James Harley Marsh: Biography

“We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us.” – Marcel Proust

James Marsh was the founding editor and long-time Editor-in-chief of the the prestigious Canadian Encyclopedia, from its inception in 1980 through its publication in print in 1985 and its transformation into the digital realm. Born in Toronto, the first son of Ada and John. he attended Davenport and Perth Avenue schools in Toronto before spending five years at Oakwood Collegiate. His stint at Waterloo Lutheran University (now Wilfrid Laurier) studying literature and philosophy was ended after two years by his first permanent job as a social science editor at Holt Rinehart & Winston in Toronto. Within two years he learned all aspects of the publishing business, from copy editing, page design and assembly and (as editor of a new dictionary) even the intricacies of the international phonetic system, to the inner workings of the typesetting and printing industries. He was the editor of a centennial history of Canada called Canada: Unity and Diversity and of a series of social studies volumes – writing one of them along the way (The Fishermen of Lunenburg) on site in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.

James Marsh in Florence 2010

James Marsh in Florence 2010

In 1970 renowned Canadian publisher Jack McClelland and the Institute of Canadian Studies at Carleton University co-hired James Marsh to be the editor of the Carleton Library, a series of scholarly works on Canadian history and social science. In ten years he edited 60 volumes in the series and co-authored his first textbook, New Beginnings, published by M&S. He also completed a combined history and art history degree and raised a daughter, Rebeccah.

After a national search, Edmonton publisher Mel Hurtig brought James Marsh to Edmonton in 1980 to be the editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia. There he drew up plans for Canada’s first comprehensive encyclopedia since the 1950s and hired some 40 staff, 200 consultants and several thousand contributors. The ambitious project was completed and published on time, within budget and to great reviews and commercial success in September 1985.

James Marsh was editor in chief of all three print editions of The Canadian Encyclopedia (1985, 1988 and 1999), of the Junior Encyclopedia of Canada (of which he was the principal author) and numerous CD-ROM versions and was from 1999 to 2013 editor in chief of the online versions of The Canadian Encyclopedia and The Encyclopedia of Music in Canada, of which he was instrumental in bringing online.

Since 2000 James Marsh also developed content for the Historica Foundation, where he planned and co-wrote the web sites “Champlain in Acadia,” “Voices: Getting the Vote,” and “Asia Canada,” and for the successor Historica-Dominion Institute, where he has produced the web sites “Black History Portal,” and “War of 1812.” He has also been responsible for the creation of, a web site to relate curricula to online resources, for FYICanada, an interactive site for young people, and, which has morphed into The Canadian Encyclopedia Blog. At the end of his career James brought innovation to The Canadian Encyclopedia with a successful mobile version and a series of apps called Cities in Time. He took some 1000 photographs as a contribution to the most recent Toronto in Time. By these means James sought to bring the idea of an encyclopedia into the contemporary world by bringing the standards of excellence an authority to the mobile world and tying Canadian content to a more localized and narrative context.

James Marsh’s publications include the books The Fishermen of Lunenburg (Toronto: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968), The Fur Trade in Canada (Toronto: Collier Macmillan, 1969), The Exploration of Canada (Toronto: Collier Macmillan, 1970), New Beginnings: a Social History of Canada, Volumes I & II (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1971), co-authored with Daniel Francis,”Timeline of Canadian and World History” (1983-present), Alberta: A Story of the Province and Its People (Toronto: Nelson, 1993), Beginnings: From the First Nations to the Great Migration (Toronto: Nelson, 1996), “Making History Whole Again,” review of Who Killed Canadian History? by J.L. Granatstein, Ottawa Citizen, April 26, 1998 and “Tous les Savoirs du Monde,” Lumina (Journal of 18th Century Studies) (Fall 2000). He is co-editor of Alberta: A State of Mind, published by Key Porter in summer 2005 and author of the chapter “Peoples of Alberta” in that volume. He is also author of “Alberta’s Quiet Revolution: The Early Lougheed Years” in Michael Payne et al, editors, Alberta’s 2005 Centennial History (University of Alberta Press) and of a tribute to the premier after his death published both in the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal.

James Marsh Paris 1986

James Marsh reading under a statue of the great Denis Diderot in Paris, 1986.

James Marsh has also been the author of over 100 Dateline history columns which appeared weekly in the CanWest newspaper chain, as well as an article on Vimy Ridge written for the National Post, over 500 articles in The Canadian Encyclopedia and numerous blogs.

