Friday, 26 November 2010

Newspapers in Lower Canada

The first newspapers in Quebec, La Gazette de Québec (1764) and The Montreal Gazette (1785) were generally bilingual and published to inform tradesmen of the price of food products and the arrivals of trading vessels. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were already a number of newspapers expressing political ideas and competing for the small number of readers. Newspapers were expensive, had only a few pages and were without headlines or illustrations. Existing printing techniques could only produce five columns per page with columnists paid according to the number of written columns. Their contents are austere and intellectual and had a strong educational mission. High levels of illiteracy in Lower Canada confined their circle of the readers to the small British and French Canadian elite and newspapers were an important source for intellectual development that neither schools nor books provided. It was not until the arrival of a telegraphy cable between Europe and America in 1867 that a significant amount of news from Europe, previously delayed by at least two months, found its way into Canadian newspapers. Unable to fill their pages with news, newspapers became an important medium for expressing sometimes virulent political opinions and nineteenth century newspapers in general had clearly defined political stances.[1]

A bilingual press

From the founding of the first newspaper in Lower Canada, La Gazette du Québec/The Quebec Gazette, in June 1764 by William Brown and Thomas Gilmore, two young printers from Philadelphia to the beginning of the nineteenth century, most publications were bilingual.[2] Eight of the nine newspapers established between 1764 and 1804 were bilingual. The only exception was La Gazette du commerce et littéraire, the first newspaper entirely in French and the first newspaper produced in Montreal, launched by Fleury Mesplet, a French immigrant in 1778 that survived only a year.[3] This seemingly equal treatment of the two linguistic communities whose respective demographic weights were nevertheless totally disproportionate appears surprising. In 1764, at the time of the publication of The Quebec Gazette/Gazette de Québec, there were 300 Anglophones in the province, less than 0.5% of the population and 65,000 Francophones. In the first decade of the nineteenth century, this proportion did not reach 10% of a total population of 250,000 inhabitants. The explanation therefore lies in the socio-cultural character of each of the two communities.[4]

Regardless of their number, Anglophones, more educated and more preoccupied with the news because of their duties and activities, as well as having already acquired a certain experience of newspapers and being wealthier (at a time when newspapers were almost a luxury item), represented a privileged clientele for printers. In addition, their small number was off-set by their concentration in Quebec City and Montreal where, at the time, all newspapers were launched. Anglophones also supplied most of the advertising often enabling printers to balance their budgets. French Canadians, although a significant majority, were scattered over the entire territory and were not very literate, not very familiar with the press, less wealthy and their activities did not give them a natural inclination towards newspapers. However, there was a cultivated elite among Francophones that at the end of the eighteenth century, consisted of a small professional and merchant bourgeoisie of over a thousand people, concentrated in Quebec City and Montreal, which newspaper owners could not overlook. The bilingual formula, aimed at both linguistic groups, could thus reach a critical mass of subscribers. This calculation is justified by the few circulation figures available. Between 1770 and 1794, the 300-500 subscribers of The Quebec Gazette/Gazette de Québec were distributed almost equally between the two groups; after 1794, the number of Francophones fell and stabilised around 45% at the turn of the century. At the end of the 1780s the Montreal Gazette/Gazette de Montréal showed similar proportions.

By the late eighteenth century, newspapers were small four page folios, a format similar to today’s tabloids. Apart from the masthead, nothing distinguished the first page from the rest. The content was divided into editorial and advertising in amounts that varied with the newspaper and the occasion. Until the early nineteenth century, foreign news dominated and local news, often spread more quickly by word of mouth, was limited. Correspondence, especially in the winter months when printers were short of copy, was a central feature of editorial content. Advertising was generally on the back page but notices were randomly placed throughout. In these bilingual newspapers, the English text came first and the French section was usually just its translation. This priority was also emphasised in the layout: the traditionally privileged left-hand column was reserved for English with French occupying the right-hand column. This priority can be explained by the situation at the time. First, the vast majority of newspapers were in the hands of Anglophones. Secondly, their subject matter was taken directly from foreign newspapers which were essentially British or American. The French text was thus inevitably a translation and content was more or less identical in both languages.

