Ottawa: A Brief History
The Ottawa region was long
home to First Nations people, with estimates linking their arrival back some
6500 years ago. The Ottawa River was used by these peoples as a corridor of
transportation between the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, much the
same as it has been used ever since.
By the time Europeans arrived, the primary Aboriginal occupants of the
region were Algonquins (also known as the Algonkians). The name “Ottawa” itself is Aboriginal in origin,
although its precise meaning is debated. It is generally believed to be an
Anglicized version of the name of an Aboriginal people who lived west of Ottawa. Another theory
is that the word “Ottawa”
is a derivative local word meaning “to trade.”
Algonquin peoples were heavily involved in the fur trade, but by the 1800s
the beaver was all but extinct in the Ottawa
valley area. Changes in the Algonquin lifestyle, influenced by the English
and French, forced many Algonquin into poverty, disease and a steady loss of territory.
To this date, the Algonquin peoples
claim that a great deal of land now currently used by the National Capital Commission
was never relinquished; and they remain locked in processes of negotiation
with provincial and federal officials over contested land claims. The first
European settlement in the region started on the Quebec side of the River in 1800. Led
by Philemon Wright, Wright’s Town developed based largely on the transportation of timber by
river from the Ottawa Valley to Montreal.
The timber trade fed a huge market in Napoleonic-era Britain. Lumberers would spend
their winters in the woods, cutting down pine and then hauling it to the
river’s edge. When the ice melted in the spring, they built large rafts that were
floated down the river. By 1830, the Ottawa
Valley was the major
timber-producing area in Upper and Lower Canada.
The Ottawa River was used intensively as a
water route to settlements further west. Since no roads or railways existed, the
only way to travel was on Canada’s
natural highways of rivers and lakes.
The north side of the Ottawa River
was busy with activity as a result of the timber trade, but the south side remained
wilderness with only isolated homesteads. The decision to build a navigable
waterway between Kingston and Montreal
led to development of the south side of the Ottawa River.
The Rideau Canal,
a massive military and public works project, was undertaken by Lieutenant
Colonel John By. The Canal, now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site,
was designed after the War of 1812 to secure water transportation, should the
Great Lakes frontier again be attacked by Canada’s American neighbours. The
Canal later became the backbone of economic development in Canada until displaced by the
national railway system.
of the canal was a massive undertaking and required many workers, which led
to increased immigration from Quebec, Scotland and Ireland. It began at the northern
end, with military barracks on what would eventually become Parliament Hill.
The townsite that developed during construction became known as Bytown. When
the Canal was completed in 1832, the region grew in popularity. In 1855, the growth of Bytown prompted a
change of name and the city became known as Ottawa.
for Ottawa, an unruly logging town far from
the colony’s main cities of Quebec City, Montreal, Kingston and Toronto (York), to become
the capital of Canada
was somewhat arbitrary. The city was,
however, strategically useful as a capital: it was the only settlement of
considerable size located on the border between the Upper (Ontario) and Lower (Quebec)
Canadas; it was surrounded by a dense forest and far from the U.S. border,
thus safer from American attack; it was almost exactly mid-way between Quebec
City and Toronto; and, it was easily reached by water.
Hill, where Colonel By’s military barracks had been located, was identified
as the ideal site for government buildings. Construction of the parliament
buildings began in 1860, an enormous and costly undertaking that brought
scores of architects, engineers and craftsmen to the city. Completed in 1866,
its neo-Gothic architecture echoed the style of the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, demonstrating Upper and Lower Canadas’ ties
Confederation to form the one Canada
came in 1867, with the British North America Act enacted by the imperial
parliament, creating the original constitutional framework. Ottawa
was affirmed as the capital, partly because it already had governmental
buildings. When their Centre Block was destroyed by fire in 1916, its
Tower, which is now an
emblem of the city.