Rideau Canal

Enlarge ISBN (identifier) Ottawa
Rideau Canal
Native names
English: Rideau Canal
French: Canal Rideau
Rideau Canal.jpg
Locks in summer
Length202 km (126 mi)
ArchitectJohn By
Governing bodyParks Canada
Criteriai, iv
Designated2007 (31st session)
Reference no.1221
State Party Canada
RegionNorth America
Canadian Heritage River2000
Rideau Canal
Length202 km (126 miles)
Maximum boat length90 ft 0 in (27.43 m)
Maximum boat beam28 ft 0 in (8.53 m)
Maximum boat draft1.5 m (5 ft)
Construction began1826
Date completed1832
Start pointOttawa River
End pointLake Ontario

The Rideau Canal, also known unofficially as the Rideau Waterway, connects Canada's capital city of Ottawa, Ontario, to Lake Ontario and the Saint Lawrence River at Kingston, Ontario. It is 202 kilometres in length.[1] The name Rideau, French for "curtain", is derived from the curtain-like appearance of the Rideau River's twin waterfalls where they join the Ottawa River.[2] The canal system uses sections of two rivers, the Rideau and the Cataraqui, as well as several lakes. The Rideau Canal is operated by Parks Canada.

The canal was opened in 1832 as a precaution in case of war with the United States. It remains in use today primarily for pleasure boating, with most of its original structures intact. The locks on the system open for navigation in mid-May and close in mid-October.[3][4] It is the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America, and in 2007 it was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.[5]


An engraving of the Rideau Canal locks at Bytown


After the War of 1812, information was received about the United States' plans to invade the British colony of Upper Canada from upstate New York by following the St. Lawrence River.[6] This would have severed the lifeline between Montreal and the major naval base at Kingston. To protect against such an attack in the future, the British began construction of a number of defenses including Citadel Hill, La Citadelle, and Fort Henry.[7]

To ensure safe passage between Montreal and Kingston, a new route was planned that would proceed westward from Montreal along the St. Lawrence, north along the Ottawa River to Bytown (now Ottawa), then southwest via canal to Kingston and out into Lake Ontario.[8] The Rideau would form the last portion of this route, along with shorter canals at Grenville, Chute-à-Blondeau and Carillon to bypass rapids and other hazards along the route.[9]

1845 painting of the canal and Lower Town by Thomas Burrowes


The construction of the canal was supervised by Lieutenant-Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers. Private contractors such as future sugar refining entrepreneur John Redpath, Thomas McKay, Robert Drummond, Thomas Phillips, Andrew White[10] and others were responsible for much of the construction, and the majority of the actual work was done by thousands of Irish and French-Canadian labourers. Colonel John By decided to create a slackwater canal system[11] instead of constructing new channels. This was a better approach as it required fewer workers, was more cost effective, and would have been easier to build.[12]

The lock at Lower Brewers nearing completion in 1831 by Thomas Burrowes

The canal work started in the fall of 1826, and it was completed by the spring of 1832. The first full steamboat transit of the canal was done by Robert Drummond's steamboat, Rideau (aka "Pumper"), leaving Kingston on May 22, 1832 with Colonel By and family on board, and arriving in Bytown on May 29, 1832. The final cost of the canal's construction was £822,804 by the time all the costs, including land acquisitions costs, were accounted for (January 1834). Given the unexpected cost overruns, John By was recalled to London and was retired with no accolades or recognition for his tremendous accomplishment.[13]

Poonahmalee, on the Rideau River, near Smith Falls, Ontario – October 1906

Commercial use

Once the canal was constructed, no further military engagements took place between Canada and the United States. Although the Rideau never had to be used for its intended purpose, it played a pivotal role in the early development of Canada.

The canal was easier to navigate than the St. Lawrence River because of the series of rapids between Montreal and Kingston. As a result, the Rideau Canal became a busy commercial artery from Montreal to the Great Lakes. It was the main travel route for immigrants heading westward into Upper Canada, and tens of thousands of immigrants from the British Isles travelled the Rideau in this period. It was also a major route for heavy goods (timber, minerals, grain) from Canada's hinterland heading east to Montreal.[14]

Hundreds of barge loads of goods were shipped each year along the Rideau; in 1841, for instance, there were 19 steamboats, 3 self-propelled barges and 157 unpowered or tow barges using the Rideau Canal.[14] The route was not as popular as the Erie Canal, and many of the loads that might have used it at Kingston instead travelled to the opposite side of the St. Lawrence at Oswego to use the Oswego Canal to join the Erie to New York.

Businessmen in Kingston looked to address this issue. One concept was to build another canal to Lake Simcoe and on to Georgian Bay, thereby allowing traffic on the upper Great Lakes to avoid shipping through the entire lakes system and use canals all the way to Montreal. This plan eventually emerged as the Trent-Severn Waterway, itself having been originally surveyed as a military route but never built. A simpler plan was to route around the dangerous parts of the St. Lawrence to allow direct shipping from Kingston to Montreal, and this was soon underway.[15]

By 1849, the rapids of the St. Lawrence had been tamed by a series of locks, and commercial shippers were quick to switch to this more direct route.[15] Further work improving this direct route continued and in the 1950s became today's Saint Lawrence Seaway. Remaining commercial use of the Rideau largely ended after the opening of the Prescott and Bytown Railway in December 1854.

Current use

After the arrival of railway routes into Ottawa, most use of the canal was for pleasure craft. The introduction of the outboard motor led to an increase in small pleasure craft and increasing use of inland waterways like the Rideau and Trent-Severn. Today the Rideau forms part of the Great Loop, a major waterway route connecting a large area of the eastern United States and Canada.[16]

Brewer's Lower Mill – view down the Cataraqui Creek and clearing made for the Rideau Canal, 1829 by Thomas Burrowes

Construction deaths

As many as one thousand of the workers died during the construction of the canal. Most deaths were from disease, principally complications from malaria[17] (P. vivax), which was endemic in Ontario within the range of the Anopheles mosquito, and other diseases of the day. Accidents were fairly rare for a project of this size; in 1827 there were seven accidental deaths recorded.[18] Inquests were held for each accidental death. The men, women and children who died were buried in local cemeteries, either burial grounds set up near work sites or existing local cemeteries. Funerals were held for the workers and the graves marked with wooden markers (which have since rotted away—leading to a misconception that workers were buried in unmarked graves).[18]

View on the Cataraqui Creek, Brewer's Upper Mills in the background, 1830 by Thomas Burrowes

Some of the dead remain unidentified as they had no known relatives in Upper Canada. Memorials have been erected along the canal route, most recently the Celtic Cross memorials in Ottawa, Kingston and Chaffeys Lock.[19] The first memorial on the Rideau Canal acknowledging deaths among the labour force was erected in 1993 by the Kingston and District Labour Council and the Ontario Heritage Foundation at Kingston Mills.

Three canal era cemeteries are open to the public today: Chaffey's Cemetery and Memory Wall at Chaffey's Lock—this cemetery was used from 1825 to the late 19th century; the Royal Sappers and Miners Cemetery (originally called the Military and Civilian Cemetery and then as the Old Presbyterian Cemetery) near Newboro—used from 1828 to the 1940s; and McGuigan Cemetery near Merrickville—used from the early 19th century (c. 1805) to the late 1890s.


The Rideau Canal was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1925, and marked with a federal plaque the next year, and again in 1962 and 2013.[20]

The canal has been featured on postage stamps issued by Canada Post. Two 45-cent stamps—'Rideau Canal, Summer Boating at Jones Falls'[21] and 'Rideau Canal, Winter Skating by Parliament'[22]—were issued on June 17, 1998, as part of the Canals and Recreational Destinations series. The stamps were designed by Carey George and Dean Martin, based on paintings by Vincent McIndoe. In 2014, the canal appeared on a $2.50 international rate stamp as part of a Canada Post set honoring World Heritage Sites.[23] The same design was reprised on a 2016 domestic-rate stamp.[24]

Looking up from the bottom of the Ottawa Lockstation of the Rideau Canal. Chateau Laurier in Center rear.
Rideau Canal Locks looking down towards the Ottawa River from Wellington street

