Malaria in Canada?
|Malaria is an infamous killer
throughout much of our world’s tropical areas; it kills or
debilitates millions each year, and its economic impact is
devastating. But most Canadians might have difficulty imagining
malaria outbreaks in Canada.
But, in the 1800s, particularly along the Rideau and Cataraqui
Rivers, malaria was rampant.
The Rideau and Cataraqui Rivers flow through Eastern Ontario; the
Rideau flows North from the Rideau Lakes to the Ottawa River, the
Cataraqui flows south into Lake Ontario, near Kingston. They both
flow through a rugged, post-glacial landscape, dotted with isolated
lakes, ponds, wetlands, swamps, fens, bogs, and so forth. These
sluggish and stagnant wetlands were ideal breeding grounds for the
Anopheles mosquito, which transmits malaria.
Of course, in the 1800s, no one knew that malaria (often called
ague) was a infection transmitted by mosquitoes. The
suspected cause of the disease is reflected in the name malaria: it
was widely believed the cause was ‘bad air’, or ‘mal aria’. The
theory was that malaria was caused by the ‘bad’ air found around
swamps. Today we know that malaria is caused by a microscopic
parasite carried by mosquitoes, and the bad air around swamps is
When the 1800s dawned Eastern Ontario was sparsely settled, being
too remote and too rocky to attract homesteaders. But the War of
1812 changed all that. At that time, most settlement in Upper
Canada (now Ontario) was along the shores of the St. Lawrence River,
and the Great Lakes, and, with few roads, transport was mostly by
boat. With the United States of America lining the other shores, the
transportation routes were vulnerable to attack, particularly along
the St. Lawrence from Kingston to Montreal. After we won the War of
1812 (in 1814), this transportation vulnerability was addressed.
The particular problem was military communication between Montreal,
Ottawa, and Kingston. Anything shipped from Ottawa to Kingston or
westward had to travel down the Ottawa River to Montreal, then up
the St. Lawrence River to Kingston, in full view of the Americans.
With Ottawa as the Capital, this situation could not continue.
To solve this problem, the British Royal Engineers, under Colonel
John By, constructed the Rideau Canal system, which links Kingston
and Ottawa, using the Rideau and Cataraqui Rivers. From 1826 to
1832, a series of locks, dams, canal sections, and other engineering
marvels was built to form a 220 km canal that is still used today;
ironically, many tourists on the canal today are Americans it was
built to protect us from.
It was during the construction of the canal that malaria ran
rampant. Each summer the ‘ague’ returned to ravage the population.
There is no accurate count of those who died, but the numbers
certainly were high. The only treatment at the time was quinine,
derived from a tropical tree bark. Unfortunately, few labourers
could afford the drug. (Bye the way, some of us today may sip a ‘Gin
and Tonic’ on a warm day: the ‘Tonic’ contains quinine, and was
originally designed as a malaria treatment for British troops in
One of the worst malaria areas on the Rideau Canal was Jones Falls,
known today for its beauty. In 1826 it was a remote wilderness of
rock and swamp. Colonel By’s crews built an amazing set of four
canal locks, as well as the Jones Falls Dam, the largest in North
America!, and a marvel in its own right. But, every July and August,
work all-but stopped, due to the ague. Many workers left the area
altogether, and those who stayed were too weak to work.
There is the tale of one worker, who said he would go to his
deathbed smiling, not because he thought he would go to Heaven, but
because he knew Hell would be a lot easier than working on the Jones
By the 1900s malaria had died out in Eastern Ontario, after we
learned to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds. Today all that
reminds us are the locks and dams, and graveyards, of the Rideau
How did malaria break out in Eastern Ontario? It seems likely there
were two strains of malaria at work, one temperate strain and one
tropical. The tropical strain would have been brought to Canada by
British soldiers, particularly Royal Engineers who had built
railways and dams in India, and were brought to Canada to build the
Rideau Canal, and the other developed here.