A review of Ken McGoogan’s How the Scots Invented Canada
Peter C. Newman, the iconic author of a trilogy on the Hudson’s Bay Company, once told me an anecdote about meeting a new quartermaster general of the HBC. The man was Jewish and Newman asked him if he had ever been the subject of discrimination. “Yes, as a matter of fact I have,” he replied. “I’m the first Englishman ever to be quartermaster general of the Hudson’s Bay Company.”
The rest, of course, were Scots.
The story came to me as I read Ken McGoogan’s fine new book, How the Scots Invented Canada. The title is deliberately provocative, to the point of being preposterous, in the same vein as its inspiration—Arthur Herman’s How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It. It sounds as if it were conceived after one too many Lagavulins by someone who has just given the puff-chested toast of drunk Scotsmen everywhere: “Here’s tae us. Wha’s like us? Damn few an’ they’re a’ deid.”
This habit of self-congratulation has long annoyed those unfortunate enough not to have any Scots blood coursing through their veins. The backlash was perhaps best put by T.W.H. Crosland at the turn of the 20th century in his book The Unspeakable Scot: The Scotsman “is the one species of human animal that is taken by all the world to be fifty per cent cleverer and pluckier and honester than the facts warrant.”
Except, in this case, the facts support McGoogan’s contention. Of our 22 prime ministers, 13 can claim Scottish heritage; over half the 36 Fathers of Confederation were Scottish Canadians; Scots explorers such as Alexander Mackenzie and Simon Fraser crossed the continent and established settlements in the West; their countrymen such as George Simpson and Donald Smith ran the biggest companies and banks; Scots immigrants such as Sir John A. Macdonald, Tommy Douglas, George Brown and James McGill made their mark in politics, journalism and education, while others such as Alexander Graham Bell and Sandford Fleming were at the forefront of innovation and invention.
McGoogan, like Herman, bases his case on the Scottish Reformation, specifically on the demands by the founder of Scottish Presbyterianism, John Knox, that everyone should be able to read the bible. By 1750, 75 percent of Scots could read, an unrivalled level of literacy that gave birth to the Scottish Enlightenment.
“Ambitious, industrious and resourceful, these children and grandchildren of the Scottish Enlightenment were products of a superior education system. They lacked only opportunity. The secret of Scottish success in Canada, so disproportionate, could be summarized in three words: ‘Scotland sent leaders’,” writes McGoogan.
There is no doubt that the Scots who emigrated to Canada in the 18th and 19th centuries were well equipped for colonialism. By and large, they were hard-working, were prepared to take risks and were not as encumbered by class distinctions as many other Europeans.
Nevertheless, the author, like Herman, stretches his point, almost to the breaking point. Can Scotland really claim Pierre Elliott Trudeau as a native son on the basis that his mother’s Elliott ancestors emigrated from the Auld Sod to New England in the 18th century? Genealogical research revealed that some of my father’s ancestors were not only English but also Yorkshire-based slave traders back in the late 1700s. It may be arbitrary but, in my book, sons only bear the sins or virtues of their great-grandfathers, a point beyond which the remaining blood cells are too few to count.
McGoogan may take issue with this, given, by his own description, that he is a “proud Canadian of complex ethnic heritage with an Ulster Scottish ancestor who arrived in 1823.” Regardless, the author certainly feels an affinity with the garret of England (as once described, of course, by an Englishman) and the book takes the form of part travelogue, as he goes back to his roots.
The flow of what might otherwise have been just a collection of potted biographies is helped by McGoogan’s having a keen eye for a good yarn. For example, he visits Kirkcudbright, the birthplace of Thomas Douglas, the fifth Earl of Selkirk, who created Scottish colonies in Prince Edward Island, Ontario and Manitoba. He explains how Selkirk chose Canada for his settlements because of an antipathy toward the United States formed in 1778 at the age of seven, when the American Revolutionary naval hero John Paul Jones sailed into the harbour, hoping to kidnap young Thomas’s father and ransom him. When he found that the earl was not home, Jones, who was born down the Solway coast at Kirkbean, instead plundered the family silver. The history of Manitoba would have been very different had Selkirk established his colony in the U.S., rather than on the Red River.
It is the first section of the book, “The Pioneers,” that perhaps bolsters McGoogan’s case most forcefully. He details how Alexander Mackenzie became the first European explorer to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific a dozen years before Lewis and Clark. As Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage makes clear, Lewis and Clark were stunned to encounter remote Indian tribes on their trip west, where Scots fur traders and French voyageurs were already well established.
This was, of course, due to the huge footprint created by the Hudson’s Bay Company and its Scots-dominated rival, the North West Company. By the time the two were merged by George Simpson, after years of bloody jousting, the HBC controlled more than half the territory of what would become Canada. It was the trading posts established by the fur traders that laid down the political boundaries for the country that would later emerge.
The “crazy quilt” that threatened to fall apart after Confederation was held together by the stars of McGoogan’s Book Two, “The Builders”: Scots such as Sir John A. Macdonald, Donald Smith (Lord Strathcona, who drove in the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway at Craigellachie in British Columbia) and his cousin George Stephen, the financier who made the railway a reality.
The project to link the west to the east by an iron ribbon was daunting and nearly foundered on several occasions due to lack of funding. But McGoogan gives colourful illustration to a trait common to many of the Scots in his book: relentless implacability. Just as the railway project looked to be dead, Stephen went to Scotland and raised $300 million. He cabled Smith with the war cry of their Grant-clan ancestors, referring to the great stone bluff overlooking the River Spey. “Stand fast, Craigellachie.”
In our best moments, that drive to succeed and refusal to bend or yield is still apparent, in part due to the influence of the pioneers and builders from Scotland who helped invent Canada.