Workers Health & Safety Centre

St. Catharines Petitions for Welland Canal Workers Memorial

A local St. Catharines, Ontario newspaper is seeking signatures for their online petition to build a Welland Canal Workers Memorial.

Eighty years ago the federal government promised to create a memorial to commemorate the 124 men who died during construction of the Welland Canal from 1914 to 1932. The monument was never built and those who perished were largely forgotten—until now.

Arden Phair, local historian and former curator of the St. Catharines Museum, has taken up the cause to have a memorial built for these “fallen heroes”. With the help of a handful of other historians and researchers, Phair combed through public records and talked to surviving relatives to piece together all of the names, ages, country of origin, cause of death and anecdotal stories they could find about these courageous men.

They soon learned the workers ranged in age from as young as 15 to men in their late 50s. The men were crushed, drowned, electrocuted or severely wounded. In one year alone 28 lives were lost in the most unimaginable circumstances.

One of the largest losses of life on a public project in Canadian history, the Welland Canal tragedies touched many corners of the globe. Irish, Russian, Italian, Polish and Canadian workers all died together building the canal. In those days, the loss of life while undergoing such major construction was expected. What wasn’t expected was the broken promise to mark the lives of the workers.

"At the time there really was a sincere feeling that a memorial should be built. But we are not sure why it didn’t happen,” says Phair. “It was the Great Depression. Perhaps money ran out. All we know is that at some point it just stopped being a priority and was forgotten about."

Ideally, Phair says, he would like to see something built on the scale of Toronto’s memorial erected in 1989, for Chinese workers who died building the Canadian Pacific Railway.

To garner support for Phair’s efforts, the St. Catharines Standard ran a series of stories about the Welland Canal workers and created an on-line petition to erect a monument.  To-date the newspaper has received over 1, 500 signatures as well as several emails, phone calls and letters from the relatives of the 124 men and others who support the cause.

Also on board are local politicians, including the mayor and regional councillor as well as federal politicians, local businesses and union officials.

Once they have enough support, the city of St. Catharines will be eligible to apply to the federal government for money from the Legacy Fund to help build the memorial.  The Legacy Fund provides funding for community capital projects that commemorate a significant local historical event or pay tribute to a significant local historical personality. Successful applicants may receive up to 50 per cent of eligible expenses to a maximum of $500,000. The rest of the funds must be raised by the community and local government.

Says Phair, “All I want is for Ottawa to make good on their promise to recognize the fallen.” 

Want to sign the petition to build a Welland Canal Workers Memorial?

Want to read the Standard’s coverage of the Welland Canal Worker tragedies?

Want to learn more about many other worker monuments in Ontario?

Want to learn about the high price of today’s hazardous working conditions?

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