the characters who have walked its corridors.

For further information on hotel tour timings, room availability and prices as well as package bookings go to or Phone: (613) 241-1414 or Fax (613) 562-7030.

Other Attractions:

The Rideau Canal Locks. A step-ladder of eight locks lift vessels up the 80 foot ascent from the Ottawa River to Parliament Hill. To view them and chat to a lock-master, walk under the Rideau Street overpass (the east bank of the Canal) and then turn northwards. Visit the adjoining Bytown Museum, Ottawa's oldest stone building dating from 1827 when it functioned as the treasury and storehouse for the construction of the Rideau Canal. For details of hours, ticket costs and an overview of its fascinating exhibits, go to or

General Information:

Ottawa Tourism: 1-800-465-1867
Ottawa Website:




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