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Ottawa’s Chinese Laundry Tax

20 April 1897

Like most countries, Canada has a long, history of racial discrimination and prejudice against minority groups that sadly persists in varying degrees to today. Visible minorities, including Canada’s indigenous peoples, and immigrants of African and Asian descent, have been particularly targeted as have been religious minorities, such as Jews, Muslims and certain Christian sects, and homosexuals. Chinese immigrants were the subject of draconian laws aimed at curtailing their numbers during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They only received the right to vote in 1947. Canada’s race-based immigration system remained in force until 1962. Chinese immigrants and Canadians of Chinese descent were also barred from many professions, were forbidden from buying property in certain jurisdictions, and were subject to degrading segregation laws.

The first major wave of Chinese settlers to Canada came from California during the 1850s, attracted by the gold rush in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia. Immediately, they faced discrimination. British Columbia denied Chinese immigrants the right to vote. Later, the federal government did likewise. Another wave of Chinese entered Canada to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway during the 1880s. The Chinese labourers worked for meagre pay in appalling conditions. Many perished. Bowing to pressure from British Columbia, the federal government passed the Chinese Immigration Act in 1885, instituting a $50 poll tax on Chinese immigrant labourers, roughly equivalent to the £10 poll tax imposed on Chinese immigrants in Australia and New Zealand. It was less draconian, however, than the Chinese Exclusion Act than effectively barred Chinese immigration to the United States. The poll tax was a sizeable financial impediment to Chinese immigrants who only earned about $300 per year, and often supported dependents back in China. Most Chinese men who worked on the railways and elsewhere could not afford to bring their wives and families to Canada. This led to broken families and a serious male-female imbalance within the Chinese community. The Imperial government in London, which was at the time in the process of negotiating with the Chinese government over Burma, was not amused. It was, however, reluctant to impose a veto over the Canadian legislation. The Evening Journal thundered in 1886 that “Canada was not interested in Burmah [sic] but she was in the Chinese problem in British Columbia and if the majority of her people desires to shut the Mongolians out, or tax them, it is their own business and nobody else’s.”

Organized labour in Canada was opposed to Chinese immigrants. In Vancouver, the Knights of Labour passed strong resolutions in 1886 against them and organized boycotts of Chinese businesses. A few years later, the Trade and Labour Congress sent a deputation to Sir John A. Macdonald demanding the prohibition of Chinese labour in Canada, saying they were an “undesirable class of immigrants.” The Prime Minister told the delegation that while it was the policy of the government to discourage Chinese immigration, there was no desire to actually prohibit the Chinese from entering the country. Macdonald also rejected a second demand that mines be banned from hiring Chinese workers.

In addition to boycotts, there were nasty anti-Chinese riots in several Western Canadian cities, including Vancouver and Calgary. But, not everybody was opposed to Chinese immigration. Charles Kaulbach, a Conservative member of parliament from Nova Scotia remarked in 1887 that the Chinese “were an essential element in building up the Province of British Columbia.” Despite its earlier remarks, Ottawa’s Evening Journal appears to have had a change of heart in 1887, coming out in support of Chinese merchants who were protesting the $50 poll tax. The newspaper said that the tax was “a political sop to sectional interests,” a “short-sighted folly,” and an “inexcusable injustice.” Subsequently, in response to an anti-Chinese tirade in the Victoria Times, which the Journal claimed was plagiarized from a “slavery paper published before the American [civil] war,” it wrote:

The tendency of English-speaking races to compete with other races by means of clubs has always been interesting. When we want to own negro slaves, or to kill off red men or to boycott Chinese, we cannot only prove ourselves morally right, but woe be to any one who argues with us about it! The rant of the Victoria Times sounds familiar, in fact exceedingly chestnutty.

