Desmond Morton: Historian to be feted for setting "aspirational standard for Canadian Studies"

In celebration of the career of historian Professor Desmond Morton, founding director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, there will be a public lecture marking his 80th birthday entitled "French Canada's Impact in the First World War" on Thursday, Sept. 14, from 4:30 p.m. at the McGill University Faculty Club, 3450 McTavish St.
“Des is one of the best writers in Canada, bar none,” says former NDP leader Ed Broadbent. “His writing is a model of intelligence and clarity.”

The McGill Institute for the Study of Canada will host a special lecture in honour of Dr. Desmond Morton, Hiram Mills Emeritus Professor and Founding Director of the Institute (1994-2001). The event will simultaneously celebrate Professor Morton’s invaluable contributions to Canadian Studies, as well as his 80th birthday. The lecture will take place on Sept. 14, from 4:30 – 6:15 p.m., at the Faculty Club (3450 McTavish St.).

By McGill Reporter Staff

It’s hard to describe how important Desmond Morton’s work is in the field of Canadian history. Morton was drawn to ordinary peoples’ experiences, especially working people and soldiers, and he rewrote Canadian history from their point of view. All serious students of Canadian history have read his books.

Desmond Paul Morton is the Hiram Mills Professor Emeritus in the Department of History. A graduate of the Collège Militaire Royal de St-Jean, the Royal Military College of Canada, Oxford University, and the London School of Economics, Morton also spent ten years in the Canadian Army (1954-64) retiring as captain. He was principal of Erindale College (University of Toronto – Mississauga) from 1986 to 1994, and Professor of History at McGill from 1998 to 2006. Morton has authored 40 books on Canadian political, military, and industrial relations history, and was a frequent columnist and radio commentator. In 1985, he was appointed a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and in 1996 an Officer in the Order of Canada. He is an honorary colonel of 8 Wing Trenton of the Royal Canadian Air Force and holds the Canadian Forces Decoration.

Charles Taylor, eminent philosopher and political theorist, is a long time colleague and friend. “Des and I go back more than 50 years, since our days together in the newly founded New Democratic Party,” wrote Taylor in an email interview with the Reporter. “His was always a fresh and original voice in Canadian historiography. Congratulations, Des, on your 80th birthday! From Chuck.”

Elsbeth Heaman is a professor of History and Classical Studies, and interim head of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC), which Morton helped found in 1994. Heaman says Morton is one of the truly great historians of the age, with extraordinary energy and distinctive powers of description.

“I’ve leaned heavily on Morton’s work for my own research; I’ve also invited him, year after year, to lecture to my Canadian history and Canadian studies students. He’s told enthralling stories about the Battles of the Plains of Abraham and the War of 1812 that seem to peer beyond the veil of time: they are at once a gritty re-enactment of the battlefield and a big-picture insistence on the importance of French-Canadian participation to historic outcomes,” says Heaman. “His work is always original, with his impatience with orthodoxy and his abiding love of his subject, Canada and Canadians. We’ve been lucky to have him as a historian of Canada, and luckier still to have him at McGill, where he set an aspirational standard for Canadian Studies and public outreach.”

Will Straw says that having Morton as its founding director helped put MISC on the map. “Des immediately brought prestige and credibility to MISC when he joined it as its first director,” says the James McGill Professor of Urban Media Studies and himself a former director of MISC. “As one of that rarest of species, a progressive military historian, his own life as a scholar has been a marvellous adventure.”

Ed Broadbent, leader of the federal NDP from 1975 to 1989, says that what sets Morton apart from many other historians is his talent as a writer and his interest in telling the stories of regular people. , is also a long time colleague and friend of Desmond Mortons.  “Des is one of the best writers in Canada, bar none. His writing is a model of intelligence and clarity. He manages to write simply without being simple,” says Broadbent, Ph.D. currently a Fellow in the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University. “He was never interested in the so called ‘great men’ of history, but rather the working people, the soldiers and their families, always including the women. Inclusive and unpredictable, he always reached out to people with whom he personally disagreed. He is intellectually honest. And he has a new book!”

On Sept. 14, accompanied by several distinguished speakers, Morton will present a lecture entitled French Canada’s Impact in the First World War. The event, which will be followed by a Vin d’honneur, will simultaneously celebrate Professor Morton’s invaluable contributions to Canadian history, as well as his 80th birthday.

This lecture, like most MISC events, is free and open to the public on Thursday, Sept. 14, from 4:30 p.m. at the McGill University Faculty Club, 3450 McTavish St.

Learn more about the event. You can RSVP online or via email

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Eleanor Moore
6 years ago

Would love a copy of Prof. Morton’s lecture on the 14th. I live in Ottawa and am unable to attend.
I have had the pleasure of meeting and chatting with Prof. Morton in Rivière du Loup August 2016 and again this year!
On both occasions I was frustrated by not having enough good questions! Despite this, he was very generous with
his comments and insights!
Very best wishes to all the Morton family!
Eleanor Moore
908 Thorndale Dr
Ottawa, On K1V6Y2