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U of S historian Arthur Morton (right) speaking with Chief Robert Bear (left) of the John Smith Reserve (now Muskoday First Nation) May 1942 University Archives & Special Collections, A-6069

Preserving Western Canada’s heritage

By chronicling the history of the Western Canadian fur trade, creating the precursor to the Saskatchewan Provincial Archives, and pushing for a provincial archives act, U of S historian Arthur Silver (A.S.) Morton ensured that a critical part of Canada’s story was preserved for future generations.

When the Saskatchewan government introduced legislation in 1945 to preserve the province’s documentary heritage, University of Saskatchewan historian Arthur Morton had already laid the groundwork through his 30-year passion for Prairie history.  

Back in 1914 when Morton left Toronto to join the U of S, he was expected to fulfill two roles—one as the university’s Librarian, the other as head of the history department. He discharged both duties admirably.

Morton built up the university library from literally empty shelves to a collection of 60,000 volumes.  He also became the leading authority on the Western Canadian fur trade—in large part because of his special access to the voluminous Hudson’s Bay Company Archives in London.

Drawing on what he learned in the archives, Morton spoke with Indigenous people and pioneer settlers to determine the exact location of long-abandoned fur trade forts. This field work hammered home the importance of primary documents for Canada’s history.

For Morton, records had to be preserved “for we cannot know today what is valuable and what is not. The future only can settle that.”

But Saskatchewan lagged in the establishment of a provincial archives. Even though the provincial government had passed a 1920 statute providing for the handling of official records, the legislation was silent about the creation of a provincial depository.

Morton was not prepared to sit on the sidelines.  In September 1936, with backing from University of Saskatchewan President Walter Murray, Morton called for the creation of a provincial archives.

He warned that future generations will charge us with betraying our trust if we cast away...material.

The government was receptive to the idea—probably because the university provided the space and an archivist, as well as covered the operating costs.

In April 1937, the Historical Public Records Office opened on the U of S campus in the basement of the Saskatchewan Hall residence. Morton got a new title too—Keeper of the Public Records. Four years later, the collection was so large that it had to be relocated to the School for the Deaf.

But the shortage of storage space became more acute because of Morton’s acceptance of the Saskatchewan land records of the former federal Department of the Interior; this collection required 3,000 linear feet of shelving.

The other problem was that the Historical Public Records Office had no legislative basis. It was simply an informal arrangement between the government and the university. Something had to be done to put the management of the collection on a more permanent basis.

Thanks to Mortons efforts, the university-held records had effectively become the provincial archives. But would the new CCF government of Tommy Douglas pass the appropriate legislation? Morton certainly hoped so, and in late 1944, he publicly called for an archives act.

Premier Douglas did not have to be convinced.

When he assumed office, he found that the outgoing Liberal administration had “emptied the files of almost every document that might help the CCF govern the province.” Douglas complained to former premier Patterson that this “act of pillage” was “most improper.” Patterson lamely replied that he was only following “practices established by custom.” Determined to end this practice, Douglas called on Professor Morton to help develop archives legislation.

But the history professor would not live to see the passage of the Archives Act in the spring 1945 legislative session. He died of a heart attack just months earlier.

George Simpson of the history department later reflected on what the creation of the Saskatchewan Archives Board meant to Morton. “It was a...crowning to his life’s ambition,” Simpson observed, to see that Canada’s story was “placed on a sound and permanent basis.”

Bill Waiser is a U of S historian and communications contributor with U of S Research Profile and Impact

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