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Original title:  MAJ William Lawson “Choppy” Grant

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Grant, William Lawson, educator, historian, author, and militia and army officer; b. 2 Nov. 1872 in Halifax, son of George Monro Grant* and Jessie Lawson; grandson of William Lawson*; m. 1 June 1911 Maude Erskine Parkin (14 Sept. 1880–1 Feb. 1963) in Goring, England, and they had three daughters and a son; d. 3 Feb. 1935 in Toronto and was buried in Kingston, Ont.

William Lawson Grant was born into a well-connected family of the British Canadian intellectual elite and would make a career for himself in the same company. His father was an eminent Presbyterian minister and his mother came from a successful Nova Scotia merchant family. Born in Halifax, William would have only one sibling, his brother, George, who died at the age of 12. The surviving Grant boy had been inquisitive from an early age and took pleasure in reading. Like his mother, he was shy, sensitive, and pensive. He loved and admired his father, but found him somewhat overbearing. While William would be highly successful in his own right, his accomplishments were at times overshadowed by those of his father. Although domineering, George Monro Grant was an important influence: his strong support for the empire and his progressive stance on many issues would be reflected in the outlook of his son. Furthermore, his exceptional educational career persuaded his son to try to emulate his achievements.

In 1877 George Grant was appointed principal of Queen’s College (soon to be given university status) and the family moved to Kingston. Grant Sr became one of the institution’s most storied administrators, expanding both its infrastructure and the breadth of subjects it offered. After completing his primary and secondary education in local schools, William proceeded to his father’s university and in 1894 he was awarded an ma degree. He proved to be a strong student, winning medals in Greek and Latin. After graduation, he travelled to England to attend Balliol College at the University of Oxford, where he obtained a ba with first-class honours in literae humaniores in 1898.

Grant returned to Canada prepared to become an educator in his own right. To be sure, family connections within the Presbyterian Church in Canada and the educational establishment in Ontario did not hurt his chances of landing a job. He worked from 1898 to 1904 at two private boys’ schools in Toronto: Upper Canada College, where he taught classics and then history and geography during the headship of his future father-in-law, George Robert Parkin* (a close friend of his father’s), and St Andrew’s College, a Presbyterian school where he was assistant headmaster from 1902. Grant’s stay at these institutions gave him an appreciation for the importance of sound administration and a well-rounded, diverse education for students.

His years in Toronto were marked by personal loss with the passing of his mother and father. He soon set to work writing his father’s biography, co-authored with journalist Charles Frederick Hamilton. The South African War (1899–1902) was then making national headlines, and conscious, perhaps, of his late father’s insistence that those who supported the British empire must also be willing to defend it, William began to take an interest in military matters, enlisting in 1902 with the 48th Highlanders, a local militia unit, in which he attained the rank of lieutenant. He did not see active service, but his part-time military career did not end with the war. In 1906 he would enter the corps reserve, and later, while living in Kingston, he was to join the 14th Regiment (Princess of Wales’s Own Rifles).

His early experiences as an educator convinced Grant that the teaching of history in Ontario was grossly inadequate. In 1904 he decided to better equip himself to promote the subject and registered in an intensive two-year course at the Université de Paris. His time in Paris made him, in the words of his grandson Michael Ignatieff, “a committed francophile for the rest of his life.” He improved his French and conducted research on Canada’s French past.

While exposing him to French culture and history, Grant’s second sojourn abroad also facilitated his integration into the wider intellectual community of the British empire. He served briefly on the staff of the Encyclopædia Britannica in England, and in 1905 he was made a fellow of the Royal Colonial Institute. In 1906 he returned to Oxford, where for four years he was Beit lecturer in colonial history. While in England, he brought out an edition of Samuel de Champlain*’s Voyages, began publishing his own translation of Marc Lescarbot*’s Histoire de la Nouvelle-France, and co-edited two series of official documents relating to the colonies. He also rubbed shoulders with some of the most prominent imperialists of the day, including Lord Milner, Lionel George Curtis, and his former principal, Parkin. Grant was a strong believer in the empire, but his was not a blind imperialism. He was doubtful, for instance, about how far Canada should commit itself to supporting Britain militarily in more distant imperial ventures. Of Parkin he once remarked, “I don’t think he got God and Oxford and the British Empire wholly separated.”

By now Grant was earning greater recognition back in Canada. In 1910 he was appointed Douglas chair of colonial and Canadian history at Queen’s. The newly created post reflected both the growing national interest in the country’s past and the increasing professionalization of the historical field. Grant was reputedly a good and well-liked teacher. He brought to his task “not only a ripe and profound scholarship,” recalled one contemporary, “but a keen and sympathetic interest in the work of his students.” His position at Queen’s helped to further integrate him into Canada’s professional and intellectual elite. An active member of the Champlain Society, which promoted Canadian history and was the publisher of his Lescarbot volumes, he served on its council for several years. He wrote a number of articles that appeared in the Encyclopædia Britannica in 1910–11, and he was a contributor as well to Canada and its provinces, issued from 1913 to 1917 by Robert Pollock Glasgow* under the joint editorship of Adam Shortt, one of his former professors at Queen’s, and Dominion Archivist Arthur George Doughty. A year after his return to Kingston, Grant had been elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Grant’s years at Queen’s were marked by one of the most important events in his life – his marriage to Maude Erskine Parkin. He had come to know Maude through her father while living in England. It took him a while to work up the courage to profess his sentiments. “I have come to love you very deeply,” he finally wrote to her in August 1910. “There! It is said now, and nothing else makes much difference.” He was convinced that, together, they could “do ten times as much for Canada.” The two were married on 1 June 1911.

Maude had received a ba at McGill University in Montreal in 1903 and had been assistant warden of Ashburne House (Ashburne Hall), the women’s residence at the Victoria University of Manchester, from 1905 to 1911 (after her husband’s death she would be warden of Royal Victoria College at McGill in 1937–40). An avid supporter of William’s efforts to improve educational standards, she was as admired by his pupils and colleagues as he was. The Grants had four children: Margaret Monro (1912), who was to marry Geoffrey Clement Andrew, an English master at Upper Canada College and later a university professor; Charity Lawson (1913); Jessie Alison (1916), the future wife of diplomat George Ignatieff*; and George Parkin* (1918). As the children grew, it became a favourite family activity to summer at a cottage near Georgian Bay.

It was around the time of his marriage that Grant researched and wrote his most successful work, Ontario high school history of Canada (Toronto, 1914). This text was used extensively in senior schools throughout the province and across Canada, and was widely reissued in the 1920s and 1930s. In addition to recounting Canada’s French and British heritage and the North American frontier experience, it emphasized the role played by “heroic” individuals that students could aspire to emulate, from Champlain to, in later editions, the Canadian soldiers who captured Vimy Ridge in France during World War I [see Julian Hedworth George Byng; Ellis Wellwood Sifton*]. The book was criticized in some quarters, such as the Orange order’s influential Sentinel and Orange and Protestant Advocate (Toronto), for being overgenerous towards French Canadians and Roman Catholics, and the second edition was withdrawn from use in British Columbia high schools.

Grant held his Queen’s professorship only for five years. Like so many other British Canadian men of military age, he became swept up in the wartime rhetoric of 1914. Anxious to contribute in whatever way possible, he began by writing works that accused Germany of having a history of militarism and aggression, proclaimed the justice and selflessness of Britain’s cause, asserted the need for imperial solidarity and the prowess of the Anglo-Saxon race, and implored young men to enlist. In the fall of 1914 he helped organize and prepare the Canadian Officers’ Training Corps unit established at Queen’s. The following year, at age 42, he enlisted himself. A captain with the 59th Infantry Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, he was promoted major in December 1915 and went overseas in April 1916. After a few months of training in England, he left for the front; at some point he transferred to the 20th Battalion.

Grant’s service in France was short, but it was enough to impress upon him the emotional and physical horrors of war. In July 1916 he was seriously injured when his horse was shot out from under him. His upper body was crushed when the animal rolled over him and his lungs were damaged, leaving him vulnerable to pneumonia. After recovering in England, in February 1917 he was attached to the 17th Reserve Battalion at East Sandling Camp in Kent, and then in April was placed in charge of nearby Otterpool Segregation Camp, where he helped to screen newly arrived soldiers for disease and where he commanded until July 1917. That month he was offered and accepted the position of principal at Upper Canada College (UCC). In November, with permission from his superiors, he left the army and returned to Canada. At home the debate over conscription was raging. Grant was sympathetic to the conscriptionist cause, but he acknowledged that it was unrealistic to expect in French Canadians the same sentimental connection to Britain and the empire that he and others felt.

It was at UCC that William Lawson Grant would leave his greatest legacy. Haunted by the deaths of so many young men in the war, including a large number of his former pupils, he was determined to establish a school worthy of their sacrifice. He immediately set about improving the level of education. Grant was, the Toronto Daily Mail and Empire would note, “a believer in an educational program that was as broad and comprehensive as possible.” He maintained, for instance, that it had been “the sporting spirit which pulled the Empire through the war.” More than anything, perhaps, he wanted his boys to grow into well-rounded individuals who would both contribute to society and enjoy life to the fullest. According to future essayist and novelist William Robertson Davies*, he once told students, “Live in the large! Dare greatly, and if you must sin – sin nobly!” “But more strongly,” he went on, “have faith and rejoice in Christ.” Grant hired new instructors, such as musician Ernest Alexander Campbell MacMillan*, and expanded the curriculum to include not only music and sports, but also art, drama, contemporary history, public affairs, improved French-language instruction, and biology. He insisted that pupils experience a more engaging version of Canadian history. In general, Grant’s approach to education reflected his lively curiosity. Wrote a former student, Lionel Morris Gelber*, “From the trend of international relations to remote difficulties of Canadian historiography, from third-form cricket to the state of English literature, the latest play, the newest book, the men of yesterday, the manners of to-day; Principal Grant’s range of interest and comment is generous, versatile, comprehensive, and stimulating.”

In addition to enlarging the curriculum, Grant expanded the private school’s infrastructure. UCC had to find ways to accommodate a student body that doubled in size during his tenure, and his years there witnessed the construction of sports facilities, additional residences, a drama theatre, a new preparatory-school building, an on-site principal’s residence, and a remodelled main-campus building. In 1920, with assistance from William George Gooderham, the chair of UCC’s board of governors, he launched a campaign to raise $1,500,000 to pay for these projects, and also to increase the salaries of the masters and establish entrance scholarships (he was anxious to broaden the school’s base and counter the reproach that it was a rich man’s school). Among the funds received from donors and foundations over the years were two grants awarded in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression: an impressive $400,000 from Toronto’s Massey Foundation, whose president, Charles Vincent Massey*, was his wife’s brother-in-law, and $150,000 from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The success of his building projects allowed Grant to circumvent a plan by the governors to rebuild the campus on cheaper land outside the city. If bricks, mortar, and attendance were any indication, then Grant’s time as principal at UCC was a resounding success.

In honour of his achievements Queen’s had awarded Grant an lld in 1923 and the University of Toronto did the same in 1929, during UCC’s centenary celebrations. By now, the college was recognized as one of the country’s finest educational institutions, a school for the next generation of the political, business, and intellectual elite. Authorities from Ontario and elsewhere in Canada frequently consulted with Grant to improve the teaching in their own schools. Kenneth George Benson Ketchum, headmaster of St Andrew’s College, would describe him in 1935 as “a great figure in Canadian education.” Grant was proud of his accomplishments at UCC, but he always strove to do more. “There is no better education being given in Canada today than that given at UCC …,” he declared in 1924, “and that is atrocious!”

By all accounts, Principal Grant was popular with his pupils, who affectionately nicknamed him Choppy. He demanded high standards and ideals from them. At his installation in December 1917 he had used John Milton’s words to explain what he considered to be his main task, developing the leaders of “a nation of prophets, of sages, and of worthies,” and he pointed out that by “worthies” Milton had meant warriors. Grant remained concerned by the larger questions facing the international community during the 1920s and 1930s, and he encouraged his pupils to grapple with such matters themselves.

Grant continued to write and publish, though his headship limited his ability to pursue historical research. For example, he acted as editor-in-chief for the 1926 anniversary edition of the Makers of Canada series, founded by George Nathaniel Morang, and in 1929 he completed the biography of his father-in-law that Sir John Stephen Willison* had been working on at his death. He also continued speaking out on a variety of issues. As an administrator, he called for the development of a well-trained, professional, and independent civil service for both federal and provincial levels of government. He was critical of the school system in Canada, especially in Ontario, and advocated changes to make it less bureaucratic and more liberal.

Among his main concerns was greater access to quality education for deserving members of the working classes and ethnocultural minorities. He was, according to two historians of the organization, the “foremost figure” in the establishment in 1918 of the Workers’ Educational Association of Toronto and District, which collaborated with the labour movement to provide courses for working-class men and women. He taught one of its first classes, helped set up branches throughout the province, and after the WEA of Ontario was formed in 1923 he became provincial president. A founding member of the World Association for Adult Education in 1918, he was instrumental in the discussions leading up to the formation of the Canadian Association for Adult Education in 1935. He was also a keen supporter of Frontier College [see Alfred Fitzpatrick.] In 1932 he became first chairman of the Couchiching Conference of the Canadian Institute on Economic and International Affairs (soon renamed the Canadian Institute on Public Affairs), which aimed at public education through cooperative study.

In these and other endeavours Grant gained a reputation for having what the Mail and Empire described as “a tolerant, human and magnanimous disposition.” The newspaper was particularly impressed by his participation in the first Canadian seminar on Jewish–Gentile relations, organized by Claris Edwin Silcox*, in April 1934. (Maude had been friends with Zionist leader Chaim Azriel Weizmann while living in London.) Grant remained a product of his time, however, relying, for instance, on such old stereotypes as the notion of “the good Jew” to make his case for racial tolerance.

Like many anglophone Canadian intellectuals after the war, Grant had difficulty reconciling his commitment to the empire with his pride in Canadian autonomy. Many of his father’s generation had advocated imperial federation, but he belonged to a cohort that identified more closely with Canada than the mother country. He had imparted this new outlook to his students at UCC from the very beginning: “We are, and we must be, a Canadian school, and if to be so, we must in any way or in many ways depart from the Etonian tradition, then the break must be made,” he had announced during his introductory address to the college in 1917.

Multilateralism, international diplomacy, peace, and cross-cultural accommodation gradually supplanted the old priorities of Anglo-Saxon supremacy, unconditional imperial solidarity, and military readiness. Where his father had headed the Imperial Federation League in Kingston, William Lawson Grant was president of the Toronto chapter of the League of Nations Society in Canada, serving until 1933. Reflecting after the war, William decried the jingoism that had set the tone for conflict in 1914, putting into question his own attitude at the time. He rejected outright the ethnocentric nationalism that inevitably led to a conflict of races. “Under God, the only hope for humanity seems to me to lie in the attainment of an international citizenship, resting upon an international mind,” he declared in 1924. “We must learn to think internationally, and to quench the narrow, predatory nationalism which masquerades as patriotism.”

In late January 1935, Grant was hospitalized at the Toronto General with a sudden and severe case of pneumonia. He succumbed to his illness at 3:00 a.m. on 3 February. His funeral, held two days later in the UCC chapel and presided over by ministers of the United Church of Canada, was attended by hundreds. They looked to the next generation of Grants to carry on the family legacy, anticipating, the Mail and Empire recorded, “with good hope that Canada will reap a third harvest of faithful and effective service.” They were not to be disappointed.

Robert James Talbot

William Lawson Grant’s biography of his father, written with [C.] F. Hamilton, was published as Principal Grant (Toronto, 1904). His edition of Voyages of Samuel de Champlain, 1604–1618 appeared in New York in 1907 and his three-volume translation of Marc Lescarbot’s work, The history of New France, was brought out in Toronto between 1907 and 1914. In the latter year his Ontario high school history of Canada was published in Toronto. His 1926 edition of Makers of Canada appeared in London and Toronto in 12 volumes. Among his other significant works are Canadian constitutional development shown by selected speeches and despatches, with introductions and explanatory notes (London, 1907), co-written with H. E. Egerton; Acts of the Privy Council of England: colonial series (6v., London, 1908–12), co-edited with James Munro; Our just cause: facts about the war for ready reference (rev. ed., London, [1914?]), co-written with A. [R.] Colquhoun and Colquhoun [E. M. Cookson]; The tribune of Nova Scotia: a chronicle of Joseph Howe (Toronto, 1915); and “A nation of prophets, of sages, and of worthies”: a speech delivered on 18th December, 1917, by W. L. Grant on his installation as head-master of Upper Canada College ([Toronto, 1917?]).

LAC, R11505-0-3. Queen’s Univ. Arch. (Kingston, Ont.), William Lawson Grant fonds. “Dr. W. L. Grant, U.C.C. principal, dies in hospital,” Daily Mail and Empire (Toronto), 4 Feb. 1935: 1–2. D. P. Armstrong, “William Lawson Grant,” in The W. L. Grant Fellowship in Adult Education (Toronto, 1969), 9–21. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1912). [W.] R. Davies, “Some reminiscences of W. L. Grant,” in The W. L. Grant Fellowship in Adult Education, 5–8. W. H. F[yfe], “William Lawson Grant,” Queen’s Rev. (Kingston), 9 (1935): 38–39. L. M. Gelber, “Dr. W. L. Grant, a personal appreciation,” Queen’s Rev., 4 (1930): 41–43. R. B. Howard, Upper Canada College, 1829–1979: Colborne’s legacy (Toronto, 1979). C. W. Humphries, “The banning of a book in British Columbia,” BC Studies (Vancouver), no.1 (winter 1968–69): 1–12. Michael Ignatieff, True patriot love: four generations in search of Canada (Toronto, 2009). The roll of pupils of Upper Canada College, Toronto, January, 1830, to June, 1916, ed. A. H. Young (Kingston, 1917). The war book of Upper Canada College, Toronto, ed. A. H. Young (Toronto, 1923). “William Lawson Grant,” RSC, Trans., 3rd ser., 29 (1935), proc.: vi–viii. Donald Wright, The professionalization of history in English Canada (Toronto, 2005).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Robert James Talbot, “GRANT, WILLIAM LAWSON,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 24, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/grant_william_lawson_16E.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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/grant_william_lawson_16E.html
Author of Article:   Robert James Talbot
Title of Article:   GRANT, WILLIAM LAWSON
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2021
Year of revision:   2021
Access Date:   September 24, 2023