For the Duration: Don MacGillivray (1942-2018)

By David Frank

It is hard to know where to start, but let me try by mentioning two of the people Donnie helped to rescue from the obscurity of local history. Archibald Russell, a labourer from Conception Bay, was one of twelve men killed in separate calamities at the Sydney steel plant during its first year of operation in 1901. His skull was fractured by a loose block and tackle.[1] A generation later there was Eddie Crimmins; in the words of Dawn Fraser that Donnie often recited: “he came from Port aux Basques, Besides a chance to live and work, He had nothing much to ask. And yet he starved, he starved, I tell you, Back in 1924 . . . .”[2] Two men, both drawn to industrial Cape Breton in the early twentieth century in search of work, and both victims of an economy that failed to value their hopes or protect their lives.

DONNIE PIC 94-95-24610

Don Macgillivray, ca. 1980, at a time he was spelling his surname without a capital “G”. Even without a cloth cap, you can see a hint of Keir Hardie, the Scottish coal miner and founder of the Labour Party, a spokesman for his class who had no wish to join the power elites of his time. Beaton Institute of Cape Breton Studies, Reference number: 94-95-24610.

Donnie grew up on Park Street in Ashby, the largely Anglo-Celtic working-class Sydney neighbourhood hard by the roads leading to the steel plant, where his father was employed on the open hearth. Unlike most young working-class men and women of his generation, Donnie would eventually go on to university and a career as a scholar and teacher. But this trajectory was not apparent from the start.

When he ran into some trouble with school discipline, Donnie’s father, known to all and sundry as “Duffy”,  took him around to see George MacEachern. George was one of the founders of the steel union and known for his radical politics as well as his wise counsel. What was the offence? Was there a matter of principle involved? Will other students support you? Donnie accepted the penalty and returned to school but never stopped being skeptical about the unwarranted exercise of authority.

Subsequently, he went into the Royal Canadian Air Force, completing training as a fighter pilot. This was prior to the unification of the forces, and from the then-RCAF  he learned how to tell when somebody was, as he put it, “from a whole other outfit”. He also recognized this was not necessarily a positive way to look at the world. Donnie’s own generosity of spirit  and curiosity did not fit well in a uniform.

He went back to school, finishing a BA at St Francis Xavier and stopping briefly at Carleton before finding his way to the University of New Brunswick in 1969. Those were still early days for what would become known as the “Acadiensis generation” and the historiographic revolution it came to represent. The journal was not established until 1971, just as Donnie was leaving.

But even if he felt he was working in some isolation, Donnie made a significant contribution to the emerging field of regional labour and social history. His MA thesis, “Industrial Unrest in Cape Breton, 1919-1925”, all 240 pages of it, is a carefully researched and cogently argued manuscript that can be counted as the first fully professional work on Cape Breton labour history. His supervisor, Bill Acheson, believed it had the qualities of a doctoral dissertation. In a different cultural context, some smart publisher might have snapped it up for book publication and given it deserving recognition as a standard source in the field – and as a corrective to the primacy of the Winnipeg General Strike as Canada’s emblematic labour conflict.[3]

Donnie’s main argument soon appeared as a book chapter, under the title “Cape Breton in the 1920s: A Community Besieged”. And in 1974 he published his study of the use of the armed forces in labour disputes – one of those classic articles that helped to make the reputation of Acadiensis. Donnie’s research in these essays is exemplary and his style is a delight. He writes in a way that is both measured and empathetic, as if the words are going to be read aloud and should be worth the time needed to fully articulate their significance.[4]

It was around this time that I first met Donnie, in Halifax, shortly after I started work for a Dalhousie University dissertation on the coal miners. He was continuing his studies at Queen’s University, with a focus on the steelworkers. The topics were complementary, and Donnie could not have been more welcoming of a like-minded researcher who soon came to know and respect him as a good friend.

In 1975, Del Muise, then at the (then) National Museum of Man in Ottawa, brought both of us on board for a documentary film on industrial Cape Breton in the 1920s, later released by the National Film Board as 12,000 Men. Our main functions were to identify people and ask questions for the interviews, and also do photo research and work on the treatment and assembly. The interviews proved to be a rewarding journey through the experiences of ordinary men and women in the labour wars of the 1920s. But the film turned out to be a troubled production. Donnie and I, and also Del, were not satisfied with some of the filmmakers’ decisions and our names do not appear in the credits.

Meanwhile, we were working on a joint paper on the narrative verse of Dawn Fraser. This was a kind of accident, as we had both offered papers for the Atlantic Canada Studies Conference in Fredericton in the spring of 1976, but neither of us had anything near ready. In Fraser we could present the voice of a working-class culture that was too easily dismissed even as it spoke with the authority of a local Longfellow, as in these lines: “Listen, my children, and you shall know, Of a crime that happened long ago, In the dark and dismal days of old, When the world and all was ruled by gold”.[5]

Having returned home to Cape Breton, Donnie announced himself a fierce Cape Breton loyalist who was determined to stay “for the duration”. Fortunately, in 1977 he was hired as an assistant professor at the (then) College of Cape Breton. That first year he teamed up with the historian and archivist Robert Morgan to give the course on Cape Breton history. He also taught a class on Modern Britain and another one on Working Class Movements, which had been offered as early as 1974 by philosophy professor Jordan Bishop. I recall Jordan saying how happy he was to have “a real historian” take charge of the course.

Donnie soon plunged into local activities, settling in a big house in Big Pond, where he volunteered at community events and organized some of his own, including a memorable show for his good friend, the artist and writer Ellison Robertson. The door was always open and you could often chance to find a visiting researcher, musician, photographer, steelworker, firefighter or Gaelic teacher there.

We collaborated again on the autobiography of the union leader and labour radical George MacEachern. We followed a life-history approach, visiting George for regular interviews over several months. Donnie’s relaxed and attentive manner set the tone, and the resulting book is not just an account of the origins of the steel union but also an exploration of working-class youth and the politicization of a steel plant machinist. Donnie was later able to ensure that George received an honorary degree from the University College of Cape Breton.[6]

As is often the case in small departments, Donnie was called on to teach in several fields and at various levels over his 35 years as a professor. Besides the courses mentioned earlier, his teaching expanded to include the Social History of Modern Canada, Atlantic Canada Before Confederation and Atlantic Canada, 1867-1990, Nineteenth Century Britain, Modern Ireland, and History of the Working Class.

And he introduced a new course called The Days of Sail in Atlantic Canada. He was well-prepared. Not just because there was excellent work by Judith Fingard and Eric Sager and others, or because he had been doing his own sailing on the Bras d’Or. Most of all it was because Donnie had become captivated by the story of Alex MacLean, the East Bay mariner who went west and became a force in the sealing trade and other activities on the Pacific Ocean, from the South Seas to the Bering Strait. He was said to be the model for Captain Wolf Larsen in Jack London’s 1904 novel, The Sea Wolf. Donnie followed MacLean’s trail across land and sea. The resulting manuscript was accepted for his doctoral dissertation and later published by UBC Press.[7]


Captain Alex MacLean: Jack London’s Sea Wolf

Captain Alex MacLean is an extraordinary book that explores the multiple worlds and changing contexts inhabited by an elusive larger than life character. As Donnie puts it, “Alex MacLean literally sailed out of a pre-industrial, pre-cash environment into a turbulent, rapidly changing North American social and cultural scene and, eventually, was transformed into a mass-media commodity”. It is very much a social biography, not so much a “life and times” as a study of the “times in the life”. This is also a striking transnational study that shows Cape Bretoners entering distant trades and markets and participating in the drama of conflicts between British, American, Russian, Japanese and Canadian empires during an era of intense exploitation of the marine environment.

Alex and his older brother are presented as seafaring Gaelic versions of the rebel folk-heroes that Eric Hobsbawm had written about, ambitious for adventure and old-fashioned in their loyalties. But Donnie takes Jack London and others to task for their transmutation of MacLean from practical Cape Breton man of the sea to the brutal Wolf Larsen of the famous novel. The book ends with insights into the construction of the Sea Wolf legend and a restoration of the actual Alex MacLean.

There is much more to tell about Donnie. I still have the bread and soup cookbooks he gave me when I was living in Dominion, and I think fondly of those cold days at kitchen tables and old stoves when we worked on our collaborations. I am grateful too for the well-prepared students he later sent to the University of New Brunswick for graduate work, among them Rusty Bittermann, Dorothy Bennett, Courtney MacIsaac, and Lachlan Mackinnon – the latter now teaching at Cape Breton University himself.

Others may say more about the part Donnie played in protecting academic freedom and collective bargaining rights through the faculty union at Cape Breton University, particularly during a long period on the picketlines in the winter of 2000. Subsequently, he was a founding member of the executive of the National Union of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. He made one of his last visits to Fredericton as a flying picket (except he came by bus) to support one of our local struggles.

Donnie belonged to a particular generation of scholars and teachers not far removed from their roots in the rural and industrial Maritimes. They brought those affinities to their teaching and research, something students recognized and respected. They did not belong to the traditional clerical or intellectual elites of the academy nor did they desire to join the new managerial cadre of higher education. Rather, they wished to function as what we might call organic intellectuals of their time and place, and in this Donnie was remarkably successful.

