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The Globe on Confederation Day: Read the fine print of George Brown’s 1867 letter to a new nation

CANADA 150

The Globe on Confederation Day: Read the fine print of George Brown's letter to a new nation

The Globe's edition of July 1, 1867, featured commerce and vice, virtue and science, and a late-breaking missive from the publisher on 'the birthday of a new nationality.' Eric Andrew-Gee takes a closer look

The bells of St. James Cathedral rang out at midnight on Confederation Day, the "merry peal" echoing through a city already loud with crackling bonfires and the pop-pop of muskets.

It was July 1, 1867, and Toronto was about to embark on a vast, all-night party of a kind the dour colonial outpost was unaccustomed to. A large ox, bought by subscription for the occasion, would be roasted at dawn. A fireworks display at Queen's Park was scheduled for the evening.

In the meantime, groups of men, some of them perhaps fortified by whisky from the Gooderham & Worts distillery, marched Toronto's unpaved roads singing "loyal and patriotic anthems."

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As the sun came up, a couple of hundred revellers gathered in front of The Globe office at 28 King St. East, eager to see the big day reflected back to them by English Canada's most important newspaper. They would get their wish – but only just.

The Confederation Day edition of The Globe was a remarkable snapshot of its very Victorian moment, hectic with commerce and vice, virtue and science. The paper also afforded a wider view – a panorama of the Canadian past and a hopeful, squinting look ahead at the Canadian future. One hundred and fifty years later, it remains a testament to how the country has changed – and how it hasn't.

But on the morning that the country was born, the message almost didn't get out.

The Globe had missed its deadline.

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With dawn breaking and readers massed outside, George Brown, the Globe's powerful publisher, was deep into his sixth hour of writing.

The long-faced Scot with the woolly sideburns and receding hairline had arrived at the office just before midnight, determined to sum up the meaning of Confederation in one editorial. In the semi-mythical telling of his night foreman almost 40 years later, Brown drank a quart of water straight from the pail, took off his collar and coat, and sat down to work.

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At 2:30 in the morning, the night foreman went to check on the publisher's progress. "Mr. Brown, it's half-past two! We'll lose the eastern mail," he said.

"I'll be through in a few minutes," Brown replied.

This little act was played out every hour for the rest of the night. The foreman would warn Brown that they were about to miss some mail train, and Brown would intone, "Through in a few minutes."

By 7 a.m., Brown finally was through. "Well, there's the last of it," he said. "We've done well."

Robert Gay, the night foreman, would call it "the most elaborate article ever published in the City of Toronto on a matter of that kind" – about 9,000 words, tracing the history of Canada back to Cabot and Cartier, giving a full inventory of the country's natural bounty and, above all, celebrating the birth and prospects of the new Dominion.

"With the first dawn of this gladsome midsummer morn, we hail the birthday of a new nationality. A united British America, with its four millions of people, takes its place this day among the nations of the world," he begins. "Let us hope that Canadians – using the word in its new and large acceptation – will worthily fulfil the duties which Providence has confided to them."

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Left: George Brown, shown in a portrait by John Wycliffe Lowes Forster.
Right: On the day of Confederation, The Globe’s office was on King Street East in a building shared with the biweekly Canada Farmer newspaper.

Most days, The Globe had ads on the front page – for Chinese lanterns and claret and horses and grain-drying machines – but not that July 1. Brown's editorial ran for an extraordinary two full pages, in tiny type across 18 1/2 columns.

Looked on with a century-and-a-half of hindsight, the paper tells a story of change and continuity. The gloomy Gothic type of the masthead, set by hand and slightly akimbo, is now long gone. But just below it, the paper's motto – "The subject who is truly loyal to the chief magistrate will neither advise nor submit to arbitrary measures," by the pseudonymous 18 th-century British writer Junius, whose scathing public letters against the court and ministries of George III made him a liberal hero in the English-speaking world, and whose real identity has never been proved – still appears on The Globe and Mail editorial page.

