How the Scots built: Canada

MORE than nine million Canadians claim to have Scottish or Irish heritage, but what impact have their ancestors had on the shaping of the country? We look at how the Scots helped shape Canada into the country it is today.

Lord Strathcona drives the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway at Craigellachie, November 7, 1885. Picture: wikipedia.org

Thousands of Jacobites left Scotland after their defeat at the Battle of Culloden, some forged a new life for themselves in Canada along with Scots soldiers, those who lost their homes during the Highland Clearances and people facing persecution.

One of the main aspects Scots were involved in, was the fur-trade in the 18th century. Scottish fur-trade explorers including Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser, and John Rae established Canada’s boundaries.

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Ken Mcgoogan, author of How the Scots Invented Canada and Celtic Lightning: How the Scots and the Irish Created a Canadian Nation, explains that: “Long before the Americans Lewis and Clarke journeyed westward, Mackenzie became the first explorer to travel overland to the Pacific coast. Rae, a Scottish Orcadian who championed the native peoples, not only discovered the unhappy fate of the 1845 Franklin expedition, but found the final link in the first navigable Northwest Passage.”

Sir James Douglas. Picture: wikipedia.org

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Ken’s work on the impact of Scots in Canada highlights five values he believes were imported with the fluctuation of Scots to the country which includes independence, democracy, pluralism, audacity, and perseverance.

Scots were influential in shaping Canada politically.

“In 1867, at Confederation, they unified diverse British colonies (now provinces) while laying the foundations of a unique system of government”, Ken explains.

Alexander Mackenzie. Picture: flickr.com

“The leaders included John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, and George Brown, who established Canada’s first national newspaper before becoming a father of Confederation. In 1871, a “Scotch West-Indian” named James Douglas brought British Columbia into Confederation.”

Douglas believed that a railway was necessary to link Vancouver to eastern Canada. The development of the railway was crucial in Canada’s progress and was conceived and financed by Scots and remains one of their most important contribution to the country.

Macdonald, whose grandfather had been cleared off his croft in Sutherland, was once again involved alongside George Stephen and Donald Smith.

Sir James Douglas. Picture: wikipedia.org

The creation of Canada’s education and banking systems were helped by Scots including James McGill, John Strachan and Peter McCutcheon McGilll.

Of Canada’s 23 prime ministers since Confederation, 14 have had Scottish roots - including current political leader, Justin Trudeau.

Ken adds: “No matter where you enter the history of Canada - through exploration, politics, business, education, or literature – you find Scots and their descendants playing a leading role.”

Douglas Gibson, a Canadian editor, publisher and writer - originally from Ayrshire - explains that many of the greatest Canadian writers have Scottish heritage.

Alexander Mackenzie. Picture: flickr.com

“But many thousands of Lowland Scots came to Canada, so that roughly five million Canadians now have family links with Scotland”, he explains. “Many of their ancestors came to settle in what is now Ontario.

“Among them were the Laidlaws, from the Ettrick Valley, who came in 1818. Several generations later young Alice Laidlaw, married as Alice Munro, won Canada’s first Nobel Prize for Literature.

“Why did the Scots leave Scotland? The usual reasons, for a well-educated people crowded into a poor country, with Clearances an exacerbating factor, Why Canada? Because Canada was off thereto the West, big, and empty, and eager for people, as the fur trade run by Scots opened it up. A very fine, on-going relationship. I’m proud to be part of it.”