Let me finish by adding that Donnie was instrumental in helping the J.B. McLachlan Commemorative Society make plans for the monument erected in Glace Bay in 1992. And he worked, with the support of the family, to establish an undergraduate scholarship and the annual J.B. McLachlan Lecture, a living memorial to another advocate of historical understanding and engagement. It has to be counted a sad coincidence that he passed away on 14 November this year, the day of the twentieth annual Lecture, only a few weeks short of his own 76th birthday this December.

David Frank is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at the University of New Brunswick, and a long-time friend of Don MacGillivray.


[1] “Archibald Russell”, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online :

[2] Dawn Fraser, Echoes from Labor’s War: Industrial Cape Breton in the 1920s (Toronto: New Hogtown Press, 1976), pp. 29-30.

[3] Don MacGillivray, “Industrial Unrest in Cape Breton, 1919-1925” (M.A. thesis, University of New Brunswick, 1971).

[4] See his chapter in B.D. Tennyson, Essays in Cape Breton History (Windsor, N.S.: Lancelot Press, 1973), pp. 49-67; and “Military Aid to the Civil Power: The Cape Breton Experience in the 1920s”, Acadiensis, III, 2 (Spring 1974), pp. 45-64. He and Tennyson collaborated in editing Cape Breton Historical Essays (Sydney: College of Cape Breton Press, 1980). Besides half a dozen entries in the DCB, other highlights in his published work included an article in Acadiensis, IX, I (Fall 1979), pp. 44-70, on the Gilded Age capitalist Henry Whitney, and one in Labour/Le Travail (Fall 1991), pp. 271-83, introducing the Ashby steelworker and labour poet John J. “Slim” McInnis. See also his chapter on cultural representation in Mining Photographs and Other Pictures: A Selection from the Negative Archives of Shedden Studio, Glace Bay, Cape Breton, 1948-1968 (Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1983).

[5] As noted above, our edition of Fraser first appeared in 1976. See also Echoes from Labor’s Wars: The Expanded Edition (Wreck Cove, N.S.: Breton Books, 1992).

[6] George MacEachern: An Autobiography (Sydney, N.S.: University College of Cape Breton Press, 1987).

[7] Don MacGillivray, Captain Alex MacLean: Jack London’s Sea Wolf (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008).

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at
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6 Responses to For the Duration: Don MacGillivray (1942-2018)

  1. Del Muise says:

    One of the most imaginative presentations during the early years of the Atlantic Canada Studies Conferences was that joint paper referred to here by David. He and Donnie did a dramatic reading of a number of Dawn Fraser’s work, interspersed with some analysis of the context of their creation. A full house gave them a well deserved standing ovation.

  2. Steven High says:

    Thanks David for a powerful tribute. I only met Donnie once, with you, over a beer at the old steelworkers hall in Sydney. But I knew him through his work, which still informs my teaching of post-Confederation Canadian history. Lachlan MacKinnon, a student the three of us shared over the course of his three degrees, also spoke of Donnie with admiration. I feel that I know him better now thanks to you.

  3. Christopher Moore says:

    I met Don soon after arriving in Cape Breton as a very green Parks Canada staffer c1972. He did not look like the former airforce pilot someone told me he was (more like the photo on the post). I told him I had written a paper on the King government in the 1940s. “What do you think of King?” I stumbled out some kind of reply. His response was my real introduction to Cape Breton history and politics: “To me he’s a pig.”

  4. Owen Fitzgerald says:

    It has been many years David. Enjoyed this piece you wrote about Donnie. I loved sitting down with Donnie at parties in Big Pond and talking about Cape Breton History, about our university and local politics. We had similar interests, but very different views That made for great discussion and debate.
    Owen Fitzgerald

  5. Rose McDonald says:

    Thank you for a wonderful overview of Donnie’s academic accomplishments. My brother-in-law considered Donnie the best & most interesting teacher he ever encountered.That is a true tribute because he was not a fan of teachers.My family knew Donnie as a larger than life member of the Big Pond community where friendship & hospitality are the norm. Rose McDonald,Sydney Forks

  6. Ronald MacEachern says:

    I was a friend of Donnies…i am sure his work as a scholar will easily stand the test of time and serve as a stepping stone for many future scholars.I only want to add that a person could not have a better friend..he was the kindest, most generous, thoughtful and respectful person I have ever known…Did i say caring? I will never forget Donnies deep sense of commitment to the real humanity we all strive for…I feel so honoured to have known him…and thank you David for this “for the duration”

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