photoThe first Chinese to come to Ottawa arrived in 1887. In October of that year, the Evening Journal noted that there was a new type of business sign on Spark’s Street—a Chinese laundry called “Wing On.” The following month, the newspaper reported that the city’s Chinese population was growing with the arrival of Chung Kee who was residing on Elgin Street. (In the 1891 census, there were only five Chinese residents of Ottawa, all men, out of a mere 97 in all of Ontario.) The newspaper reported that Chung had established a laundry, the third to have been established by Chinese over the previous six months. Coincidently, the signs of the laundries were all similar. Each used white lettering on a red background. Wing On also made the news the following year when he launched a legal claim against a local company that had supplied the laundry with washing machines. When one broke down after only a week in operation, the supplier refused to honour his warranty. Who won the case is not known. The Wing On laundry went on to become very successful, and by the late 1890s had two subsidiary stores, one on Sussex Street and another on Bank Street, and was a regular advertiser in local newspapers.

In 1888, official Chinese visitors to Ottawa, ran afoul of the $50 poll tax. Three “Celestial” commissioners, Y. l. Foo, H.K. Foo and H.B. Sanamissa, who were appointed by the Imperial Chinese Government to investigate Western agricultural techniques, were stopped at the Canada-U.S. border while on their way to the nation’s capital, presumably to visit the Central Experimental Farm. The three commissioners refused to pay the $50 poll tax. Being government officials, they were supposed to have been exempt from the tax. However, the Canadian immigration officers at the border balked at letting them proceed, and only allowed them to continue their journey under a police escort. Their baggage was impounded as security, and a policeman slept outside their door at the Russell Hotel where they were staying. The Customs Department subsequently backed down, apologized, and returned their luggage.

In 1895, anti-Chinese sentiment in Ottawa began to take on more serious character. The Ottawa Trades and Labour Council passed a motion that all union men should refrain from using Chinese laundries and instead patronize “our own laundries run by white people.” Delegate St. Pierre, who introduced the motion, which was seconded by Delegate Chapman, reportedly said that “The Chinese were driving white people out of British Columbia and they would do the same in Ottawa.” He added that the Chinese were a curse to the city and that the sooner they were driven out the better.”

Two years later, on the 20 April 1897, Ottawa’s City Council voted to impose a $10 per year tax on Chinese laundries. Given the amount of water that laundries were using, the Council’s Waterworks Committee had earlier recommended that Council impose a $10 per year tax on “all Chinese laundries, or small laundries” using city water. However, when the recommendation came to the Board, the measure was limited to just Chinese laundries on an amendment moved by Alderman McGuire, seconded by Alderman Powell. Alderman McGuire, who was the unofficial labour union representative on City Council, said that the measure was a “matter of protection to the interests of our people [italics added] who are striving hard to make a living,” and that Ottawa realized nothing from the Chinese.

Others spoke up in defence of the Chinese. Alderman Campbell said that the Chinese were law-abiding, and always paid their water fees on time. Alderman S. Maynard Rogers thought that if the motion passed, Ottawa would become a laughing stock and didn’t want to act towards Chinese the way they do in the United States. Other councilmen calling the tax “unBritish, “unChristian,” and “unjust.” Nevertheless, the amendment passed on an eleven to six Council vote. The next day, the headline in the Evening Journal read No Pay Taxee; No Washee: Council drops on the Chinese.

Local Chinese residents were rightly appalled. Many gathered at Hong You’s laundry on Bank Street to discuss the tax and decide on what to do. It was agreed that they would find a lawyer and take the City to court on the grounds that Council could not impose a tax on any particular class or nationality. Although this was many years before the rights and freedoms of Canadians were constitutionally protected, the Chinese community had a good case.

At Council, Alderman Campbell tried to overturn the vote. But on two occasions when he raised the issue, supporters of the measure left the Council Chamber and broke the quorum. The issue had to be postponed. Campbell’s amendment, which would have applied the tax to all laundries not just Chinese ones, finally came to vote at the end of May 1897. It was defeated on a twelve to eight vote, thus leaving the discriminatory tax in place. The Evening Journal said that the tax was probably illegal, and seemed “in ill accord with British fair play.”

Behind the scenes, people must have been getting worried about potential law suits and bad publicity. An advisory committee was established to examine the issue that included the Mayor Samuel Bingham and the City’s solicitor M. O’Gara. In late June, the committee issued its report to Council saying that the committee was “of the opinion that the charges for the water rates on laundries should be dealt with irrespective of persons” and directed the waterworks committee to determine “what special rates, if any, should be charged upon premises where laundries are carried on.” The discriminatory tax was never implemented.

Despite this small victory over the forces of discrimination and prejudice, governments continued to pander to sectional interests and the inexcusable injustice inflicted on Chinese immigrants to Canada was to get worse before redress began after World War II. Due to anti-Chinese pressure from British Columbia, the poll tax was increased to $100 in 1900 and then to $500 in 1903 despite there being only 17,312 Chinese settlers in all of Canada at the turn of the 20th century. Things were to go from bad to worse. In 1923, Chinese immigration to Canada was banned under the Chinese Immigration Act also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act. The law remained in force until 1947.

In 2006, Prime Minister Harper issued an apology for the head tax that was enforced from 1885 to 1923 and the exclusionary laws in place from 1923 to 1947. A symbolic payment of $20,000 was also awarded to survivors of the head tax. In 2014, Premier Christy Clark of British Columbia apologized for the more than 160 historical racist and discriminatory policies imposed by the B.C. government on the Chinese. At the end of March 2018, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robinson announced that the Vancouver City government would apologize for its past discriminatory by-laws and practices.

Sources:

CBC News, 2006.

CBC News, 2014.

CTV News, 2018.

Chan, Arlene. 2017. “Chinese Immigration Act,” The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Chan, Anthony, 2015. “Chinse Canadians,” The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Chong, Denise. 2013. Lives of the Family, Random House Canada: Toronto.

Ottawa City Council. 1897. Minutes, 20 April, 17 May, 30 May, 28 June.

Ottawa Chinese Community Centre and Denise Chong 2012. Lives of the Family.

Evening Journal (Ottawa), 1886. “Editorial,” 3 March.

——————————–, 1886. “The Trades Congress,” 20 September.

——————————–, 1886. “Sparks,” 17 November.

——————————–, 1887. “The Chinese Question,” 19 May.

——————————–, 1887. “Editorial,” 8 September 1887.

——————————–, 1887. “City and Vicinity,” 19 October.

——————————–, 1887. “City and Vicinity,” 23 November.

——————————–, 1888. “On Wing On!,” 3 February.

——————————–, 1888. “Chinamen in Bond,” 22 September.

——————————–, 1889, “The Chinese Tax,” 14 October.

——————————–, 1890. “The Chinese In Canada,” 9 September.

——————————–, 1892. “The Chinese Question,” 28 March.

——————————–, 1892. “Riot in Calgary,” 4 August.

——————————–, 1895. “No Use For The Chinese,” 26 September 1895.

——————————–, 1897. “No Pay Taxee; No Washee,” 21 April.

——————————–, 1897. “Chinamen Indignant,” 3 May.

——————————–, 1897. “Must Be Responsible,” 18 May.

——————————–, 1897. “Editorial,” 2 June.

Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History
Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.

MECHANICS INSTITUTES—EARLY ADULT EDUCATION
- Clifford Scott

Not very many people in early Ottawa had the educational advantages of today's society—many wished for it, but had to leave school, where it existed, as soon as they were of money earning age Those who could afford a classical or technical education tended to be those whose parents had already had some measure of success.. Technical knowledge came through apprenticeship and on the job learning. Women and girls were almost excluded from the education systems that did exist. However, a good portion of those already educated believed that all persons were educable and education was the key to a better society, both socially and economically.

labelMost factory workers preferred relaxing in the local pub with their buddies.label

In the early 1820's organizations called Mechanic's Institutes were begun in Great Britain and the United States, dedicated to “improving the mind of the working class”. In Bytown in the 1840's several attempts were made to establish similar institutions but final success did not come until 1853. The institutes were aimed at factory workers but were more used by clerks and shop assistants. After the typical 12-14 hour day of the times. Most factory workers preferred relaxing in the local pub with their buddies. Late closing on work days led to letters to the Bytown Gazette in 1837 suggesting both a movement for earlier closing and the opening of a Newsroom or a library. By 1838, as it happened, two Newsrooms had opened—one in the Upper Town's British Hotel and one in the Lower Town's McArthur's Hotel. The Lower Town Newsroom closed by 1844, but there is a record of a gathering of “clerks” in the British Hotel in 1845.

