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The Scottish Tradition in Canada
The Scot and Canadian Identity
W. Stanford Reid

The preceding chapters of this book have indicated that Scots have played an important role in Canada from the very beginning of its history. Scottish names appear repeatedly at crucial turning points in the Canadian story as well as in the more mundane aspects of its development. In this, Scots have contributed certain characteristics to Canadian identity. While some Canadians themselves may feel that there is no truly Canadian identity or that what identity has developed is now being eroded, to many who come to the country for the first time, one thing stands out. It is the Scottish influence, which, although metamorphosed by the Canadian geographical and social environment, still remains strongly Scottish in flavor.


While most of the chapters tend to end their story of the Scot in Canada around 1900, the reason for this is not far to seek. From the opening decade of the present century the pattern of Canadian immigration has changed radically from what it was in earlier years. Ever-increasing numbers of Europeans, particularly from eastern Europe, Asiatics, West Indians and Americans have moved into Canada to create a widely variegated ethnic mosaic. As a result the proportion of the native English-speaking element in the population has declined steadily, and as Scots were only a relatively small part of that group their share in the population has likewise become smaller.

This development is indicated at least in part by the immigration and population statistics. During the years 1898-1901, Scottish immigration averaged around 1200 immigrants a year out of a population in Scotland of 4,500,000. English and Welsh immigration, on the other hand, was running at about 8,500 out of a home population of 32,000,000 to 33,000,000. Thus Scotland was sending to Canada an average proportion of its population. By 1967 the number of Scots entering the country had risen to 15,575, although since that time the figure has dropped to about one-third of that figure. While the reasons for the increase in immigration in this century is not always clear, some factors, both old and new, have acted to maintain the flow of Scottish people of all classes and social strata. The fact that friends and relatives have already migrated sometimes acts as an incentive for a move to Canada. Perhaps more important is the fact that ever since the 1820s Canada has been regarded as the land of opportunity. This has been particularly true as a result of the Depression of the 1930s and two world wars. Canada did not seem to have been as hard hit by the Depression as were some areas of Scotland where up to 25% of the labouring population were, at the depth of the slump, out of work. Furthermore, during the bombing raids of World War II Canada seemed to be a very peaceful place to live, as testified by some of the children who were evacuated to relatives in Canada for safety. Another of the more recent causes has been the fear of the growing socialism in Great Britain which has caused middle class families to move. And probably one of the factors which went along with all the others was the fact that it was felt that in Canada there were more of the comforts of life, such as central heating! But even with the increase in Scottish immigration since 1900, the Scottish proportion of the population has declined. In 1901 it was just under 15%, by 1921 it had fallen to 13.3% and since 1941 it has remained stationary at around 10%, although in the latest census the differentiation between English, Welsh and Scottish has been dropped in favour of "British." Yet Canadians of Scottish origin, from what we can determine, still form the third largest ethnic group in the country, with a total of around 2,000,000, as compared with 5,000,000 in Scotland.

In spite of the proportional decline of Scots and Canadians of Scottish descent within the population, they still play an important part in Canadian life and activity. Scots continue to come to Canada from all levels of society: skilled workmen, professionals, financiers, manufacturers. Moreover, even though they may have no relations in Canada, they soon find that they are involved with other Scots or Scottish Canadians who are very conscious of their Scottish background and heritage, and of what Scots have meant to the development of Canada and Canadian self-consciousness.

One manifestation of the strength of the continuing Scottish tradition in Canada is the number of Scottish organizations in the country. Scots and Scottish Canadians seem to have a penchant for organizing St. Andrews societies, Burns associations and the like. Many of the St. Andrews societies commenced as friendly societies to help newly-arrived immigrants, but have now become important social organizations performing a number of other functions. Burns societies also fill somewhat the same function, although their principal interest is to perpetuate "the immortal memory." Alongside these more or less Lowland organizations, whose members, however, often wear the kilt, are the various Scottish clan societies: McLeods, MacDonalds, MacRaes and all the rest, who have their ceilidhs (social gatherings) and welcome their travelling chieftains who come to grace their meetings with their presence.

