Honouring a Man’s Life of History

Owen Egan/McGill University

L. Ian MacDonald

October 16, 2019

Ed Broadbent, a renowned leader of modern socialist times, was paying tribute to his friend Desmond Morton, a legendary professor at McGill.

Morton was no boilerplate socialist, said Broadbent, but a figure “who cared more about people than theory.”

The gathering of guests at midday Tuesday at the McGill Faculty Club nodded their agreement. They were there to remember Des Morton after his passing last month, just short of his 82nd birthday.

For the socialist movement, they were reminded, Morton was “driven by his belief that these parties, once in power, would actually make a difference in the lives of ordinary people.”

That was Des Morton — he preferred discussing and debating ideas to fighting over them. In the early days of the NDP, he was an adviser to Tommy Douglas, the party’s founding father. Years later, he helped Stephen and David Lewis push back the “waffle wing” of the Canadian left.

He came to Montreal a quarter-century ago from the University of Toronto to be the founding director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, a think tank generously endowed by Charles Bronfman, who became his good friend. From an old stone house above Sherbrooke on Peel Street, Des Morton built the MISC into a national brand, known for its popularity no less than its academic excellence.

You didn’t have to be a New Democrat or an old CCFer to sell Des on an idea. If it was about a conference that would build the MISC and McGill brands, he was in favour of it.

In 1999, on the 10th anniversary of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, and the fifth anniversary of the MISC, he supported a conference on the FTA. Not only did he invite Canadian Conservatives who did the deal, but U.S. Republicans who made it with them. When some of the standard-bearers of the left had a problem with this, they had to go through Des, and he wasn’t having any of their partisan nonsense.

I know — I was there as the conference organizer, grateful to Des for his unstinting support.

And so, under Brian Mulroney’s leadership, the MISC and McGill hosted James A. Baker, who negotiated the deal for the Americans, and George H.W. Bush, vice president in the Reagan administration when the deal was struck.

Mulroney persuaded his close friend Bush, by then a former president himself, to attend the conference and give a keynote. There was a dinner in Bush’s honour the previous evening at the Mount Royal Club.

Desmond’s role was to help play host to a former president of the United States. As a retired captain in the Canadian army, Des knew how to receive a former commander-in-chief.

For Des, it was a long way from his beginnings as a brigadier’s son from Calgary, but true to his military heritage. He graduated from College Militaire Royal and Royal Military College, became a Rhodes Scholar who studied at Oxford and the London School of Economics. A military historian, he broadened his base, becoming an author of some 40 books.

Immersed in a field that elevated the lives of great men, he went out of his way to spotlight the regular people who were hostages and handmaidens to history. “There is a history in all men’s lives,” Shakespeare wrote in Henry IV, part 2. Des approached his work as though inspired by that truth.

And he was known as a workaholic. As his wife, artist Gail Eakin, said at the end of his memorial service, for Des the only kind of holiday was a working one. When he took his children on tours of beaches in France liberated by Canadians, that was a working holiday.

One of his former undergraduates, documentary filmmaker Rick Blackburn, recalled that he wept on hearing of Morton’s death, and said in his tribute, “I learned what Desmond taught me to do.”

Dementia and a heart condition defined Desmond’s final chapter, but at McGill he had long since prepared the ground of succession.

He knew when it was time to move on, and he had an eye for talent. His successor as head of the MISC, Antonia Maioni, is now dean of Arts at McGill. Chris Manfredi, another of his protégés at the MISC, is now provost of McGill, essentially its chief operating officer.

Des Morton would have enjoyed the occasion organized by Daniel Béland, his latest successor at the MISC. The food was excellent, the bar was open, and the speeches were pertinent, touching, funny and not too long.

Des would have approved.

L. Ian MacDonald is editor and publisher of Policy Magazine.