James Marsh is a member of the Order of Canada and was awarded the Lorne Dawson Centenary Medal of the Royal Society of Canada (1986) in recognition of his achievement of producing The Canadian Encyclopedia, as well as the Alberta Centennial Medal for Albertans who have made “significant contributions to their fellow citizens,” and of the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal. He is a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. He served as a member of the federal Advisory Council on the Information Highway and is currently a member of the editorial board of the Virtual Museum of Canada.

James retired from The Canadian Encyclopedia in 2013 but retains the honorific of Editor Emeritus. The Globe and Mail kindly wrote and appreciate of James’ career on their editorial page.


  • Gregory Sinclair


    At Michael Levine's suggestion, I'm interested in speaking with you further about a website I am proposing to develop for I am an Executive Producer with CBC Radio. As you may have heard, CBC Radio is no longer producing radio drama (eg. "Afghanada") as a consequence of the latest round of budget cuts. The history of radio drama is rich indeed, and in many respects established the groundwork not only for Canadian broadcast drama, but for Canadian English-language theatre as well. I'd like very much to discuss possibilities of co-hosting a site or of cross promoting materials. I have left a voicemail message with your colleague Chantal Gagnon as well. Looking forward to speaking with you. Greg

  • Gerald Friesen


    Jim: The essay on TCE is excellent. We've not talked since a coffee or lunch when you were just launching the project (presumably in the early 80s) but I'm honoured to have had a tiny part in it, have used it often, have sent students to it often, and congratulate you on the achievement. Gerry

  • steve r. cresswell


    greetings cousin (I think). Jim, I am contacting nieces and nephews of the late Jean Marsh of St. Sabine Quebec, as per her notarys request of me. She died Sept.27/12 of Ca.I hope this form of comm. is appropriate. My Mom Rita, is well at 92, living here in Ajax, On. Her estate is still being verified (Quebec law) and her will too. The Notary needs your address to send you info. I am helping out. could you reply me with such as I will forward it to Quebec. Unknown right now the contents of Jean's estate. If you are Jean Marsh's nephew please reply the info. THX. Steve R. Cresswell.

    • James Marsh


      Hi How amazing to hear from you! I am at 9708-92 Street, Edmonton, T6C 3S4. I never met my Aunt Rita but would love to hear more about her. I spent a summer with Aunt Jean in Quebec when i was ver young, Jim

      • Sandra Gillis


        Hi Jim, Another cousin to make your aquaintance! I am the daughter of Muriel McKinnon (nee Marsh), your Dad's sister. I live in Calgary, with my family. It would be lovely to meet for coffee or lunch when we are in each other's city! Sandra

        • James Marsh


          Hi Sandra! How great to hear from you. I remember how nice Aunt Muriel was to me when I was very young on Perth Avenue. I had a pet cat and named it "Cuzio" as I misheard her talking about Shakespeare in her school--obviously Mercutio from Romeo and Juliet. As I disappeared from the Marsh clan after my father was committed, it all seems a mystery to me now. I would love to meet you and will let you know if I head to Calgary. Please do the same! I will let you know when I post my photos of family that I have collected and scanned. All the best, Jim

  • Kathy (nee Marsh)


    Hi James I am your cousin, heard about your web site through Steven Cresswell ,also one of our long lost cousins. I was Reg and Ruth's daughter. My eldest brother Bill and myself use to chum around with Marion. I often thought about our family members and wondering what became of them. Kudo's to you for the numerous medals you have obtained throughout your lifetime. So happy for you that you have done so well for yourself. If you would like to pass on my email address to Marion , I do not have a problem with that. It would be great to be able to share some family photos with each other. Is Marion residing in Toronto, I know that she had married? My family met up with her when my Dad passed, over 35 years ago now. How are Johnny and Sally doing , where are they residing? I remember the many times we visited with your family on Perth Avenue. Out of all the cousins, I guess you could say we were the closest. Regards

  • Tracy Casselman


    Dear Mr. Marsh, I'm taking online courses in the Library Information Technology Program which are being offered by the Nova Scotia Community College. One of the courses I'm taking is called Information Services 1, and my instructor for this course has asked me to write an evaluation of The Canadian Encyclopedia website. This my 1st assignment for this course, and it's due on Wednesday, January the 30th at 10 A.M. What I would like to know is, what do you hope to achieve as the editor-in-chief of this website, and what are your plans for the furture of this site? Also, what do you feel is the purpose of this website? I assume your're very busy, so your answers to these questions would be greatly appreciated. If you have any questions for me concerning this assignment, please send me a message at, and I'll try my best to answer them. Thannk you very much. Ms. Tracy Casselman

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