On January 28, 1847 there was a meeting of prominent citizens in the Oddfellow's Hall to create a Bytown Mechanic's Institute. All resident clergymen were members of the founding Council as were magistrates, factory owners, the current Mayor (John Scott) and a past Mayor and City Clerk. Despite their best efforts at fund raising and the purchase of a collection of books (210 available in 1848), the Institute became defunct in 1849. The organizers wanted to show Bytown as progressive. In early 1853, a provisional committee with the strong support of Robert Bell publisher of the Ottawa Citizen was struck to start a “Bytown Mechanic's Institute and Athenaeum”. Again, prominent men were involved. Judge C. Armstrong, Dr. S Sewell, Elkanah Billings, Richard W. Scott Mayor H. J. Friel and Thomas McKay, among others,. formed the committee. At the time, Bytown was a flourishing town of 8000 souls.

Begun in 1847
All resident clergymen were members of the founding Council as were magistrates, factory owners, the current Mayor (John Scott) and a past Mayor and City Clerk.

A Province of Canada Act was passed in 1853, establishing the Mechanic's Institute in Bytown.. Fees were set at $5 per annum. While this fee may seem small today, it could be as much as one week's salary for a working man then. This may have been a factor in the later history of the Institute. We now enter a phase when the idea of training for working class people gradually gave way to a club largely for intellectuals of the day. The organization apparently died in 1907 as professional societies, museums and public libraries proliferated in Ottawa. The highest point of Institute membership was 438 in 1866/67. At a general meeting in 1867 a recorded vote of 109 attendees showed the following mix—13 professionals, 16 merchants, 12 civil servants, 3 lumber merchants, 16 in service industries 10 bookkeepers and clerks, one farmer, 4 labourers, 2 servants, 2 gentlemen and 20 where no occupation was given. Hardly representative of workers!

The Society's activities in the1880's and the 1890' were confined to winter lectures and the maintenance of the library. In 1902, the President still felt the Society's activities were useful but the handwriting was on the wall with the opening of the Carnegie public library in 1906. In November 1906, Dr. Otto Klotz, the President still promoted the work of the Society but stated “the great mass of the people is not hungering for intellectual development but is rather in search of amusement entertainment and forms of diversion as involve little or no mental effort”.

R. Forbes Hirsch who researched the history of Mechanic's Institutes had the following comments in a 1991 publication. “It cannot be said that the Institute suffered from competition in its early days for the limited leisure time of the residents they hoped to attract—the only competition were the pubs, worship services and other church activities. ” Hirsch felt that what really evolved was a social club where the lecture topics were of more interest to better educated middle and upper class citizens. For workers who put in long hours by today's standards and who really couldn't afford the fees charged, th eidea was great, but the implementation suffered from many problems.

 

Cliff Scott, an Ottawa resident since 1954 and a former history lecturer at the University of Ottawa (UOttawa), he also served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Public Service of Canada.

Since 1992, he has been active in the volunteer sector and has held executive positions with The Historical Society of Ottawa, the Friends of the Farm and the Council of Heritage Organizations in Ottawa. He also inaugurated the Historica Heritage Fair in Ottawa and still serves on its organizing committee.

 

WATER WOES
23 August 1912

~ James Powell

Pure, sparkling clean, tap water. We tend to take it for granted. Occasionally our complacency is shaken, as it was in 2000 when seven people died in Walkerton, Ontario when e. coli contaminated the town’s drinking water. But, thankfully, that was a rare event. Ottawa’s tap water consistently gets top grades for quality. Raw water from the Ottawa River is filtered and chemically treated in several steps to remove bacteria, viruses, algae, and suspended particles. More than 100,000 tests are conducted each year to ensure that crystal clear, odourless, and, above all, safe water is supplied to Ottawa’s households and businesses.