In 2000 the Rideau Waterway was designated a Canadian Heritage River in recognition of its outstanding historical and recreational values.[20]

In 2007 it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site recognizing it as a work of human creative genius. The Rideau Canal was recognized as the best preserved example of a slack water 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. It was also recognized as an extensive, well preserved and significant example of a canal which was used for military purposes linked to a significant stage in human history – that of the fight to control the north of the American continent.[20]

A plaque was erected by the Ontario Archaeological and Historic Sites Board at Jones Falls Lockstation commemorating Lieutenant Colonel John By, Royal Engineer, the superintending engineer in charge of the construction of the Rideau Canal. The plaque notes the 123-mile-long (198 km) Rideau Canal, built as a military route and incorporating 47 locks, 16 lakes, two rivers, and a 360-foot-long (110 m), 60-foot-high (18.3 m) dam at Jones Falls (Jones Falls Dam), was completed in 1832.

Other plaques to the canal erected by the Ontario Heritage Trust are at Kingston Mills,[25] Smiths Falls,[26] and Rideau Lakes.[27]


Rideau Canal map
Lock Nº
MP (km)
Ottawa River
Rideau Falls
Sussex Drive
Union Street
Ottawa, St. Patrick Street
Plaza Bridge,
Cummings Bridge
Confederation Line
Mackenzie King Bridge
Laurier Avenue Bridge
Corktown Footbridge,
Adàwe Crossing
Ontario 417.svg Highway 417
Pretoria Bridge,
Footbridge (old railway)
Confederation Line
Flora Footbridge,
George McIlraith Bridge
Bank Street Bridge,
Billings Bridge
Bronson Avenue
Dow's Lake
Trillium Line
Heron Bridge
Hog's Back,
Hog's Back Falls
Hog's Back Bridge
Mooney's Bay
CN/Via Bridge
Hunt Club Road
Black Rapids
Vimy Memorial Bridge
Jock River
Long Island
Long Island
Roger Stevens Drive
Ontario 416.svg Highway 416
Kemptville Creek
Merlyn Wilson Road
Burritts Rapids
Burritts Rapids
Lower Nicholsons
Upper Nicholsons
Upper Nicholsons
County Road 43
Old Slys
Old Slys
Ontario 15.svg Highway 15
Rideau Canal Museum
Smiths Falls
(formerly Locks 28-30)
Abbot St
Smiths Falls Detached
Lower Rideau Lake
Tay Canal
Lower Beveridges
Upper Beveridges
Big Rideau Lake
Colonel By Island
The Narrows
Upper Rideau Lake
Rideau River
Cataraqui River
County Road 42
Newboro Lock
Newboro Lake
Ferry (cable)
Opinicon Lake
Sand Lake
Jones Falls
Whitefish Lake
Brass Point
Cranberry Lake
Upper Brewers
Lower Brewers
Lower Brewers
Kingston Mills
Kingston Mills
Ontario 401.svg Highway 401
La Salle Causeway
Ontario 2.svg Highway 2
Lake Ontario

The 202 kilometres (126 mi) of the Rideau Canal incorporate sections of the Rideau and Cataraqui rivers, as well as several lakes, including the Lower, Upper and Big Rideau lakes. About 19 km (12 mi) of the route is man-made. Communities along the waterway include Ottawa, Manotick, Kars, Burritts Rapids, Merrickville, Smiths Falls, Rideau Ferry, Portland, Westport, Newboro, Seeleys Bay and Kingston. Communities connected by navigable waterways to the Rideau Canal include Kemptville and Perth.

Since World War I and the construction of more extensive rail lines into rural Ontario, only pleasure craft make use of the Rideau Canal.[28] It takes 3–5 days to travel one way through the Rideau Canal system by motor boat.[29] Boat tours of the canal are offered in Ottawa, Kingston, Merrickville, and Chaffeys Lock. A cruise line operates the ship Kawartha Voyageur.[30] Recreational boaters can use it to travel between Ottawa and Kingston.

