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Remembering 4393 Desmond Morton: “The very model of what an engaged Canadian historian should be”

Dr Desmond Morton (4393)

September 10, 1937- September 4, 2019

Hiram Mills Emeritus Professor, McGill University

Fellow, Royal Society of Canada 1985

Officer, Order of Canada 1996

Honorary Colonel 8 Wing Canadian Forces Base Trenton 2002

Canadian Forces Decoration 2004

Article by Dr Kevin Brushett, Chair, RMC Department of History

A few years ago when asked to reflect on his long and illustrious career in the profession, Dr Desmond Morton (4393) said he wanted his epitaph to read “History is another word for experience.”  Sadly, that day has come. Dr Morton, popularly known among colleagues, students and friends as Des, passed away at home September 4, 2019 shortly before his 82nd birthday.

Author of more than 40 books on a wide range of subjects, Des Morton became best known and respected for his works in Canadian military history, most of which have dotted RMC History Department syllabi over the last three decades.  Morton grew up in a family with a long and storied military past.  Des was not only the son of Brigadier Ronald Edward Alfred Morton, who commanded the Fort Garry Horse regiment on D-Day, he was also the great grandson of Sir William Dillon Otter, first Canadian-born Chief of the General Staff, head of the Canadian militia, and veteran of the Fenian Raids, the Northwest Campaign, and the Boer War.  Like many other children of military families, he led an itinerant childhood (a “base brat” he proudly claimed) following his father to various postings across Canada and the world in the postwar era.  Eventually, those postings brought him to Kingston and eventually to the Canadian military colleges with a stop at Kobe, Japan in between.

At the urging of his uncle Geoffrey, himself a major general and commander of the Army in Quebec, Des entered the recently opened Collège militaire royale de St Jean in 1954. After three years in St Jean, he transferred to RMC Kingston, where he became enthralled by the College’s dynamic and charismatic history professors, chiefly George F.G. Stanley, Richard Preston, and Fred Thompson.  Morton graduated in 1959 as the first cadet to receive an RMC degree after the College earned its charter in that same year.

From RMC, it was off to Oxford as RMC’s first Rhodes scholarship winner of the postwar period.  Morton returned to Canada two years later to complete his service at Camp Borden as a captain at the Army Service Corps School.  There he met up again with fellow RMC Cadet, and future co-author historian 5105 Jack Granatstein.  At Des’s 80th birthday party, Professor Granatstein remembered sharing an office with Des at the School, where they tried to “make army officer cadets …read books and write if not essays then literate memoranda—with little success.”  Enticed by the newly formed New Democratic Party of Canada to become its provincial secretary, Morton ended his formal service in 1964.  He later became the Honorary Colonel of 8th Wing at CFB Trenton.

After leaving the army, he earned a PhD in History at the London School of Economics and soon secured a position at the University of Toronto’s Erindale campus in Mississauga upon his return to Canada.  It was a position he would hold for the next quarter century. A self-confessed workaholic, Morton continued to pump out histories that would become must-reads in fields ranging from Canadian military history to Canadian working class history. Juggling teaching, research, and administration as Erindale’s president in the late 1980s, Morton remembered that “the relentless time-compression of RMC” meant he would “never lack time for anything I really had to do.”

In 1993, McGill University recruited Des away from Erindale to lead the newly formed Institute of Canadian Studies, with which he would complete his illustrious career.  Students, faculty, and staff at McGill fondly remember Des as not only an engaging scholar who brought history to life, but a kind and generous mentor with a devastating sense of humour.

Dr Desmond Morton leaves Canadians with a rich, engaging, and inclusive scholarship that never wavered from challenging established wisdoms even when they came to the actions of his own great grandfather – General William Otter.  He was, in the words of his friend, colleague, and classmate 5105 Jack Granatstein, “the very model of what an engaged Canadian historian should be.”  Condolences on behalf of the College to his wife Gael Eakin, and his two children David and Marion.

Thank you to Dr Jack Granatstein for providing some personal insights about Dr Morton.

To read more about Dr Morton’s life in history see:  Desmond Morton, “Is History Another Word for Experience?  Morton’s Confessions,” The Canadian Historical Review, Vol 92, Issue 4, December 2011.

2 Comments

  • Konrad Mech

    September 16, 2019 at 1:41 pm

    I attended Erindale College in 1977 before I attended RRMC and RMC. Being one of the few people in 1st Year at Erindale not on probation for dropping or failing a course, I was invited to Principal Fox’s residence for cocktails. While there, I met Dr. Morton and told him I had applied to RMC. He looked me up and down and said “You’ll never make it.” In the mid-80’s, I was flying to Ottawa and had been upgraded to business class. I was seated in an aisle seat, and I recognized Dr. Morton in the seat across the aisle from me. I introduced myself to him and reminded him of our conversation. I then told him I graduated from RMC in ’82 as CSL of Mack Sqn, was actively parading with 7Tor RCA, had topped Arty Ph III and my Block 9 FOO course, was working in the Canadian defense industry on projects for the RCN, and was re-enrolled at Erindale to complete my BA with a Major in Commerce. He smiled into his drink, nodded, and said “Well done.”

  • 10966 Michel Maisonneuve

    September 17, 2019 at 9:59 am

    RIP Desmond Morton. A great Canadian and true friend of the Military Colleges. Vérité, devoir, vaillance.