But this was not always the case. One hundred years ago, two old, poorly maintained intake pipes that drew untreated water from mid-river were the source of the city’s water supply. But the Ottawa River was dangerously polluted. The region’s many lumber mills routinely dumped tons of waste each year into the river. Decomposing sawdust was actually responsible for the death of a man from Montebello in 1897 when he was thrown from his boat by a methane explosion. Meanwhile, raw sewage from Ottawa’s burgeoning population, as well as from Hull and other riverside communities, was simply flushed into the river. Sewage from inadequately maintained outdoor privies also leaked into the region’s many creeks and streams that fed the Ottawa River. It was a recipe for typhoid fever.

While typhoid stalked all major Canadian cities during the first years of the twentieth century, Ottawa was among the worst affected. The disease annually claimed on average twenty lives, a shockingly high number for a community of perhaps 75,000 souls. Most of the deaths were recorded in the poor, squalid districts of Lower Town and LeBreton Flats. Civic officials, at best complaisant, at worse criminally negligent, did nothing. It was perhaps easier, and cheaper, to blame the poor’s unhygienic living conditions than to do something about the water supply. But even the death in 1907 of the eldest daughter of Lord Grey, the Governor General, who had been visiting her parents from London, didn’t prompt action.

Ignorance wasn’t a viable defence for civic leaders’ lack of action. By 1900, health officials were very familiar with Samonella enterica typhi, the bacteria that caused typhoid, and how to combat it. They were fully aware that the most common form of transmission was drinking water polluted by human sewage. They also knew that chlorine could be used as a disinfectant, rendering the water safe for consumption. Typhoid was a fully preventable disease.

In 1910, an American expert was finally called in to look at ways of improving Ottawa’s water supply. He recommended the immediate addition of hypochlorite of lime, a bactericide, as an interim remedy until a mechanical filtration plant could be constructed. Alternatively, he proposed that cleaner, albeit much more expensive, water be piped in from Lake McGregor in the Gatineau Hills. His report was shelved.

Disaster struck in early January 1911. In the space of weeks, there were hundreds of typhoid cases in the city. By the end of March, sixty people had died. By year-end, the death toll had reached eighty seven. Even before the epidemic had run its course, the first investigation by the chief medical health officer of Ontario concluded that it was due to contaminated city water. Owing to low pressure, an emergency intake valve in Nepean Bay had been opened to raise water pressure in case of fire. The intake had sucked in raw sewage into the water mains. The source of pollution was traced to Cave Creek (now a sewer) that ran through Hintonburg, a heavily populated area which relied on outdoor privies that emptied into the creek. Blame for the epidemic was placed squarely on civic officials who had done nothing to ensure a safe water supply for Ottawa citizens. A second study concluded that had hypochlorite of lime been added to the city’s water as recommended in the 1910 study, the outbreak could have been averted.

Some modest steps were taken to address the situation. Hypochlorite of lime was finally added to the water, but various technical problems prevented the full amount of the chemical from being used. A new intake pipe was also put down in 1911 and was in use by the following April. But the water remained contaminated as a significant portion of the city’s water continued to be sourced through the old, leaky intake pipes. Although Ottawa’s engineer warned city officials that the water supply remained in a dangerous condition, nothing further was done.

In June 1912, typhoid returned to Ottawa with a vengeance. So bad were conditions that MPs were reluctant to return to Ottawa for the autumn1912 parliamentary session, and lobbied for Parliament to be shifted at least temporarily to Toronto, or even Winnipeg. More radical voices wanted Canada’s capital to be moved permanently if Ottawa could not provide government workers with clean water. The Toronto World thundered that the city was advertising itself “from Vancouver to Halifax as a pest hole of diseases.”

