A Canadian Mathematical Bi-Centennial: Gourlay’s Statistical Account of Upper Canada published 1822

The 2022 Anniversaries in the History of Canadian Science and Technology.

First posted Friday, January 28, 2022 / Yom shishi, 26 Shevat, 5782.

By David Orenstein

As I mentioned in my January 14th  post, Robert Gourlay published his Statistical Account of Upper Canada 200 years ago, in 1822. “Some 2022 Canadian STEM&M Anniversaries to Celebrate This Year”, CSTHA Blog, January 14, 2022.

To explore this topic, I’ll start with the resources from my home library, something so many of us have had to rely on for the past two pandemic years.

The starting point is the quarter myriad page (1 myriad = 10,000), The Canadian Encyclopedia: Year 2000 Edition, John H. Marsh, Editor-in-Chief.

The Gourlay entry is on page 993c, consisting of the bottom third of the third of three columns:

Gourlay, Robert Fleming, polemicist, reformer (b at Craigrothie, Scot 24 Mar 1778; d at Edinburgh, 1 Aug 1863).” In this short entry there are cross-references to Encyclopedia articles on “Upper Canada”, “Family Compact”, “John Strachan”, “William Lyon Mackenzie”. Stanley R. Mealing (History, Carleton U.) is the entry’s author.

Gourlay death in 1863 directs me to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography (DCB), of which I have eight volumes, six in English, two in French. Since the DCB is organised by date of death I want Volume IX: From 1861 to 1870.

What I actually have is Dictionnaire biographique du Canada (DBC), Volume IX: de 1861 à 1870.

From p. 363b to p. 370b, we find one of the longer entries:

GOURLAY, ROBERT FLEMING, agronome , réformiste et écrivain, né le 24 mars 1778 à Craigrothie, Fifeshire, Écosse, troisième de quatre enfants d’un gros propriétaire  foncier, Oliver Gourlay, et de Janet Fleming; il épousa en premières noces en 1807 Jean Henderson qui donne naissance à quatre enfants et en secondes noces, en 1858, Mary Reeman; décédé le 1er août à Edimbourg, Écosse. En mémoire de sa mère il ajouta à son nom celui de Fleming. »

And so on for fourteen more tightly packed columns, written by Carleton’s Sydney Francis Wise.

Gourlay shows up in one of my many Canadian poetry books, John Toronto, a book of poetry taken from the writings of John Strachan (1778-1867), the 1st Anglican Archbishop of Toronto. The poems were found by Canadian man of letters John Robert Colombo and U of T Historian William Kilbourn’s essay “Variations on Strachan” sets the scene.

From John Toronto: New Poems by Dr. Strachan, (Colombo and Kilbourn, 1969). Poems about Gourlay, p.65-67:

pg. 65 Tranquility of Upper Canada

But when I came into the province,

I found all tranquil;

and that the people

had at length seen through

the criminal views

of the half insane

but mischievous Robert Gourlay.

This man is the son

of the most respectable

and once very opulent

farmer in Fifeshire;

but such was his turbulent

and disobedient conduct,

that he was turned out

of his father’s house.


pg. 66 Not the Done Thing

pg. 67 Malconent

Robert Gourlay shows up elsewhere in both Colombo and Kilbourn.

Kilbourn’s 1956 classic of Canadian historical biography,

The Firebrand: William Lyon Mackenzie and the Rebellion in Upper Canada has a more positive view of Gourlay than Strachan had, p. 32-33:

“Members of the Family Compact were, for the most part aristocrats on the make… struggl[ing] to acquire the privileges of aristocracy – the best lands, the best positions and favours of every description from the government…. [C]are for the people and intelligent patronage and the arts had usually to be neglected….

“Those who complained of neglect or who attacked the very idea of the aristocracy and privilege were apt to run into trouble. Robert Gourlay had done both. For 2 years, soon after the War 1812, he had written scathingly of the backward state of Upper Canada. He circulated a list of questions among the common people asking precisely what changes were needed on each district.”

The response to this list of questions was the basis for the Statistical Account of Upper Canada.

Colombo compiled Colombo’s Canadian Quotations. My copy of the 1974 edition has on p. 227b four quotations from Gourlay, including a pair from the Statistical Account:

 “The fancy of giving to Canada the British constitution was a good one: about as rational as to think of cultivating sugar canes in Siberia, or to entertain hope from grafting of a fruit twig on an icicle.”

“The first question in political economy should be, can the mass of the people live comfortably under this or that arrangement? But the most necassry question was forgotten, and many of the people have perished.”

I recalling that Mealing taught History at Carleton, and that reminded me that that I had several titles from the Carleton Library. I looked and found No. 75 by S.R. Mealing: Statistical Account of Upper Canada (1974 abridged ed.).

So, what did Gourlay have to say about the state of Upper Canada, and what mathematical and statistical methods did he use? Well, that’s another, and more important story.



John Robert Colombo (ed.), 1974, Colombo’s Canadian Quotations. Hurtig Publishers, Edmonton, x +735 pp., 85 pp. Index.

John Robert Colombo & William Kilbourn, 1969, John Toronto: New Poems by Dr. Strachan.  Oberon Press, Toronto, 94 pp.

William Kilbourn, illus. (Wood Engravings) Rosemary Kilbourn, 1956

The Firebrand: William Lyon Mackenzie and the Rebellion in Upper Canada. Clarke, Irwin and Company, Toronto, xv + 283 pp., 4 pp. Biblio., 18 pp. Notes on Text, 7 pp. Index.

Stanley R. Mealing, 1999, “Gourlay, Robert Fleming”, p. 993c in John H. Marsh (ed.), 1999, The Canadian Encyclopedia: Year 2000 Edition. lxi +2573 pp.

Stanley R. Mealing (ed.), 1974, Robert Gourlay: Statistical Account of Upper Canada (1974 abridged ed.), No. 75 in Carleton Library Series. McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, (vii) +395 + (3 pp. Series List No. 1-67), 11 pp. Index.

Sydney Francis Wise, 1977, “GOURLAY, ROBERT FLEMING”, p. 363b – 370b in Jean Hamelin (dir. gen. adj.), Dictionnaire biographique du Canada (DBC), Volume IX: de 1861 à 1870. Presses de l’Université Laval, Québec, xii + 1057 pp., 46 pp. Biblio. gén., 10 pp. Collab., 53 pp. Index.



Robert Gourlay holdings at U of T’s Fisher Library:


Robert Gourlay holdings at Toronto Public Library: