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Prof. Desmond Morton, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, is shown at the university in Montreal, on Sept. 28, 1999.

RYAN REMIORZ/The Canadian Press

Desmond Dillon Paul Morton had flat feet – pes planus in Latin, as he noted – that made him march like a duck, with outward turned toes, something that dismayed his commandant at the Royal Military College of Canada, wartime navy ace Rear Admiral Desmond W. Piers.

He had chosen to make the army his career, but his pes planus barred him from a warrior’s commission that otherwise might have been the due of the son and nephew of two generals and the great-grandson of a third – the first Canadian-born officer to be appointed head of Canada’s military, in 1908.

It was a condition for which he poked fun at himself, once joking in an autobiographical essay that through his school years “it remained easier with each stage of athletic expectation to opt out … and stay home with my books.”

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In 1959, when he became the first post-Second World War RMC cadet to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship – an achievement that included candidates being assessed for sports skills – historian Jack Granatstein wryly suggested his friend and colleague of 63 years was successfully evaluated as “tries hard.”

Indeed, although he was relegated to commanding cooks, clerks and drivers in the army service corps during part of his 10-year army stint – rather than leading an armoured regiment onto the Normandy beach on D-Day as his father had or commanding Canadian troops in South Africa’s Boer War as his great-grandfather had – the label “tries hard” indelibly stamped every endeavour he undertook.

Desmond (Des) Morton became one of Canada’s most impressive and remarkable historians, particularly of military, political and labour history. He was one of the country’s best-known public intellectuals, one of its most energetic political activists and one of its leading university administrators.

Carleton University historian Norman Hillmer said that the most striking thing about his colleague was “his energy, discipline and commitment to putting things into action and on paper.”

He wrote more than 40 books and thousands of radio scripts and articles for newspapers, magazines and academic journals. He taught history at the University of Ottawa and the University of Toronto, was academic dean and principal of Erindale College (now the University of Toronto Mississauga) and founding director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

He was paradoxically a shy man and an introvert, preferring to take a book with him to social gatherings so he wouldn’t have to make conversation with strangers whose names he never later remembered. In Prof. Hillmer’s description, he was a man who comfortably could express warmth and emotion from a distance but had difficulty doing it close up.

Thus, he wrote chatty, affectionate weekly and bi-weekly notes to his friends and family through most of his life. He also, on the other side of his shyness, possessed a delightful wit and sense of humour and, once behind a lectern, his friends and fellow professors recalled him as a riveting speaker who captivated his students.

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At the start of the 1960s, he became an adviser to the New Democratic Party, including to its first leader, Tommy Douglas, and, in 1964, upon leaving the army, he was recruited by Stephen Lewis, then a new NDP member of the Ontario Legislature, to become the party’s assistant provincial secretary. He quickly displayed a knack for growing the party membership, for political strategizing and, perhaps most of all, for writing eloquent, compelling political speeches.

His advice to the party was unfailingly honest, straightforward and tough, said his friend and former national NDP leader Edward Broadbent.

He was nominated for the expected election in 1978 as a candidate for Parliament in the Greater Toronto riding of Mississauga North, but he dropped out before the vote took place in 1979. His inability to remember names led him to decide not to consider running again.

Two years before his death, he finished the seventh edition of his popular A Short History of Canada and it pleased him to be able to include a critique – academically sound but pointed – of Stephen’s Harper’s Conservative government.

Desmond Morton died on Sept. 4 of heart failure in his Montreal home. He was 81.

He was born Sept. 10, 1937, in Calgary, the son of Ronald Edward Alfred Morton, a career army officer, and Sylvia Cuyler Frink, a descendant of the infamous American traitor Benedict Arnold’s aide-de-camp Nathaniel Frink, who joined Arnold in exile in New Brunswick in the 1780s and became the commercial insurer of his business interests.

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His father went overseas in 1942 as commander of the Winnipeg armoured regiment, the Fort Garry Horse. From the war’s end until Prof. Morton’s graduation from the Canadian Academy in Kobe, Japan – his father was stationed in Japan as head of Canada’s Far East Military Mission – he, his mother and older sister, Diana, followed his father around to his various postings.

In 1947, at the age of 10, when his father was transferred to Regina as area commander for Saskatchewan, “here began my exposure to the activity that has rivalled history as my life’s driver,” he wrote.

