Manitoba Historical Society
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The Founder of the Isbister Scholarships

by Harold C. Knox

Manitoba Pageant, September 1957, Volume 3, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Today the name of Isbister is not well known in Winnipeg or Manitoba. There is an Isbister School and an Isbister place but few know anything of the man - Alexander Kennedy Isbister whose name they bear. Yet this man who died so many years ago is worthy of being remembered by us because of what he was, and what he did.

He was born at Cumberland House up the Saskatchewan River from The Pas in 1822. His father was not wealthy being a postmaster in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company. He was killed by a bull at Norway House when Alexander was 14. The boy was educated in Scotland and at St. John's School in Winnipeg. He entered the service of the Hudson's Bay Company exploring and trading for that Company at its most northerly post on the Peel River in the Arctic. Then he left the West for Scotland to continue his education and train to be a teacher at the Universities of Edinburgh, Aberdeen and London. He became a noted headmaster in London. At the same time he was building a new career in England he never forgot the country of his birth. He wrote many articles for British magazines on the geography of the Hudson's Bay territories and never ceased to urge their development. He was always a champion of the settlers on the Red River. Any of them visiting in London received a warm welcome. Although far away with new interests he was still a Westerner at heart. He wrote many textbooks then badly needed by the schools, and developed new and better examinations for the schools. These brought him what was for that time a large fortune. During his life, he used a part of his wealth to encourage education along the Red River and at his death in 1883, he left the larger part of his estate to the University of Manitoba. The money so left was to be used to establish scholarships - the Isbister Scholarships of today. His will laid down the conditions definitely. These scholarships were to be based on merit only. They were to be given "without distinction of race, creed or nationality". In those days scholarships were usually given to boys only, and were usually restricted in some way. Alexander Kennedy Isbister was a big enough man to realize that only one thing really mattered - the ability of the student.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been given in Isbister Scholarships since his death in 1883, and many of the outstanding men and women of Western Canada have received important help from them. This gift was to have great consequences. It was not, however, the whole of his contribution. He also gave his library of some 5000 books. This formed the nucleus of the University of Manitoba Library. In the early years of this province when the resources of the University were few, this gift opened the minds of many to new sources of knowledge.

See also:

Memorable Manitobans: Alexander Kennedy Isbister (1822-1883)

Page revised: 14 June 2023

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