As Scotland ponders independence, some thoughts on how the Scots made Canada what it is.
by Ken McGoogan
As a seventh-generation Canadian of complex heritage — Scottish, French, Irish, German, and, farther back, Danish-Viking — I have zero tolerance for notions of racial or ethnic purity. I revel in Canada’s diversity: cultural, racial, linguistic — the more you show me, the better I like it.
That explains why I was interested to learn that in the 1930s, when John Buchan was Governor General of Canada, he told a gathering of Manitoba farmers: “You will all be better Canadians for being also good Ukrainians.” Scottish-born and raised, Buchan added: “Every Briton, and especially every Scotsman, must believe that the strongest nations are those made up of different racial elements.”
Buchan showed a prescient grasp of Canadian diversity. Contemporary Canada enjoys a coherent mainstream culture — one that rejects cockfighting, for example, or Islamic shariah law — while remaining both multicultural and multiracial. And for that we have the Scots to thank.
Buchan wasn’t the only Scot of that period to champion Canadian pluralism. In 1935, for instance, Watson Kirkconnell — a third-generation Scottish immigrant — published Canadian Overtones, an anthology of poems translated from Icelandic, Norwegian, Hungarian, Italian, Greek, and Ukrainian. Three years later, John Murray Gibbon, born in Ceylon of Scottish parents and educated in Scotland, published Canadian Mosaic, whose title and thesis would resonate for decades.
Were the 1930s exceptional? Consider John George Diefenbaker, a hybrid Scot who served as prime minister in the 1960s. His father was of German ancestry, but his mother was descended from a Selkirk settler, George Bannerman, who emigrated from Scotland in the early 1800s. Diefenbaker himself was known to sport a kilt.
History buffs will recall that “Dief” came out of retirement to oppose his own party’s two nations policy. This fierce Scottish-Canadian objected to the idea that two founding peoples had been joined by people from many lands. He felt this gave special status to British or French Canadians while relegating others to a secondary position. And he insisted that Canadian citizenship should not depend on race, colour, or origin.
He and Buchan were preaching from the same unwritten Scottish-Canadian guidebook to pluralism introduced to Canada in the 1700s. Check out the classic Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670–1870 by historian Sylvia Van Kirk. She writes of numerous “country marriages” between Scottish fur-traders and Native women. Some were exploitive, but others produced spectacular results.
Look at Cuthbert Grant. Born in 1793 in a fur-trade post between Winnipeg and Saskatoon, he was the son of a Scottish fur trader and a mother of Cree and French heritage. Young Cuthbert was taken east, baptized into the Scottish Presbyterian Church, and then sent to Scotland for schooling.
Back in Canada, Grant worked for the North West Company and became a controversial figure when a struggle in Red River (Winnipeg) pitted Scottish fur traders against Scottish settlers. At that point, the Métis did not think of themselves as a distinct and separate people, but simply as fur traders. The multilingual Grant, born a half-century before Louis Riel, made the Métis aware of themselves as a people when he recruited them to fight for the North West Company. In a sense, this hybrid Scot was the father of the Métis nation.
Now, you might argue that the key cultural influences on Grant were French and Cree. Perhaps. But ponder then the similar example of another paragon of Scots pluralism: James Douglas. Born in 1803 in British Guiana (now Guyana), Douglas was the son of a wealthy Glasgow merchant and a Creole woman. As a boy, he attended school in Lanark, Scotland, and then studied French with a tutor in England. At sixteen, he joined the North West Company as an apprentice. After marrying the half-Native daughter of a leading trader, he made the 1820s transition to the Hudson’s Bay Company and became known as “the Scotch West Indian.”
Transferred to the West Coast, Douglas became a chief factor in 1839. While based in what is now the United States, he denounced slavery, championed Native rights, and established Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island. As governor of that island and of mainland British Columbia, he battled American incursions and retained the Pacific seaboard for the British Crown. In 1871, already famous as the “Father of British Columbia,” this Scotch West Indian orchestrated the entry of B.C. into Confederation.
Like Grant, Douglas emerged from the fur trade. But if anyone suggests that Scottish-Canadian pluralism was confined to that enterprise, ask them to explain Major John Norton. He was a Scottish Cherokee who became a hero during the War of 1812. Norton was born near Dunfermline, north of Edinburgh, in the late 1760s. His father was a pure-blood Cherokee and his mother was the daughter of a Scottish farmer named John Anderson.
In 1785, Norton arrived in Quebec as a British army private. He became an interpreter in the Indian Department of Upper Canada (Ontario) and then a protégé of Mohawk Captain Joseph Brant, who made him a powerful chief among the Six Nations of the Iroquois. In 1804, while visiting England to negotiate treaties for the Iroquois, Norton became friends with British evangelicals working to abolish the slave trade and translated the biblical gospels into the Mohawk language.
When Americans invaded Canada in 1812, Norton commanded fighters from the Six Nations and played a crucial role in the British victory at Queenston Heights.
I could go on and on. It’s clear that as Canada took shape, the Scots both preached diversity and practised it. But to make it an official model for the nation, the country required a legislator. And surprise, in Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Scots provided one. Trudeau’s father was a French-Canadian businessman, but his Scottish-heritage mother, Grace Elliott, grew up speaking little French, while shining as a Highland dancer. Was it his mother’s influence that prompted Trudeau in 1971 to set up a Royal Commission to examine “the whole question of cultural and ethnic pluralism in this country?”
Certainly, he took great pride in both the French and Scottish sides of his family tree. In Just Watch Me, biographer John English devotes several pages to Trudeau’s shining moment during the 1980 Quebec referendum battle, when the prime minister responded to a taunt about his mixed, half-Scottish heritage: “Of course my name is Pierre Elliott Trudeau,” he said. “Yes, Elliott was my mother’s name. It was the name borne by the Elliotts who came to Canada more than two hundred years ago.... My name is a Quebec name, but my name is a Canadian name....”
Two years later, in 1982, this Scottish-French-Canadian gave Canada its own Constitution with a charter of individual rights and freedoms.
So there you have it. The Scots and their descendants preached Canadian diversity. They practised it, and eventually they legislated it into existence. Where I come from, that means they invented it.
John Diefenbaker and his dog McAndy at the Cambridge-Waterloo Highland Games, 1978.
Cuthbert Grant, a leader of Scottish, Cree and French heritage.
Governor James Douglas, of mixed Scottish and West Indian heritage.
James Norton, a Scottish-Cherokee military leader.
Justin Trudeau with his wife Sophie Gregoire in 2008. Trudeu's paternal grandmother was Scottish. His mother was also of Scottish descent.
This article was originally published in the June-July 2010 issue of Canada's History magazine.