Exploring wilderness

On 22 July 1793 explorer Alexander Mackenzie reached the Pacific Ocean from Canada by land as the first European to cross the North American continent and document that crossing.

The first Europen to cross the North American continent

Born in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in 1764, Mackenzie came to New York with his father ten years later after his mother had died. In 1778, as a result of the American War of Independence, he was sent to Montréal for schooling. It was there that, a year later, he commenced working for the fur-trading firm of Finlay and Gregory. He became a partner of the firm in 1784, and was put in charge of the fur-trading post at Ile-La-Crosse from 1785 to 1787. When the firm joined the North West Company (NWC), which emerged as the Hudson’s Bay Company’s main rival in the fur trade, Mackenzie became a partner in the NWC and was sent to another post, on the Athabasca River, as second-in-command.

It was at this post that Mackenzie’s interest in exploring the land was first awakened. He went on several excursions around the river and co-founder of Fort Chipewyan. Mackenzie launched a second expedition in 1792, departing on a 25 foot long birch bark canoe together with his lieutenant, several so-called Voyageurs, and two First Nation guides. Winter temporarily put a stop to their journey, but the group continued west in the spring, crossing the continental divide. They eventually reached Bella Coola Valley on 17 July 1793, from where they went further west in search of the ocean.

Mackenzie’s expedition is the first documented crossing of North America – accomplished more than a decade before the much larger, government-supported, Lewis and Clarke expedition.

For more about Mackenzie, check out his full biography here.

Early contact

Scots were prominent among the many fur traders and trappers, at times only spending a sojourn in Canada, working for the Hudson’s Bay Company or the Northwest Company. Overall, however, the number of Scots coming to Canada was characterized by a constant, but at first comparatively small, flow of new arrivals.

Did you know about writer John Galt's role?

Best known as the writer of Annals of the Parish published in 1821, Galt’s name was and remains familiar to many Scots around the world. A less widely-known fact, however, is that Galt was also a colonizer, being appointed Secretary to the Canada Company in 1824. The Company was founded promote and facilitate the colonization of the Huron Tract in what was then Upper Canada. It was during his time there that Galt founded the city of Guelph in 1827, which, to this day, maintains a strong sense of its Scottish heritage. The Canada Company was one of several land companies active in British North America that, by the mid-1820s, controlled large parts of it. They undertook clearing operations, built roads and buildings, and then sold plots to settlers, many of whom had recently arrived from Scotland. The Canada Company was the largest and most successful: within a decade it had sold 100,000 acres to settlers. According to one account

The land here is good and well-watered, the terms of the Upper Canada Land Company are liberal, requiring the settler only to pay a fifth of the purchase money when the land is applied for, and the remainder in five yearly instalments with interest at six per cent … There are grist mills and saw mills within a few miles of us east and west, also a store where goods of all kinds are sold. This settlement is mostly Scotch, almost wholly so where we are settled, and the utmost goodwill and unanimity prevails. We enjoy, though obtained at present by hard labour and perseverance, all the necessary worldly comforts and with the prospect, if we and our families are spared, of seeing them and us all independent and comfortable farmers, farming our own land.

In pursuing its activities, the Company carried out an aggressive marketing campaign involving the placement of agents at key British ports and distribution of masses of printed material to attract new settlers.

Canada's early leaders

Glasgow-born Sir John Alexander Macdonald was a key figure in the movement for Canadian Confederation, becoming the first Prime Minister of Canada in 1867. Macdonald was elected for a second term in 1878, with his premiership interrupted by the five-year tenure of another Scotsman, Alexander Mackenzie.

Impact on First Nations

Scots, like all settlers who came to Canada, had many different impacts on the Indigenous people whose lands they settled – the First Nations. Westward expansion in particular, facilitated under Macdonald as part of his drive to really connect the country as one, accelerated the push for land, as did developments like the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). It’s history too was shaped in no small part by a Scotsman: Donald Smith, Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal. You can learn more about the CPR and Strathcona here.

This push for land had immediate impacts, ranging from the forced expulsion of Indigenous communities to the near-extinction of the buffalo. But one of the most severe consequences of the policies of Macdonald and Mackenzie was the establishment of a residential schooling system for First Nations children. While its foundations can be found prior to Confederation, it was the passage of the 1876 Indian Act under Mackenzie that it expanded. It was under Macdonald that the residential schooling system that had already been established in the United States was then adopted in Canada. In essence, it was a partnership between government and churches that set up a system of residential schools throughout most of Canada. Attendance was made compulsory in the 1890s. The schools were usually in remote areas and often deliberately located far away from the First Nations’ communities the children came from. This was intended to miniminse contact with parents, and thus, minimise ‘Indigenous influence’. Visits were restricted further by other policies, particularly a pass system for First Nations people that was designed to confine them to reserves.

The legacy of residential schools

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up so those directly or indirectly affected by the legacy of the residential schools system could share their stories and experiences. New horrific discoveries about the system are still being made.

World War I as a diaspora connector

Born in late November 1895 in Bellshill (Lanarkshire), James Cleland Richardson was first educated at Bellshill Academy, then the Auchinwraith Public School in Blantyre, and the John Street School in Glasgow. It was not in Scotland, however, where James’s connection with Word War I began, but in Canada. James had migrated there, together with his parents, in c1911. A driller by trade, James soon served in the cadet corps of the Seaforth Highlanders in Vancouver, a unit well known too for its pipe band.

After the start of the War, James volunteered for service in the Canadian Expeditionary Force – like so many other recent arrivals from Britain. He was accepted as private and piper with the 16th Infantry Battalion, the Canadian Scottish, for which the Seaforth Highlanders regularly provided soldiers. The 16th made its way to France and arrived there in February 1915; it was engaged in many battles, including during the offensive at the Somme in 1916. As was reported, a piper would often go in with a company during the assault on enemy trenches. As James’ biographer notes, while

not originally detailed for the attack on Regina Trench, the 20-year-old Richardson pleaded successfully with his commanding officer to accompany the troops, whom he piped over the top. The advancing company encountered a storm of fire and enemy wire which had not been cut by the artillery. At this critical point, with the company commander killed, casualties mounting, and morale and momentum almost gone, Richardson volunteered to pipe again. “Wull I gie them wund [wind]?” he asked the company sergeant-major, who consented. For some ten minutes, fully exposed, he “strode up and down outside the wire, playing his pipes with the greatest coolness,” the citation to his decoration later read. “The effect was instantaneous. Inspired by his splendid example, the company rushed the wire with such fury and determination that the obstacle was overcome and the position captured.” Later, after participating in bombing operations, Richardson was ordered to take back a wounded comrade and some prisoners. He started but returned for his pipes, which he had left behind. In doing so he was evidently hit by enemy fire.

James was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

Bagpipes returned

Perhaps the most remarkable part of the story, however, is that the bagpipes were not lost but discovered in Ardvreck School in Crieff in Scotland in the early 2000s. They were bought by the Vancouver branch of the Canadian Club and then donated to the province of British Columbia.