Telfer School of Management
University of Ottawa
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Research Links - June 2009 - Out of the Past
Telfer School researcher examines financial and accounting practices used during construction of the Rideau Canal.
In June 2007, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization inscribed the Rideau Canal on the organization’s list of world heritage sites. Built between 1828 and 1832, the 202-kilometre waterway is the only canal constructed during the great North American canal-building era of the early 19th century that remains operational along its initial geographic line and has most of its original structures intact.
Despite the historic significance of this military, commercial and recreational waterway, no formal analysis has been conducted of the management, accounting, reporting, governance and accountability practices used by Lieutenant-Colonel John By and his successors during its construction and operation. That is about to change.
“I spent last year reviewing as many secondary sources on the canal as I could find,” says Dr. Merridee Bujaki, associate professor and Welch LLP Accounting Program Fellow at the Telfer School of Management. “Now I’m delving deeper into primary archival sources to identify specific research questions in three areas: the management and accounting practices put in place during key phases in the life of the canal; governance and accountability mechanisms used by different governments and departments; and reporting practices at individual lock sites and throughout the system as a whole.”
Supported by a $28,000 grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Dr. Bujaki and her research assistant have already examined some of the cost overruns during the building of the canal and prepared an article on this subject for publication in an upcoming edition of Accounting History. A committee of inquiry looked into the serious cost overruns that plagued the project during construction. Part of the official record of that inquiry is more than 150 pages of correspondence between officials in Upper Canada and the United Kingdom. “I’ve conducted a discourse analysis of those letters that allowed me to gain an understanding of the costs and benefits of the canal as they were perceived by those officials prior to construction,” Dr. Bujaki says.
Dr. Bujaki is also hard at work scrutinizing two other key characteristics of the Canal’s construction: initial cost estimates and contracting procedures. “Some people have speculated that the chief surveyor of the project deliberately misstated or low-balled his estimates to ensure construction of the project went ahead,” she says. “My research looks at the methods Samuel Clowes used to establish these estimates, any glaring errors he might have committed and whether or not there is any evidence of political influence behind his calculations.” In terms of future research projects, Dr. Bujaki says, “Since the canal was built almost entirely by private contractors, I’d love to get my hands on an original contract between the Corps of Royal Engineers and one of these contractors, and then analyze that contract from the perspective of modern accounting practices.”
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