Remembering Professor Desmond Morton

McGillians, Canadians, and fellow historians were saddened to hear the news of Professor Desmond Morton’s passing on September 4, at the age of 81.

Born in Calgary to a former Brigadier General, Desmond Morton spent 10 years in the Canadian Military prior to beginning his teaching career. As a historian, he is remembered among his peers as a passionate expert in the history of the Canadian military, and the history of Canadian political and industrial relations.

He was the Hiram Mills Professor of History at McGill, as well as founding Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, beginning in 1994. He authored over 40 books and received many accolades for his contributions to the study of Canadian history. He became an academic fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, was made an officer of the Order of Canada. In 2010, Governor-General David Johnston presented Professor Morton with the Pierre Berton Award for popularizing history in public media.

Fellow colleagues and friends shared their “favourite memory” of Professor Desmond Morton with the Faculty of Arts.

Antonia Maioni

Dean of Arts

"Desmond Morton and I arrived at McGill the same year. Our paths crossed continually after that. First, as a newbie assistant professor, I was lucky to have had Desmond as a mentor, as he reached out to junior colleagues across the Faculty of Arts, and gave us a real voice. After that, I had the challenge of being named the second director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, following his peerless run as its founding director. Talk about having big shoes to fill! Then, after Desmond’s retirement, I had the great pleasure of inviting him back to our old house on Peel Street, where I teased him as “the curmudgeon in the attic” to which he invariably replied, “Yes, ma’am”! In reality, he remained a happy, hard-working member of the university community, always ready to lend a hand, or an ear. He will be sorely and sadly missed by us all."

Daniel Béland

Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada

"Shortly after my nomination as Director of MISC, I visited our old quarters on Peel Street. As I walked through the building, I noticed Des in the Reading Room looking through the books. I was told that this was part of his daily routine. I introduced myself and as we were chatting, his knowledge and passion about Canadian history immediately became obvious. It is sad that I never had the chance to get to know him better."

William Straw

Art History and Communications Studies, former Director at MISC:

"My favourite memory is the reassuring sound of Des climbing the stairs every morning, at the MISC building on Peel St., to begin work on the projects to which he was so devoted. His cheery greetings as he arrived helped set a friendly atmosphere for the day. And I was charmed that he still used WordPerfect."

Elsbeth Heaman

History and Classical Studies, former Acting Director at MISC:

"My favourite moment of Des Morton was, hands down, hearing him lecture to my students in History and Canadian Studies classes. He was a consummate performer. He would act out some scenes very concretely (imagine reloading a musket while lying in muddy ground for example) and would gradually draw the students from the very intimate sense of “what did it feel like to be there” to an intellectually satisfying “what was really going on when we look for the big picture”: who won this war and why, and what happened to the soldiers themselves. When he was done with them, they really knew the things he wanted them to know about—geopolitics, democracy, the nature of warfare, and of course Canada above all. A distinct but related pleasure: hearing McGill students exclaim how much they enjoyed those lectures."

Andrew Potter

Max Bell School of Public Policy, former Director at MISC:

"My favourite memory of Des is my first. When I was hired as MISC director, he offered to take me to lunch – to the faculty club if I insisted, but he said he’d rather go to his usual spot, SacWich. He hadn’t been all summer and was anxious to go see his friends there. So off we went, where he bought me a tuna sandwich and a coke while bantering with the staff. The whole thing was, as I was to learn, typical Des: Humble, low key, and utterly collegial. We talked about MISC, McGill, and the military. And while I tried to get him to talk about one of my favourite subjects, namely, Canada’s mission to Afghanistan, somehow the conversation kept going back to one his favourite subjects, the Ross rifle. This too, turned out to be classic Des. He was a mentor and a friend, and I will miss him enormously."

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