By Stewart Skinner
There are beautiful villages scattered throughout midwestern Ontario and one of my favourite spots is Ripley.
Anytime the kids tag along for barn checks with Dad in Bruce County, it is likely that a stop there is on the schedule because it has one of the best playgrounds around. The park has a couple plaques complete with a short history of the village that tells how in 1852, 109 families congregated in the port of Goderich and marched into the bush to settle the area, each one of them from the Isle of Lewis in the Scottish Highlands.
At a time when most could not read and it took months for a letter to travel from the newly settled bush back to the old country, how in the world did 109 families from the same place in Scotland manage to all end up in the same place in Upper Canada? In 1844, the Isle of Lewis was bought by a wealthy nobleman, James Matheson, who had made his fortune operating a trading company that shipped goods like tea and opium from Asia back to the United Kingdom. In today’s dollars, he spent over $17 million to acquire the island to build a castle and ‘improve’ the land. Those improvements led to the eviction of almost 2,000 families within the first decade of his ownership. As a rich nobleman, he had the luxury of forcing his tenants to do his bidding, and since sheep paid better than smallholder farmers and fishers, he simply expelled the Highlanders.
That is how, in 1852, more than 16 months after being forced from their ancestral home, 109 families set out into the bush from the new port of Goderich. Today many of the names of those first settlers still show up on mailboxes in the area; Murray, MacLean, and Campbell, just to name a few.
The expulsion of the Celtic peoples that occurred throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, referred to as the Highland Clearances, is how many of us who have Scottish ancestry ended up here in Canada. Rich land barons from the Lowlands, England, and beyond took advantage of the Acts of Enclosure that saw the centuries-old tradition of pastoral common land management replaced with large-scale land management and the adoption of new industrial agricultural technologies. There was no such thing as personal rights; those highland people were looked at by the powerful lords no different than cattle or sheep to be moved around or disposed of at the discretion of the ‘landowner’ despite those same people calling those lands home for centuries.
There has been much coverage of certain churches and businesses that have violated COVID-19 protocols; fines have been levied and there are already legal challenges underway that argue the charges violate Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. To that end, our Charter is quite clear that Canadian citizens are to enjoy freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association. Many are quick to scoff at those concerned over the degradation of personal rights throughout this saga; claiming those who raise issue are selfish, even dangerous.
Who cares about some piece of paper, how could you ever live with yourself if you spread the virus that could kill a fellow Canadian?
Yet is that document, those words on a page, that enshrine our right to make our own decisions. That Charter and the rights contained within are what protect from being exploited by modern day James Matheson’s in the future.
The 20th century saw a sustained proliferation of improved personal rights for people across the globe, the working class won victories that saw powerful conglomerates broken up, shorter work weeks and better workplace safety.
Literacy improved and while not linear, there was exponentially less global poverty in the year 2000 versus 1900. Here in Canada, every person was won the freedom to love who they wish, worship whom or what they wish, and associate with whom they wish. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms was a culmination of decades of work to enshrine those rights forever because those architects knew that Western society and the trappings that go with it are fuelled by the individual feeling empowered that they were in control of their own destiny.
History is littered with events like the Highland Clearances; powerful, wealthy people shaping the rules for personal benefit with little regard to the cost that it had for the masses. Those 109 families that made it to Ripley are in a tiny minority of historical instances when the result could be argued as positive. Often it ended in famine, death, mass slavery and the disappearance of entire cultures.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was designed so that no future government or fellow citizen could tell you what or where to worship, that no government or fellow citizen could infringe on your ability to provide for your family, yet for almost 12 months we have seen those rights infringed daily.
History gives us an ability to hypothesize future results of actions today and all should carefully consider what it could mean for those who come after us as we actively erode the rights of the individual today.
Stewart Skinner is a local business owner, former political candidate, and has worked at Queen’s Park as a Policy Advisor to the Minister of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter: @modernfarmer.