Manitoba History: An Interview with Manitoba Historian, William Lewis Morton

by Gerald A. Friesen
Department of History, University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 1, 1981

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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William Lewis Morton was born in Gladstone, Manitoba, in 1908 and has resided in this province for much of his life. One of Canada's most eminent historians, and the most distinguished historian of Manitoba, he speaks abou his career, his province, the Historical Society and the historical discipline. He was interviewed by Dr. Gerald Friesen. The transcript of the entire interview is deposited in the Provincial Archives of Manitoba.

My childhood, I think, was a happy one. This was owing partly to the fact that it was a country childhood and there was always lots to do, both in the form of work and the form of play. It was also owing to my parents who were loving and fond though basically strict. There was a quiet insistence on being truthful which I particularly remember; that is so basic to all good living because without truth what else stands up. Also we were always urged to be brave. I remember this because I think I was a natural coward, I was always staggering from panic to panic but that too was a good thing ...

W. L. Morton

I think I worked a great deal, looking back, but it didn't bother me. I was a glutton for being helpful. I remember one of my vivid memories of childhood was washing the dishes when I had to stand on a chair to be high enough to come up to the sink, and then I became in charge of the wood. Of course, our house was heated entirely by wood and all the cooking was done with wood. Our farm was heavily wooded and we were subsistence. When younger, I got the kindling; then in time I was big enough to split the wood, you see.

Q. Did you have much time away from the chores to read or play?

Oh yes, I played a great deal by myself, with a dog and all that sort of thing. And when I learned to read I remember reading all day on occasion. And, on Saturday night, we would all go to town, Mother would call on her sister and we would renew acquaintances. There was the shopping to do and eventually we would come home, drive home through the darkness.

Q. What was the school like when you were in primary school?

There was a little one room school, quite a good one, with one teacher, ungraded, everything from grade one to grade eight. It was a great experience for me. I enjoyed school very much and ate things up and I could always do the work so quickly that I'd be left alone with a book. I was always very careless as I still am. I do things quickly.

Q. Do you remember how you felt as a school child?

Oh, I used to get beaten up quite a bit because, in ways I wasn't aware of, I was different. I would have to speak of the place of my family in the neighbourhood to explain this, but I was different, and I suppose I made other people impatient and got into scraps. I talked differently for one thing and I was interested in things that the other children knew nothing about. We were English you see, and my family was English though they'd been Canadian for quite awhile; we were Anglicans, and we rather stood out. Though my father was always popular, he was very careful never to let any difference arise. We had to develop a kind of dual way of living, we had our own way of living and then we con-formed to the neighbourhood way of living.

Q. What was that neighbourhood way?

Essentially it was very simple; any form of pretention was instantly seized on, put down; difference was thought to be a form of pretention you see. I think this was the root of the trouble I had. I don't mean to exaggerate.

Q. Do you remember being attracted to History in high school?

I took it in my stride. I liked it and was good at it. The only time I wasn't good was once I was caught out and I peeked at my book—I copied. I failed on that paper, the only time I ever failed; I suppose it was because I was caught short by not being at school or something.

Q. Did you find the farm work and especially the harvests becoming more onerous as you grew older?

I first drove a stook team—that is a team of horses with a rack which picked up the stooks and took them into the threshing machine—when I was twelve but I was just filling in at the end of the season. Someone had gone away and there was a neighbour in distress who had to be threshed. But you see from the age of twelve until I left university, I never opened a school term. I had to work on the farm until the harvest was in.

Q. Were you conscious of making history when you lived on the farm and broke land?

I think, in a sense, one always was—being of a pioneer family and of a family that had taken part in organizing the local institutions. My great grandfather had been a justice of the peace, for example. He on one occasion had to send a man after a murderer, in his flamboyant way ordering him to bring him back dead or alive. And my father was always in politics almost from the first—municipal politics and later provincial politics.

Q. Did you ever consider remaining in Gladstone?

Yes, you see I failed my grade 11 or at least I threw it up because I had so much trouble with Algebra, and I was dubious as to whether I wanted any more education. I really thought I might stay on the farm, you know. My whole life had been on the farm and I was a competent farmer. In many ways I thought I was better than my father. I was a better workman than he was. So I was doubtful and I pulled out of school. Then, that made me realize that in fact I did want to go on so I took a year to stagger through Algebra.

Q. Did you then decide to go to University?

I suppose I did. Going to University was an almost unheard of thing in the countryside at that time. What was most talked of—and more talked of than done —was going to agricultural college. But in my family one of my mother's sisters had gone to University and got her degree. Then one of my cousins in Glad-stone went on to University and I started reading all her books. That roused in me the ambition to go on too and herethe miraculous thing was that there was no opposition in the family. I don't think they were particularly pleased but they didn't oppose and an Uncle of mine who was childless made it financially possible. I didn't know this for many years.

Q. Your first two years were spent at St. John's College. Did you enjoy college life?

Oh very much, my family had always gone to St. John's ... It was my grandfather's belief that every son should have a profession and the one chosen for my father was medicine and he didn't like the dissecting room. He just walked out and never went back, something I think which grieved him in a way because he was always too modest about his education. I am quite sure he could have been Premier had he cared to assert himself at a later date, but he wasn't sure that he had the training for that kind of job and he let a man, Doug Campbell, (who in his own way was very gifted and made a first rate Premier), have a job that he might have had himself.

St. John's College, 1903
Source: Western Canada Pictorial Index

Q. You considered Divinity but eventually decided against it. Why?

I think I was only playing with it and I don't suppose I would have gone on with it anyway because I didn't think I was quite that kind of person. But this was one point at which my father did intervene. He was horrified and very stem about it. It made me stop and think.

Q. You won a Rhodes Scholarship at the University of Manitoba and went to Oxford. What impact did that next three years have on your career?

Well, two things happened: throughout my four years in the general course at Manitoba I thought my principal interest was in English (and I think it was) but in my fourth year—and having to decide what I would do at Oxford crystallized this—I decided I didn't have what it took to be good in English. I didn't think I had enough imagination or enough critical sharpness. So I switched to History where I found myself more at home. This was partly influenced by the lack of any very strong personalities among the teachers of English at that time and by the presence of a very strong personality in Noel Fieldhouse in History. He influenced me very much. So did R. O. MacFarlane, who had just come in from Harvard ...

Then, what I read at Oxford was not History but Modern Greats which left a way open to journalism you see. Actually while at Oxford I did some writing and sent things back to the Free Press. I interviewed some farmers, for example, about English farming and when I was in Italy I wrote a screed of articles on Fascism which they didn't print. I was so interested they thought I was tainted, at least I think so. They may just have been too long.

Q. What did your Oxford instructors give you?

They gave me a great reverence and care for simple and direct thinking and speaking. That was the essential thing at Oxford. Then they did lead me to decide not to be a journalist but be a historian if I could be. So it was all a period of resolution.

Q. You returned to Manitoba and taught here for the next 30 years. You also devoted much time to the Historical Society. Why?

Well, the Society would do what I was trying to do myself and therefore I had a professional interest in it. Secondly, I have always held as an academic historian that history is a social enterprise and is to be encouraged as such. As Trevelyan said, men will always make up their own history and it is therefore the duty of the scholar to try to see they make as good history as they can. Also I was very much influenced by two men: one was R. O. MacFarlane, and the other was J. L. Johnston, the Provincial Librarian, who was almost grief-stricken that the Society had ceased to function and thought it very important for the province that it be revived and made active again. I attribute the revival that did eventually take place in the '40s more to Johnston than to anyone else.

Q. What are historians' responsibilities to their community?

Well, a historian's first responsibility of course, is to his craft, to his science, and he may not feel he has any to his community. I think he may properly feel that such a sense of obligation is in fact a detriment. But my own feeling was different. I think the historian functions best as a conscious member of a community. [His job is one] ... of increasing historical consciousness and informing it well. That I think is the commitment to the community that the historian—if he does undertake one—should undertake.

Q. You have said that you never seriously considered seeking political office. Why?

Well, you see, I could have done it because I was a very successful university politician and I think I shyed away from that because I felt it would lead me astray and I think it would have exhausted me. Public life takes things out of one and in a way of which I am sufficiently conscious to make me charitable towards public men.

I thought I was serving the country be being a historian—as I think I did. I don't think there's anything incompatible for the historian being a public figure. This is a well-established tradition in Canada. A. R. M. Lower and Donald Creighton were public figures as well as great historians. And I even carry that to the point of saying that a historian may be, as I have been myself, a declared partisan in politics. I think it is quite possible to separate the two roles, the role of objective scholar, and the role of a declared partisan. So at one time I did some work for the Conservative party which I joined in 1947 after the spy trial which I thought was shockingly handled.

