Desmond Dillon Paul Morton was born in Calgary in 1937 to a family with a tradition of military service. On his father’s side, his great-grandfather, Sir William Dillon Otter, led the column of the Canadian forces that marched on Battleford during the North-West Rebellion of 1885 and later captured Chief Poundmaker. In 1899 he commanded the first contingent of soldiers sent to the South African War. Desmond’s father, Ronald Edward Alfred, began his military career in Winnipeg and served in the Canadian Army during World War II, where he commanded the Fort Garry Horse, a tank regiment, from 1940 to 1944. In 1950, as the recently appointed commander of the Army Prairie Command, he oversaw the joint military-civilian fight to save Winnipeg during its massive flood. In 1952 he was appointed head of Canada’s Far East Military Mission in Japan, and in 1954 was sent to Laos as the first military adviser to Canada’s truce team in Indo-China. (After his death in 1976, Dr. Morton established a prize in his honour to Erindale College.) On his mother’s side, Dr. Morton was descended from the loyalist aid-de-camp of Benedict Arnold during the latter’s brief period of service for Britain during the American Revolution.
Morton grew up leading the typical life of an ‘army brat’, moving frequently – his schooling began in Canada but he graduated from high school in Japan. Given this background, it is not surprising that he developed an interest in military history. He is currently Canada’s pre-eminent military historian, following a tradition laid down a generation earlier by C. P. Stacey.
His official association with the military began in 1954 when he began a five-year stint as an officer cadet. In 1959 he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Canadian Army and was promoted to captain in 1962. In 1961 he was stationed at Depot Company, Royal Canadian Army Service Corps, at Camp Borden, Ontario, where he trained recruits for Basic. The next year, he was put in charge of the Officer Candidate Program (with Jack Granatstein as his junior) in the Officer Training Company at the Service Corps School. Between 1963 and 1974, he was employed as an historical officer in the Historical Section of the National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa.
At the same time, Morton was acquiring a formal education. This began with a diploma at the College Militaire de St-Jean in St. Hyacinthe, Quebec (1957) and was followed with a BA (1959) from the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario. Morton then went to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, where he received his second BA in 1961, followed by an MA in 1966. He then took his doctorate at the University of London, graduating in 1968. His doctoral thesis, ‘Authority and policy in the Canadian Militia, 1868-1904’ was supervised by the eminent historian, Kenneth Bourne, of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
While in Ottawa, Morton served as visiting assistant professor at the University of Ottawa (1968-1969) and Western Ontario (1970-1971). In 1969 he was appointed assistant professor in history at Erindale College, University of Toronto, and settled in Mississauga. He was promoted to the position of associate professor in 1975. During his sabbatical term in 1975 he was visiting associate professor at the University of Michigan, and on his return was promoted to full professor. At the same time he took on increased administrative duties at Erindale College as associate dean. The next year he as also appointed vice-principal, academic and held both positions until 1979. From 1986 to 1994 he served as principal of Erindale College. Beginning in 1979, Dr. Morton also annually delivered a series of lectures at the Canadian Forces Staff College in Toronto; a few years later he began doing the same for the Canadian Forces Staff School. In 1994 he left the University of Toronto to become director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada in Montreal.
In addition to his academic and administrative activities, he has served on a number of professional associations and on committees and groups, often as president or chair, and a consultant to government. His active participation in the Canadian Historical Association, the Canadian Commission on Military History, and the journal History and Social Science Teacher began in the mid-1970s. Dr. Morton has been a frequent consultant to the Department of National Defence, most recently in the restructuring of the military following the Somalia inquiry, and to other federal agencies. At the provincial level he has advised on the teaching of history and on the role of private schools and universities in Ontario (he has adamantly opposed the creation of private universities). His involvement with community organizations has been with those in the areas in which he has resided, principally the Region of Peel.
Politics has always been one of Dr. Morton’s passions and for many years it constituted a major part of his activities. In the mid-1960s he was an employee at the Ontario wing of the party and from then to the mid-1980s he was an active supporter of the New Democratic Party at the federal and provincial levels. He also played an active role in municipal politics in Mississauga, Ontario. (A detailed description of his activities may be found in the introduction to series 8.) In his various roles he helped to formulate party policies and wrote party briefs and reports. He also designed and wrote pamphlets and in 1978 was the standard bearer in his constituency for the anticipated federal election; when it did not materialize, other commitments forced him to step aside. At the municipal level, he was active in Hazel McCallion’s election campaigns during her long tenure as mayor of Mississauga.
Dr. Morton’s standing as a military historian and his interest in political and social issues are reflected in his voluminous writings. He has authored or co-authored over 35 books, some of which, such as his Illustrated History of Canadian Labour, The Short History of Canada, and A Military History of Canada have gone through several editions. Though many of his books have had military themes (and have met with critical and popular acclaim), those on social and political issues have also proved popular. In recent years, Dr. Morton has also turned his attention to constitutional issues and has written books aimed at young people. In addition to books, he has written numerous articles in academic journals, and many for non-academic ones. He has also found time to pen regular columns in newspapers such as the Toronto Star, Ottawa Citizen, the Mississauga Times (and News) and in the United Church Observer.
Dr. Morton early saw the value of moving images as a teaching and information tool. Between 1973 and the end of the 1980s, he produced a series of video accounts of issues in Canadian history relating to war, immigration, and labour. In recent years, some of these have been recast in CD-ROM format. He has, in addition, been an advisor to and participant in programmes produced by TV Ontario, and an occasional commentator on radio. He has also been a frequent speaker at academic, military and other functions.
1954-1959 Officer Cadet
1959-1962 Lieutenant, Canadian Army
1961-1963 Instructor Royal Canadian Army Service Corps School
1963-1964 Historical Officer National Defence Headquarters, Historical Section, General Staff
1964-1968 Assistant Provincial Secretary, New Democratic Party of Ontario
1968-1969 Visiting Assistant Professor, University of Ottawa
1969-1971 Assistant Professor, University of Toronto
1970-1971 Visiting Assistant Professor, University of Western Ontario
1971-1975 Associate Professor, University of Toronto
1975 Visiting Professor, University of Michigan
1975- Professor of History, University of Toronto
1975-79 Associate Dean, Erindale College
1976-1979 Vice-Principal, Academic, Erindale College
1986-1994 Principal, Erindale College
1994-2001 Director, McGill Institute for the Study of Canada
1997 - Professor of History, McGill University
1999 - Professor Emeritus University of Toronto