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Early Canadian Newspapers: The Emergence of the Free Press in Canada[edit]

"The Press is the life, safeguard, the very heart's blood of a free country; the test of its worth, its happiness, its civilization" - William Lyon Mackenzie, Colonial Advocate, January 26, 1832'.[1]

In Canada, the emergence of the free press was a difficult process that took many years to come to realization after a beginning rife with censorship and government control. "Compared to Europe, or even what became the United States, newspapering came to Canada rather late in the day, in the second half of the eighteenth century".[2] Newspapers existed in the British colonies before the French and Indian War, but they had been transplanted from America. Presses were forbidden in Quebec until the Conquest; after the Conquest, they too were brought in from the U.S. "It remains an unassailable irony, however, that printing became a part of Canadian society only with the establishment of British rule and, moreover, that nearly all the earliest printers were Americans."[2]

The press in Canada was born as a tool of the government, subsidized and controlled by the overseas British rulers of the colonies and their colonial governors. Eventually, the government powers came to realize that the press held the potential for a great amount of power. "The discovery of such unrealized potential frightened the powers that be, who commenced a centuries-long period of harassment and intimidation in order to check what today is called the power of the press". [2] In fact, it was due to persecution that the earliest newspaper editors of the America's fled from England and immigrated to the American colonies, where they then moved the craft north, to the Canadian colonies. However, being a colonial society, the editors and printers were perhaps even more censored and persecuted for printing anything that could be construed as being an anti-government sentiment, especially after the explosive American Revolution in 1763.[2] New France (after the Conquest known as Lower Canada or Quebec) experienced the heaviest censorship; printing presses were banned by the French government in an effort to foster a sense of loyalty to and dependence upon the motherland. The French colonial authorities kept the colonial inhabitants illiterate and didn't let them communicate with each other. [3]

Eventually, the Canadian printers began the process of printing more than just government news and proclamations. However, due to such strict censorship, they were heavily persecuted for what was perceived as disloyalty and a threat to the power of the government. Many of the early editors and printers were large personalities who used their newspapers as instruments of their own political beliefs and suffered great hardships at the hands of the government because of it. [3] It was their suffering that made the way for the press to become it's own liberated entity.

There were three important periods in the history of Canadian newspapers responsible for the eventual development of the newspaper in the public sphere. These are the Transplant Period from 1750-1800, when printing and newspapers initially came to Canada as publications of Government news and proclamations; followed by the Public Sphere Partisan Period from 1800-1850, when individual printers and editors began 'freeing' the press and moving away from the "Sphere of Public Authority"[4] and into the public sphere; and finally the Nation Building Period from 1850-1900, when Canadian editors began the work of establishing a common nationalistic view of Canadian society.

The Gazette/Transplant Period (1750-1800)[edit]

This was the period that introduced print culture to British North America and began fostering a reading public. All newspapers but The Upper Canada Gazette were started by Americans. This is partly because the British-American colonies settled earlier than British-Canadian colonies. In 1763 50,000 British loyalists moved north after the American Revolution, bringing printing presses with them. All of the first newspapers started life as official government organs. They were all dependent on government patronage and printed solely information condoned by the government. In every province, there was a weekly Gazette (named after the London Gazette, the English governmental organ since 1665) that carried the many notices colonial administrators wanted to circulate. [3]

At this time, there was no political sphere, as all political news was controlled by the elite. [3] In the early decades of British North America, the primary purpose of the press was to propagate official propaganda - freedom of the press was an alien idea. [3] Prior to the approximate turn of the 18th into the 19th century, there was no public sphere in Canada and therefore no press in the public sphere.

The First Printers and Publishers[edit]

It was the first printers and publishers working during the turn of the century who began the slow and difficult work of creating a true, liberated press in Canada. These men faced many obstacles, including beatings, jailing, and the very serious and oft-carried out threat of being charged with criminal or seditious libel. As the early printing press was an essential tool of colonial administration, anyone who attempted to publish anything other than the government notices experienced hardships. There was a prohibition on publishing legislature proceedings which kept the writers out of the courts. These were colonial laws used by British authorities to manufacture loyalty, and the punishments were severe. [3] [2] As a result, many of these brave early printers and publishers lived in fear, massive debt, and constant persecution.