I thought the Conservative party had something to offer that no other party had, namely it is not a class party, it's a party of the whole community. And that means you can't have a simple reactionary Conservative party. Above all you can't have a Conservative party that is really a 19th century liberal party which is what the NDP and the Liberals say the Conservative party is. It can be a very progressive humanitarian party ... It's conservative in the sense that, while it accepts change now, it firmly believes that you should never do anything for the first time and whatever you do you should do it slowly, more or less when driven to it, but not just for the sake of change. If the old will work at all, for heaven sakes, stay with the old because heaven knows what the new will do.

Q. Do you think of the Donald Smith biography which you are now writing as fitting into a corpus of historical work that you have consciously designed?

No, that's my basic trouble. My work really came to an end with The Critical Years because that started out to be a book about the place of the West in Confederation. When the Centenary series came up I simply reshaped it somewhat to make it fit in. It didn't quite come off; I meant it to crown my work and it has been a rather disappointing book. I don't understand why because I think I did what I set out to do, to show how Confederation was possible only because the large scheme was followed and these outlying places like the Maritimes and the West were brought in to resolve the conflict between Upper and Lower Canada, between the French and the English. So anything I have done since has been just done for itself and not as part of an architectural scheme. The biography of Donald A. Smith is in that position.

Q. Did your perception of Canada change in the late 1940s?

I think in a sense that is true. I was an actual separatist in the '20s, you know, a Western Separatist; feeling was very strong down to 1926 and I suppose I just stayed in that position. Then things got very trying indeed because of the Depression and because of Mitch Hepburn in Ontario who was outrageous, you know, a selfish, arrogant, mean individual. So it all led up to "Clio in Canada", [which was published in the Canadian Historical Review in 1946]. But in many ways that was a carryover. I had actually changed when the federal-provincial income redistribution was introduced. That seemed to me to alter the whole picture. I made a great deal of it and I began to become less a regionalist and more a nationalist.

Q. Do you regard certain of your achievements with particular satisfaction?

I look back with some satisfaction on certain things. One was that I think the Progressive Party in Canada signaled the beginning of serious scholarly or professional Western History. I don't quite know why that was so because George Stanley's book was really the landmark but I felt my book somehow or other, perhaps because of the time, made a difference that The Birth of Western Canada hadn't done. That's a matter of opinion. Then I take great satisfaction in the Manitoba which I think is a good book, it's a well written book. And I like to see the way my work shaped up. I think it has a body, a coherence, that is satisfying. Apart from that I take great pride in what I did at University College and at Trent ...

The Order of Canada is, of course, an honour, but you get into competition there. I regretted that I was made a member at that time because I got what I was worth at that time, an officership, but Creighton and Lower are Companions.

Q. How would you describe Manitoba to a new comer?

Well, when I ... (acted as a tour guide for friends), I took (them) to Lower Fort Garry and I would still do that becauseit's eyewitness to another age and another period in history, it shows how long a history we have in spite of being a new province and indeed from there you can work your way back to Captain Button and all the rest of it. And then, from there too, you go straightway to the Red River Settlement which I think was a real historical background for this province although the province be-came so different from the Red River Settlement. That leads on to the 1870 business and the French community in Manitoba. Then of course the other thing that you're faced with right away, from the moment of arrival, is the fact of the city of Winnipeg; and I think perhaps the most significant thing about Manitoba at the moment is that over half its population is in this one great urban aggregation and so you have a city built for regional purposes acting as the capital of what is, in terms of population and wealth, a relatively small province. I think that you can talk about all those things without being too boring.

Q. You spoke in Manitoba of a "superficial friendliness" that was to be found amongst the ethnic groups in the province.

Well I suspect, though of course I'm becoming detached, that it has improved over that. I think there I was reflecting the attitude of my own kind of Manitoban, a member of the majority group who had to be decent about it al whereas now I think there is a genuine quality to the diversity of people. I sense this in what I read about Folklorama, and so on. But as always, I shrink fron the term "melting pot." I think we blended without melting—which was what we intended to do.

Q. Are you optimistic about the immediate future of the province?

I am. I'm sorry that we seem both in Manitoba and in Winnipeg to have got into the old Canadian habit of running ourselves down. I think we have a remarkable society here and a basically happy one. And I think that we are prosperous community and I think we will go on being prosperous. Winnipeg is a very livable place. And of course now with the roads and cars all Manitobans share in Winnipeg's life.