The language question and politicising the press

This situation changed significantly during the first half of the nineteenth century with the appearance of the Quebec Mercury in January 1805 explicitly to defend the ideas and interests of English merchants in Quebec. The result was an increasing politicisation of the press. First, English and French texts began to differ. The translation on the opposite page represented a waste of time, space and money because of the additional costs involved, while at the same time knowledge of both languages was progressing heralding the difficult birth of an independent French-language press. This had been a problem from the outset. In May 1766, the printers of The Quebec Gazette/Gazette de Québec asked for their readers’ indulgence for delays, ‘as every Paragraph with us requires at least triple the Time’.[5] Sixty years later, the editor of La Minerve complained of being forced to ‘translate’ the news rather than write it. The second major change was the sharp drop in the number of bilingual newspapers. These represented less than 5% of the 160 newspapers launched between 1805 and 1845. In 1845, of the 32 papers published during the year, only one was written in both languages.

This shift to single languages coincided with the politicisation process that strongly characterised the Lower Canada press from 1804-1805 onwards. The dividing line between the two sides largely coincides with the one separating the two linguistic groups. There was a culture of low literacy levels: it is estimated that 10% of the population were literate. There is evidence to suggest that those who were literate were bi-literate, as commentary between the English and French newspapers shows that readers keenly analysed, commented upon and translated between the two languages. There are documented accounts, however, that point to the increased politicisation of the population, as in public readings in rural areas of the Patriote newspapers such as La Minerve that greatly enlarges the impact of any circulation figures.

Publications of a political nature, the vast majority of which were widely distributed, newspapers naturally had to choose one language or the other. Their geographical distribution shifted from Quebec to Montreal: between 1805 and 1840 15 new titles were established in Quebec but in Montreal there were 40. This reflected the changing focus of ethnic tensions to Montreal where extra-parliamentary conflict was more passionate and elections more bitterly fought. There was also a shift away from weeklies to bi-weekly publication and by the 1830s tri-weekly and the first daily paper was the Daily Advertiser appeared in Montreal in May 1833.[6] Increased frequency allowed news to follow events more closely, something of importance during the frenetic political atmosphere of the mid-1830s. It also led to a corresponding increase in advertising, an important source of newspaper revenue.

In addition, there was a noticeable increase in the number of Anglophones, from nearly 20,000 in 1800 to 170,000 in 1841. Still concentrated in Quebec City and Montreal, they represented a sufficient market to support an exclusively English press. However, in 1845, they still represented only 24% of the population. And yet, the number of newspapers they supported was inversely proportional to their demographic weight. Indeed, of the 160 publications launched during this first half of the nineteenth century, 92 were in English as opposed to 61 in French. Alexis de Tocqueville, when passing through Lower Canada in 1831, pointed this out: ‘Almost all the newspapers printed in Canada are in English.’ Similarly, in August 1837, the editor of the Populaire complained:

There is a shameful disproportion between French-language and English-language newspapers printed in the province of Lower Canada. In view of the vast majority of those who demand the use of French, this inequality becomes even more striking. A foreigner would be unable to conceive how 4 public papers could suffice for 400,000 French descendants, while 100,000 English manage to support 10 periodicals.[7]

With immigration intensifying after 1815, Anglophones considerably increased their numbers. Yet a more decisive factor in the increase of newspapers seems to have been the heterogeneity of this Anglophone immigration: British, Americans, Irish and Scots each created newspapers to serve their specific interests and express their particular values, thus multiplying the birth rate of the Anglophone press. In comparison, the Francophone press developed with difficulty. Newspaper owners and editors lamented the situation. They condemned the ‘lack of support’ from their compatriots and attributed its cause ‘to their attitude of indifference’ towards public affairs, ‘to their lack of curiosity’ and ‘to their lack of interest in reading.’ Furthermore, Canadians were bad debtors and newspapers were constantly renewing reminders to recover one, two, even three or four years of subscriptions, if they managed to survive that long. And, of course, the death rate of Francophone newspapers was distinctly superior to that of English-language publications. Instead, the linguistic distribution of the Quebec press reveals the balance of power established between the two groups. According to Hector Langevin, the 1837-1838 political crisis that has first provoked a drastic thinning out in the French-language press, also led to a new awareness: in 1855 he suggested that a Canadian had realised ‘that to assert his expectations and wishes, he needed to have mouthpieces.’