John Bushell (1715-1761)[edit]

See also John Bushell.

Bushell partnered with Bartholomew Green (1690-1751), who died before their plans were realized. Bushell relocated from Boston to Halifax and opened up a printing office, and on March 23, 1752, Bushell published the first edition of the Halifax Gazette and became the colony's first "Kings Printer".[3] He was an independent entrepreneur, given no government salary [2], and what government administrators thought their subjects needed and what Bushell's subscribers and advertisers wanted were not necessarily the same. He was stuck in between. The government did not trust his loyalty and so made the Provincial Secretary the editor of his paper. [3] Bushell, faced with these obstacles, struggled with debt and alcoholism which eventually led to his death.[3]

Anton Heinrich (1734-1800)[edit]

See also Henry B. Anthony.

Heinrich learned his trade in Germany but came to America as a fifer in the British Army before relocating to Halifax and anglicizing his name to the more appropriate Henry Anthony. [3] Henry acquired Bushell's enterprise, including the Gazette. In October of 1765 he printed an editorial in the Gazette that suggested that Nova Scotians were opposed to the Stamp Act which resulted in doubts about his loyalty, and he fled back to Massachusetts and the Gazette was shut down. Eventually, he made his way back into the government's good graces and was recommissioned to print the Royal Gazette. [5]

William Brown (1737-1789) and Thomas Gilmore (1741-1773)[edit]

Originally from Philadelphia [5], in 1764 the two men launched the government sponsored Quebec Gazette. The paper was bilingual and was heavily censured and scrutinized by the government.[3] [5]

Fleury Mesplet (1734-1794)[edit]

See also Fleury Mesplet. Immigrated to Montreal from France with the intent of being a printer. However, he was jailed out of suspicion before printing anything due to his status as an American sympathizer and relationship with Benjamin Franklin.[5] In 1778 he printed Canada's first entirely French newspaper, The Gazette (Montreal). His editor, Valentin Jautard, chose articles with a radical tone and both men were imprisoned. In 1782, Mesplet was released and allowed to go back to work for the government because he was the only capable printer, though he technically remained imprisoned. [3]

Louis Roy (1771-1799)[edit]

On April 18, 1793, Roy launched the "Upper Canada Gazette", which continued until 1845. In 1797, Roy left the paper due to political persecution after printing some incendiary opinions and fled to New York. [5]

The Public Sphere Partisan Period (1800-1850)[edit]

See also: Public Sphere

This is the period in which the printers and publishers began to see success in their efforts to free the press from it's government control. The discussion and debate surrounding the public sphere in the North Atlantic was actively undertaken in Upper Canada and partisan newspapers of the 1800's became "pure" inhabitants of the public sphere. [2] Big steps were taken towards the democratization of the press, and in 1891, the right to report on political proceedings was finally won. [2] The papers of this period were non-deferrential, and demanded democratization of information. They undermined finally began to undermine the traditional hierarchical societal structure.

The Printers and Publishers[edit]

The development of the public sphere in Canada was closely linked with the development of a free press and there are many parallels. Most of the early publishers were - or became - very active politicians up to the mid-1800s. At this time, there was a growing market for political debate, and the independent printers of this period began using their columns for opinions, to challenge policies, expose government errors, and even promote certain candidates. These men were large personalities, unafraid to strongly voice unpopular opinions. As a result, the newspapers often became a forum for debate between the disagreeing printers. The political issue most often debated was that of Responsible government. In responsible government the executive branch is responsible to the elected legislature and no laws can be passed without the approval of said legislature. However, in Upper Canada, the appointed executive remained responsible only to the colonial governor who had to answer to Britain until 1855. Many of the publisher and printer-cum-politicians of this time were debating this key issue. During this period the printers were still working under very difficult conditions. Like the printers before them, many of the printers and publishers were still plagued by debt and had to work tirelessly to earn enough to support their political careers and keep the newspapers running. These men continued the difficult work of liberating the Canadian press and it is in the stories of these men that we start to see some success along with the difficulty.