“At every election, federal and provincial, big political names came to the armouries to lecture curious supporters, about a hundred yards from our front door. … I heard and saw Louis St-Laurent, C.D. Howe, Tommy Douglas, M.J. Coldwell, and the Saskatchewan CCF [forerunner of the NDP] minister of labour and Regina’s mayor, Charlie Williams. For some reason I cannot now recall, I adored the Conservative leader, Colonel George Drew. Within hours of his speech, I was determined to canvass for his candidate. I walked up to the Tory committee room at the top of our street. After a moment’s hesitation, I entered, and emerged minutes later with a bundle of leaflets and instructions I would repeat for the rest of my political career.”

At the age of 14, he fibbed about his age to join the army reserve.

In 1954, he entered Royal Military College Saint-Jean (formerly known as Collège militaire royal de Saint-Jean), established two years earlier partly at the instigation of his uncle. Geoffrey Morton was the last anglophone commander of the army in Quebec and believed Canada needed a college to train officers in both languages.

Prof. Granatstein, a military and political historian whose reputation rivals that of Des Morton (and who co-authored several popular books of history with him), followed him two years later into RMC Saint-Jean and was assigned to sit at his table in the mess hall where he was a senior cadet in his third year.

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“Unlike other seniors who said nothing, ate and disappeared,” Prof. Granatstein said, "he ran the table like a history seminar, asking a group of semi-literate 17- and 18-year-olds questions on Canadian military history. I still remember with a frisson of pride that when he asked us about the South African War I identified the capital of the Orange Free State as Bloemfontein. I think that was the moment I decided to become a historian. I blame Des.”

From RMC Saint-Jean, Prof. Morton went on to the Royal Miltary College of Canada, in Kingston, and was awarded a two-year Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. He subsequently returned to Canada, where the army assigned him as Captain Morton to Camp Borden “flat feet and all,” to train recruits in infantry tactics with assistance from then-Lieutenant Granatstein.

On weekends, he drove to Toronto and learned how to run NDP constituency campaigns. In 1963, the army transferred him to its historical section. A year later, he returned to civilian life and, while working for the NDP, met and married his first wife, Janet Smith, who also was working for the party. Two years later, he began work on his doctorate at the London School of Economics.

He started his academic career at the University of Ottawa in 1968-69.

He was primarily a historian of ordinary Canadians – ordinary soldiers, ordinary workers – rather than of great historical figures.

Possibly his most innovative work was When Your Number’s Up: The Canadian Soldier in the First World War – an analysis of what the ordinary soldier faced in discipline, punishment, combat and medical treatment based on more than three decades of research, much of it poring through archives material.

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He wrote a biography of his great-grandfather, The Canadian General: Sir William Otter, initially as an effort to cleanse his forebear’s reputation as an incompetent villain for his role in the North-West Rebellion and his attack on Chief Poundmaker in Saskatchewan’s 1885 Battle of Cut Knife. “It was a verdict family pride compelled me to reverse,” he said. “Oddly enough, I couldn’t.” The result was what he fervently hoped was a balanced account of Gen. Otter’s career.

He wrote the acclaimed Working People: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Labour Movement. He wrote foundational works on the history of the NDP – including The Riverdale Story, an account of how the party’s organizing and canvassing techniques changed the way campaigns in Canada are run. He wrote four popular military history books with Prof. Granatstein, among them Bloody Victory: Canadians and the D-Day Campaign 1944.

He was a friend of legendary Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion and worked on her election campaigns.

In 1985, Prof. Morton was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. In 1996, he was named an officer of the Order of Canada. In 2010, he was presented with the Pierre Berton Award for popularizing history in public media.

In 1990, his wife, Janet, died from complications of diabetes. In 1999, he married Gael Eakin, a former member of McGill’s board of governors. They met when she and a friend turned up in his class to audit one of his courses. (When he asked the class if anyone knew what a running board was, only Ms. Eakin raised her hand.)

Prof. Morton leaves Ms. Eakin; his son, David, of Oxford, England; daughter, Marion, of Ottawa; sister, Diana; one granddaughter; and Ms. Eakin’s four daughters and four grandchildren.

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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Desmond Morton unsuccessfully stood as a candidate in the 1978 election. This version has been corrected.

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