George Monro Grant
On the Cusp of Nation Building 1835-1902

The emergence of a new nation in 1867 required leaders to forge consensus and unity across a diverse landscape. Having such men as the eminent George Monro Grant, Canada was well provided. Best known for inspiring Queen’s University of Kingston to become one of North America’s most prominent and respected institutions, he also reflected, through public service and national promotion, the concept of Canada as more than a series of colonies gathered together under imperial unity.

Born in 1835 in the Scottish enclave that was Pictou County, Nova Scotia, George attended two of the colony’s most dynamic educational institutions: Thomas McCulloch’s Pictou Academy and James Ross’s West River Seminary and then graduated from the University of Glasgow with degrees in theology. As a Presbyterian, he espoused a more liberal Evangelical stance rather than a rigid Calvinist one. He saw harmony between faith and reason and expressed his concern for the socially repressed in espousing a social gospel. Through conciliation and compromise, in 1875 he helped unify disparate formations into the Presbyterian Church in Canada and became its moderator in 1889. Prominent in the Pan-Presbyterian Alliance, he travelled around the world in 1888 to study comparative religions, spoke at the Congress of Religions in Chicago in 1893, and published The Religions of the World in 1894.

Stirred by the idea of a Canadian federation, he expressed his own surge in national feeling by twice crossing the country from east to west with his close friend Sir Sandford Fleming. The first adventure resulted, in 1872, in Grant’s book, Ocean to Ocean, which described the newly acquired lands on which the Canadian west would be built. Although both trips were undertaken to seek the most appropriate route for a transcontinental railway, Grant’s fascination with the land and its culture resulted, between 1882 and 1884, in the vastly popular publication called Picturesque Canada. Grant’s vision of Canada was very much a part of his wider concept of imperial federation in which the new country would become an equal partner in the British Empire. He was a founding member of the Canadian Branch of the Imperial Federation League in 1884. (His son William Lawson Grant married the daughter of another imperial promoter, Sir George Parkin, and their grandson, George Parkin Grant, became one of Canada’s most prominent philosophers and nationalists.)

A nation builder, George Munro Grant inherited a small and financially unstable denominational college in 1877 and for the next 25 years, until his death, turned Queen’s University into one of Canada’s most respected institutions of higher learning. Editor and co-author of the tremendously popular Picturesque Canada (1882), “Mr. Principal” was a charter member of the Royal Society of Canada and its president in 1901. [Photo, courtesy National Archives of Canada/C-37819]

When Principal Grant of Queen’s assumed his position in 1877, the Presbyterian college had a student population of only 90. When he died in 1902, he was the head of a non-denominational university of international reputation with an enrollment of 850. Grant instilled, in its faculty and students, an ethic of public service, promoted understanding between the sacred and the secular, and pioneered both scientific education and extension programs. Queen’s pioneered advanced education for women when it admitted women to regular classes in 1879; furthermore, the institution opened a Woman’s Medical College in 1883.

While political parties and business groups were putting a stamp on the new nation in late Victorian times, George Monro Grant – educator, minister, and author – had a broad cultural vision of the emerging country. Ultimately, Canada would become much greater than its disparate parts owing to the direction given by nation builders such as George Grant who saw the land and the culture and defined a purpose well before most Canadians had the opportunity of going from sea to sea themselves.

Larry Turner