Scots are Canada’s rocks

I was catching up on my reading this week when I noticed an interesting article in the November, 1920, issue of The Beaver, then the house organ of the Hudson’s Bay Company. It said Angus Brabant, a northern fur trade commissioner, toiled 35 years without holidays. He only stopped working when the job “was finished or the kerosene gave out.”

Brabant’s work habits help explain how two newish books can claim the Scots created Canada.

Matthew Shaw, a writer and teacher, produced a book called Great Scots: How the Scots Created Canada. More recently, Ken McGoogan, a well-known Canadian author, came up with How the Scots Invented Canada.

Both books will be of interest to Winnipeggers because we’ll soon be celebrating the arrival at the Red River of Scottish Selkirk settlers in September, 1812.

Scots, says Shaw, were able to make a huge contribution because, unlike many immigrant groups, they spread themselves evenly throughout what is now Canada. And, he says, they “kept coming and coming… and coming.” For three centuries, Canada received “a constant infusion of ideas and attitudes from Scotland.” Scots also “put themselves into position of power.” Finally, they were tough; they worked hard and didn’t seem to mind the cold (even when wearing kilts).

They dominated the fur trade in both the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company. When these companies merged in 1821, the new company was managed in Canada for 40 years by George Simpson, a Scot whom author Peter C. Newman has called “a bastard, both by birth and persuasion.”

Simpson ran his ocean-to-ocean-to-ocean empire from the bottom of a racing canoe paddled by hand-picked voyageurs. His peripatetic management style kept Americans from grabbing big chunks of our territory.

The Scots used the boost they got from the fur trade to move into other businesses such as banking (they gave us the benefits of branch banking); life insurance; construction; transportation (including our first transcontinental railway, the CPR) and distilling. They were helped by the fact many English businesses ignored Canada, feeling they could make more money more quickly in India (“the jewel of the Empire”) and Caribbean colonies.


Scots also loved politics. “Scots are the single most over-represented group of politicians in our nation’s history,” says Shaw.

James Douglas, whom Simpson said could become “furiously violent when aroused,” oversaw British Columbia’s development from HBC territory to a Crown colony to a Canadian province. Scots were instrumental in the development of Nova Scotia.

Scots James Murray and Guy Carlton, governors of British North America, played key roles in keeping Quebec part of Canada, mostly by adroitly managing cultural and linguistic issues.

Eight out of 10 of the most important “Fathers of Confederation” were Scots, including Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister after 1867.

In later years, Agnes Macphail, a Scottish reformer, worked for 19 years as an MP for women’s rights. In Saskatchewan, Tommy Douglas became the father of health care. Pierre Elliott Trudeau (the Elliott is courtesy of his Scottish mother) brought us official bilingualism and patriated the constitution.

Throughout the 1700s and 1800s, Scotland was Europe’s most literate nation, says Shaw. In 1750, Scotland’s literacy rate was estimated to be 75 per cent — a rate the English didn’t attain until the 1880s.

Read More at Scots are Canada’s rocks – Winnipeg Free Press.

Story by Tom Ford

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