While in a good many cases these societies are held together largely by nostalgia, in academic circles the study of the Scot both at home and in Canada is coming to be recognized as a valid field of investigation and interest. This is natural not only because the Scot has played a considerable part in Canadian development generally, but also because there are still areas in Canada, such as Cape Breton, where Scottish pockets have survived, keeping alive not only "the language" but also many of the customs and arts which their forefathers brought from their native heath. Marius Barbeau, the indefatigable folklorist, recorded many of the Scottish songs and stories which are gradually disappearing even from these Scottish settlements. Of great importance in the preservation of spoken Gaelic, music and dance has seen the Gaelic College at St. Ann's, Cape Breton, founded by A.W.R. Mackenzie, with its summer courses attended by many from across Canada and the United States. The CBC has also assisted by making regular Gaelic broadcasts, and although for a time these were suspended, such an outcry has been raised that they have been restored. A further centre of Celtic studies is to be found at St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, which has an active Department of Celtic Studies. In Ontario the University of Guelph has pioneered studies in Scottish history and culture, and in Scottish contributions to the Canadian scene. Not only is there an inter-departmental committee which sponsors semi-annual colloquia and publishes the proceedings, but it has also been responsible for organizing on a continent-wide basis The Conference on Scottish Studies which publishes a quarterly journal, Scottish Tradition. Partly as a result of these influences, the American Society of Eighteenth Century Studies has now established a Scottish section which will concentrate on Scottish intellectual and literary endeavours in that period. Thus Canadians are able to gain a greater understanding of the part Scots have played in the history of their country.

Many Canadians who are not of Scottish origin also appreciate, perhaps even unconsciously, what the Scot has meant to Canada. Not only do they attend the various Highland games which are held across the country every summer, but a large proportion of the population in summer enjoys a round of golf and in winter spends considerable time participating in or watching curling bonspiels, both games having been brought from Scotland, although the names of many players are anything but Scottish! Scottish dance societies also have a large following, many of whom are Dutch, German, Ukrainian and even English. In this way not only Scottish folk dances but also Scottish music is more than surviving. It is playing a significant role in the development of a Canadian popular culture.

Yet while such organizations and activities are important and influential, their impact on a country cannot but be somewhat limited. Despite the contemporary love of statistics, the use of the computer to deal with large aggregates and the tendency to think in terms of mass effects, the individual is still of paramount importance. In this situation Scots and Scottish Canadians, despite their relatively small numbers within the population, are by no means a negligible quantity. It is impossible in a few pages to list or even mention all those of Scottish origin who have played an important part in Canada during the past seventy-five years. Yet, lest some sceptics think that the Scots have lost all significance and that today the Scottish tradition is largely non-existent, let us examine a few areas in twentieth century Canadian life to see something of the contemporary position of the Scottish tradition.

Before looking at individuals, however, one point which we must keep in mind is that the Scots in Canada, like the rest of the population, have tended to become urbanized. The descendants of the original settlers who located in Cape Breton, New Brunswick, the Eastern Townships of Quebec, the Glengarry, Dundas and Stormont districts of eastern Ontario and the west and southwest of that province, and who subsequently often relocated in groups on the western prairies, have steadily migrated to Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Vancouver and other cities to enter the professions, business or government service. The newly-arrived Scottish immigrants have usually done the same thing with the result that some rural areas which before World War I were almost solidly Scottish have few if any Scots still resident. Therefore, we must look for Scots primarily in urban settings and occupations.

As in the earlier days of the country, the professions have in the twentieth century exercised a great attraction for the Scot and the Scottish Canadian. Many Scottish doctors have migrated to Canada to take a large part in the development of medical education. At the same time Scottish names appear very frequently in the lists of doctors born and trained in Canada. Many of these men have been known for their accomplishments in other fields. For example, Dr. Tait MacKenzie also gained a reputation as a sculptor, Dr. W.H. Drummond as a writer of "habitant" poems, Sir Andrew MacPhail as an educator, Dr. Thomas Gibson as a pianist, and Dr. H. Rock Robertson as the organizer of the medical faculty at the University of British Columbia and subsequently Principal of McGill University. Probably one of the most widely-known Canadian medical practitioners was Dr. Norman Bethune, a descendant of the Rev. John Bethune of Montreal and Williamstown, Ont., who died while serving with Mao Tse Tung's forces in China.

