CREIGHTON, DONALD GRANT, university teacher, historian, and author; b. 15 July 1902 in Toronto, second of the three children of the Reverend William Black Creighton and Laura Harvie; m. 23 June 1926 Luella Sanders Bruce in London, England, and they had a son and a daughter; d. 19 Dec. 1979 in Brooklin, Ont.
John Creighton, Donald Grant Creighton’s great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side and his great-grandfather on his father’s, emigrated from Tamlaght O’Crilly parish, County Derry (Northern Ireland), in 1832. He left for the usual reasons: he was pushed out by Ireland’s precarious rural economy, and he was pulled by British North America’s promise of land. Two years later John was joined by three of his five children. His son James bought a 100-acre lot in North Dorchester Township, Upper Canada, which over time he would transform into a successful farm called Hillside. James’s fifth child, Donald’s father, was born there in 1864.
Through his mother, Donald was descended from James’s brother Kennedy. The Creightons had been Presbyterians, but Kennedy converted to Methodism and became an itinerant preacher. His daughter Eliza Jane* married railway conductor John Harvie* in 1861. By all accounts, Lizzie, as she was known, had a powerful personality – Donald once described his maternal grandmother as the only woman he ever feared – and she became a leader in Toronto’s social-reform movement. The Harvies’ children spent their summer vacations at Hillside. Here Laura and William Black Creighton met and fell in love. When he had completed degrees in arts at Victoria College in Cobourg and in theology after the institution moved to Toronto, they were married in 1895. For a few years William held charges in rural Ontario, but in 1900, after laryngitis threatened his career as a preacher, he obtained the position of assistant editor of the Christian Guardian (Toronto), the Methodist Church of Canada’s weekly paper. He, Laura, and their young son John Harvie (Jack) moved to Toronto, where two years later Laura gave birth to a second child.
“I was born,” Donald Creighton once said, “into a household in which books, history, biography, literature were all about.” His father, who was elected editor of the Christian Guardian in 1906 over several other clergymen, received dozens of volumes directly from publishers anxious to see them reviewed in a Canadian newspaper. Years later Creighton could still picture those books, neatly wrapped in brown-paper packages, which his father brought home to their house in Toronto’s west end. His mother was something of a bookworm herself, and from their earliest years she read to her children and, as they got older, with them. Dickens and Tennyson were perennial favourites. So too were British children’s magazines: Chums, Chatterbox, Boy’s Own Paper, and Little Folks. Growing up with these books and periodicals meant experiencing what scholars now call the “British world.” Forged in childhood, Creighton’s understanding of the imperial connection – Canada’s political, material, cultural, and psychic links with Great Britain and the British empire – would last over the course of his life, and the relationship became a recurring theme in his scholarship.
He was too young to serve in World War I, but the conflict was, he said, “a personal and family affair.” His father, through the Christian Guardian, led a crusade in support of Canada’s war effort and Prime Minister Sir Robert Laird Borden*, the Union government, and conscription. In August 1914 W. B. Creighton told his readers, “We are British! and we will stand by the mother land in this greatest campaign of all time.” Donald’s elder brother, Jack, received a lieutenant’s commission in the 48th Highlanders, went overseas in August 1916, and fought in the battles for Loos-en-Gohelle, Hill 70, and Passchendaele. During the last of these engagements he suffered a massive concussion when an exploding German shell threw him against a wall, and in early 1918 he returned to Canada. That summer Donald answered the call to “do his bit” by working as a labourer on a farm east of Toronto, almost certainly through the Canada Food Board’s program Soldiers of the Soil, which placed teenaged boys on farms across the country. Five decades later he would speculate that the key to understanding World War I and “the appalling mass slaughter” on the Western Front lay in the manner the struggle had been idealized. Not just Canada, he said, but the west in general “thought differently about the First World War than it had ever thought about any war in the past and will probably ever think about any war in the future.”
After graduating from Humberside Collegiate Institute in 1920, Creighton enrolled in the four-year honours program in English and history at Victoria College, his father’s alma mater and now the Methodist college at the University of Toronto. He quickly caught the attention of his professors, who recognized his fine mind and unusual felicity as a writer. His first interest was in English language and literature, but about his third year he began “to swing towards history” under the influence of several enthusiastic instructors – John Bartlet Brebner*, Humphrey Hume Wrong*, and George Malcolm Smith – who, he later recalled, “conceived of history as drama” and “converted me to their cause.”
In addition to excelling academically, Creighton edited Acta Victoriana, the college’s undergraduate literary magazine, in his senior year. Inspired by Smart Set (New York), an avant-garde literary journal that advertised itself as a “magazine of cleverness,” and its famous co-editor, H. L. Mencken, Creighton’s Acta was distinguished by mockery, satire, and irreverence. In his first editorial he announced an “unnatural prejudice against the stodgy and the profound.” In other words, he said, “weighty” articles on “the merits or otherwise of co-education” or “elaborate” histories of the Student Christian Movement were not wanted. When he learned some months later that Acta under his editorship had proved to “tax the brains” of its readers, he proceeded to publish “a simple bed-time story” about a dim-witted hunter who was eaten by a grizzly bear.
In the fall of 1924 Creighton applied for a Rhodes scholarship. The Reverend Richard Pinch Bowles, president of Victoria, in his letter of reference, described Creighton as a “brilliant student.” “In the estimation of all his teachers he holds a place of rare distinction,” Bowles wrote. “His gifts are not ordinary. For wide reading of English Literature, for insight and appreciation of its values, and for ability to express himself in excellent style, it is doubtful if we have ever had his superior among our students.” The selection committee for Ontario found itself “deadlocked” between Creighton and another Toronto candidate, classicist Louis Alexander MacKay, who was a lecturer at Victoria College. In the end it chose MacKay, the “worse” of the two, in Wrong’s opinion. In response, Wrong, together with members of the department of history and Charles Vincent Massey*, who chaired the Edward Kylie Award committee, arranged for Creighton to receive this scholarship, which had been established in memory of University of Toronto professor Edward Joseph Kylie*. It was intended to ensure that deserving students, preferably in modern history, could pursue their studies in Britain. On graduating in the spring of 1925, Creighton also received the Regents’ Gold Medal from his college. His fellow students, in keeping with tradition, provided his description in Torontonensis, the university yearbook: “In years about twenty, in looks much older, and in conceit at least two hundred.”
Having been admitted to Balliol College at the University of Oxford that February, Creighton looked forward to a relaxing July and August at the family cottage on Lake Muskoka, where he summered for most of his life. Then, completely out of the blue, he fell in love. His sister, Mary Isabel, brought a friend home to lunch. Donald knew Luella Bruce, who was a year behind him at Victoria, but not well. She was the daughter of James Bruce, a blacksmith in Stouffville. Her mother, Sarah Luella Sanders, had died from puerperal fever two days after Luella was born. Unable to care for an infant, James left her with her maternal grandparents, who raised her like a daughter. Five years later James remarried and sent for Luella; from that point on, her childhood was unhappy. Her stepmother was a religious zealot, and as she grew up, Luella resolved to escape the older woman’s emotional abuse and the cultural confinement of small-town Ontario, go to university, and live her life on her own terms. She would eventually have a career as a writer of historical fiction and non-fiction.
According to family lore, it was Lizzie Harvie who first thought that Donald and Luella would make a good couple. “Don’t you think Miss Bruce is nice?” she asked her grandson. The two young people went to Centre Island, across the Toronto Harbour, on their first date. Again according to family legend, they fell in love before they even got there: during the short ferry ride they both “just knew.” A short time later, on 22 August, they became engaged. “I can tell you quite honestly and sincerely,” Creighton confided to a friend, “that I’m happier than I have ever been in my life.”
In the fall of 1925 he went to Balliol, where he read modern history. His principal tutor was Kenneth Norman Bell, who had lectured at the University of Toronto from 1909 to 1911 and remained a conduit of sorts between the department of history there and his Oxford college. The actor Raymond Hart Massey* would later remember Bell fondly. He was, Massey recalled, “not only a brilliant scholar but a remarkable human being, kindly, witty, humorous and understanding.” In those days Oxford tutors were not expected to publish; rather, their goal was to instruct young men, to instil in them what one scholar has called “nation, duty, character and confidence.” As a teacher, Bell aimed “not to impart knowledge but to make us think,” Massey said. Creighton did well at Balliol, both academically and socially. “I got a very good report from my tutor,” he proudly announced in November. “He said that my work had been ‘admirable’ and that he had no criticisms to offer. Not so dusty, eh?” Balliol was not only about studying; it was also about playing field hockey (“you’d laugh if you saw the funny little stick,” he told his father), going for walks in Christ Church Meadow, having friends to his rooms for afternoon tea, and taking in the excitement of Eights Week, the annual rowing regatta.
Meanwhile, he and Luella maintained a transatlantic love affair. Letters were exchanged, promises made, and plans finalized. Shortly after her graduation in the spring of 1926, she travelled to London, where on 23 June they were married at Wesley’s Chapel on City Road. After a wonderfully romantic summer in a small coastal village in France, Donald returned to Oxford, while Luella stayed in Paris to study art history. They wrote to each other every day. Although difficult, their separation did not prove “one fifth as hard” as it had the previous year. Indeed, Creighton found himself invigorated and focused. “I am working this year about twice as well as I did last,” he told his mother.
He spent the spring of 1927 in Saujon, a small village in the south of France, preparing for his “schools,” his written and oral examinations. “Don is working at a terrific rate,” Luella wrote to her mother-in-law. “I don’t know how he keeps it up – and there are still two months and a half till the ghastly strain is over.” In the end Creighton achieved second-class standing, not a first, and would be awarded his second ba in 1929 (an ma from Oxford would follow in 1931). Few Canadians earned a first, and some even ranked third. They were at a disadvantage: they could do well on the written examinations but lacked the verbal skills of their British counterparts, and it was the viva voce (oral examination) that usually tipped the scales.
It is difficult to say what exactly Oxford meant to Creighton. Certainly, he cherished his time there. A sensitive, even emotional man, he was moved by the city’s ancient beauty, its colleges and libraries, its architecture and cobblestone streets. That Toronto was not Oxford and Victoria College not Balliol neither made him feel inferior nor reminded him of his colonial status, and he never overcompensated in an effort to fit in; that is, he did not try to out-English the English by adopting a fake accent or imitating their mannerisms. In point of fact, he found English people “all right,” if a little too complacent: “Particularly when I am at tea somewhere I do wish I had a bomb to explode and wake them all up. They’re nice, but very satisfied.” According to Kenneth Bell, Creighton remained “a thorough Canadian rubber neck,” even after he had been at Oxford for a year and a half. Nevertheless, the experience confirmed his Britishness and deepened his appreciation of Britain’s place in the world. It was, however, a Canadian Britishness: rather than something imposed from outside, it emerged from within. Being both British and Canadian was not contradictory but hybrid.
Creighton returned to the University of Toronto in the fall of 1927 as a lecturer in the department of history and would be made an assistant professor five years later. He planned to complete a phd in French history at the Sorbonne under the supervision of Albert Mathiez, one of the foremost experts on the French revolution, and the following year he and Luella spent the summer in Paris. His thesis was to focus on Jean-Marie Roland de La Platière, a leader of the Girondist faction during the revolution. Luella even mused about writing a companion biography of Mme Roland, who was in some ways the intellectual force behind her husband. Creighton’s topic was an interesting choice: the Girondists represented bourgeois interests, defended the rights of property, and over the course of the revolution became the voice of order and conservatism. Although he spent long, hot days at the Bibliothèque Nationale, “plowing,” a friend said, “through piles of proclamations and pamphlets,” Creighton did not finish the research. With their money running out, he and Luella returned home in steerage. Since he had no access to grants, he had to abandon his interest in European history. “So I decided to find a Canadian subject,” he later remarked. “It was a poor second. I had a real sense of deprivation.”
At this point William Paul McClure Kennedy, who taught law and political institutions at the University of Toronto, suggested that Creighton study the career of Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay*], governor-in-chief of British North America in the 1820s. Dalhousie’s papers had recently been acquired by the Public Archives of Canada, and in them might be a chapter on the country’s constitutional history. Creighton was intrigued. He could write a short book and, at the same time, earn a doctorate (he was never, in fact, to do so). He spent the summer of 1930 in Ottawa, but he found the going tough. Dalhousie was a sententious bore, constitutional history did not really interest him, and Ottawa was not Paris. “After Paris,” he said, “I hated the runty little town.” More than once he was on the verge of packing it in and returning home. Then something caught his attention. Looking beyond the narrow world of politics, with its petitions, acts, and assemblies, Creighton observed a more fundamental theme in the history of Canada: the development of a trade network based on the St Lawrence River system. “Suddenly I realized I had an enormous and wonderful subject. I saw it extended back in time to the start of the French regime, and forward into the future.”
For the next seven years, Creighton jealously guarded his time. The demands of a young family (his son, Philip, had been born in 1929) and a heavy teaching load – his students would remember his lectures as carefully planned and recall him as a “dramatic performer” – left few opportunities for research and writing. Avoiding the temptations of articles and reviews, he set his sights on a more distant horizon: the publication of a book. To get there would take years, not months. The commercial empire of the St. Lawrence, 1760–1850, issued in 1937 as part of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s series on Canada–United States relations, established Creighton’s reputation as his generation’s finest historian. Inspired by his friend Harold Adams Innis*’s The fur trade in Canada … (New Haven, Conn., and London, 1930) and its conclusion that Canada “emerged not in spite of geography but because of it,” Creighton argued that the nation was achievable only because of the St Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. The sole waterway to penetrate the centre of North America, it made an east-west transcontinental and transatlantic commercial empire – and, ultimately, Canada – possible. “It was the one great river which led from the eastern shore into the heart of the continent. It possessed a geographical monopoly; and it shouted its uniqueness to adventurers. The river meant mobility and distance; it invited journeyings; it promised immense expanses, unfolding, flowing away into remote and changing horizons. The whole west, with all its riches, was the dominion of the river.” Here, in a nutshell, was the Laurentian thesis of Canadian history: out of the St Lawrence River valley and the Great Lakes basin, out of the Canadian Shield, came the nation.
Struck by the originality and forcefulness of its argument and moved by the daring reach of its creator’s imagination, readers generously praised The commercial empire of the St. Lawrence. Historian Arthur Reginald Marsden Lower*, then at Wesley College in Winnipeg, called it brilliant. “If more books like this one are written,” he declared, “Canadian history will be in danger of becoming interesting.” Herbert Heaton, from the University of Minnesota, described it as “a brilliant piece of analysis, synthesis, and interpretation.” At a banquet to celebrate the publication, Frank Hawkins Underhill, a colleague at Toronto, delivered an address on the art of history and proclaimed Creighton its “white hope.” Later he took the author aside to tell him that his was “the best book of Canadian history ever published.”
But there was also criticism. Military historian Charles Perry Stacey* observed that because Creighton told his story so consistently from the perspective of the merchants, “the reader is sometimes allowed to lose sight of the importance of the opposing interests,” especially that of French Canadians. Gilbert Norman Tucker, of Yale University, was more pointed. He detected in Creighton a distinct lack of generosity towards French Canada. “The [British] decision to respect the cherished institutions of the French Canadians,” he wrote, “is run through the mill of adverse criticism and comes out ground exceedingly small.… Surely the decision has a smack of generosity and tolerance about it which merits a kind word.”
For Creighton, French Canada was incomprehensible. He could not ignore the subject – after all, it ran through Canadian history – but neither could he understand it. Instead, he relied on a series of stereotypes to explain the region and its inhabitants. French Canada was a feudal remnant of the ancien régime in North America, and French Canadians were “simple, docile and politically unambitious”; “untutored, biddable peasants”; “aloof, dogged and apprehensive”; “sullen, suspicious and unresponsive”; “obstructive, unprogressive and anti-commercial.” The British conquest of New France, moreover, was not the “supreme catastrophe” that historian Abbé Lionel Groulx* believed it to have been. In Creighton’s view, it was epiphenomenal. “The conquest,” he wrote, “could not change Canada.” It could not alter the “fact of all facts in the history of the northern half of the continent”: the role played by the St Lawrence River, the Great Lakes basin, and successive attempts to realize a commercial and territorial empire. In many ways, Creighton’s view of French Canada and French Canadians resembled that of Lord Durham [Lambton*], who, in his Report on the affairs of British North America (London, 1839), famously described the French-speaking population of Lower Canada as a people “with no history, and no literature.”
Creighton accomplished for the St Lawrence what Thomas John (Tom) Thomson* and the painters of the Group of Seven had realized for the Canadian Shield: he mythologized it, making it an element of the English Canadian imagination. The “river of Canada” was an ongoing argument against continentalism and prevented the country’s absorption by the United States. It represented Canada’s very purpose: to maintain a separate political existence in North America. But Creighton reminded his audience that the north-south pull of continentalism was powerful and that Britain mattered to Canada. What he concluded about the 19th century – that “Canada was virtually meaningless apart from the imperial connection” – applied equally to the 20th.
Following the publication of The commercial empire of the St. Lawrence, Creighton contributed a background paper on British North America at the time of confederation to the royal commission on dominion-provincial relations, chaired first by Newton Wesley Rowell* and then by Joseph Sirois*. Next, he wrote Dominion of the north: a history of Canada (Boston, 1944), a volume intended for the general reader that extended the Laurentian thesis back to New France and forward into the making of modern Canada. As he told his publisher, “the main purpose of this book” is to show “why Canada is and will desire to remain a separate North American nation.” The work also reflected Creighton’s maturing conviction that history was a branch of literature, not a social science. He deliberately avoided the temptation to break his subject into a series of topical, loosely connected chapters. Treating history in this way, he said, was “both historically and artistically bad.” Narrative history, although more challenging to write, was truer to the past. After all, the past was not broken up into topics; it possessed, he said, a “basic unity.”
Dominion of the north met a kind fate. The New York Times gave it a glowing review on 23 April and said that its author was a “good prose man”; the Montreal Gazette on 21 July described it as “history in the grand style” and commented on its “brilliantly worked pages”; and historian Alfred LeRoy Burt told Creighton that it was “a capital piece of work which ought to have a wide sale.” Although Creighton felt that his publisher, the Houghton Mifflin Company, might have pushed the book more aggressively, especially in the United States, it did quite well: between 1944 and 1953, when it went out of print, over 10,000 copies were sold, and Creighton earned $2,100 in royalties. A publisher in Buenos Aires brought out a Spanish translation in 1949 titled El dominio del norte: historia del Canadá, and an updated and expanded version was issued by the Macmillan Company of Canada in 1957 and by Houghton Mifflin as A history of Canada: dominion of the north the following year in an attempt to reach the university- and college-textbook market in Canada and the United States.
Creighton’s personal correspondence from the 1940s does not survive, and it is difficult to know precisely how he responded to World War II. At the time he supported the war effort; later, however, he would come to criticize Canada’s agreements with the United States, among them the Permanent Joint Board of Defence, as nails in the coffin of Canadian independence. In July 1945, as the conflict was coming to an end, he was appointed full professor at the University of Toronto, a designation he thought long overdue and which he received only after McGill University in Montreal had offered him similar status. He was also beginning a project that would consume the next decade of his life: a biography of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald*. “History,” he argued, “is not made by inanimate forces and human automatons; it is made by living men and women, impelled by an endless variety of ideas and emotions, which can be best understood by that insight into character, which is one of the great attributes of literary art.”
Taking his inspiration from German composer Richard Wagner’s use of a leitmotif, a recurring theme in musical or literary composition, Creighton begins the first volume of his biography of Macdonald where The commercial empire of the St. Lawrence ends: with the river itself. “In those days they came usually by boat. A few immigrants may have made the long journey from Montreal by land, taking several weeks and stopping at a score of friendly farm-houses as they pushed their way through the green forest. But most people travelled westward by the river.” He concludes the second volume where the first one starts: “Beyond the dock lay the harbour and the islands which marked the end of the lowest of the Great Lakes; and beyond the islands the St. Lawrence River began its long journey to the sea.” In the intervening 1,059 pages of text, it is a heroic Macdonald who listens to the St Lawrence and struggles to realize the river’s promise and extend it westward, from sea to sea, by means of a transcontinental railway; who understands that the threat to Canada’s independence in North America, its separateness, comes not from Britain but from the United States; and who finally, because he alone can see the larger horizons, overcomes the objections of reluctant New Brunswickers, the opposition of obscurantist Nova Scotians, the challenges of provincially minded premiers, and the armed rebellions of the Métis.
John A. Macdonald: the young politician (Toronto, 1952) and John A. Macdonald: the old chieftain (Toronto, 1955) each won a Governor General’s Award for academic non-fiction. Both did exceptionally well in the general market. By 1960, sales had topped 11,000 for volume 1 and 10,000 for volume 2, and Creighton had pocketed more than $14,600 in royalties. In his review of the first book, Oxford scholar Max Beloff described Creighton as “one of the half-dozen best historians now writing anywhere in the English-speaking world.” Also at Oxford, philosopher Isaiah Berlin announced to his students that, “on the strength of this one volume, I can say that I have been communing this past weekend with the greatest historical writer of our time.” The centre had recognized the margin.
But amid the general chorus of praise there was censure. Creighton had overemphasized Macdonald’s role in confederation; he had ignored the legitimate and thoughtful opposition from New Brunswick’s Albert James Smith*, Nova Scotia’s Joseph Howe*, and Lower Canada’s Antoine-Aimé Dorion*; he had denigrated Macdonald’s political opponents (Ontario’s Oliver Mowat*, for example, was described as parading in triumph in 1878 “like some fabulous eastern war-lord, laden with booty and rich in territorial conquests”); and he had treated Louis Riel*, the Red River uprising of 1869–70, and the North-West rebellion of 1885 with an uncomprehending insensitivity. Indeed, Creighton never understood Riel’s 20th-century transformation into a sympathetic, even heroic, figure. As he told fellow historian Ramsay Cook, “The best that can be said for Louis Riel – a strange recommendation for a hero – is that he ought to have been in the loony-bin!”
Creighton’s biography of Macdonald, for all its faults, confirmed his reputation as a brilliant writer. Bowles had been right: Creighton’s gifts were not ordinary. He did not attempt to situate his interpretation of Canada’s first prime minister in the existing academic literature, nor did he burden his text with references to secondary material; he did not reduce his Macdonald to a thesis statement at the end of an introductory chapter or cite external authorities on the particular strengths of this theory or the unavoidable limits of that source. In this sense, the biography reads like a novel. Indeed, Creighton borrowed techniques from the novelist, including suspense, climax, and denouement, to carry his audience forward; he carefully added details about the weather or the location of the sun to establish setting and mood; and he deliberately referred to physical characteristics to convey an individual’s personality. “I think that history’s closest association is with literature,” he once said. “I think a good historian ought to be substantially educated in English and French literature, particularly in novels in which the author views society in a wide scope and tries – sometimes in a series of volumes – to convey an impression of an entire age in the history of a nation.”
He was unapologetic about the liberties he took as a writer. “People sometimes say to me, ‘How do you know Macdonald was thinking that at this particular moment?’ And I freely admit I don’t know it. What I do know was that these were his thoughts on this particular subject and that as an historian I may choose the moment when I’m going to have him explain himself.” At the same time Creighton insisted on “the most careful, exhaustive and meticulous research.… You have to soak yourself in the records of the time, printed and written, and this must go on and on, until you know these people almost as well as you know your contemporaries. Unless you do that and carry it down to the last particular of evidence, you have no right to try to get back into their minds.” He always did his own research; everything beyond basic statistical data must be found by the person writing the history, he believed.
The Macdonald biography set Creighton apart from fellow historians Frank Underhill and Arthur Lower. These two men interpreted Canadian history as the story of the country’s emancipation from Britain. Although it remained a constitutional monarchy and did not seek to become a republic, Canada was a North American nation. As Underhill observed, Canada and the United States were not fundamentally different. “It was not the Declaration of Independence which made the Americans a separate people, it was the Atlantic Ocean; and Canada is on the same side of the Atlantic.” Lower agreed. Not insignificantly, while Creighton called his one-volume history of Canada Dominion of the north, Lower titled his Colony to nation (Toronto, 1946).
In 1954 Donald Creighton had got what he wanted (and what he had thought was rightly his two years earlier, after Chester Bailey Martin* retired as head of history) when Sidney Earle Smith*, president of the University of Toronto, offered him the chairmanship of the department, effective the following year. “A very important day in my life,” Creighton wrote in his diary. Status mattered to him. However, he inherited an unhappy department. Senior members took exception to his appointment, feeling that George Williams Brown would have made a more effective chairman; junior members did not object to Creighton, but they continued to resent their tenuous positions and low pay; and both groups lamented the administration’s failure to consult them.
For his part, Underhill soon retired on short notice when he agreed to become curator of Laurier House in Ottawa [see William Lyon Mackenzie King*]. As he told a colleague, “I haven’t looked forward with great joy to continuing in the present department with Don Creighton as head.” The intellectual disagreements between these two giants – Underhill, who defended the policies of the Liberal Party and accepted American leadership in the Cold War, versus the Tory Creighton, who condemned the Liberals for breaking the imperial connection and lining up like so many errand boys for Uncle Sam – had become personal. It bothered Creighton that, while all seemed to respect him, they loved Underhill. In a small department, whose members met regularly for afternoon tea in the basement of Flavelle House [see Sir Joseph Wesley Flavelle*] and socialized through the undergraduate Historical Club, his jealousy could only grow. In time, it consumed him and, ultimately, diminished him as a person.
Creighton, it turned out, was not a leader. He could not manage strong personalities, and he lacked the guile necessary to succeed at departmental politics. Mercurial, thin-skinned, and hell to get along with, he became a lightning rod. Added to the politics was the heavy workload: committee meetings, budget estimates, staffing concerns, curriculum debates, salary negotiations, leaves of absence, grant applications, library acquisitions, office space, and student requests dogged him for the better part of four years. “If DGC is not careful,” department member John T. Saywell told a colleague, “this job will kill him.” Indeed, it nearly did. The stress was overwhelming. Creighton developed psoriasis on his scalp, an itchy skin condition that demanded special shampoos. More seriously, he acquired an extremely painful, but mercifully episodic, stomach ailment that was variously diagnosed as a gastric ulcer and a severe gastrointestinal infection. Whatever the cause, it defied treatment and could only be controlled. Historian Margaret Evelyn Prang*, then a graduate student, recalled watching him, in the middle of a seminar, take great swigs of “some horrid-looking green medicine” in an effort to lessen the sharp, twisting pain. His daughter, Cynthia Flood (born in 1940), remembered her father as a very unhappy person throughout his tenure as chairman. “Coming home from school and entering the house, I looked for his galoshes. If they were there I had to prepare myself, brace myself, for whatever might be waiting for me. He could be in one of his sour, difficult moods. But if the galoshes weren’t there, well, I could relax and go upstairs to see my mother.” By 1959 Creighton had had enough, and he asked, in his words, “to be relieved of the chairmanship.” He wanted, he said, to devote himself to what he did best: writing. He was replaced by James Maurice Stockford Careless*, a member of the new, post-war generation Creighton himself had taught.
At the same time as he was struggling with departmental problems, Creighton was growing increasingly concerned about Canada, its place in the world, and its status within North America. In an address in August 1954 to the annual conference on public affairs held at Lake Couchiching, Ont., he questioned the world leadership of the United States and Canada’s willingness “to accept the latest advices from Washington as the modern equivalent of divine revelation.” He observed his country’s weakening connection to Britain and its strengthening ties to its southern neighbour, “a shift,” he said, “that was, to a considerable extent, the personal accomplishment” of Liberal prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. Two years later Creighton’s worst fears were confirmed: during the Suez crisis of 1956 Canada sided, not with Britain, but with the United States. Its decision not to support the militarism of a fading imperial power is now considered the right one, and external affairs minister Lester Bowles Pearson’s diplomacy is regarded as a golden moment in Canadian foreign policy; Creighton, however, saw his country abandoning Britain in its hour of need. In larger historical terms, the episode marked a critical point in what historian José E. Igartua has called “‘the other Quiet Revolution’: the dissolution of English-speaking Canada’s self-representation as a ‘British’ nation.”
Creighton witnessed English Canada’s reinvention of itself evolving around him – how, for example, “dominion” had become a foreign word. He protested against what he believed to be its rejection of its past and the complicity of the historical profession in this process. Against this backdrop he delivered his presidential address to the Canadian Historical Association in 1957. He excoriated Canadian historical writing in the previous half-century for what he called its Liberal bias. According to the Liberal interpretation, or “authorized version,” Canadian history delineated the country’s emancipation from British imperialism: successive Liberal prime ministers were applauded for their contributions to this story of freedom, defenders of the imperial connection were condemned, and Canada assumed its continental destiny as a North American nation. But the Liberal interpretation and its historians – principally those he described privately as that “pot-bellied little bastard,” Frank Underhill, and the “pestiferous” Arthur Lower – ignored the fact that Canada was not only a North American nation and that the imperial connection mattered to its independence. Their interpretation negated what, in John A. Macdonald: the old chieftain, Creighton had called the “prime purpose” of Canada: “to achieve a separate political existence on the North American continent.”
Changes in English Canada were part of a much larger reordering of the world as the British empire faced its Waterloo in the wake of World War II. India had been granted its independence in 1947, and the difficult and often protracted process of African decolonization had begun. It was in this context that Britain in 1959 appointed an advisory commission on the review of the constitution of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, better known as the Monckton commission after its chairman, Lord Monckton. Anxious to secure representation from the Commonwealth and expertise in federalism, Britain approached Donald Creighton. It was a great honour, and despite certain misgivings – he knew nothing about Africa, and his stomach continued to bother him – he agreed because he very much wanted to serve the mother country. Appealing to his sense of history, the British secretary for the Commonwealth informed Creighton that the commission represented a historic occasion, that it was “an exercise comparable to the Durham Report.”
He was out of the country for eight months, from February to September 1960. The first three were spent in Africa meeting with politicians, local officials, farmers, and students. Creighton took the assignment seriously: he kept detailed notes, asked pertinent questions, participated in committee meetings, and offered insights based on Canadian precedents. Preparing the final report in London occupied the next five months. The commissioners recommended a number of important changes to the federation’s constitution to accommodate African national sentiments, including the right to secession. They recognized that unless changes were implemented quickly, only force could keep the federation together. In the sense that it appealed to a multiracial future, the Monckton report was no Durham report.
African nationalism and decolonization in the 1960s inspired many French-speaking Quebecers to ask why, if former colonies such as Northern Rhodesia were becoming independent, they could not. The Quiet Revolution – the rapid transformation of the province into a modern, secular, bureaucratic state – and the emergence of separatism transformed Canada. As early as 1962, three years before he entered politics, Quebec intellectual Pierre Elliott Trudeau* had warned English Canadians that they must change or face the consequences: they, “with their own nationalism, will have to retire gracefully to their proper place, consenting to modify their own precious image of what Canada ought to be.”
Donald Creighton, however, refused to retire, gracefully or otherwise. He objected – passionately, even stridently – to what he perceived as a massive strategy of appeasement on the part of English Canada. The debate over a new national flag in 1964 [see Pearson], for example, infuriated him. It represented a rejection of the country’s history, on the one hand, and a misguided effort to accommodate French Canada, on the other. “Donald terribly depressed at flag controversy,” Luella recorded in her diary on 7 May. “Feels Canada a wretched place, wishes he had lived anywhere else.” A few weeks later Creighton, together with 11 other leading figures, including constitutional scholar Eugene Alfred Forsey*, historian William Lewis Morton, and political scientist Denis Smith, signed an open letter to Prime Minister Pearson urging him not to change the flag; the proposed maple leaf design was “insipid,” and the new flag would “subtly undermine the Canadian will to survive.” When asked about the letter by a Conservative mp in the House of Commons, Pearson gave a short, dismissive response: “I know the weakness of professors of history when they start mingling with contemporary events. Perhaps their letter indicates it.”
In 1965 Creighton was invited to become a member of the Ontario Advisory Committee on Confederation, a group of disinterested experts who would provide Premier John Parmenter Robarts* with advice on federalism and the constitution. He accepted the invitation for a number of reasons: he wanted to be useful; he felt that, despite Pearson’s strictures, historians should involve themselves in contemporary affairs; and he believed that English Canada was prepared to accommodate Quebec nationalism at the expense of its own self-interest. The royal commission on bilingualism and biculturalism, appointed by Pearson in 1963 and chaired by André Laurendeau* and Arnold Davidson Dunton*, was the proof in Creighton’s pudding. In his opinion, it neither represented “the values and interests of English Canada” nor respected “the conception of Canadian nationality on which Confederation had originally been based and with which it continued for over ninety years.” The Ontario advisory committee, during its five-year existence, produced a number of research reports and background papers, but it confirmed Creighton’s suspicion that English Canada was too willing, in Trudeau’s words, to modify its image of what the country ought to be. For example, on the question of extending French-language instruction for Franco-Ontarians to the secondary-school level, Creighton found himself alone and isolated; he opposed the idea on the grounds that it would handicap students in a predominantly English-language labour market. Lord Durham had made the same argument when he recommended assimilation. “The language, the laws, the character of the North American Continent are English,” he wrote. It was the “language of the rich and of the employers of labour.”
Bilingualism, biculturalism, and Quebec nationalism; Pearson, the flag debate, and constitutional reform; Canada, the United States, and continentalism – it was in this context that Creighton wrote his last great book. Canada’s first century, 1867–1967 (Toronto, 1970) saw him return to the Laurentian thesis, which he had developed more than 30 years earlier. In The commercial empire of the St. Lawrence, Creighton had located the reason for Canada’s separate existence in the St Lawrence River. But at the same time he had found “some primitive defect, some fundamental weakness, in the society of the St. Lawrence, in the resources which it could bring to bear upon its problems, and in the very river itself which had inspired its entire effort. The St. Lawrence was a stream which dashed itself against the rocks and broke the hopes of its supporters; and all the long struggle, which had begun when the first ships of the French sailed up the River of Canada, had served, in the end, to establish a tradition of defeat.” The Montreal merchants who in 1849 sought annexation of the Province of Canada to the United States [see John Redpath*] were the first in a long line of people prepared to abandon the promise of the St Lawrence River. Let us seek, they said, “a friendly and peaceful separation from the British connection and a union upon equitable terms with the great North American confederacy of sovereign states.” Annexation did not occur; this outcome delayed but could not preclude the inevitable.
Canada’s first century documents that inevitability. And it lays a large measure of the blame at the feet of those Creighton privately called the “bloody Liberals”: in his view, prime ministers Mackenzie King, Louis-Stephen St-Laurent, and Lester Pearson had systematically rejected Canada’s British inheritance. He reserved particular animus for King. Inspired by Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, he presents the former prime minister as Alberich, the ugly, wretched dwarf who renounces love for power. King was, Creighton wrote, “a short, stoutish man, with a torso like a barrel,” whose appeals to moral pieties masked a brutal quest for power and who, through a series of wartime agreements with the United States, “effectively shackled” Canada to its southern neighbour. St-Laurent and Pearson finished the job: through their actions, they further linked Canada to the United States and ultimately severed its ties to Britain. They are Hagen figures. It is Hagen, Alberich’s son, who, by plunging a spear into Siegfried’s back, kills the beautiful, youthful hero. The last sentence of Canada’s first century finds continentalism moving “towards its final triumph.” Creighton’s own Ring cycle was complete; George Parkin Grant*’s Lament for a nation …, which had been published in Toronto five years earlier, was Creighton’s requiem for his country.
Creighton’s anti-Americanism struck a chord with many young people and the new left. Although Tory and new-left nationalism differed in many ways, they converged on the question of Canada’s independence – what Creighton called its separateness – in North America. Influenced by left-wing political scientist James Laxer’s exposé The energy poker game: the politics of the continental resources deal (Toronto, 1970), in October the same year Creighton delivered a convocation address at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., on the American takeover of Canada’s natural resources, particularly its energy supplies. After he finished speaking, the audience broke out in a spontaneous rendition of “O Canada.” Like Grant, Creighton was a heroic figure to young people concerned about the country’s future. Author and journalist Larry Zolf has said that it was the historian and his vigorous defence of Canada that “made me a real Canadian at last.”
Donald Creighton retired from the University of Toronto in 1971 after 44 years of teaching. But in many ways he did not slow down. That year he was one of three historians interviewed by Ramsay Cook for a film titled The craft of history, which explored, among other themes, the relationship between the historian and nationalism. The following summer he travelled from Newfoundland to British Columbia and north to Dawson in the Yukon for the filming of Heroic beginnings, a one-hour television program produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1973 in which he acted as a guide to 11 national historic sites that documented key moments in Canadian history. The publication of The craft of history (Toronto, 1973) and Canada: the heroic beginnings (Toronto, 1974), an expanded narrative based on 51 historic sites that was issued by Macmillan together with the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs and Parks Canada, testified to Creighton’s status as English Canada’s leading historian.
He also continued to write – Towards the discovery of Canada (Toronto, 1972), a collection of essays; The forked road: Canada, 1939–1957 (Toronto, 1976), his volume in the Canadian Centenary Series, directed by W. L. Morton, for which he served as advisory editor; and Takeover (Toronto, 1978), a novel about the proposed sale of an old Canadian distillery to American interests – and he continued to brood about Canada and its fate. Following the victory of the Parti Québécois, led by René Lévesque*, in the provincial election of November 1976, Creighton published a scathing attack in Maclean’s magazine (Toronto). The time had come, he said, to negotiate secession. English Canada should reject any notion of economic association with an independent Quebec. “There is something peculiarly offensive in the calm assumption of the leaders of the Parti Québécois that Quebec should be able at one and the same time to enjoy all the political liberties of independence and all the economic advantages of union.” His friends were angry (Cook called the article “pathetic”), but he was unrepentant.
To focus on the public figure, however, is to obscure the private man. Behind the outspoken and uncompromising social critic was a warm, generous, and hospitable individual. Anticipating his retirement, he and Luella had bought a historic house in the small town of Brooklin, east of Toronto, in 1962. They enjoyed nothing more than opening their home to their many friends. Luncheons, dinner parties, and receptions were wonderful affairs at which lively conversations ranged from politics to literature and from gardening to music and art.
Many of those welcomed into his home were former students. Creighton took teaching seriously, especially at the graduate level, and he directed 22 phd candidates, including historians P. B. Waite, Ramsay Cook, H. V. Nelles, and J. R. Miller. Creighton was, Miller remembered, a wonderful supervisor. When the young student started sending him chapters of his thesis, “he was marvellous. He would return a chapter in a matter of days. And he would make suggestions, but he would always add something like, ‘Now remember, these are suggestions, not instructions.’ He really treated me like an equal, like a colleague.” Waite recalled that Creighton “respected evidence; you could tell him anything if you could prove it from the documents.” Punctilious and thorough, he was also avuncular and solicitous. He worried about the effect that reading much microfilm might have on one student’s eyesight, he reminded another to eat properly and pace himself, and he advised a third not to worry about his thesis but to enjoy time with his new baby.
As well, Donald and Luella indulged their interest in travel. At least once a year from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s they took a European vacation. In September 1970 they went to France, where they visited their old haunts in Paris and took a day trip to Chartres. At the cathedral there Creighton found himself overwhelmed with grief. He was reminded of the time, 18 years earlier, when he and Luella had taken a 12-year-old Cynthia to see this magnificent building. The image of his daughter bathed in sunlight that entered through one of the many stained-glass windows had stayed with him all these years. Now she was a grown woman and a Trotskyist. Creighton felt, he said, as he had when he read the casualty lists from the Great War in old newspapers. He loved his children, but he was a difficult man, and his daughter, who now lived in Vancouver, had put a continent between them.
Over the course of his long career, Creighton received many awards, including the J. B. Tyrrell Historical Medal, presented by the Royal Society of Canada for exceptional work in Canadian history, in 1951; the University of British Columbia President’s Medal in Biography in 1955; and the Molson Prize, awarded by the Canada Council for the Arts for outstanding contribution to Canadian arts and letters, in 1964, the first year it was given. He was among the inaugural group of companions chosen for the Order of Canada when the honour was established in 1967, and the following year the University of Toronto appointed him university professor, only the second person, after Herman Northrop Frye*, to be so designated. Institutions across Canada, from Memorial University of Newfoundland to the University of Victoria in British Columbia, recognized him with honorary degrees.
Donald Grant Creighton died from colorectal cancer at his home on 19 Dec. 1979. In an editorial the following day, the Globe and Mail (Toronto) described him as “one of the first of Canada’s great historians,” and it promised that his “pen will make Canadian history live for Canadians not yet here when he laid it down.”
In fact, although The empire of the St. Lawrence and Creighton’s biography of Sir John A. Macdonald have remained in print, his books are now rarely read or even consulted by historians, and his central theme, the Laurentian thesis, has been all but consigned to the dustbin. Historian Fernand Ouellet, in his Histoire économique et sociale du Québec, 1760–1850: structures et conjoncture (Montréal, 1966), disputed particular facts in The empire of the St. Lawrence, such as Creighton’s location of the decline in the importance of the fur trade to Montreal in the last decade of the 18th century. More crucially, Ouellet did not assign a national vision to the Montreal merchants. Nor did his student Allan Greer, who noted in Peasant, lord, and merchant: rural society in three Quebec parishes, 1740–1840 (Toronto, 1985) that “Creightonian ideologies to the contrary, there was nothing very revolutionary, heroic, or even progressive” about the intrusion of mercantile capital into the St Lawrence River valley. And according to historian Michael Bliss, the Laurentian thesis was always a thesis in search of evidence. The Montreal merchants, he observed, did not envision a northern nation; rather, they “thought first, and often last, in terms of the health of their enterprises,” and it is a romantic fantasy to assert otherwise. From a later, anti-national perspective, Creighton’s quest for a nation makes him at best quaint and at worst exclusionary. But he was a product of his time, and among his contemporaries no other historian wrote as well or reached as many readers. In 2006 the Literary Review of Canada ranked The commercial empire of the St. Lawrence and the two Macdonald volumes among Canada’s 100 most important books.
A full-length biography of Donald Grant Creighton by the author is in preparation.
The principal manuscript sources for Creighton’s life are the Donald Grant Creighton fonds (R5269-0-3) at Library and Arch. Can. (Ottawa) and the Luella Creighton fonds (GA 99) at the Special Coll. Dept. of the Univ. of Waterloo Library, Ont.
Creighton’s daughter, Cynthia Flood, published “My father took a cake to France,” a short story based on her interpretation of an episode in his life as he described it to her. It is available in the collection My father took a cake to France (Vancouver, 1992), 41–54.
In addition to the works mentioned in the text, Creighton is the author of Harold Adams Innis: portrait of a scholar (Toronto, 1957), The story of Canada (Toronto, 1959), The road to confederation: the emergence of Canada, 1863–1867 (Toronto, 1964), and essays in edited collections and scholarly and popular journals. His book The commercial empire of the St. Lawrence, 1760–1850 (Toronto, 1937) was republished as The empire of the St. Lawrence (Toronto, 1956), and The story of Canada also went through later editions (1st American ed., Boston, 1960; new and rev. ed., Toronto, 1971). Creighton’s talks with Paul Fox on CBC television in 1959 were issued as A long view of Canadian history … (Toronto, 1959). A list of his academic publications to 1970 can be found in Character and circumstance: essays in honour of Donald Grant Creighton, ed. J. S. Moir (Toronto, 1970), 235–39. A collection of previously published essays appeared posthumously as The passionate observer: selected writings (Toronto, 1980).
Several works by Creighton have been translated into French. In chronological order they are: L’Amérique britannique du Nord à l’époque de la confédération: étude préparée pour la commission royale des relations entre le dominion et les provinces [translation of British North America at confederation: a study prepared for the royal commission on dominion-provincial relations] (Ottawa, 1939); Canada: les débuts héroïques [translation of Canada: the heroic beginnings] (Montréal, 1979); Take-over [translation of Takeover], Jacques de Roussan, trad. (Montréal, 1980); and the two-volume biography of John A. Macdonald, which is translated under the main title of John A. Macdonald: le 1er premier ministre du Canada, with the subtitles Le Haut et le Bas-Canada and La naissance d’un pays incertain, Ivan Steenhout, trad. (Montréal, 1981).
Library and Arch. Can., R2285-0-0. Univ. of Oxford, Balliol College Arch. & mss (Eng.), Student files, D. G. Creighton. Univ. of Toronto Arch. and Records Management Services, B1997-0031; B2005-0011; B2006-0015. Victoria Univ. Arch. (Toronto), Fonds 2021. Acta Victoriana (Toronto), 49, no.1 (October 1924): 18; no.6 (March 1925): 21. Carl Berger, The writing of Canadian history: aspects of English-Canadian historical writing since 1900 (2nd ed., Toronto, 1986). Sarah Bonesteel, “Luella Bruce Creighton: a writer’s diary: a feminist study of the life and experiences of a twentieth century Canadian author” (ma thesis, Univ. of Waterloo, 2001). Robert Bothwell, Laying the foundation: a century of history at University of Toronto (Toronto, 1991). Lionel Groulx, La naissance d’une race: conférences prononcées à l’université Laval (Montréal, 1918–1919) ([Montréal], 1919). J. E. Igartua, “‘Ready, aye, ready’ no more? Canada, Britain, and the Suez crisis in the Canadian press,” in Canada and the end of empire, ed. Phillip Buckner (Vancouver and Toronto, 2005), 47–65. Raymond Massey, “My Oxford,” in My Oxford, ed. Ann Thwaite (London, 1977), 35–58. Philip Massolin, Canadian intellectuals, the Tory tradition, and the challenge of modernity, 1939–1970 (Toronto, 2001). Kenneth McNaught, Conscience and history: a memoir (Toronto, 1999). “Out of the turmoil comes a new awareness of ourselves,” D. [G.] Creighton interviewed by Allan Anderson, Univ. of Toronto, Graduate (Toronto), 1, no.4 (June 1968): 38–46. Reba Soffer, “Nation, duty, character and confidence: history at Oxford, 1850–1914,” Hist. Journal (Cambridge, Eng.), 30 (1987): 77–104. Charles Taylor, Radical Tories: the conservative tradition in Canada (Toronto, 1982). P. E. Trudeau, “New treason of the intellectuals,” in his Against the current: selected writings, 1939–1996, ed. Gérard Pelletier, trans. George Tombs (Toronto, 1996), 150–81. P. B. Waite, “Donald Grant Creighton, 1902–1979,” Royal Soc. of Can., Proc. (Ottawa), 4th ser., 18 (1980): 73–77. Donald Wright, The professionalization of history in English Canada (Toronto, 2005).
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Cite This Article
Donald Wright, “CREIGHTON, DONALD GRANT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 20, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 30, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/creighton_donald_grant_20E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Donald Wright|
|Title of Article:||CREIGHTON, DONALD GRANT|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 20|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||2013|
|Year of revision:||2013|
|Access Date:||May 30, 2023|