Gideon and Sylvester Tiffany[edit]

These brothers started as official government printers in the 1790's, but refused to print only government sanctioned news and instead printed news from America. When they refused to heed warnings from the government, they were more formally persecuted. In April of 1797, Gideon was charged with blasphemy, fired, fined, and jailed. Sylvester was then also charged with "treasonable and seditious conduct". In his defense he declared that "As the people's printer, it is my duty to devote my head, heart and hands to their service...The interests of the King and people are inseparable". [3] Eventually the brothers were forced to give up printing, through Sylvester attempted a number of other papers before moving to New York.

Titus Geer Simons[edit]

Simmons was appointed as the new King's printer following the legal persecution of the Tiffany brothers, though he was not officially trained in printing. The Tiffany brothers remained on, and continued to determine much of the paper's content until 1799. [5]

William Lyon Mackenzie[edit]

See also William Lyon Mackenzie.

Mackenzie was a great influence for political development in Upper Canada and a fierce advocate for responsible government. In 1824, he founded the Colonial Advocate, which was the first independent paper in the province to have significant political impact. [3] Mackenzie viewed the colonial administration as incompetent, ineffective, and expensive, and he used the Advocate to state these opinions. Though the paper became the most widely circulated paper, it was not profitable for Mackenzie and he struggled with debt for many years. In 1826 his printing office was broken into and destroyed by a mob. When MacKenzie sued the assailants, he won his case and collected enough in damages to repair the press and pay off his debts, as well as gain public sympathy. [5] Two years after the incident he was elected to the general house of assembly where he became a vigorous advocate of reform and critic of government waste and excess until in 1834 he became the first mayor of Toronto. By 1837, he was out of office and still remained politically frustrated. He planned a rebellion against the government, and when it failed he fled to the U.S. [3] Mackenzie is a prime example of an editor who used his printing as a tool to take on the troubled politics of the time and open the door for the newspaper to enter the public sphere.

Joseph Howe[edit]

See also: Joseph Howe

In 1828, Joseph Howe took over Halifax's Weekly Chronicle, renaming it the Acadian. He then also purchased the Novascotian; these papers were both very loyal to the British government. It was over the next few years that he became increasingly loyal to his Nova Scotia and frustrated with the British administration. Howe, like MacKenzie, was in favor of responsible government. In 1835, Howe was prosecuted for criminal libel for one of his articles. He spoke in argument for a free press at his trial and though he was technically guilty according to the law, the jury was quick to acquit. His success during his trial made him a local hero in Nova Scotia. It was this success that took Howe into the provincial parliament, and he eventually became a provincial premiere. [3] [5]

Henry David Winton (1793-1855)[edit]

Winton arrived in Newfoundland on August 28, 1818. In 1820, he founded the Public Ledger and Newfoundland General Advisor, the fourth newspaper in St. John's. Winton used the paper to publish his own political ideas staunchly in support of responsible government. Because of his strong political sentiments he eventually became the enemy of Catholics as well as those in favor of reform - to the extent that some people wished him harm. On May 19, 1835, Winton was attacked by a group of unknown assailants and his ears were cut off. Despite this and further similar threats, Winton continued to write in opposition of the reform government until his death. [5]

William Wilkie[edit]

Wilkie lived in Halifax and in 1820 was charged by the crown with criminal libel for having published a pamphlet entitled "A letter to the people of Halifax, containing strictures on the conduct of the magistrates" which heavily criticized the appointed civic authorities of Halifax at the time. He was found guilty and sentenced to two years of hard labor. Throughout this, public sentiment remained in favor of Wilkie. [5]

John Ryan (1761-1847) and William Lewis[edit]

Ryan was an American expatriate who, in 1807 and with the help of William Lewis, published the first issue of the Royal St. John's Gazette, the earliest newspaper in Newfoundland. Ryan soon began exposing government favoritism and unfairness in the Gazette, much to the chagrin of officials. In March of 1784, both men were indicted for libel. [5]

Joseph Willcocks (1773-1814)[edit]