With the disease striking during the prime tourist season, civic and business leaders were keen to play down the extent of the problem and the underlying causes. In mid-August, a secret meeting was held between business leaders, Mayor Charles Hopewell and the city’s medical officer of health to discuss the impact of the epidemic on commerce. On 23 August, the medical officer of health announced that the “typhoid epidemic had run its course” and that the water was now safe to drink; bacteriological tests for the previous five weeks having showed “conclusively” that the water was free from contaminants and was “fit for consumption without boiling or otherwise treating it.” It was a barefaced lie. Cases of typhoid continued to occur. Tragically, there were twelve additional deaths in September and a further nineteen in October, weeks after the epidemic had supposedly ended. In total, roughly 1,400 cases of typhoid were recorded in 1912 with 98 fatalities. In November 1912, City Council self-servingly declared that it was “not legally responsible to the [typhoid] sufferers, but only morally so.” It voted a mere $3,000 to cover urgent relief needs.

This time a judicial inquiry was held into the two epidemics. An investigation by provincial authorities indicated continued gross contamination of the water notwithstanding what the medical officer of health had said. It was also shown that contamination occurred due to leaks in both old and new pipes. The city engineer was suspended and Ottawa’s medical officer of health resigned. Although there was insufficient evidence to indict Mayor Hopewell, his reputation was ruined. He declined to run again as mayor in the 1912 election. In 1914, the provincial board of health concluded that “after careful investigations” the outbreaks of typhoid fever were “caused by the use of sewage-polluted water from the Ottawa River.” It added that it was “a disgraceful fact that up to the present date no satisfactory plan for a pure supply for that city has been adopted.”

While repairs were made to the intake pipes and the water was treated with ammonia and chlorine, it was only a temporary fix to Ottawa’s water woes. A permanent solution had to wait almost twenty years as debate raged on city council and in the courts between those that supported the purification of Ottawa River water and the “Lakers” who wanted to pipe in clean water from 31-Mile Lake or Lake Pemichangan north of the city in the Gatineau Hills. Construction on the Lemieux Island Water Purification Plant finally began in 1928. When the plant opened three years later, Ottawa finally had safe tap water.

Sources:

Bourque, André, 2013. City of Ottawa Lemieux Island Water Purification Plant (82 Years Young and Going Strong), Atlantic Canada Water & Wastewater Association.

City of Ottawa, 2014. Lemieux Island Water Purification Plant.

H2O Urban, 2008. Ottawa Report, 22 November.

Jacangelo, Joseph G. and Trussell, R. Rhodes, 2009. “International Report: Water and Wastewater Disinfection: Trends, Issues and Practices,”.

Lloyd, Sheila, 1979. “The Ottawa Typhoid Epidemics of 1911 and 1912: A Case Study of Disease as a Catalyst for Urban Reform,” Urban History Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, p. 66-89.

Murray, Mathew, 2012. Dealing with Wastewater and Water Purification from the Age of Early Modernity to the Present: An Inquiry Into the Management of the Ottawa River, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, University of Ottawa.

Ottawa Riverkeeper, 2007. Notes on a Water Quality and Pollution History of the Ottawa River.

Provincial Board of Health, 1914. 1913 Annual Report.

The Citizen, 1912. “City’s Responsible for Typhoid Claims,” 12 November.

—————–, 1913. “Harsh Condemnation of Ottawa’s Civic Government by Members of Commons in Discussing Pollution of Streams Bill,” 26 April.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1953. “History of Ottawa’s Water System Long and Bloody One,” 28 April.

The Evening Telegram, 1907. “Earl Grey’s Daughter Dead,” 4 February.

The Toronto World, 1912. “M.P.’s Afraid To Go To Ottawa,” 5 August.

——————-, 1912, “Typhoid Epidemic in Ottawa Nearly Over,” 24 August.

Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History.
Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.

The Canadian Army in Ottawa
- Clifford Scott


As Remembrance Day approaches, we remember the sacrifices of World Wars 1 and 2. But we also had military units in Ottawa getting ready to go to the Fenian Raids, the Northwest Rebellion and the Boer War. Regardless of the justice or non justice of these events, we still had men willing to risk their lives for the rest of us. Let's look at our involvement in these conflicts.

