Robert Forest Harney (1939-89)

Rudolph J. Vecoli, April 1990

Robert Forest Harney, professor of history at the University of Toronto, died on August 29, 1989 at the age of fifty. His death constitutes an incalculable loss for the field of North American immigration and ethnic studies.

Born in Salem, MA of Irish, Jewish, French Canadian, and Italian ancestry (an ethnic mix in which he delighted and which informed his catholic interest in peoples of all kinds), Harney received his A.B. from Harvard University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

He taught in the department of history at the University of Toronto from 1964 until his death. Since 1977 Harney had served as president and academic director of the Multicultural History Society of Ontario (MHSO), an institution of which he was the founding and guiding genius. In July 1989 he was appointed professor of ethnic, immigration and pluralism studies in recognition of his distinguished contributions to this field. Following his death, this has been named the Robert F. Harney Professorship in his honor.

Harney served on the editorial boards of a number of scholarly journals and as president of both the Canadian Italian Historical Association and the Canadian Ethnic Studies Association.

Although his initial field of research and teaching was Italian history, Bob Harney's exposure to the rich cultural diversity of Toronto converted him to North American immigration and ethnic history. A pioneer in the ethnocultural approach, Harney utilized the "memory culture" as well as the historical records of the immigrants themselves.

Through the MHSO, he created a rich and vast collection of oral histories and archival materials. In the MHSO's Polyphony he published a series of seminal essays exemplifying how such sources could be used to write the history of ethnic institutions such as theaters, churches, and benefit societies.

Harney's publications include Immigrants: A Portrait of the Urban Experience 1890–1930 (1975), and Dalla Frontiera alle Little Italies: Gli Italiani in Canada 1800–1945 (1984). His articles include "Boarding and Belonging," "Men Without Women," and "The Commerce of Migration." At the time of his death two more books were underway, one on Ontario's People and one on Italians in Canada.

Although strongly empathetic with the people he studied, Harney never succumbed to filiopiety or sentimentality. His affection for his subjects did not prevent him from portraying them with unalloyed realism.

With his death we have lost more than a colleague who wrote excellent, innovative, and provocative history. Bob Harney had the exceptional quality of being able to make things happen. A vital force in his chosen field of study, he inspired and guided a generation of students. Twenty-five M.A.s and Ph.D.s were completed under his supervision.

The Robert F. Harney Memorial Trust for Ethnic and Immigration Studies has been established to honor his memory. Contributions should be sent to the Robert F. Harney Fund, Department of History, University of Toronto, 100 St. George St., Room 2074, Toronto, Ontario M5S 1A1.

Rudolph J. Vecoli
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities