Saturday, 11 September 2010

Who is John Galt? Well, Let me Tell You.

Somebody in Lethbridge tried to bring some fictional character named John Galt into the city debate on taxes. Very, very sad. Most Lethbridgians have no idea of the grand vision the city was founded on. It was a vision that started with the Scottish Novelist, John Galt. Not without his own foibles, he often got himself in trouble for speaking his mind when it would have been better to chill. (I find him somewhat of an inspiration.) He also didn't really like taking orders, which caused big problems with the directors of the Canada Company. But Canada owes a great debt to him.

John Galt was a social progressive who wound up in debtor’s prison for trying to build a Royal City named Guelph.He got in trouble trying to help poor Scots own their own land at prices that the Canada Company directors were not amused by.

He was a Sandemanian convert (thanks to his father-in-law, publisher and lay preacher, Alexander Torrance) who believed in sharing and in building large scale infrastructure and cultural projects. (His sons went back to Presbyterianism and Anglicanism.)

His son, Sir Alexander Galt, largely shared his father’s belief in the grand vision of Canada, but he took it further to envision a reformed British Empire with a shared monarch among equal dominions. (Ie: the modern Commonwealth but with a lot more clout.)It was a vision he arrived at after considering every option for Canada from outright republicanism, to annexation, to continued colonial status. And, I believe, it's a decision that helped create Canada's global perspective.

Member of the Provincial Parliament for Sherbrooke Quebec, Alexander Galt introduced the motion to federate British North America in the Canadian Colonial Legislature at Kingston. It was another progressive novelist and friend of Charles Dickens, Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, who was among the first British Officials to catch on to this poetic vision. Too bad we don’t teach this stuff in School.

The City of Lethbridge (founded on that original vision first espoused in Galts original motion to the provincial assembly) survived thanks to huge financial contributions and concessions from the Federal Government and from philanthopy from benefectors such as the Baroness Coutts and Lady Galt herself.

If you want to know the real vision of Canada, read Canadian Reflections, one of the best poems ever written about the Canadian Dream. Sir Alexander Galt's father, John Galt, wrote it when he was dying pennniless in Scotland. He and his wife, Elizabeth, believed so strongly in that dream that he sent their three sons back to Canada to start over. (Elizabeth eventually joined them here.)

Alexander Galt and his brothers, John and Thomas, arrived in the country as youths: penniless, shamed, and having watched their father cheated out of his businesses. Both Thomas and John were later knighted for their contributions to Canada.

For many years, Sir Alexander Galt was a good friend of Charles Dickens, whose own social conscience was shaped by the fact that his father had also been sent to debtor’s prison. The Galts' social conscience led them to donate a huge amount of money (most for health care), facilities (a hospital for example) and land (including Galt Gardens) to the City of Lethbridge in order to that those dreams could be fulfilled. Yes, Lethbridge is the only city in Canada founded by a Father of Confederation — not that that is poltically correct to say these days.

Incidentally, Sir Alexander Galt, died fearing that his District of Alberta, NWT adventure had landed his wife and unmarried daughters in the same predicament his own father had left his mother. Elliott Galt spent his life fixing the problem.

Is it odd that when John Galt's name gets mentioned in the Muncipal Election, nobody seems to understand how really important he was to our city, our province, our country, and the Commonwealth of Nations? No, it's not odd. It downright depressing. Pathetic really. And as ungrateful as the City Council who changed the street names Sir Alexander Galt gave Lethbridge to honour its early benefactors, just a few weeks after his sons, Elliott and John, turned over a hospital and a health care endowment that continues to benefit citizens of this region -- a region they loved.

Jane Harris Zsovan, Author, Stars Appearing: The Galts’ Vision of Canada (2006), Eugenics and the Firewall: Canada’s Nasty Little Secret.(J. Gordon Shillingford Publishing, Fall 2010.)

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