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Ken McGoogan, on How the Scots Invented Canada

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Published : February 26th, 2019
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Ken McGoogan, How the Scots Invented Canada

From the 18th century to the 20th, inured to hardship but disdainful of oppression, armed to an exceptional degree with education and a belief in social equality, the Scots burst the confines of their northern country, once the poorest in Europe. Doing so, they populated the world with explorers and entrepreneurs, warriors and politicians, inventors and educators. This is the theme of Ken McGoogan’s wonderful 2010 book, How the Scots Invented Canada.

Ken McGoogan, a Scottish-French-German-Irish-Danish Canadian once wrote for the Calgary Herald. He now lives in Toronto, and in this book he tells an extremely compelling story about the influence of the Scots on Canada. McGoogan, the author of four books on Arctic exploration, isn’t writing about tiresome tartan chauvinism but the undeniable fact that, in so many ways, Scots created the nation we inhabit today. Their influence is so pervasive it’s invisible.

As McGoogan demonstrates, Scots arrived in Canada early, when there was still plenty of scope for action. They explored the place, extracted its resources and virtually ran it for decades. McGoogan points out that Scots and their descendants have represented only 15 to 16 per cent of the population throughout Canada’s history, yet contributed more than half the Fathers of Confederation, and no fewer than 13 of our 22 prime ministers – including Sir John A. Macdonald.

Macdonald not only convinced the Britain’s North American colonies to confederate, but established our form of governance and defined it during his 19 years in power. The constitution Macdonald wrote has evolved over the ensuing 142 years under such leaders as Mackenzie King, John Diefenbaker and Pierre Trudeau – all of Scottish descent, the last two on their mothers’ side.

Long before Confederation, the cutthroat fur-trading rivalry between the Scots of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Scots of the North West Company succeeded in mapping our country, building its economy and ensuring it stayed British, not American. Less gloriously, Scots attacked Scots when the Nor’Westers, fearing Lord Selkirk’s settlers at Red River would interfere with their fortunes, burned homes and took lives - a grisly reminder of the clan violence of the Highlands.

Then there was the fiery Scot whose 1837 rebellion triggered the arrival of responsible government, William Lyon Mackenzie; and the Scots who built the Canadian Pacific Railway, Donald Smith and George Stephen; and the Scot who founded this newspaper, George Brown; and the Scots who ushered in equality for women, Nellie McClung, Emily Ferguson Murphy and Agnes Macphail; and the Scot who fathered Medicare, Tommy Douglas.

McGoogan portrays Scottish businessmen and politicians as more egalitarian, flexible and pragmatic than the English, readier to form alliances with aboriginals or French Canadians to achieve their ends - a cultural intermingling that laid the foundation for Canadian diversity. That mindset resulted from the liberal ideals of the Scottish Enlightenment.

McGoogan’s approach is biographical. He provides cameos of several dozen Scottish-Canadian giants, including world-class writers like Farley Mowat, Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro and innovative thinkers like Harold Innis, George Grant and Marshall McLuhan. He always focuses on how their Scottishness informed their work.

He tells many amazing stories. One is the story of a Hudson’s Bay Company man who, it turned out, was pregnant.

How the Scots Invented Canada provides a pleasurable way to get to know many of the most colourful men and women in our history. Ken McGoogan has the Scottish good sense to note that other ethnic groups have played equally key roles in shaping Canada, but says that he has “refused to let fairness take the fun out of the tale.”

Although McGoogan clearly had mixed ancestry, he took a DNA marker test that did indeed trace his ancestry to Scotland, and the last words of his book are worth recording. Following his Scottish ancestry, he and his wife went to Mt. McGoogan, which is on a small Scottish island. He went there intent on climbing the mountain, but the mud and muck made it impassable on that particular day. He did, however, find a plastic sandwich bag. “To mark my farthest progress,” he wrote, he placed his cap “inside the bag and, shooting video at each step, buried them both” in a stone wall at the bottom of the mountain.

“Afterwards, as I slogged through the marsh back to the car, I elaborated my plan. I would post the video on my website. To anyone who retrieved my baseball cap, or else presented evidence of having reached the top of Mount McGoogan, I would send free copies of four of my books and pick up the tab for a thirty-seven marker DNA test. Or no, on second thought, I would make that two books and a less expensive twelve-marker test. That would suffice. We [Canadians] are north, we are diverse, we are post-modern. Yet some of us are also of Scottish heritage. No sense being frivolous.”


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Peter McKenzie Brown is the vice president of a resource company. He has written several volumes of history, and has worked in the corporate and academic worlds. He is British by birth, American by upbringing and Canadian by choice. Disclaimer : Although the writer is a director and officer of Stratabound, the thoughts and views herein are his only and not those of Stratabound. He is not registered in any jurisdiction as a broker or investment adviser, so nothing herein should be construed as advice on whether to buy, sell or hold shares of Stratabound or any other company mentioned herein.
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One beneficial aspect of the Scottish influence in Canada is the Presbyterian work ethic and frugality. What a pity these are slowly being replaced by a sense of entitlement and willingness to assume ever more debt.
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One beneficial aspect of the Scottish influence in Canada is the Presbyterian work ethic and frugality. What a pity these are slowly being replaced by a sense of entitlement and willingness to assume ever more debt. Read more
Themis - 2/28/2019 at 12:46 AM GMT
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