Scots in Canada could reinvent themselves. Class and the traditional hierarchies were less important in the New World. Well-educated, hard-working and determined Scots made an incredible impact on the history of Canada.
Canada’s first two Prime Ministers were of Scottish origin, but before they came to represent the new country, they were ordinary working men.
Thomas Clement Douglas was born in Falkirk, Scotland. His family emigrated to Winnipeg in Canada when he was six years old. He left school at the age of 14 to become a printer’s apprentice. He was part of a deeply religious family and became involved in church work. In 1924 he entered the Baptist ministry. Following his ordination in 1930, Douglas moved to the province of Saskatchewan and encountered extreme poverty among the people there. He was moved to political action to try to assist them and in 1935 he successfully stood as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) candidate in the federal elections. In 1944 Douglas resigned his federal seat to become the Saskatchewan CCF’s leader and then the 7th Premier of Saskatchewan, from 1944 to 1961. His government was the first democratic social government in North America and introduced the first universal healthcare programme on the continent where all bills were paid solely by government. For this he was nicknamed ‘The father of Medicare’. He stepped down in 1961 to lead the newly formed federal New Democratic Party. Although Tommy Douglas never led the party to government, during his tenure the party held the balance of power in the House of Commons. He remained committed to his socialist ideals and was an MP until 1979. He died aged 81 after a long battle with cancer. He was voted Greatest Canadian in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation national poll in 2004.
Sir John A Macdonald was born in Glasgow in 1815. His family fled financial ruin in Scotland in the 1820s and remained poor in Canada. Macdonald left school to work at 15 years old, but later managed to scrape together enough money to pay for law school. In 1867, John Alexander Macdonald became the first Prime Minister of the Dominion of Canada.
It was John A Macdonald that founded the Canadian Mounted Police, 'the Mounties'.
Alexander Mackenzie, Canada’s second Prime Minister, was a plain-spoken, modest man who had worked as a stone mason in the 1840s. MacDonald and Mackenzie showed that you didn't have to come from a great family to make a real difference in Canada.
The Glengarry Fencible Regiment, organised in 1794 by a young priest named Alexander Macdonell, became the first Roman Catholic regiment since the Reformation. Macdonell went on to become the first Roman Catholic Bishop of Upper Canada.
Scots soldiers were among the Canadian troops that repelled the American invasion in 1812. In 1815 the Canadians marched south on Washington, capturing the American capital and torching the White House. To this day, Canada is the only country that has ever successfully invaded the United States.
Many of Canada's universities, banks and hospitals were established by Scots. Canada’s first bank, the Bank of Montreal was established in 1817 by a group of wealthy Scots. In 1832, the Bank of Nova Scotia, managed and dominated by Scots immigrants, opened its doors for the first time.
Sir George Simpson, a Scot known as 'the Emperor of the Plains', became a hugely successful businessman. Simpson supervised the integration of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821, and was named Governor of Rupert’s Land.
Simpson’s keen business sense helped to make the new company more profitable. Unprofitable trading posts were quickly shut down, with personnel relocated to the more successful sites.
Even in the depths of the Canadian wilderness Simpson was always formally dressed and sported a top hat. Simpson was accompanied by a full entourage of clerks and servants, with an armed escort, a doctor, and even his own private bagpiper to announce his presence in the Canadian wilds!
With a single-minded devotion to profit and efficiency, Sir George Simpson governed Rupert’s Land and the Hudson’s Bay Company for 40 years, eventually re-establishing the Hudson’s Bay Company's monopoly on the Canadian fur trade.
Robert Michael Ballantyne left Scotland at age 16 to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1848 his book 'Hudson’s Bay; or, every-day life in the wilds of North America' was published. He went on to write more than 90 books, including books for children and young people like 'Snowflakes and sunbeams; or, the young fur traders'.
Letitia MacTavish was born in Edinburgh, in 1813. She married James Hargrave, the Hudson's Bay Company's Chief Trader, and lived in York Factory for more than ten years. Her letters were saved by her family and made into a book.
Letitia noticed tiny details of women's lives in 19th-century Canada. She described the large gold earrings, turquoise ring, green tartan gown, moccasins and blanket that one woman wore. Today, Letitia MacTavish Hargrave's letters are an important and rare primary source.
The Scots in Canada became fur traders and settlers, explorers and adventurers. They became successful politicians, led rebellions and incited uprisings. Scots built businesses, communities and were instrumental in the founding of the Canadian Confederation.
Scotland was just one of the countries that contributed to Canada's history, but for such a small nation it had a large impact.
The images used above are licensed under Wikimedia Commons.
The image of Sir George Simpson is used courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.