About the Author

Robert Lewis

Robert Lewis spent twelve years as a Parliamentary correspondent and seven years as Maclean’s editor-in-chief. He has also been the vice president of content development at Rogers Media, and he is a former chair of the Canadian Journalism Foundation. He lives in Toronto.

Books by this Author
Power, Prime Ministers and the Press

Chapter One: In the Beginning

On Wednesday, November 6, 1867, official Ottawa was abuzz with excitement. A nineteen-gun salute from the Ottawa Field Battery greeted Viscount Charles Stanley Monck, the forty-eight-year-old governor general, as he arrived to preside over the first session of the new nation’s Parliament. After the formalities of swearing in MPs and the Cabinet ended, Sir John A. Macdonald, the fifty-three-year-old prime minister picked by Monck for the role, moved the appointment of the first speaker of the House. Seconding the motion was Macdonald’s seatmate, Sir George-Étienne Cartier. Then, Joseph Dufresne, the Quebec Conservative MP from Montcalm, rose in his seat and, addressing the House in French, protested the election of Honourable James Cockburn of Northumberland West. In the words of the Toronto Globe the next day, Dufresne complained, “the gentleman could not speak the French language. He thought it was to be regretted that, at the inauguration of the new system, greater respect was not shown to Lower Canada in this matter. He looked upon this as a matter of national feeling.” Without further discussion, the House then went about its business in English. Along with the report, the Globe, a partisan Liberal outlet in its day, used an adjacent column in the November 7 paper to condemn Macdonald for using the speaker’s office as a reward for a loyal but unpromising follower.

So much for a smooth start for the first Parliament.

The Globe report was significant: it affirmed the vital role of the press gallery in national affairs, since there were no official records of debates — known as Hansard — until 1875. Indeed, the Parliamentary Press Gallery is as old as Confederation. While the great fire of 1916 that razed the Parliament Buildings destroyed most of the official records, the first volume of the House of Commons Journals mentions the “reporters’ room.” In 1872 the Canadian Illustrated News carried artist Edward Jump’s sketch of the press gallery in the Commons. In fact, pre-Confederation reporters covering the Parliament of Upper Canada actually worked out of the still-under-construction Parliament Buildings in 1866 — an anniversary the press gallery marked with the publication of a retrospective, Sharp Wits &Busy Pens, in May 2016.

The tradition of covering legislatures dates back to the colonial days. John Bushell published the first issue of his Halifax Gazette in 1752. Quebec’s pioneering paper, La Gazette, appeared in 1764. Journalists had reported on political debates in Quebec City since 1792 and established La Tribune de la Presse Québécoise on November 18, 1871. .tienne Parent, the young intellectual who was the guiding spirit of the nationaliste paper Le Canadien, later served as a senior Cabinet official for the Province of Canada, moving as the seat of government shifted among Kingston, Montreal, Toronto, and Quebec City between 1843 and 1859 — and submitting occasional articles to his paper. Other pre-Confederation journalists led the fight for press freedoms and reform. William Lyon Mackenzie, destined to mount the Upper Canada Rebellion against the Family Compact, wrote in his Colonial Advocate: “Wherever the press is not free, the people are poor, abject, degraded slaves.”

Halifax editor Joseph Howe of the Novascotian, George Brown of the Globe, and Parent were among the influential journalists who later played strong, controversial political roles in shaping Canada. Of the ninety-eight-member Province of Canada delegation attending the Charlottetown Conference in 1864, twenty-three were journalists. As educator George Grant observed in 1828, referring to Howe’s activities, “At this time in the history of the world, it was almost impossible to be an editor without being a politician also.”

And how the members of the press gallery could play politics. Thomas White Jr., called “the Father of the Gallery” by the Canadian Illustrated News in 1875, bought the Hamilton Spectator and the Gazette in Montreal before getting elected and becoming Macdonald’s influential minister of the interior. Henri Bourassa left Laurier’s Cabinet and founded Le Devoir in Montreal, later turning over direction of the paper to a gallery veteran, Georges Pelletier. In the 1900s, two English giants of journalism — friendly with the party in power — graduated from the press gallery to become editors of powerful newspapers: John Willison of the Globe in Toronto and John Dafoe of the Free Press in Winnipeg. In almost a direct line, Dafoe’s figurative descendants over the decades continued the close association and influence with Liberal governments, including Grant Dexter of the Winnipeg Free Press, Bruce Hutchison of the Vancouver Sun, and Blair Fraser of Maclean’s. For the Conservatives, there was the irrepressible Grattan O’Leary, who rose from poverty in the Gasp. to the editorship of the Ottawa Journal and was a confidant of three Tory leaders. In an era when there was no Twitter, Snapchat, or email, these men wrote diaries and exchanged letters with leaders and each other, providing a trove of archival material for historians about their thinking and their actions.

From all of that, we know that early press gallery members were a highly partisan lot. Indeed, the seating plan mirrored the one on the floor of the Commons below. London Free Press editor Arthur Ford, who covered his first Parliament in 1907 for the former Winnipeg Telegram, recalled in his memoir, As the World Wags On: “When I first went to the capital, the Liberals were in power and sat, of course, to the right of the Speaker. The representatives of the Liberal press sat in the press gallery also to the right.” When the Conservatives won the 1911 election, the Tory reporters swapped with the Liberals and moved over to the speaker’s right. So-called independent journalists were relegated to the cheap seats.

Until Laurier’s time, governments ladled out information — even including election calls — as patronage only to their friends in the gallery, the “ministerial press,” as they were known. Willison, who started in Ottawa in 1886 as a correspondent for the Liberal-leaning Globe, complained about his pro-Tory rivals having access to official documents before they were tabled in Parliament. “Their dispatches would be in the telegraph office before less favoured rivals could examine the reports,” he wrote in Reminiscences, Political, and Personal, his 1919 autobiography. “It was one way a grateful ministry paid newspapers for their support.”

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Sharing Spaces

Sherry Olson firmly believes that we can understand and explain the world. Indeed, more than a belief it is a responsibility.Disciplined, critical work to understand how we got to where we are now is how we build a better world. For Sherry, only continuous ethical engagement with real-world problems can possibly justify an intellectual’s privileges. In making sense of her long trajectory as both a teacher and a researcher, her life-long commitment to working with people of diverse backgrounds and skills to overcome problems has been far more important than any formal training. The scholar celebrated in these pages was decades in the making.

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