John Redpath was born in Earlston, Scottish Borders, Scotland during the period of the Lowland Clearances that created economic hardship and dislocation for many Scottish families. As such, the twenty-year-old Redpath chose to emigrate to Canada. With limited funds for ship passage, the near penniless Redpath disembarked at Quebec City then walked barefoot to Montreal, then a city of only 16,000 residents. Once there, he found employment in the construction industry, working as a stonemason. In November of that year, Redpath witnessed the first installation of oil streetlamps in the city on rue St. Paul.
A man of integrity with a prodigious work ethic and a keen business sense, within a few years John Redpath was running his own sizeable construction business. He was involved in major projects such as the construction of the Lachine Canal and locks that proved key to future commercial development of the city of Montreal. Beginning in 1689, attempts were made by the French Colonial government and several others to build a canal that would allow ships to bypass the treacherous Lachine Rapids. After more than 130 years of failure, with funding from the recently formed Bank of Montreal, the consortium, of which Redpath was a major part, was successful in its construction and the new canal officially opened in 1825.
The Lachine canal substantially increased shipping, turning Montreal into one of the largest ports in North America. Because the land along the canal belonged to the Roman Catholic Sulpician Order it remained unused for another twenty years until Redpath and other businessmen were finally able to purchase plots along the canal. As a result of the land being opened to development, on the canal's banks came the construction of large new manufacturing plants, drawn there because of the ready source of water from the canal that could be used in the production process and provide the steam power to drive machinery. It was these industries, including Redpath's construction of the first sugar refinery in Canada, that made Montreal the industrial metropolis of Canada and by the time of his passing, John Redpath witnessed traffic go from 600 small vessels passing through the canal each year to more than 13,000 large ships.
John Redpath's success in building the Lachine Canal led to further major projects including his partnering with Thomas McKay, to construct the locks at Jones Falls, Ontario on the giant Rideau Canal project between 1827 and 1828. In addition, Redpath built the Notre-Dame Basilica and some of the first buildings at McGill University.
The Redpath Sugar refinery proved to be a major Montreal employer, within a few years annually processing approximately 7,000 tons of raw sugar imported from the West Indies aboard Redpath-owned ships. Originally called the Canada Sugar Refining Co., after his son Peter (1821-1894) joined the business the company's name was changed to John Redpath & Son. Four years later in 1861, Redpath's son-in-law George Alexander Drummond (1829-1910) also joined the company.
In addition to his own industrial enterprises, John Redpath invested in numerous businesses that greatly benefited the Montreal economy. In addition to his own cargo vessels to serve his sugar refinery, he had investments in the Montreal Towboat Company. He also helped finance the Montreal Telegraph Company and the Montreal Fire Assurance Company, serving as a director of both companies. He also committed substantial funds to develop the economies of Quebec's Eastern Townships, including investments in the Capel Copper operations, the Belvedere Mining and Smelting Company, Rockland Slate Company, Bear Creek Coal, and Melbourne Slate Co.
As a result of his business acumen, in 1833 John Redpath was invited to serve on the Board of Directors of the Bank of Montreal, a position he would hold for thirty-six years. Canada has always had a very small population and in the developing years of the early 1800s, that small population meant there was limited financial resources for business to draw upon. Because major business development was still dependent upon funding from the London (UK) financial market, John Redpath understood the need for Canada to begin the long process of developing its own capital markets. As such, he was a promoter of the Montreal Investment Association, the forerunner of the Montreal Stock Exchange. Too, coming from the Scottish working class Redpath had an inherent mistrust of the aristocratic power structure in England and did not view England as the mother country as other Canadians such as Robert Baldwin did. Numerous complaints by business officials in the Canadian colony were ignored by the British authorities and the situation became intolerable when the government in London decided to abolish tariffs that protected Lower Canada producers from the established and well-financed British companies. Understanding that fighting these powerful forces in Britain was costly and near impossible, along with other businessmen who had invested in Canada, Redpath lent his support to the Annexation Movement in Canada in an effort to leverage the situation. This group promoted the idea of the Canadian Provinces joining the United States, an idea that had been touted on prior occasions. It had been unfair taxes and tariffs that led to the American Revolution and while the Annexation Movement was short-lived, the growing support for such an idea, particularly from powerful men like Redpath, John Molson, Louis-Joseph Papineau, and Alexander Galt, caused the British authorities to make changes that resulted in the Canadian-American Reciprocity Treaty of 1854.
Beyond business, charity and community service played a large role in John Redpath's life. He was elected to the Montreal City council and was a director of such charitable institutions as the Montreal General Hospital. He was one of the founders of the Protestant House of Industry and Refuge and a major donor to the Canada Foreign Missionary Society and the French-Canadian Missionary Society. Redpath was a supporter of the 1833 law that abolished slavery in the British colonies and served as the head of a small group that lobbied for government assistance to fight Montreal's "white slavery" traffic, working with the Magdalen Asylum in Montreal to aid impoverished immigrant women forced into prostitution. Having had limited education, Redpath was a strong advocate of learning. He helped establish The Presbyterian College, Montreal and the Montreal Mechanics Institute, now the Atwater Library. John Redpath was also a benefactor of the first endowment fund established for McGill University. His son Peter also endowed a Chair of Mathematics at the university as well as building the university's Redpath Museum and Redpath Library.
John Redpath was married first to Janet McPhee, herself a Scottish immigrant from Invernessshire. They would have seven children and after her passing he married again, fostering another ten children. He built his large family a home overlooking Montreal on the slopes of Mount Royal, an area that eventually became the city of Westmount.
On his passing in 1869, John Redpath was interred in the Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal.