Sunday, October 03, 2010

Ken McGoogan, How the Scots Invented Canada

The secret of Scottish success in Canada, so disproportionate, could only be summarized in three words: Scotland sent leaders.

Certainly, the country dispatched poor, uneducated people, some of them victims of the Highland Clearances and other grim circumstances. But with them, Scotland also sent many of its best and brightest: well-educated, hard-working young men—and women—who crossed the ocean to make their fortune.

Ken McGoogan’s newest non-fiction work, How the Scots Invented Canada (HarperCollins, 2010), traces, quite literally, the Scottish influence on the creation of what became Canada, from the nation-builders to those who made indelible marks upon the culture of the county we have somehow become. Writing on explorers from Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser and Isobel Gunn to Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott to Lord Selkirk, John A. Macdonald, William Lyon Mackenzie, Lord Elgin, Nellie McClung and dozens of other individuals, McGoogan moves through whole swaths of Canadian history and Scottish history’s influence upon our ideas and ideals. Certainly this is a tale told often enough, but rarely compiled in such a way as this, focusing on specific individuals as opposed to purely geographic movements, or that of the Hudson’s Bay Company or North West Company. I’ve long heard the phrase that “Canada is Scotland’s revenge on the English,” and certainly the enormous Scottish influence upon Canada is a story I’ve often thought well-known but occasionally reminded actually isn’t; a given to those who know, and for others, a complete unknown. McGoogan brings the information together into a highly researched and highly readable form, showing numerous of the threads that came west over the Atlantic to weave into the Canadian fabric.

One of the stories he tells early on is of Scottish Presbyterian preacher John Knox, student of John Calvin, the man who created what would become our current dour, hard-working, industrious and literate notions of Scottish Presbyterianism, as well as being an accidental spark for what would become the Scottish Enlightenment:
For many years, John Knox sermonized at St. Giles. The irony was that, while preaching fire and brimstone, and railing against the excesses of Roman Catholicism, he made changes that brought on the Scottish Enlightenment. Knox decreed that everyone had to read the Bible, and figured out ways to make that happen. By 1750, 75 percent of Scots could read—a level of literacy unprecedented in Europe. Widespread literacy gave rise to broader education and so to the Enlightenment.
There are a number of books over the years that I’ve seen adding breadth and depth into the equation of how Canada became, including John Ralton Saul’s nearly bulletproof argument of Canada as a Metis nation in his A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada (Viking Canada, 2008), and some of the books McGoogan cites in his extensive bibliography, including Arthur Herman’s How the Scots Invented the Modern World (New York NY: Three Rivers Press, 2001) and Jenni Calder’s Scots in Canada (Edinburgh Scotland: Luath Press, 2003). McGoogan’s How the Scots Invented Canada isn’t presenting the Scottish influence as absolute on the evolution of Canada, but certainly an essential one. Part of what makes this book different and even essential, apart from the sheer amount of research that has gone into it, is just how far he moves into modern times, citing more contemporary Scots as an ongoing influence. Not just historic names such as Simon Fraser or Sir John A. Macdonald, but James Houston, Doris Anderson, Marshall McLuhan, Alice Munro, Bill Reid and Alistair MacLeod as contemporary nation builders. A magnificent, rich compilation of Canadian (and Scottish) histories, do we forgive him for mistakenly citing “Maxville” – home of the largest Highland Games outside of Scotland, deep inside Ontario’s oldest county, known for the highest concentration of Scottish immigration in Canada – as “Maxwell”? Yipes. Well, but for that. McGoogan traces a series of compelling stories of how this country became through Scottish means, ideas, ideals and individuals, giving much credit where credit is due. Now we just have to keep Mr. Harper from dismantling it.

1 comment:

D.M. McGowan said...

Thanks for this post. I read "How the Scots ... " last spring and enjoyed it very much.
I also appreciate the "Maxville" info ... I've been through Maxwell several times and don't recall the games McGoogan mentioned in his book. I also didn't think Maxwell was big enough.
I guess I was right.