See also Joseph Willcocks. In 1806, Willcocks moved to Niagra where he began publishing the Upper Canada Guardian; or Freeman's Journal which he used as a vehicle for his political opinions and criticisms. That same year, he was jailed for contempt of the house. in 1808, he rejoined politics officially and became Canada's first true leader of the Opposition against those aligned with the colonial government. He stopped printing his journal in 1812. In July of 1813, he offered his services to the Americans while holding a seat in the Legislative Assembly and was formally charged with treason in 1814. He died a traitor. [5]

Pierre Bédard, Francois Blancet, and Étienne Parent[edit]

All three of these men were imprisoned in Quebec for publishing - or attempting to publish - writings that opposed the colonial administration. [5]

Nation Building/Myth Making Period (1850-1900)[edit]

By this period, newspaper editors were free from direct governmental control. However, the government continued to influence them in other underhanded ways, such as privately persuading editorial content and putting paid advertising only into assenting newspapers. [3] For the most part, the radical newspapers of the Public Sphere Period had served their purposes and the papers of this period were somewhat more unbiased. More than ever, technology and progress were of great importance. The papers of this time took on the role of establishing the Canadian identity. In publications of this period, there was a celebration of conformity and orthodoxy. Unlike the incendiary publications of the past, there was no justification seen for the rejection of order. [2] In many ways, this Canadian identity still prevails.

The Printers and Publishers[edit]

During this period, largely free from the government restrictions of the past, that the printers and publishers took on the role of establishing the Canadian identity. As before, many of them were personally involved in politics as well and continued to use their papers to exert their political sentiments and to push for progress and change.

George Brown (1818-1880)[edit]

In 1844, Brown founded The Globe and Mail, a paper with strong political ambitions. Brown bought out many competitors and increased circulation using advanced technology. By 1860 it was Canada's largest newspaper. In the 1850's, Brown entered politics and became the Reform Party leader and eventually reached an agreement that led to the Confederation and the founding of the Dominion of Canada. Afterwards, he resigned from Parliament, but continued to write about his politics in the "Globe". Throughout his publishing career, he struggled with his employees and the unions. In 1880 he was shot by a disgruntled employee and died. [2] [5] [3]

Modeste Demers (1809-1871)[edit]

In Victoria in 1856, Bishop Modeste Demers imported a hand press intending to publish religious materials. It remained unused until 1858, when the American printer Frederick Marriott used the "Demers press" to publish four different British Columbia newspapers, the most influential of which was the British Colonist. The Demers press continued to be used for printing until 1908. [5]

Amor De Cosmos (1825-1897)[edit]

See also: Amor De Cosmos

Amor De Cosmos was the founder of the "British Colonist". He was well known for using it's pages to express his political opinions. De Cosmos also eventually entered politics, assumed leadership, urged political reform and pushed for "responsible government. He was elected to represent Victoria in the House of Commons while at the same time serving as the provincial premiere of British Columbia. He was outspoken and eccentric, and made quite a few enemies throughout his life. He was accused of a scandal with the unions which eventually forced him to leave politics. When he died he had fallen into a complete breakdown. [3] [5]

See Also[edit]


  1. ^ Mackenzie, William Lyon (January 26, 1832). The Colonial Advocate.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Fetherling, Douglas (1949). The Rise of the Canadian Newspaper. Toronto: Oxford University Press. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s Raible, Chris (2007). The Power of the Press: The Story of Early Canadian Printers and Publishers. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company LTD. 
  4. ^ Jürgen, Habermas (German(1962) English Translation 1989). Thomas Burger, ed. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeoise Society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. p. 30. ISBN 0-262-58108-6.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p English, John. "Dictionary of Canadian Biography". 
  • Minister of Supply and Services Canada (1981). Royal Commission on Newspapers. Hull: Canadian Government Publishing Centre. 
  • Rutherford, Paul (1944). A Victorian Authority: the daily press in late nineteenth-century Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 
  • Craick, W.A. (1959). A History of Canadian Journalism. Toronto: The Ontario Publishing Company, Limited. </ref>
  • Desbarats, Peter (1996). Guide to Canadian News Media. 1996: Harcourt Brace & Company, Ltd. </ref>
  • Kesterton, W.H. (1967). A History of Journalism in Canada. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited. </ref>