Alexander Kennedy Isbister | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Alexander Kennedy Isbister

Alexander Kennedy Isbister, Métis schoolmaster, explorer, lawyer (born June 1822 in Cumberland House, Rupert's Land, [now in SK]; died 28 May 1883 in London, England). Isbister explored the Mackenzie River basin in northwestern Canada (from 1838 to 1842) while employed by the Hudson's Bay Company. However, he is best known as a champion of Métis rights and as a distinguished educator and author.

Career with Hudson’s Bay Company

Alexander Kennedy Isbister was born and raised in Cumberland House. Cumberland House was a Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) post in Rupert’s Land. Cumberland House is now located in Saskatchewan. His father, Thomas Kennedy, was a British clerk employed there by the HBC. Isbister’s mother was Mary Kennedy, a Métis woman and sister of Captain William Kennedy. From 1833 to 1837, Isbister attended the Red River Academy in the Red River Colony (now in Manitoba).

When he was 16, Isbister began working for the HBC as an assistant postmaster. In 1840, he helped to establish Fort McPherson (now in the Northwest Territories). This was the northernmost HBC post for many years. During that time, Isbister explored the Peel River area around Fort McPherson. He recorded scientific observations that were later published. His well-received treatise on Arctic and northwestern North American geology was published in 1855. It included the first chromolithograph map produced in England. A chromolithograph is a coloured picture printed from a flat surface. It is treated to repel the ink except from where it is required for printing. In 1841, Isbister resigned from his post. He believed that George Simpson, the HBC governor, would not promote a Métis person.

Educator and Author

At the age of 20, Alexander Kennedy Isbister travelled to Britain. There, he attended King’s College (University of Aberdeen) from 1842 to 1844, and the University of Edinburgh in 1845. He excelled at his studies and became a published educator. During his career, Isbister wrote over 20 school textbooks and edited the teaching journal, Educational Times. From 1858 to 1866, he returned to school. He earned a Master of Arts degree from the University of Edinburgh. Later, he earned an LLB (law degree) from the University of London.


Alexander Kennedy Isbister became an ardent supporter of the people of Red River (See Red River Colony). He felt they were economically stifled by the HBC’s fur trade monopoly in Rupert’s Land. He supported the free trade rights of the Red River colony as a means of economic development. In 1847, Isbister petitioned the British government on behalf of approximately 1,000 inhabitants of Red River. He argued that the HBC neglected the welfare of First Nations and Métis peoples. After 10 years of lobbying, the British government launched a parliamentary inquiry. At that time, Isbister suggested that Canada annex Rupert’s Land. This was a result of his fear it would be taken over by the United States. In 1869, the HBC signed over their claim, largely due to political pressure from the British government. The parliamentary inquiry also recommended that the annexation was beneficial to imperial interests and Canadian development of the West.

Isbister also firmly supported education. In 1867, he funded an open competition for the students of the Red River common schools. He also gave the University of Manitoba approximately 5,000 books for their library. Additionally, he established a trust fund for university scholarships.


Isbister is remembered as a distinguished educator and author as well as a champion of Métis rights.

In recognition of his support of education, the Isbister School in Winnipeg and the Isbister Building at the Fort Garry campus of the University of Manitoba bear his name.

Edited list of Isbister’s publications

Alexander K. Isbister, A Few Words on the Hudson's Bay Company: with A Statement of the Grievances of the Native and Half-caste Indians, Addressed to the British government through their delegates now in London (C. Gilpin, c. 1846).

Alexander K. Isbister, First Steps to Euclid (Longmans, Green and Co., 1863).

Alexander K. Isbister, First Steps In Reading And Learning On The System Of Word Building (Longmans, Green and Co., 1867).

Alexander K. Isbister, The College Euclid (Longmans, Green and Co., 1875).