Most of the locks are still hand-operated. There are a total of 45 locks at 23 stations along the canal, plus two locks (locks 33 and 34) at the entrance to the Tay Canal (leading to Perth).[31] Furthermore, there are four blockhouses and some of the original 16 defensible lockmasters residences along the waterway. The original Commissariat Building and foundation of the Royal Engineers' barracks remain at the Ottawa Lock Station. The waterway is home to many species of birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and fish.[32]

In 1973–74 a new Smiths Falls Combined Lock, 29a, was built a few dozen metres to the north of the original flight of three locks (locks 28–30). The original locks were bypassed but left in place.


The Rideau Canal uses a lock system that is still fully functioning.[29] The gates that let boats in and out of the locks last approximately 12–15 years.[33] When the canal was constructed, the gates were made at the lock sites by carpenters and blacksmiths,[33] but presently they are made in Smiths Falls, Ontario, and sometimes it takes up to two months to build a set of gates.[33] The gates used on the Rideau Canal are made of Douglas Fir and are mitre-shaped to ensure a tight seal due to water pressure.[34] The average Rideau Canal lock lift uses 1.3 million litres (1,300 m3; 1,700 cu yd) of water.[34]


In normal operations the canal can handle boats up to 27.4 m (89 ft 11 in) in length, 7.9 m (25 ft 11 in) in width, and 6.7 m (22 ft) in height with a draft of up to 1.5 m (4 ft 11 in) (boats drafting over 1.2 m (3 ft 11 in) are asked to contact the Rideau Canal Office of Parks Canada prior to their trip). In special circumstances a boat up to 33.5 m (109 ft 11 in) in length by 9.1 m (29 ft 10 in) in width can be handled.


Four blockhouses were built from 1826 to 1832 to provide protection for the canal was under the control of the British Forces:

A fifth blockhouse at Burritts Rapids was partially built in 1832 before work was stopped with only the foundation and walls completed, then rebuilt in 1914–1915 and finally demolished to be replaced by the current lock station in 1969.[39]

Commissariat Building

The Commissariat Building is the oldest stone building still standing in Ottawa. It was built in 1827 as a storehouse for the British Military in Upper Canada. The building has three floors, a secure vault, two sets of staircases, and a block and tackle on the front for hauling goods into the upper floors.[40] After being divided into workshops and residential apartments, the Commissariat Building has housed the Bytown Museum since 1917.[41]

Parliament Hill was intended to be the site of a fortress, to be called Citadel Hill, where the canal ended at the Ottawa River.


The Rideau Canal Skateway, with the Chateau Laurier in the background.

In winter, a section of the Rideau Canal passing through central Ottawa becomes officially the world's largest and second longest skating rink.[42] The cleared length is 7.8 kilometres (4.8 mi) and has the equivalent surface area of 90 Olympic ice hockey rinks. It runs from the Hartwell locks at Carleton University to the locks between the Parliament Buildings and the Château Laurier, including Dow's Lake in between. It serves as a popular tourist attraction and recreational area and is also the focus of the Winterlude festival in Ottawa. Beaver Tails, a fried dough pastry, are sold along with other snacks and beverages, in kiosks on the skateway.

In January 2008, Winnipeg, Manitoba, achieved the record of the world's longest skating rink at a length of 8.54 kilometres but with a width of only 2 to 3 metres wide[43] on its Assiniboine River and Red River at The Forks. In response, the Rideau Canal was rebranded as "the world's largest skating rink". The Rideau Canal Skateway was added to the Guinness Book of World Records in 2005 for being the largest naturally frozen ice rink in the world.[44]

The Skateway is open 24 hours a day. The length of the season depends on the weather, but typically the Rideau Canal Skateway opens in January and closes in March.[45] Because of global warming, the region's average winter temperature has risen at an accelerating rate since the 1970s, which has gradually pushed back the opening day of skating and shortened the skating season.[46] In 1971–1972, the Skateway's second winter, the skating season was 90 days long, which is the longest season so far.[47] 2015–2016 was the shortest Rideau Canal Skateway season, being a mere 34 days long (and with only 18 skating days).[48]

Season Opened Closed Days of skating[49]
50th January 18, 2020[50] February 26, 2020 31[51]
49th December 30, 2018 March 10, 2019 59
48th January 5, 2018 February 21, 2018 35
47th January 14, 2017 February 18, 2017 25
46th January 23, 2016 February 25, 2016 18
45th January 10, 2015 March 9, 2015 59
44th December 31, 2013 March 11, 2014 58
43rd January 18, 2013 February 28, 2013 38
42nd January 15, 2012 February 22, 2012 26
41st January 8, 2011 March 6, 2011 53
40th January 14, 2010 February 26, 2010 36
39th January 1, 2009 March 5, 2009 58
38th January 25, 2008 March 5, 2008 34
37th January 26, 2007 March 12, 2007 45
36th January 7, 2006 March 10, 2006 39
35th December 28, 2004 March 16, 2005 66
34th January 14, 2004 February 28, 2004 46
33rd January 3, 2003 March 16, 2003 66
32nd February 2, 2002 March 8, 2002 26
31st December 29, 2000 March 9, 2001 69[52][53]
30th December 31, 1999 February 23, 2000 [54][55]
29th January 2, 1999 March 16, 1999 [56][57]
28th December 21, 1997 March 2, 1998 46[58][59]
27th January 12, 1997 March 22, 1997 57[60][61]
26th January 1, 1996 February 23, 1996 47[62][63]
25th January 1, 1995 March 9, 1995 50[64]
24th December 30, 1993 March 11, 1994 [65][66]
23rd December 29, 1992 March 1, 1993 [67][68]
22nd December 28, 1991 March 6, 1992 [69]
21st January 4, 1991 March 2, 1991 [70][71]
20th December 24, 1989 February 22, 1990 [72]
19th December 23, 1988 March 14, 1989 [73][74]
18th January 4, 1988 March 7, 1988 [75][76]
17th January 7, 1987 March 2, 1987 [76]
16th December 27, 1985 February 23, 1986 [77][78]
15th January 4, 1985 February 22, 1985 [79][80]
14th December 25, 1983 February 17, 1984 [81][82][83]
13th January 2, 1983 February 14, 1983 [84][85]
12th December 27, 1981 February 21, 1982 [86][87]
11th December 18, 1980 February 17, 1981 [88]
10th January 1, 1980 February 22, 1980 43[89][90]
9th January 5, 1979 February 23, 1979 [91]
8th December 29, 1977 March 9, 1978 [92][93]
7th December 14, 1976 February 27, 1977 45[90]
6th December 20, 1975 February 26, 1976 [94][95]
5th December 31, 1974 February 28, 1975 [96][97]
4th January 1, 1974 February 28, 1974 [98][99]
3rd December 25, 1972 1973 45[100][90]
2nd December 26, 1971 March 25, 1972 [101]
1st January 18, 1971 February 26, 1971[77][102]

Although some residents of Ottawa used the canal as an impromptu skating surface for years, the official use of the canal as a skateway and tourist attraction is a more recent innovation. As recently as 1970, however, city government of Ottawa considered paving over the canal to make an expressway.[103] The federal government's ownership of the canal, however, prevented the city from pursuing this proposal. When Doug Fullerton was appointed chair of the National Capital Commission, he proposed a recreational corridor around the canal, including the winter skateway between Carleton University and Confederation Park. The plan was implemented on January 18, 1971, despite opposition by city council. A small section of ice near the National Arts Centre was cleared by NCC employees with brooms and shovels,[44] and 50,000 people skated on the canal the first weekend.[103] Today the skating area of the canal is larger because of the equipment available for ice resurfacing and 24/7 maintenance crews. The skateway now has an average of one million visits per year.[44] City councillor and author Clive Doucet credits this transformation of the canal with reinvigorating the communities of the Glebe, Old Ottawa East and Old Ottawa South.[103]

An ice hockey game on the canal on Christmas Day, 1901

Preparation and maintenance

The preparation for the Skateway starts as early as mid-October.[104] At the end of the boating season, the water is drained at the Ottawa locks near Parliament by Parks Canada.[104] Facilities on the ice such as shelters, chalets, and access ramps for vehicles are then installed.[104] Next, "beams are placed at the locks, and the water is raised to skating level."[104] After this step, the essentials are added such as stairs to access the ice, and hookups for both plumbing and electricity.[104] The ice cap that forms as the canal freezes becomes the Rideau Canal Skateway.[44] When the canal has built up a sufficient ice thickness, snow is removed from the ice surface and it is flooded in order to make the ice even more thick and smooth.[104] Samples of ice are tested for quality and thickness.[44] When it is safe to skate on, the Rideau Canal Skateway is opened for the season.