Law, too, has been a field which has attracted individuals of Scottish origin, probably because of the argumentative Calvinistic tradition from which they have come. Like Sir John A. MacDonald earlier, many of these men have entered politics to become important in both law-making and law enforcement at provincial and federal levels. A glance at the directory of the legal profession reveals so many Scottish names that it is virtually impossible to single out individuals for comment.

When we come to the Protestant ministry and the Roman Catholic priesthood, again we are faced with a plethora of Scottish names. MacDonals or Macdonells, MacLeans, Reids, Sutherlands, Mackinnons, MacQueens and others are almost innumerable. They are particularly numberous in the Presbyterian, United and Roman Catholic churches, although some also appear in the rolls of the Anglican, Baptist and other denominations. One example of the Scottish influence is that of the seventy-three moderators of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada since 1900, sixty-seven have had distinctly Scottish names, although one or two of these may have had ancestors who came to this country via Northern Ireland. While the same is not equally true of the United Church in Canada, yet out of moderators since 1925 eleven have had Scottish names.

In the arts also, Canadians of Scottish descent have played an important role, although a number have migrated to the United States. Dr. Tait MacKenzie, mentioned above, has been one of Canada's outstanding sculptors, William Cruickshank, a Scot who taught art in Toronto for twenty-five years, had among his students some of the Group of Seven, of which J.E. MacDonald was a member. Among the more recent Scottish-Canadian artists are the late Evan MacDonald of Guelph and Arthur McKay of Regina. In music one of the best known Scottish Canadians was the late Sir Ernest MacMillan, from 1926 to 1952 Principal of the Toronto Conservatory of Music and from 1931 to 1956 the conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. In the field of classical vocal music Maureen Forrester, whose father was a Scot, is outstanding, while in the "popular" field are such artists as Gisele (La Fleche) MacKenzie, Catherine MacKinnon and Anne Murray. In the literary field there are novelists such as Charles Gordon (Ralph Connor), Lucy Maud Montgomery, Hugh MacLennan, Grace Campbell and David Walker; poets William Wilfrid Campbell, Duncan Campbell Scott, John MacRae and Frank Scott; folk-lorists and historians such as Cyrus MacMillan and W.L. Morton; and journalists-travellers-conservationists such as Blair Fraser and Farley Mowat. On the stage Brian Macdonald, who began his career with the Winnipeg Ballet, has gained an international reputation for his directing and choreography. Many actors from Scotland have contributed to Canadian theatre, two of the best known being Douglas Campbell and Hugh Webster, who have participated in the Stratford Festival and have played important parts in other productions. Norman McLaren, another Scot, has made a considerable reputation in the production of films for the National Film Board. On the radio and television names such as Gordon Sinclair and Ross MacLean indicate that Scots are also involved in the newer communication media.

In the field of education Scots still carry on the old tradition which goes back to and beyond the Reformation. Dr. Norman MacKenzie, a Nova Scotian, for instance, who has been Principal of both the University of New Brunswick and the University of British Columbia, is one of the leading moulders of Canadian university education. One of his successors at UNB was Dr. Colin MacKay and at UBC was Dr. J. B. MacDonald, both of Scottish origin. On the other hand, Dr. J. S. Thomson came from Scotland to be Principal of the University of Saskatchewan and later Dean of Divinity at McGill University. Another educationalist of great influence was Prof. Harold A. Innis of Toronto who has been described as the leading social scientist in Canada. Needless to say St. Francis Xavier University is well-staffed with faculty and administration of Highland origin. In professional education, medicine, law and similar fields the same is true, for many of the deans and university professors bear Scottish names.

