Alexander Kennedy Isbister

Alexander Kennedy Isbister

Winnipeg’s Man of Education

By George Siamandas

Alexander Kennedy Isbister was a fur trader, educator and lawyer. Isbister was one of many successful children of fur trade. AKI was born in 1822 at Cumberland House, Saskatchewan. His father was Thomas Isbister, a Hudson’s Bay Company employee, and his mother a Metis named Mary Kennedy, sister to arctic explorer and St Andrew’s resident Captain William Kennedy.

WELL EDUCATED
At a young age, and with Captain Kennedy’s help, Alexander travelled to the Orkney Islands of Scotland to receive an education, returning to the Red River District in 1833 upon the death of his grandparents. He attended St. John’s School, and then in 1838 became an articled clerk of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Isbister the Metis ran into the prejudices of Sir George Simpson who had taken over a Red River. After Isbister failed to receive the promotion he sought he quit the HBC in 1841 and in 1842 left for further education in England.

A DISTINGUISHED EDUCATOR
Apparently his Metis ancestry was no problem in England. He was described as brilliant and with an attractive character and benevolent manner. AKI had quite a career in England. In 1858 he received his MA and in 1866 his LLB. He became a teacher in London, and wrote many school texts. In 1872, he was appointed Dean of a teacher training college in London. As a distinguished educator he edited a journal for 20 years.

Isbister remained an advocate of Metis rights and dignity and fought the HBC’s control over Free trade in 1847 by presenting a petition of over 1000 Red River names to the British Govt. He feared US annexation as much as the HBC and advocated that Red River become part of Canada. Isbister had left the Red River settlement in 1841, never to return. But Isbister left Red River many generous gifts.

A PROMOTER OF EDUCATION
Isbister never married and died in 1883 in London. On his death in 1883, Isbister left the bulk of his large fortune to the newly formed University of Manitoba. Eighty-three thousand dollars was a great deal of money in 1883, over a million in today’s terms. The interest was to be used to award scholarships to promising students regardless of race, creed, or sex.

Isbister also donated his personal library of over 4,958 books to the University and this was the start of the present library of over 1,000,000 books. Unfortunately, most of the books were lost in an 1898 fire.

But by 1934 the Isbister fund was gone. In 1932, it had been discovered that the chairman of the Board of Governors of the University had embezzled a million dollars of the University money, including all the money in the A.K. Isbister Scholarship Fund.

The Manitoba government still gives “Isbister Scholarships” to outstanding students entering the University.

RECOGNITION
Isbister is recognised in name at the University of Manitoba, and at the city’s oldest school Isbister School. In 1961, a classroom building on campus was named “Isbister Building” in his honour. The memory of the University of Manitoba’s first benefactor is one in which Manitobans and particularly Manitoba Metis can take great pride.

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