Today, as always on the second Monday of every October, Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving, or Action de grâce as it is known in the nation’s other official language. It is a day when Canadians traditionally give thanks for all blessings of the year. It is a time for the coming together of family, feasting on the bountiful harvest, giving thanks to Scotland, and for some, the strengthening of religious ties. For most it’s the blessing of a paid three-day holiday weekend, the Canadian Football League’s (CFL) Thanksgiving Day Classic — Classique de jour de l’Action de grâce – and two-fours.
First, let’s clarify a few things before we move on to the question foremost in your thoughts.
You’re probably thinking, “Wait, this isn’t Thanksgiving! You’re pulling our turkey’s leg, and the bird’s still alive. Thanksgiving is at the end of November, just before Black Friday when shoppers lose their sense of humanity.” Ach, no! That’s American Thanksgiving! THAT Thanksgiving is an annual event in that smaller country that’s south of Canada. Americans tell this feel-good story about their first Thanksgiving. Apparently, in 1621, pilgrims had a jolly old feast at Plymouth Massachusetts with local natives. Yeah, right.
Canada’s day doesn’t focus on any singular historical fact or fairy-tale. There were feasts of thanks after an Atlantic crossing to the New World. Who wouldn’t after months bobbing around the Atlantic in a creaky boat half the length of a football pitch, wet and cold, bad food, no toilet or bathing facilities; and that was in the first-class section. Farmers from the early settlers to today have always had a feast after the harvest was brought in, while soldiers in World War Two and Korea likely gave thanks for surviving Normandy, Monte Casino or Kap Yong.
What Canadians should also give thanks for is Scotland
The Scottish influence on Canada’s road to nationhood is in every corner of its history. For over 300 years, Scots immigrated to Canada in vast numbers. Often labled Anglo-Canadians, the Scots self-identified as a separate and distinct people. They entered every step of Canada’s development, from explorers, businessmen, politicians, financiers, writers, and artists, to the odd rogue. In the last Canadian census, 2016, 14% of Canadians identified themselves as being of Scottish origin: nearly 4.7mn.
Let’s start with Sir William Alexander, who, in 1621, on behalf of the Kingdom of Scotland, established one of the earliest colonies in Canada. British soldiers from the Highlands were instrumental in defeating the French in the 1756-63 conflict aptly named the Seven Years’ War, and many remained in Canada.
Scots flooded to Canada in droves. Tens, hundreds of thousands. Among them Stornoway native Alexander MacKenzie, an explorer who in 1793 reached the Pacific Coast, completing the first recorded crossing of North America 12 years before Americans Lewis and Clark.
Donald Smith, who eventually went on to become 1st Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal, was born in Forres in Moray, and emigrated to Lower Canada (present-day Quebec) in 1838. He rose to become a leading figure in the development of the Canadian Pacific Railway that linked Canada from sea to sea and prevented the Pacific coast of Canada joining the United States’ expansion. Smith drove in the last spike in 1885.
It took a Glaswegian to begin the birth of a nation
The father of the Canadian Confederation was a Glaswegian, John Alexander McDonald. Coming to Canada as a child he rose through the ranks to become a lawyer. Three years after the British Parliament merged Upper and Lower Canada into the Province of Canada in 1841, he became the MP for Kingston, defeating his candidate by supplying the voters with large amounts of alcohol.
In the 1860s, McDonald and other like-minded political leaders, although political enemies with a vehement dislike for one another, believed the time was ripe for Confederation. They were spurred on by concerns that once the Americans finished their internal warfare, they would attempt to invade Canada for a third time. In March 1867, after Queen Victoria gave her blessing and Royal Ascent to the British North American Act, Canada came into being.
From Scots with a sense of enlightenment to the Greatest Canadian
Since then, noted Scots and those of Scottish descent have helped build one of the world’s most respected nations. Including Alexander Graham Bell, Norman Bethune, and Falkirk-born Tommy Douglas (founder of Canada’s universal healthcare), who, in 2004, was named The Greatest Canadian by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation based on a Canada-wide, viewer-supported survey.
Another on the list of Greatest Canadians was a man with a mother who was of mixed Scottish and French-Canadian descent: Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The father of current Canadian PM Justin Trudeau was himself Prime Minister of Canada from 1968-84 (with a nine-month gap in the 1979-80 period). A champion of official multiculturalism, shunning the American melting pot, Pierre Trudeau brought together all territories and provinces (except Quebec) to enshrine a Canadian Constitution and Bill of Rights that finally freed Canada from Westminster’s British North America Act.
So, today, look westward and know there’s a friend that Scots helped build through vision and enlightenment.