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Politics PEI Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker’s unlikely road to Canada

PEI Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker speaks in a debate in Summerside, PEI, in April, 2015.

John Morris/THE CANADIAN PRESS

As far as Peter Bevan-Baker knew, his family had always lived in Scotland.

He grew up in the verdant Scottish Highlands, in a town called Fortrose, just north of Inverness. He went to school in Glasgow, where he studied dentistry.

Then came the opportunity in 1985, when he was just 23, to work at his own practice. Sure, it was on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in St. John's, but it was just a two-year gig – he thought he'd be back home before he knew it.

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Life had other plans. He met a woman named Ann, whom he eventually married, and found he liked it in Canada. So he stayed.

It was on a trip back home for Christmas just a few years later that his father pulled him aside and told him a bit of family lore. It wasn't a secret exactly, but the history seemed so trivial that his father had never bothered to tell him before.

Mr. Bevan-Baker's great-great-grandfather had also lived in Canada, it turned out. He had moved there as a teenager and worked there his whole adult life. He was a successful newspaper publisher, author and on-and-off politician.

Oh, he also helped found the country: His great-great-grandfather was George Brown.

"I sort of feel, in some odd way, I'm completing a grand circle here," Mr. Bevan-Baker said in a recent interview in his office below the Legislative Assembly of Prince Edward Island, where he now sits as an MLA.

From the basement of Charlottetown's Honourable George Coles Building – as leader of the third-place Green Party, he doesn't get his pick of work spaces – he can peek out the window and see Province House a stone's throw away. That building was the site of the 1864 Charlottetown Conference that led to Confederation, and Brown, founder of The Globe newspaper (eventually The Globe and Mail) and a leading Liberal, was one of the most significant figures in those discussions.

For years, Brown had been absorbed in politics and business and had perhaps resigned himself to life as a bachelor. That changed on a visit to Scotland in 1862. There, he met Anne Nelson, daughter of an Edinburgh publisher. The two wed after a brief courtship. By 1863, she had joined him in Canada.

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Brown took to family life quickly. Much of what we know about the political meetings that led to Confederation comes from the letters he wrote to Anne at the time. "I cannot tell you how I hate this parliamentary work, because it keeps me away," he wrote in one from Feb. 29, 1864.

But Anne's heart remained in Scotland. When Brown died in 1880, the family stayed in Canada long enough for daughters Margaret and Catherine to finish school at the University of Toronto as two of its earliest female graduates.

Then they returned to Edinburgh. Margaret, the eldest of the Browns' five children, married and had five children of her own. One of her children, also named Margaret, had five children, and her eldest, John, in turn had five children – the youngest of whom is Mr. Bevan-Baker.

Mr. Bevan-Baker found all this out during that Christmas holiday in the late 1980s, when his father gave him a two-volume biography of his great-great-grandfather called Brown of The Globe.

But while he was fascinated to learn about his ancestor, he didn't feel the need to change his career – not yet, anyway.

"I know it would be romantic to think this way, but I can't say that reading those books was the inspiration for me entering into politics," he said.

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Instead, it was the birth of his kids a few years later that changed everything for him.

"Having children gives you that longer-term vision of what your life is about," he said. "I could see all sorts of challenges coming down the pike for the next generation."

By the early 1990s, he and his wife were living in Prescott, Ont., an hour south of Ottawa, with three kids and a dental practice. He decided he liked the Green Party and set up a local chapter. With the 1993 federal election looming, the party wanted to field a candidate in the riding, but Mr. Bevan-Baker couldn't find anyone to do it.

"My life was full. I didn't really have any space to consider doing something as onerous as running in an election," he said. "But I did. I put my name forward, with really no expectation of being elected at that point."

He wasn't. And he wasn't in eight more federal and provincial elections in Ontario and Prince Edward Island, where he eventually moved.

"It would have been disastrous for me if I had been elected in those first few attempts," he said with a laugh. "I had a young family. I had just started my own dental office. It would have been horrible."

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When his children grew up and his nest became empty, he decided to take one last serious run at elected office. He became leader of the PEI Greens and won a seat in the legislature in 2015.

In a way, that too was something he and his forebear had in common. Despite his substantial influence in political and media circles, Brown often struggled to win elections. In 1867, the year of Confederation, he ran simultaneously for federal and Ontario seats; winning neither, he was later made a senator.

On a recent weekend, Mr. Bevan-Baker and his wife travelled to Montreal to see their daughter and her husband and newborn son.

The six-month-old is the Bevan-Bakers' first grandchild – great-great-great-grandson of Brown – and, following a tradition on the son-in-law's side of the family, the baby was named after his father's father.

His name? George.

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