I barely knew my grandfather. I was just five years old when he died in 1946. I vaguely recall sitting on his knee during his final summer at Sturgeon Lake. He was
blind then, yet I seemed to feel his gentle soul, full of warmth and love, reaching for his young grandson.
With that introduction to his book, Les McLauglin has got my full attention. Many people believe that history is made up of a string of events. Students in particular
have often had so many names and dates thrown at them that they cringe at the mention of "history". But history is really about people - about you, your neighbours, your family
and ancestors, and about many other people you've never heard of. In Granddaddy of the Peace, Les introduces us to one of the people who made Canada what it is - his grandfather,
Unless you live in the Peace River district of northern Alberta, it's unlikely you've ever heard of Tom Kerr. And that's unfortunate - we need more heroes in Canada.
Thomas Kerr was born in 1861 in Haddington, Scotland. By the time he was 16, he had joined the
Hudson Bay Company (HBC) as a labourer,
signing a 5-year contract in which he promised to
"... devote the whole of his time in their service and for their sole benefit" and to "do his duty as such and perform all such work by day or by night for the said
Less than a month after his 17th birthday, Tom boarded an HBC ship at Stromness and set sail for the wilderness.
McLaughlin spends a great deal of time putting his grandfather's trip, and indeed his whole career, into context, describing the activities of early explorers, summarizing
the formation and operations of the HBC, and adding in many related stories.
From a kid with little experience at anything, Tom quickly grew to being a capable woodsman, hunting, trapping, building trading forts and taking care of all the other aspects of
frontier life. His 5-year contract with the HBC was renewed, and he didn't even return to Scotland for a visit until 1888.
Tom's independent spirit led him to become a trader in competition with the HBC for a while. Times weren't always good, though, and one winter he became so weak that a friend
saved him after he had reached the point of being too weak to get out of bed.
In 1901, Tom made the long journey to Scotland again, returning to Canada with a bride. Their trip back to the Peace River country involved hardships beyond most people's comprehension,
and makes up one of the most interesting sections of the book. I would have loved to see a great deal more information on their life from Agnes' perspective.
The couple had 3 children, and it's interesting to see how firmly the "Old Country" traditions held. Scotland was the original home of many of the pioneers of western and
northern Canada, and Scottish culture is still very visible. In the Kerr family, the children even had very strong Scottish accents.
The Kerrs eventually settled at Sturgeon Lake, and the family's part in the development of the district is well-covered, with many newspaper articles being used to fill in the details.
The photographs used in the book have also been well chosen, from the ship Tom first arrived on, to "family-album" type photos. In some respects, it's the photos that provide
the link from "history" to "people" that I think is so important - Tom and Agnes Kerr look like just regular folk, yet had a significant impact on the region. The relative ease of self-publishing
now has resulted in a huge increase in this type of history, and it's a movement that I'm extremely pleased to see.
Granddaddy of the Peace: the Life and Times of Tom Kerr
by Les McLaughlin
McLaughlin Publishing, 1999
87 pages, 6"x9"
39 photos, 2 maps