The Prairie Builder: Walkter Murray of Saskatchewan


260 pages
Contains Illustrations, Index
ISBN 0-920316-75-1





Reviewed by T.D. Regehr

T.D. Regehr is a history professor at the University of Saskatchewan and
author of The Beauharnois Scandal: A Story of Entrepreneurship and


Walter Murray was the first President of the University of Saskatchewan, serving in that capacity from 1908 until 1937. A Maritimer by birth, Murray came West to build a strong provincial university. He was also an ardent Presbyterian who took a leading role in the church union movement, which created the United Church of Canada. This biography of Walter Murray, written by a father and son who carry the same surname but are not related to their subject, not only captures the factual details of his distinguished career but also seeks to provide a more general and objective measure of the man.

Murray’s early life, his brilliant academic record, and his early career as a university professor in the Maritimes are described in some detail, but most of the book deals with his career in Saskatchewan. His first major test, and disappointment, in the province had to do with the selection of the site of the new university. Murray favoured Regina. When Saskatoon was chosen, he worked very hard to ensure that the limited provincial resources not be dissipated among rival degree-granting institutions in the province. To achieve this, he eventually had to take over Regina College. He thus delayed, until after his death, the creation of a rival university in Regina.

The most controversial chapter in Murray’s career centered on the dismissal of four faculty members in 1919. The four, as portrayed in this biography, plunged the University and its President into a crisis of loyalty. There were undoubtedly serious differences of opinion, but it is not clear from this work how those who lose confidence in an institution’s senior administrators ought to conduct themselves. These four abstained in a vote of confidence and were dismissed. The crisis brought about Murray’s one and only nervous breakdown, and readers will be inclined to sympathize with him. It should not, however, obscure the fact that Murray ran the University autocratically and perhaps even dictatorially.

Outside of the University, Murray’s most important interest and commitment was to the Presbyterian Church and later the United Church of Canada. The authors make it very clear that Murray was particularly interested in church union because it would facilitate the educating and Canadianizing of the non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants. They use the term missionary to describe Murray’s approach and enthusiasm. What is surprising is the lack of any major spiritual concerns. According to this biography, Murray’s message was unambiguous: “Patriotism required church unity” (p. 150). If they are right, it is small wonder that church union encountered opposition.

Walter Murray was indeed a prairie builder. The University of Saskatchewan, with its strengths and its weaknesses, is a monument to his talent and energy. It may well be that Murray intended to do much more; he particularly regretted that in his 29 years as President two important and necessary buildings — an Arts building and a Library — were not built. The support that was obtained for the fine arts came largely from the Carnegie Foundation, rather than out of University operating funds. Certainly the University has had some notable achievements and Murray deserves credit for much that was done, but he cannot entirely escape criticism for the things that were not done.

In their concluding chapter the authors seek to assess both the strengths and the weaknesses of their subject, but they always seem to find explanations or excuses for the weaker points. Perhaps that is as it should be in a biography.


Muray, David R., and Robert A. Murray, “The Prairie Builder: Walkter Murray of Saskatchewan,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed October 1, 2023,