Business and finance also continue to be one of the preoccupations of many who bear Scottish names. One may think of the Robert Simpson Co. which was founded in Markham, Ontario, in 1872, by a Scot who had recently arrived from Scotland and who later moved to Toronto. One of the early business men of Newfoundland was Sir R.G. Reid who came from Cupar Angus via Australia to Canada where he became one of the major railway builders of the East, eventually owning large tracts of land in Newfoundland as well as controlling most of the island's railway system, for which he was none too popular. In finance Scots have also maintained their reputations. Many have risen to influential positions in this field, one of the most important being James Muir who came from Scotland in 1912 to join the Royal Bank of Canada, of which he became the president in 1954.

Probably the most outstanding of the Scots involved in Canadian business life during the first sixty years of the present century was the late Donald Gordon. Born in Old Meldrum, Aberdeenshire, in 1901, he came with his parents to Canada at the age of twelve. Commencing his career with the Bank of Nova Scotia, he studied at night and by correspondence in order to gain a better education. In 1935 he was appointed secretary of the newly-established Bank of Canada and later deputy-governor. During World War II he served Canada in many capacities, the most important being that of Chairman of the War Time Prices and Trade Board and Executive Director of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Following the cessation of hostilities he was made Chairman and President of the Canadian National Railways and on retiring from the CNR became President of the British Newfoundland Company, with all its financial problems. The night the problems seemed to be finally solved, he died in his sleep. A quotation from an address delivered at McGill University in 1965 reveals not only his outlook, but that of many other Scots:

For my part, I see nothing old-fashioned about such virtues as honesty and truthfulness, a keen sense of public duty, and an obligation to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. Moreover, I believe that the importance of integrity and good faith in the business world cannot be overstated; and it would confound many a cynic to know how often our hard-headed bankers look upon the integrity of management as the best and surest of all collateral.

The combination of business acumen and success with philanthropy of different kinds has been continued in the present century by many Scottish Canadians. Lord Beaverbrook's donations to the University of New Brunswick are well-known examples. Probably one of the most outstanding demonstrations of the Scottish approach, however, has been that of Sir William Macdonald and his successors Walter and David Stewart. Sir William, who was born in Glenaladale, PEI, in 1831 acquired his wealth in the tobacco industry and disbursed it liberally for educational projects, being particularly interested in the training of young people in practical matters. He gave large sums for the creation of "consolidated" schools in Eastern Canada, established the Macdonald Institute and Macdonald Hall, one of the first university residences for women in Canada, at Guelph, in affiliation with the Ontario Agricultural and Veterinary Colleges, now part of the University of Guelph, and made very large donations to McGill University, Montreal. To the latter institution he not only gave Macdonald College, St. Anne de Bellevue, which housed both the agricultural and home economics faculties, but also paid for the erection on the Montreal campus of the Engineering Building, the Chemistry and Mining Building and the Physics Building. When the Engineering Building was destroyed by fire he paid for its reconstruction and provided so well for the equipment of the Physics Building that it was one of the foremost research centers in the world. It was there that Ernest Rutherford made his fundamental nuclear discoveries that ushered in the Atomic Age. Sir William also endowed a number of professorships which still bear his name.

Sir William died in 1917 and in his will left his tobacco business to Howard and Walter Stewart, the two sons of his long-time confidential aide and advisor, David Stewart. Before long Howard withdrew from the business and Walter became the sole owner. He also continued Sir William's policy of assisting in the development of education, particularly at McGill University. Under his son, David, the Macdonald Tobacco Company has been sold, but much of the money received has been used to establish the Macdonald Stewart Foundation whose interest is primarily in the field of education, providing funds for conferences on Canada's British heritage, assisting institutions such as the University of Guelph to obtain collections of materials which enable scholars to investigate the impact which Scots have had on Canadian development and promoting other educational projects. In this way, the Scottish tradition of the successful businessman employing his wealth to assist worthy social causes is being continued to the present.

Turning from business to politics, despite their relatively small proportion of the population we find that Scottish names appear in considerable profusion in the various political parties both at the provincial and the federal levels. The present Trudeau Cabinet, for instance, has ten members out of thirty bearing Scottish names, and practically every Provincial Cabinet, with the exception of Quebec, has three or four ministers whose lines go back to Scotland. It is not necessary, however, to recapitulate the information on this aspect of Scottish activity given in the preceding chapter.

It would be possible to keep on listing other names in many different fields. For instance Margaret (Poison) Murray, wife of Professor J. Clark Murray, Professor of Philosophy at Queen's and McGill Universities, founded the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire in 1900. In a completely different field, J.A.D. McCurdy made the first airplane flight in the British Empire on February 23, 1903, when he flew his Silver Dart on a test flight at Baddeck, N.S. Turning to more warlike activities, the most prominent Canadian military leader in World War II was A.G.L. McNaughton who commanded the First Canadian Division in World War I, became chief of Canadian General Staff in 1929, President of the National Research Council in 1935, and commanded the Canadian Forces overseas in World War II until he returned to Canada to become Minister of National Defence in 1944. Later he became Chairman of the Canadian-United States Permanent Joint Board of Defence and Canada's permanent representative to the United Nations. Enough has been said, however, to indicate that even in the twentieth century when Canada is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan, the Scots and the Scottish tradition still continue to be influential.


From its earliest beginnings Canada has tended to develop an identity which has differentiated it from France, Great Britain and the United States. Some, however, may feel that its identity is not strong or unique enough to make Canadians truly "different." While this may be partially true, and while Canadians do tend to squabble among themselves, French with English, easterners with westerners, Canada has, particularly since 1867, developed something of a personality. And in this development Scots have played a not inconsiderable part.

We may go back to the days of John Neilson and Adam Lymburner shortly after the cession of New France, when they sought for some form of Canadian identity. Or we can think of men such as William Lyon Mackenzie, George Brown and Lord Elgin in the mid-nineteenth century insisting upon the rights of Canadians to direct their own affairs. Sir John A MacDonald, Sir. A.T. Galt, Sir William MacKenzie, Sir Oliver Mowat, and John Sandfield MacDonald followed in their footsteps, seeking to establish Canadian identity by means of the unification of the various British North American colonies. The twentieth century has seen many non-Scottish advocates of this point of view, but probably the most outstanding leader, whether one agrees with his methods or not, was W.L. Mackenzie King. Another more recent example is Walter Gordon, the protagonist of Canadian economic nationalism. Even at the grass roots level, the Scots and Scottish Canadians have always seemed to show a desire to insist upon Canada's independence and individuality, which has been one of the reasons perhaps why they have usually been able to understand the French-Canadian aspirations more easily than members of other non-French-speaking ethnic groups. Thus throughout Canada, Canadians of Scottish origin have generally supported the idea of Canadian national identity.

One of the principal reasons for this desire for national identity is the historical heritage of the Scottish peoples. As pointed out in the first chapter, the Scot almost since the day of the Roman invasions has had to fight to maintain his independence whether against Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Anglo-Normans, English or even French. It seems almost to be an inbred condition, a conditioned reflex that he should have to battle to maintain the fact that he is a Scot. Although some of the Scots such as Bishop Strachan or Sir Alan MacNab do not seem to have been willing to take a stand for Canadian self-assertion, most seem to have felt that they had to defend their Canadianism against the influences of both the mighty neighbour to the south and the mother country across the Atlantic. While cherishing their Scottish heritage they have transferred their primary loyalty to Canada, echoing the words of George Brown of The Globe after he had paid a visit to Scotland: "It is Canada for me."

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Scots who have come to Canada and their descendants have been an influential factor in Canadian history. It has not been because of their large numbers, but primarily because of their historical inheritance, the Scottish Tradition. And, in this day and age when Canadian governments at every level, big business and big labour often appear to have little real interest in maintaining a distinctive Canadian identity, it is perhaps time that Canadians of Scottish origin should refurbish their sense of independence to insist that Canadian identity must be not only maintained but also strengthened and reinvigorated, in order that all Canadians, of whatever ethnic origin, may take pride in being Canadians.

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