My Canada, 91/150: Printing a nation

One of my favourite little museums in Canada is the Mackenzie Printery in Queenston, Ontario which, despite its modest size, bills itself as “Canada’s largest operational printing museum.”

It’s located in the the former home of rebel publisher and politician, William Lyon Mackenzie, who founded a paper here in 1824. (The current stone-walled building was reconstructed from ruins by the Niagara Parks Commission and dedicated in 1938 by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, Mackenzie’s great grandson.)

92 Colonial Advocate plaque

After acquiring a printing press, Mackenzie launched “The Colonial Advocate” but later that year moved to York, now Toronto. He frequently attacked, in print and in person, the elite group of British settlers who were dubbed “The Family Compact.” Mackenzie’s political activity angered his opponents and some of their supporters raided the Advocate’s offices, smashing the press.

While Mackenzie’s relationship with the Advocate ended in 1834, he continued to pursue journalism and politics; he was one of the reform leaders of the failed 1837 Rebellion and spent the next decade in exile in the U.S., eventually returning to Canada in 1849 following a government pardon. He died in 1861 and is buried in The Necropolis, a historic cemetery in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood, where I live,

The Printery tells Mackenzie’s early story but also is a time capsule of the art of printing in Canada. It houses a Louis Roy Press, which the Printery states is “the oldest in Canada and one of the few original wooden presses remaining in the world.” You try your hand at setting lead type and there are also eight other presses, varying in vintage, some of which are used to print what would now be labelled “artisanal” cards and other items. Many of the folks who volunteer here are retired press operators from the nearby St. Catharines Standard newspaper.

Journalism and activism were cozy bedfellows in 19th century Canada. Another famous grave in The Necropolis is for George Brown, who is officially lauded as a “Father of Confederation” on a federal government-sponsored plaque nearby.

91 george brown
George Brown’s grave in The Necropolis, Toronto. Photo: Kelley Teahen

His story is a remarkable one and he found more success than Mackenzie as both a politician and a journalist.

A Brown biography from CBC’s Canada: A People’s History puts his story in its remarkable context. He went from being a single-minded cause warrior to someone who helped broker a nation.

Brown “embodied Upper Canadian Protestant virtue and he expressed his ideas and attitudes through his newspaper. The Globe’s journalism was aggressive and uncompromising. It saluted progress and was suspicious of the French Catholics” who Brown attacked, vociferously, extending his commentary venom to Upper Canada’s Irish Catholic population, as well.

He held office representing Reformers in the pre-confederation Parliament for 10 years but was defeated in 1862. That loss, combined with ill health and financial problems, pushed him to despair. He travelled to Britain to “recuperate” (although how someone with “financial problems” gets to travel to Britain for rest and relaxation is a question the history books don’t answer).

The love of a good woman turned out to be his cure: he met Anne Nelson, the daughter of a prominent publisher in Scotland, and proposed to her within weeks.

“While in London, Brown also changed his attitudes about Canada’s future. He came back to Toronto with his new bride and a new commitment … He declared he had returned ‘with a better knowledge of public affairs and with a more ardent desire to serve.’

“Brown was now prepared to consider the unthinkable, joining forces with [Conservative arch-rivals John A.] Macdonald and George-√Čtienne Cartier to work toward the union of British North America. The three formed the base of a new coalition government whose singular cause was to promote the union of the colonies.”

Brown saw that Confederation happen and grew in his personal happiness, too. He turned down honours and ceremonial roles in the new country, although he did accept a Senate appointment in 1873. He continued leading the Globe and lived with his wife and three children at their home in Brant County, where Brown had developed a large cattle-breeding business.

His death seems an unfitting coda to such a transformed life: he was shot in the leg by a disgruntled ex-Globe employee who accosted Brown (who had never met the aggrieved man). While the initial injury was not life-threatening, the wound became infected and Brown died shortly after, in 1880 at age 61.

Other 19th-century politicans-as-journalists include Halifax’s Joseph Howe and the Nova Scotian; Stephen Mile and the Kingston Gazette, and William Harris’s the Bytown Packet, which became the Ottawa Citizen.¬† Historian Stewart Wallace posits that newspapers are of “peculiar importance” to Canadian history, “not only because of their profound influence on political and social life but also because, In Canada, literature has been an offset of journalism. In England, the pamphlet gave birth to the newsletter or newspaper but in Canada, the process was reversed and the newspaper gave birth to the pamphlet and the book.”

In the new world, people were driven to acquire a printing press to print the news, and then other printing followed. That’s why, to me, The Printery is far more than a small collection of old machines. It’s a direct link to understanding how and why this nation came to be.

Main photo: John Lederman

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