Donald Creighton

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Donald Grant Creighton, CC (July 15, 1902 December 19, 1979) was a noted Canadian historian whose major works include The Commercial Empire of the St-Lawrence: 1760-1850 (first published in 1937) a detailed study on the growth of the English merchant class in relation to the St Lawrence River in Canada. His biography of John A. Macdonald, published into two parts between 1952 and 1955, was considered by many Canadian historians as re-establishing biographies as a proper form of historical research in Canada. [1] By the 1960s Creighton began to move towards a more general history of Canada.

Order of Canada order

The Order of Canada is a Canadian national order and the second highest honour for merit in the system of orders, decorations, and medals of Canada. It comes second only to membership in the Order of Merit, which is the personal gift of Canada's monarch.

Canadians citizens of Canada

Canadians are people identified with the country of Canada. This connection may be residential, legal, historical or cultural. For most Canadians, several of these connections exist and are collectively the source of their being Canadian.

A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past, and is regarded as an authority on it. Historians are concerned with the continuous, methodical narrative and research of past events as relating to the human race; as well as the study of all history in time. If the individual is concerned with events preceding written history, the individual is a historian of prehistory. Some historians are recognized by publications or training and experience. "Historian" became a professional occupation in the late nineteenth century as research universities were emerging in Germany and elsewhere.


Creighton's later years were preoccupied with criticizing the then ruling Liberal Party of Canada under William Lyon Mackenzie King and his successor Louis St-Laurent. Creighton denounced the Liberal Party for undermining Canada's link with Great Britain and moving towards closer relations with the United States, a policy which he strongly disliked. His peers remember a brilliant writer who was a very difficult colleague. One of his biographers says:

Liberal Party of Canada oldest federal political party in Canada

The Liberal Party of Canada is the oldest and longest-serving governing political party in Canada. The Liberals form the current government, elected in 2015. The party has dominated federal politics for much of Canada's history, holding power for almost 69 years in the 20th century—more than any other party in a developed country—and as a result, it is sometimes referred to as Canada's "natural governing party".

William Lyon Mackenzie King 10th Prime Minister of Canada

William Lyon Mackenzie King, also commonly known as Mackenzie King, was the dominant Canadian political leader from the 1920s through the 1940s. He served as the tenth prime minister of Canada in 1921–1926, 1926–1930 and 1935–1948. He is best known for his leadership of Canada throughout the Second World War (1939–1945) when he mobilized Canadian money, supplies and volunteers to support Britain while boosting the economy and maintaining morale on the home front. A Liberal with 21 years and 154 days in office, he was the longest-serving prime minister in Canadian history. Trained in law and social work, he was keenly interested in the human condition, and played a major role in laying the foundations of the Canadian welfare state.

Great Britain island in the North Atlantic off the north-west coast of continental Europe

Great Britain is an island in the North Atlantic Ocean off the northwest coast of continental Europe. With an area of 209,331 km2 (80,823 sq mi), it is the largest of the British Isles, the largest European island, and the ninth-largest island in the world. In 2011, Great Britain had a population of about 61 million people, making it the world's third-most populous island after Java in Indonesia and Honshu in Japan. The island of Ireland is situated to the west of Great Britain, and together these islands, along with over 1,000 smaller surrounding islands, form the British Isles archipelago.

By the 1960s, English Canada’s most accomplished historian had become a caricature: one-dimensional, uncomplicated and unlikeable; temperamental, francophobic and intolerant....he had become a pariah. [2]


Creighton was born in Toronto, to William Black Creighton, a Methodist minister and editor of The Christian Guardian , and Laura Harvie Creighton. [3] He attended Victoria College, in the University of Toronto, where he received his BA in 1925. [4]

Toronto Provincial capital city in Ontario, Canada

Toronto is the provincial capital of Ontario and the most populous city in Canada, with a population of 2,731,571 in 2016. Current to 2016, the Toronto census metropolitan area (CMA), of which the majority is within the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), held a population of 5,928,040, making it Canada's most populous CMA. Toronto is the anchor of an urban agglomeration, known as the Golden Horseshoe in Southern Ontario, located on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario. A global city, Toronto is a centre of business, finance, arts, and culture, and is recognized as one of the most multicultural and cosmopolitan cities in the world.

<i>The Christian Guardian</i>

The Christian Guardian was a Wesleyan Methodist journal founded in Upper Canada in 1829. The first editor was Egerton Ryerson. It ceased publication in 1925 when the Methodist Church of Canada merged with the Presbyterians and Congregationalists to form the United Church of Canada, and merged their journals to create The New Outlook, later renamed the United Church Observer.

University of Toronto university in Toronto, Ontario, Canada

The University of Toronto is a public research university in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, located on the grounds that surround Queen's Park. It was founded by royal charter in 1827 as King's College, the first institution of higher learning in the colony of Upper Canada. Originally controlled by the Church of England, the university assumed the present name in 1850 upon becoming a secular institution. As a collegiate university, it comprises eleven colleges, which differ in character and history, each with substantial autonomy on financial and institutional affairs. It has two satellite campuses in Scarborough and Mississauga.

He then attended Balliol College at Oxford University, where he received his MA before returning to Canada to teach history, at the University of Toronto for his entire career. [4] Creighton belonged to a generation of English Canadians who were proud of the British Empire, and his anglophilia was often expressed in his books. [4]

History past events and their record

History is the study of the past as it is described in written documents. Events occurring before written record are considered prehistory. It is an umbrella term that relates to past events as well as the memory, discovery, collection, organization, presentation, and interpretation of information about these events. Scholars who write about history are called historians.

English Canadians or Anglo-Canadians, refers to either Canadians of English ethnic origin and heritage or to English-speaking or Anglophone, Canadians of any ethnic origin; it is used primarily in contrast with French Canadians. Canada is an officially bilingual state, with English and French official language communities. Immigrant cultural groups ostensibly integrate into one or both of these communities, but often retaining elements of their original cultures. The term English-speaking Canadian is sometimes used interchangeably with English Canadian.

British Empire States and dominions ruled by the United Kingdom

The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom and its predecessor states. It originated with the overseas possessions and trading posts established by England between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. At its height, it was the largest empire in history and, for over a century, was the foremost global power. By 1913, the British Empire held sway over 412 million people, 23% of the world population at the time, and by 1920, it covered 35,500,000 km2 (13,700,000 sq mi), 24% of the Earth's total land area. As a result, its political, legal, linguistic and cultural legacy is widespread. At the peak of its power, the phrase "the empire on which the sun never sets" was often used to describe the British Empire, because its expanse around the globe meant that the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories.

In 1926, Creighton married Luella Bruce. [4] Their daughter, Cynthia Flood, is also a noted Canadian fiction writer.

Luella Sanders Creighton, née Bruce was a Canadian novelist and non-fiction writer. She is best known to contemporary audiences for her 1951 novel High Bright Buggy Wheels, which was reprinted by McClelland & Stewart's New Canadian Library series in 1978.

Cynthia Flood is a Canadian short-story writer and novelist. The daughter of novelist Luella Creighton and historian Donald Creighton, she grew up primarily in Toronto. After attending the University of Toronto and the University of California, Berkeley she spent some years in the United States, where she married Maurice Flood before moving to Vancouver, British Columbia in 1969.

Creighton died in his sleep on December 18, 1979, from cancer, in Brooklin, Ontario, aged 77.

Cancer disease of uncontrolled, unregulated and abnormal cell growth

Cancer is a group of diseases involving abnormal cell growth with the potential to invade or spread to other parts of the body. These contrast with benign tumors, which do not spread. Possible signs and symptoms include a lump, abnormal bleeding, prolonged cough, unexplained weight loss and a change in bowel movements. While these symptoms may indicate cancer, they can also have other causes. Over 100 types of cancers affect humans.

Brooklin is a community in the town of Whitby, Ontario, Canada. It is located north of the urban area of Whitby, at the south junction of Ontario Highways 12 and 7.

In 1967, Creighton was made a Companion of the Order of Canada.

Creighton as an historian

Creighton was heavily influenced by Harold Innis and took an economic approach to Canadian history. [5] His significant contribution to the field was the development of the Laurentian Thesis, which described the basis of Canadian history through geography and the nation's dependence on its major centres. Creighton's first works were studies in the Rebellion of 1837-38 in Lower Canada, which Creighton believed to the product of the clash between the economic traditionalism of French Canada and the relentless drive of the Anglo business elite of Montreal. [4] In turn, this led Creighton to the study of that elite, and hence into the study of the St. Lawrence in Canadian history. [4]

In The Commercial Empire of the St. Lawrence, Creighton argued that the economic potential of the St. Lawrence system inspired successive generations of adventurers, explorers and businessmen to try to link the vast natural resources of the interior of North America with Europe. [4] Despite heroic efforts, the dream of the St. Lawrence failed to come to life as too many impenetrable portions of the river meant it could not live up to its potential, and the development of the railroad system in the U.S. proved to be more economical. Creighton was well known for arguing that the "natural" basis of trade in Canada ran east-west rather than north-south. In Creighton's view, the failure of commercial elites to properly develop the St. Lawrence is what led to Confederation. [4] Creighton argued that since impassable waterfalls and rapids prevented an economic empire from being built, Canadian elites embraced a political empire, namely Confederation as a consolation prize. The theme of Confederation as a poor substitute for an economic empire was underlined in The Road To Confederation and Creighton's biography of Macdonald. [4]

Creighton's two most important works are The Commercial Empire of the St. Lawrence (1937) and his two-volume biography of Sir John A. Macdonald entitled the Young Politician and the Old Chieftain. Creighton's biography of Macdonald is often considered to be an excellent example of idealist history as developed by R. G. Collingwood, who was a major influence on Creighton. Both volumes won the Governor General's Award for Best Non-fiction book in 1952 and 1955, were major best-sellers, and were credited with creating a major reassessment of Macdonald's role in Canadian history. In Creighton's view, Macdonald sought Confederation as way of bringing to life the political St. Lawrence empire. [4]

Creighton saw history as a literary art, and rejected calls for history to be seen as social science. Creighton was famous for spending as much time crafting his prose as he did in research, and Creighton often claimed that the best historical work should read like a well-written novel. [4] Creighton disliked what he called "fat funereal volumes" of unreadable biographies, and argued that well-written books should be the historian's objective. [4] Besides Collingwood, Creighton’s major influences were James Anthony Froude, G.M. Trevelyan, Edward Gibbon, and A. J. P. Taylor.

Creighton's vision of Canadian history was ultimately a deeply pessimistic and tragic one as he felt Canada had the potential to be the world’s greatest country if only Canadians would follow the vision of the Fathers of Confederation, especially Macdonald's. In his view, most Canadian leaders had sadly chosen to neglect that vision and had instead allowed Canada’s potential to needlessly squandered. The only leaders who merited the description of statesmen were Macdonald and Borden. According to Creighton, Macdonald’s time in office was Canada’s Golden Age and without the exception of Borden every leader who came after Macdonald had allowed Canada to deteriorate. [4] Thus for Creighton, Canadian history after 1891 was for the most part the story of missed opportunities, thwarted ambition, and hopes scattered as the dream that was Canada was slowly allowed to unravel. [4]

Through Creighton normally tried to maintain a formal and cold pose, he was well known for his outspoken and passionate nature. His eruptions of rage led his publisher John Gray to call him "the terrible-tempered Mr. Bang". Creighton often engaged in feuds with historians whose interpretations he disliked, but he was well known as a kind-hearted and munificent professor towards his students, albeit one who was severe with those who engaged in work that Creighton thought was wrong-headed. He made no effort at objectivity and was openly subjective and partisan in regards to his likes and dislikes. Creighton was fond of contrasting Canada’s participation in the First World War and the Second World War. In Creighton’s view, Sir Robert Borden was a tough and able leader who, despite initial mistakes and missteps, was able to fully mobilize Canada and ensure that Canada contributed disproportionately to the Allied victory in 1918. Borden took the necessary steps to win the war despite the unpopularity of many of his measures. Creighton saw the rest of Canadian history as one long slide, which he largely blamed on the Liberal Party. [4] In contrast, Creighton saw William Lyon Mackenzie King as a weak and indecisive figure who was more concerned with safeguarding the electoral fortunes of the Liberals then winning the war, and who kept Canadian troops out of combat as long as possible to avoid making difficult decisions on conscription. In Creighton’s opinion, thanks to Mackenzie King, Canada did not play as a large share as possible in the Allied victory.

Creighton was regarded by many as the foremost historian of his day and his influence is still strongly felt. An excellent writer and story-teller, his books commanded wide public attention. [4] Many of Canada's top historians studied under Creighton, such as Ramsay Cook, H.V. Nelles and Michael Bliss. Creighton's view of Canadian history is still often studied. He helped initiate The Canadian Centenary Series, a nineteen-volume history of Canada, and served as its advisory editor. His book, The Forked Road: Canada, 1939-1957, was part of The Canadian Centenary Series .

Creighton as a nationalist

As the Cold War grew hotter after 1947, historian Harold Innis, a major influence on Creighton, grew increasingly hostile to the United States. Innis warned urgently that Canada was becoming a subservient colony to its much more powerful southern neighbor. "We are indeed fighting for our lives," he warned, pointing especially to the "pernicious influence of American advertising....We can only survive by taking persistent action at strategic points against American imperialism in all its attractive guises." [6] This anti-Americanism moved Creighton to a growing conviction that Canada risked being absorbed by the United States culturally, economically and politically. [7]

In later years, Creighton frequently expressed himself through the mass media. An intense Canadian nationalist, his opinions have often been criticized, particularly by those, such as historian Susan Mann, who saw Creighton as anti-Quebec. Creighton felt that the position of the French language in Canada should be more or less what the British North America Act had prescribed. As such, Creighton was not enamored with changes such as official bilingualism that was introduced in the 1960s and 1970s. The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s had led to a more assertive French Canadian nationalism that Creighton had no sympathy with. In 1964, when anti-British riots erupted in Quebec City when Queen Elizabeth II visited la belle province, a furious Creighton wrote Elizabeth had been "humiliated". [8] A strong supporter of the Progressive Conservatives and small "c" conservative, Creighton's heroes were Macdonald, Robert Borden, and John Diefenbaker, for whom Creighton served as a speech writer. [4] Likewise, Creighton was proud of Canada's British past, and regarded efforts to erase that past as a national disgrace. [4] In his later years, Creighton moved towards the left and he was regarded as a Red Tory by the time of his death. In 1972, Creighton emerged as a leading critic of the proposed Pickering Airport. [9]

Creighton disliked the Liberal Party as he saw the Liberals as the party of continentalism (i.e. moving Canada closer to the United States) and for taking steps that Creighton saw as an attack on Canada's British heritage, such as replacing the Canadian Red Ensign with the Maple Leaf flag in 1965. [4] Of the all the Liberal leaders, it was Lester Pearson who Creighton disliked the most. Creighton attacked the Liberal continentalist Frank Underhill as almost a traitor, imaging in one essay a smug Underhill well satisfied after 1945 with the British Empire in decline, the United States ascendant and Canada falling into the American sphere of influence. [10] In regard to federal–provincial relations, Creighton shared Macdonald’s view of a highly centralized confederation with the provinces subservient to the federal government. In Creighton’s opinion, it had been a great mistake on Ottawa’s part to allow the growth of provincial powers in the 20th century. In particular, Creighton was strongly opposed to the demands made by the Quebec government for more power at the expense of the federal government during the Quiet Revolution and afterwards. Creighton saw this as the first steps towards separatism. Creighton favored a tough line against the Parti Québécois government of René Lévesque, and was one of the first to advocate partitioning Quebec in the event of a vote to leave Confederation, writing that northern Quebec was historically part of Rupert's Land and was only given to Quebec by the Dominion government in 1912. [11]

Creighton's determination to maintain British traditions, his close association with Diefenbaker, and his dislike of continentalism led him to be accused of anti-Americanism. Later, Creighton cemented his reputation for anti-American views with his only novel, 1978's The Take-Over. As its title implies, the book dealt with an imaginary U.S. take-over of Canada. Creighton saw himself as a lonely crusader not only against what he called the "Authorized Version" of Canadian history (i.e., the Liberal interpretation), but also against what he regarded as the widespread indifference and apathy felt by most Canadians towards their history. [4] In Creighton's view, the so-called "Liberal Interpretation" of Canadian history would ultimately led to Canada being absorbed into the United States. [4] Creighton frequently proclaimed the aphorism that a people who forget their past are also doomed not to have a future. Throughout his life, Creighton struggled hard to raise the profile of history in Canadian life, and to convince Canadians that they had a grand and glorious history worth celebrating.


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  1. Berger, Carl, The Writing of Canadian History, Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1986, 364 p.
  2. Donald Wright, "Reflections on Donald Creighton & the Appeal of Biography," Journal of Historical Biography (2007) vol 1 p 18
  3. Wright, Donald (Spring 2007). "Reflections on Donald Creighton and the Appeal of Biography" (PDF). Journal of Historical Biography. 1: 15–26.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 Vance, Jonathan "Creigton, Donald Grant" pages 258-259 from The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing, Volume 1, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999 page 259
  5. Berger, Carl. "The Writing of Canadian History". Toronto University Press, 1986, p.212.
  6. Harold A. Innis (2004). Changing Concepts of Time. pp. 13–14.
  7. Donald Wright (2015). Donald Creighton: A Life in History. pp. 174–75.
  8. Donald Wright (2015). Donald Creighton: A Life in History.
  9. Creighton, Donald The Passionate Observer: Selected Writings, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1980 page 56.
  10. Creighton, Donald The Passionate Observer: Selected Writings, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1980 page 141.
  11. Creighton, Donald The Passionate Observer: Selected Writings, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1980 page 54.