Some years ago, Colonel Strome Galloway who commanded the Royal Canadian Regiment in the battle for Ortona in World War 2 summarized the early history of the Ottawa military for the Historical Society of Ottawa ,and I am indebted to him for the information in this article. Mush of the early history of the military in Ottawa concerns militia or reserve units made up of ordinary citizens who “answered the call” when danger threatened. According to Galloway, no regular army fighting unit has ever been garrisoned in Ottawa. This is not true of the RCAF who based interceptor and reconnaissance squadrons here during the height of the Cold War However we are looking at a much earlier time.

Before we look at some unit histories, the “interesting” events that involved Ottawa citizen soldiers were the Fenian raids of 1866 and 1870 when the “Civil Service Rifles” were called up to repel invasion if necessary. The Governor General's Foot Guards provided several offices to command the 150 “voyageurs” who ferried British troops up the Nile river in 1884. Ottawa provided a group of 50 “sharpshooters”, mostly from the Foot Guards, to the troops dispatched to Saskatchewan at the time of the Northwest difficulties in 1885. About 100 men were provided by the 43rd Rifles and the Governor General's Foot Guards Foot Guards as reinforcements for the Royal Canadian Regiment in the Boer War of 1899 A member of the Rifles was awarded a “Queen's Scarf” of Honour for his involvement. Queen Victoria personally knitted seven scarves for special acts of valour in the field. She knitted three for the British forces and one each for Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and South African forces By the time World War 1 began in August of 1914, Ottawans were fully involved.

The first military unit organized in Ottawa was the Ottawa Volunteer Field Battery or “Bytown Gunners” which still exists today. It was formed in 1855 and its members have served in many conflicts. It's Second Battery, serving in the Boer War had among its members John McRae, later and still famous for his poem “In Flanders Fields” They have served in all wars since the, and are most recognizable for the salutes they fire on Parliament Hill on national occasions such as Remembrance Day.

The senior infantry regiment in Ottawa is the Governor General's Foot Guards, formed in 1861in Quebec City as the Civil Service Rifles. When government moved to Ottawa, so did the Rifles. During the Fenian Raids, all male civil servants were conscripted to guard government buildings—our first example of military conscription! In 1872, it was considered that he new Dominion should have a regiment of Guards, similar to those who guarded the Queen in London. The unit was modeled on the Coldstream Guards of the British Army Colours were first presented to the Guards by the wife of the Governor General in 1874 and the Cartier Square Armoury was constructed to house them and others in 1878 .By Royal decree, this Regiment has military precedence over all other Canadian regiments.

In 1881, 43rd Ottawa and Carleton Rifles became the Duke of Cornwall's Own Rifles and, in 1933, their name was changed to the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa.

In 1872, there had been organized an Ottawa Troop of Cavalry. This troop became the forerunner of the 4th Princess Louise Dragoon Guards and the 4th Hussars. WE stopped using horses in War after the First World War so most “horse regiments” became armoured units and rode tanks instead of horses

Other units assembled in Ottawa, but were not really Ottawa Units. The first, in 1898, was the Yukon Field Force which was mustered to aid the RNWMP in policing the Yukon, in face of the lawlessness associated with the Yukon gold rush. In December 1899, with the Royal Canadian Regiment already on the way to South Africa., Lord Strathcona, then Canada's High Commissioner in Great Britain offered a blank cheque to recruit a cavalry regiment to serve in South Africa. This unit became known as The Lord Strathcona's Horse In 1914, another generous person, put up $100,000 of his own money to form a regiment to be named after the then Governor General's daughter, Princess Patricia. This unit became known as the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry and has just finished a tour of duty in Afghanistan, as well as serving in both World Wars. So did the Lord Strathcona's Horse, on horses in World War 1 and in tanks in World War 2 They assembled in Ottawa so all of these units have links to Ottawa and they only represent Army units. Ottawa has contributed much to Canada's military history and that fact should be better known!

 

Cliff Scott, an Ottawa resident since 1954 and a former history lecturer at the University of Ottawa (UOttawa), he also served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Public Service of Canada.

Since 1992, he has been active in the volunteer sector and has held executive positions with The Historical Society of Ottawa, the Friends of the Farm and the Council of Heritage Organizations in Ottawa. He also inaugurated the Historica Heritage Fair in Ottawa and still serves on its organizing committee.