The intense parliamentary debates between 1810 and 1850 led to newspapers taking a broadly Patriote or British perspective in their political comments. Le Canadien (1806), La Minerve (1826) the Vindicator (1828) and the Écho du Pays (1833) took an openly Patriote position and were vehemently opposed by the established Montreal Gazette, the Quebec Mercury (1805) and the Montreal Herald (1811). Triumphant after 1840, the Catholic clergy launched its own publications to combat ideas it considered dangerous and to articulate its own ultramontane ideology. Mélanges religieux (1840), Le Journal de Trois-Rivières (1847), L’Ordre (1858) and the Nouveau Monde (1867) represented the growing number of ‘official’ Catholic newspapers. They were opposed by the liberal newspapers, close to the Parti Rouges. L’Avenir (1847), Le Pays (1852), Le Défricheur (1862) and La Lanterne (1868) openly criticised clerical influence and the Church sought to prohibit people reading them.

As a result of the contentious nature of the Canadian press, journalists of great talent such as Pierre Bédard, founder of Le Canadien, imprisoned on several occasions for his opinions, Daniel Tracey and Ludger Duvernay found a ready audience for their political rhetoric. Other journalists, such as Napoléon Aubin[8], Arthur Buies and Honoré Beaugrand were characterised by their literary talent, their broadmindedness and their caustic wit. Others were intellectuals such as Augustin-Norbert Morin, Louis-Antoine Dessaulles and Étienne Parent capable of moving political disagreements into a debate on the future of the Québécois people. These writers were responsible for developing the political education of the electorate, fighting for responsible Government and denouncing corruption within political parties at the time of the Confederation.[9] There is no doubt that newspapers played a crucial role in the rise of the critical thought and in the genesis of an intellectual culture in Quebec during the nineteenth century.


[1] Laurence, Gérard, ‘The Newspaper Press in Quebec and Lower Canada’, in Fleming, Patricia, Gallichan, Gilles and Lamonde, Yvan, (eds.), The History of the Book in Canada, Vol. 1: Beginnings to 1840, (Toronto University Press), 2004, pp. 233-238 and Gallichan, Gilles, ‘The Newspaper in Quebec: Partisan to Commercial’, in Lamonde, Yvan, Fleming, Patricia and Black, Fiona A., (eds.), The History of the Book in Canada, Vol. 2: 1840-1914, (Toronto University Press), 2005, pp. 303-306 provide a good summary of current thinking.

[2] La Gazette du Québec / The Quebec Gazette was bilingual until 1832. Founded by William Brown and Thomas Gilmore, The Quebec Gazette became the property of Brown alone in 1774 and subsequently passed first to John Nielson (1789), then to Samuel Nielson (1822) and, finally, to John Middleton (1849), who superintended its absorption into his Morning Chronicle between 1874 and 1892 (after which it reappeared as a separate publication until 1924).

[3] Perhaps chastened by forty months in prison, Mesplet established a new publication in Montreal in 1785 that was more acceptable to the authorities. The Montreal Gazette/Gazette de Montreal is the direct ancestor of today’s Gazette. See ‘Fleury Mesplet’, DCB, Vol. 4, pp. 532-534.

[4] Delisle, Jean, ‘Translation’, in ibid, Fleming, Patricia, Gallichan, Gilles and Lamonde, Yvan, (eds.), The History of the Book in Canada, Vol. 1: Beginnings to 1840, pp. 292-296.

[5] Cit, Delisle, Jean, ‘Translation’, p. 296.

[6] The emergence of daily newspapers was an evolutionary process. Initially, it involved the ‘twinning’ of two editions (one French, the other English) or the association between two titles and some papers became dailies during the business season (May to October) and then reverted to tri-weeklies.

[7] Populaire, 10 August 1837.

[8] Messier, pp. 12-13.

[9] Lagrave, J.P. de, Les Journalistes-Démocrates au Bas-Canada (1791-1840), (Éditions de Lagrave), 1975.

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