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Alexander Morris

“…born to privilege, privilege which he used to expand the fortunes of his family and his country.”
- Jean Friesen

“…the country has a future and I could be of use…”
- Alexander Morris to Prime Minister John A. Macdonald

The Honorable Alexander Morris Alexander Morris had a successful career as a lawyer, judge, businessman, politician and public servant. Morris was born in 1826, in the military settlement of Perth, Upper Canada. As the first son of a prominent politician, he grew up within a network of mercantile and political elite. Morris’ education was extensive, including two years in Scotland, three months learning French with a francophone family, three years working for Montreal commission merchants, a year articling with Sir John A. Macdonald’s law firm in Upper Canada, and earned four degrees at McGill University. Taking after his Scotch father, Morris was also active in the affairs of the Church of Scotland.

Like other young men of his time in the Dominion of Canada, Morris was captivated by dreams of imperial destiny. He argued that Canadians must rise above factionalism and take their place in the building of an empire. He spoke strongly for Confederation as the solution to the increasing influence of the United States. Since his youth he had been interested in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Morris saw the Dominion as the rightful owner of the western prairies, and felt that the Hudson’s Bay Company must be curtailed if Canada was to flourish. He did not hesitate to express his ideas publicly, giving numerous lectures and publishing several widely-read essays.

In 1849, acting as vice-president of the Mercantile Library Association in Montreal, Morris lectured his fellow members on “The North American Indian, their origin, present conditions and oratory,” an early indication of one of the consuming passions of his later life.

In 1851 he set up a law practice and married Margaret Cline, a niece of the prominent Upper Canada businessman and politician Philip VanKoughnet. They had 11 children together. By the 1860s Morris had become a respected public figure. He was elected to parliament in 1861 and served for ten years, during which time he introduced a bill ending public executions in Canada and played a part in negotiating the Great Coalition of 1864. In 1872, he retired from federal politics for health reasons and became Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories.

During his time in Indian affairs, Morris was responsible for opening the territories for settlement. He served as Treaty Commissioner for Treaties 3, 4, 5, and 6, and also helped negotiate Treaties 1 and 2. Morris had long urged the government to make a western treaty, feeling a calling to “advance” the First Nations as part of his Christian duty and Canadian patriotism. His goal was the spread of the familiar political traditions he knew in Ontario, what he termed “the advantages which the older Provinces of the Dominion already enjoy.” He wanted a peaceful, stable Northwest based on the Ontario model, with a harmonious French population.

Morris always considered his sympathies to “have been strongly with the native raised population.” Anticipating great social and economic change on the plains, he placed great importance on education, assistance in farming, and on assimilation. He believed that it was vital to show respect to Aboriginal chiefs and to make them feel like officers of the Crown themselves. But Morris was hindered by a lack of funds and interest on the part of the federal government, as well as by constraints not to raise the expectations of the peoples on the prairie with promises of aid.

Morris constantly advocated the creation of a police force in the west. “The preservation of order in the North West,” he told Macdonald, was “the most important matter of the future.” However, his inability to preserve lands for the Métis was seen as a major weakness of his administration, a fact which he recognized — “it is a crying shame that the half breeds have been ignored. It will result in trouble and is most unjust.” The seeds of the Northwest Resistance were sown, and Morris knew it.

After the Treaty 6 signings, a separate government was established for the territories, and Morris’ position was given to David Laird. Morris regretted this. “I wish I had been left to complete my work there,” he said, “However I have settled the Indian policy & the work will go on.” Treaty-making had been no easy task. But for Morris, the opportunity to play a role in the transformation of the west had been an extremely satisfying experience.

In 1877, Morris founded the University of Manitoba. An act which, according to G. M. Grant, “had achieved a measure of co-operation among the different religious groups which had not been found possible in any other Province of Canada at that time.”

Throughout his life, Morris acted out of a Victorian sense of public duty and family honour. Despite weak health, he was never idle. He tried always to look for a compromise and maintained an unbiased, generous manner, and geniality of spirit. Morris died in Toronto in 1889, at the age of 63.

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