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Rideau Canal World Heritage Site

On June 27, 2007, the Rideau Canal and Kingston Fortifications were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee.

The site is made up of six elements, the Rideau Canal (lockstations and waterway), and the fortification sites in Kingston which consist of Fort Henry, Fort Frederick, Cathcart Tower, Shoal Tower, and Murney Tower. The boundaries of the Rideau Canal consist of the high water mark of the slackwater canal sections and the Parks Canada Agency’s property at the twenty four lockstations. The boundaries of the Kingston fortifications are defined by Parks Canada Agency and Department of National Defence property. The buffer zone is a 30 metre wide zone adjacent to the boundaries of the site.

UNESCO Designation Information:
Date of Inscription: 2007
Criteria: (i)(iv)
Core zone: 21454.81 ha
Buffer zone: 2363.2 ha
Province of Ontario
N44 59 39.79 W75 45 54.45
Ref: 1221

The Rideau Canal was selected based on two of UNESCO's World Heritage criteria. These are Criteria (i); to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius, and Criteria (iv); to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history.

UNESCO Statement of Outstanding Universal Value :

The Rideau Canal is a large strategic canal constructed for military purposes which played a crucial contributory role in allowing British forces to defend the colony of Canada against the United States of America, leading to the development of two distinct political and cultural entities in the north of the American continent, which can be seen as a significant stage in human history.

Criterion i: The Rideau Canal remains the best preserved example of a slackwater canal in North America demonstrating the use of European slackwater technology in North America on a large scale. It is the only canal dating from the great North American canal-building era of the early 19th century that remains operational along its original line with most of its original structures intact.

Criterion iv: The Rideau Canal is an extensive, well preserved and significant example of a canal which was used for a military purposes linked to a significant stage in human history - that of the fight to control the north of the American continent.

Description of Property:

Serial ID Number Name & Location Coordinates Area
1221-001 Rideau Canal
Province of Ontario, Canada
N44 59 39.79
W75 45 54.45
Core zone: 21427.07 Ha
Buffer zone: 2334.78 Ha
1221-002 Fort Henry, Kingston
Province of Ontario, Canada
N44 13 51.41
W76 27 35.7
Core zone: 23.9 Ha
Buffer zone: 11.88 Ha
1221-003 Fort Frederick, Kingston
Province of Ontario, Canada
N44 13 40.64
W76 28 10.61
Core zone: 3.1 Ha
Buffer zone: 3 Ha
1221-004 Cathcart Tower, Cedar Island
Province of Ontario, Canada
N44 13 31
W76 27 14
Core zone: 0.25 Ha
Buffer zone: 9.15 Ha
1221-005 Shoal Tower,Kingston
Province of Ontario, Canada
N44 13 43.88
W76 28 41
Core zone: 0.32 Ha
Buffer zone: 1.68 Ha
1221-006 Murney Tower, Kingston
Province of Ontario, Canada
N44 13 19.71
W76 29 25.22
Core zone: 0.17 Ha
Buffer zone: 2.71 Ha

UNESCO's Site Description:
The Rideau Canal, a monumental early 19th-century construction covering 202 km of the Rideau and Cataraqui rivers from Ottawa south to Kingston Harbour on Lake Ontario, was built primarily for strategic military purposes at a time when Great Britain and the United States vied for control of the region. The site, one of the first canals to be designed specifically for steam-powered vessels, also features an ensemble of fortifications. It is the best-preserved example of a slackwater canal in North America, demonstrating the use of this European technology on a large scale. It is the only canal dating from the great North American canal-building era of the early 19th century to remain operational along its original line with most of its structures intact. (from: whc.unesco.org/en/list/1221/)


The Rideau Canal was built by the British government, between 1826 and 1832, under the supervision of Lt. Colonel John By, a Royal Engineer. The engineering design of the canal was done by Lt. Col. By and his fellow Royal Engineers. It was constructed using independent contractors who hired workforces consisting of tradesmen (masons, carpenters, blacksmiths) and labourers, primarily French-Canadian and immigrant Irish. Most of the work was done by hand (picks, shovels, wheelbarrows) with the aid of some draft animals. An unknown number of the workforce died of disease and accident.

The logistical and engineering challenges they faced were severe: the proposed canal was a 202 kilometre-long waterway composed of a series of rivers and lakes, linked by 47 large stone locks. Dams were built to raise the water level to navigation depth (slackwater canal system), and weirs constructed at most lockstation to control the water levels. For defensive purposes, a series of blockhouses and later, defensible lockmasters’ houses, was erected along the route. All of this work was done in the largely unsettled, often swampy wilderness between the Ottawa River and Lake Ontario. The canal was completed in the winter/spring of 1831/32. With the addition of the Grenville Canal on the Ottawa River, completed in 1834, steam vessels could travel from the port of Montréal up the Ottawa River to Ottawa (then called Bytown), through the Rideau Canal to Lake Ontario at Kingston. Here, Fort Henry (built 1832-36) protected the southern approaches to the Rideau Canal and the important British naval base at Kingston.

The purpose of the canal was clear: it was designed to fill one key gap in Britain’s colonial military defences by providing a safe, defensible inland route for the transportation of troops and military supplies between Montréal and the Great Lakes in times of conflict. Because the St. Lawrence River was exposed to American attack, the Rideau Canal offered a viable means of defending Britain’s hold on its colonies north of the United States against possible military attack, while encouraging settlement and commercial trade opportunities in the region.

Although the Rideau Canal provided an effective military deterrent, it never had to be used in wartime. It immediately took on a more commercial role as a significant trade route between the Great Lakes and Montréal. It also became the main transportation route for immigration into Upper Canada. The completion of canals in the late 1840s along the St. Lawrence River meant that, by the 1860s, the Rideau’s role had changed from a central transportation artery to an important local communications and trade route for Eastern Ontario. The rise of tourism, pleasure boating, and the cottage phenomenon in the late 19th century gave the canal a recreational function which now constitutes its primary use.

The Rideau Canal was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1925 because it constitutes a unique historical environment within the Canadian canal system. An early and important example of the construction of that system, it is distinguished by the survival of a large number of original canal structures, including locks, blockhouses, dams, weirs and original lockmasters’ houses, and is notable for the high degree of integrity of most of its lockstations.

In 2000, it was designated as a Canadian Heritage River for its outstanding historical and recreational values. Originally built for military use, it quickly became the "highway" for early settlement and commercial traffic. It has an absolutely unique assemblage of working historical buildings and engineering structures that is unequalled anywhere in Canada. The Rideau Waterway is unique to the Canadian Heritage Rivers System in that it is the first waterway based on a Heritage Canal to be recognized as a Canadian Heritage River.

The Rideau Canal truly deserves its "Triple Crown" designation as a National Historic Site of Canada, a Canadian Heritage River and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These designations will help to preserve and enhance the heritage integrity of the canal for generations to come. The reason why this is important was perhaps best stated by the Auditor General of Canada, in her 2003 report concerning the upkeep/preservation of heritage structures such as the Rideau Canal:
"These places recall the lives and history of the men and women who built this country, and they foster awareness of how Canadian society evolved. They help us to better understand the present and prepare for the future. They contribute in important ways to Canadians' sense of belonging to their community. When important parts of Canada's built heritage are lost, future generations of Canadians are deprived of access to key moments of their shared history."

For more information about the Rideau's World Heritage designation:

UNESCO's site description:

Parks Canada's World Heritage Nomination Document:


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