The Rideau Canal Skateway is maintained by the NCC (National Capital Commission).[44] The ice is maintained by crews 24 hours a day, seven days a week.[104] The snow and ice shavings are cleared off the surface every day and the ice surface is flooded each night with a "water dispersion machine" (weather permitting) to fill in any cracks caused by the contracting and expanding ice.[104] There are approximately 20 holes along the side of the Skateway that flood the ice surface to make it smoother for skaters.[104]

Two types of ice can form on the Rideau Canal Skateway, which are "white ice" and "clear ice".[44] White ice has a milky appearance with air bubbles, and is formed when snow and water mix and then freeze.[44] White ice can also be formed by mechanically flooding the ice surface with water to increase the thickness of the ice cap.[44] The other type of ice is called "clear ice", which has a colourless appearance and is formed when ice crystals build up below the frozen surface in cold temperatures.[44] If snow accumulates on the ice it can negatively impact the conditions for skating. Snow depresses the ice surface and slows down the formation of ice crystals beneath the surface.[44]

Ice conditions can be classified as very good, good, fair or poor.[105] They are updated twice daily by the NCC. The ideal ("very good") conditions mean there are "a limited number of pressure cracks", the ice is very hard and durable overall, the ice surface is clean and smooth, there are a "limited number of rough areas", and there is a "very good gliding surface."[105]

See also


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  3. ^ Rideau Canal, UNESCO World Heritage, UNESCO.org. Retrieved 2008-01-14.
  4. ^ "Rideau Canal National Historic Site of Canada > Lockstation Safety". Parks Canada. Retrieved 2013-11-16.
  5. ^ UNESCO names World Heritage sites, BBC News, 28 June 2007. Retrieved 2008-01-14.
  6. ^ "Rideau River | The Canadian Encyclopedia". www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca. Retrieved 2020-06-18.
  7. ^ Legget, Robert (1955). Rideau Waterway. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. pp. 23–25.
  8. ^ "Rideau Canal - History of the Rideau Canal". www.rideau-info.com. Retrieved 2020-06-18.
  9. ^ Roy MacGregor (7 August 2016). "The story of the Rideau Canal: A major engineering feat of the 19th century". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 2016-08-10.
  10. ^ History of the Rideau Canal, Rideau-info.com. Retrieved 2008-01-14.
  11. ^ "Rideau Heritage Route – Environment".
  12. ^ Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. "Rideau Canal".
  13. ^ "Rideau Canal – Tales of the Rideau: Bye By – The Story of Lieutenant-Colonel John By, R.E."
  14. ^ a b Bush, Edward Forbes (1977). Commercial Navigation on the Rideau Canal, 1832–1961. Ottawa: Parks Canada. p. 107.
  15. ^ a b "Parks Canada – Rideau Canal National Historic Site of Canada Receives World Heritage Site Designation!". Retrieved 2010-05-25.
  16. ^ "What is the Great Loop?". NOAA FAQs. NOAA. Retrieved 14 January 2017.
  17. ^ HISTORY of the RIDEAU CANAL, The Canadian Canal Society
  18. ^ a b "Grave Revealed". Rideau-info.com. Retrieved 2012-03-14.
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  20. ^ a b c "History of the Rideau Canal". Rideau-info.com. Retrieved 2012-03-14.
  21. ^ "Canada Post stamp". Data4.collectionscanada.gc.ca. 1998-06-17. Retrieved 2013-03-03.
  22. ^ "Canada Post stamp". Data4.collectionscanada.gc.ca. 1998-06-17. Retrieved 2013-03-03.
  23. ^ $2.50 2014 Rideau Canal stamp, from Allnumis.com
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  27. ^ The Royal Sappers and Miners plaque at OntarioPlaques.com
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  45. ^ "Ncc Faq". Ncc-ccn.gc.ca. Retrieved 2014-03-18.
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