The density and high-flown rhetoric of Brown's editorial, meanwhile, marks it out from anything you might find in a modern newspaper. It reads like something between a Farmers' Almanac entry and the American Declaration of Independence.

It's little wonder that Brown's celebration of the day was especially effusive. The original Dominion was circumscribed both in size and ambition – the new country had just four provinces, and much of what is now Canada's north and west remained under the ownership of the Hudson's Bay Company – but Brown had been instrumental in bringing it about, and saw the occasion as something much greater than the administrative union of a few colonial territories.

His collaboration with John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier in the Great Coalition of 1864 was a stark reversal for the anti-Catholic Brown, who had built his political and journalistic career as a fierce defender of Upper Canadian interests, and personally detested Macdonald.

Still, since committing himself to Confederation, Brown had thrown his newspaper behind the cause. The Globe was a powerful force in Canadian politics at the time, reaching a wide audience in a small country. By the end of 1868, the paper would have a daily circulation of 15,000, more than half of which was outside Toronto, according to Brown of the Globe, J.M.S. Careless's two-volume biography.

In his Confederation Day editorial, Brown wasn't shy about taking credit for the occasion. "As a not uninfluential organ of public opinion, we may be pardoned for claiming that The Globe has contributed, in some degree at least, to the successful result over which we this day rejoice," he wrote. (As a contemporary Toronto paper might have put it: THE GLOBE GETS ACTION.)

Brown's "historical sketch" of the country goes back much further than the events leading to Confederation, and like so much of that day's paper, it is a product of its time: among other things, heavy on military exploits, and light on any acknowledgment of the Indigenous presence in Canada. Contemporary readers will be surprised to see Colonel Charles de Salaberry's Lower Canadian militia, and not Tecumseh's force, credited with heroism during the War of 1812.

Whenever he does mention Indigenous history, those references tend to undermine the paper's mood of buoyant patriotism. Brown recounts a probably apocryphal but once widely circulated story of how Canada got its name: that the Spanish arrived here first, looking for gold, and concluded aca nada – nothing here.

Later, recording that in 1765 there were 7,400 "Indians" in New France, Brown writes, "If this estimate be anything like correct, the French, in their conflict with the Aborigines, must have pursued a ruthless exterminating policy."

It's in a more cheerful spirit that Brown turns from the skirmishes between British and French that characterize his history of the country to an outlook on the future. This consists in large part of a detailed lay of the land, from head of milch cows to square miles of peat; from barrels of mackerel to bushels of buckwheat; from tonnes of hay to tonnes of coal; giving also a portrait of a country that was a long way from transcending its reputation as a hewer of wood and a drawer of water.

How would George Brown’s statistics look if he had The Globe and Mail’s modern visual journalism tools? Find out more below.

In Brown's hands, even anxious comparisons between Canada and the United States take the form of agricultural stock-taking. "While in Canada, 10 horses, for example, are owned by every 44 people, in the United States, it takes on an average 51 people to own that number," Brown crows.

Granted, the lavishly detailed inventory isn't meant to be savoured in its own right. Rather, Brown presents it as a bounty held in trust for the future, and as a challenge. "We conclude by recording the hope that the future of the people who now, or shall hereafter, inhabit the Dominion of Canada, may be worthy of the signally advantageous position assigned them by Providence," he writes.

Canada really was a lucky country that day, and not just because of all the milch cows. The Globe's quotient of foreign news makes the point. A dispatch from London informs readers that the British government had decreed "the state of Ireland at the present time forbids the adoption of any Reform Bill in her behalf." After centuries of tumult and occupation, the Emerald Isle was still ruled directly from Westminster, as it would be until 1922.

Another report from Montreal informs readers that a resident of that city would testify in the trial of John Surratt, accused of plotting the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. It was a reminder that just two years before, Canada's southern neighbour was torn apart by a confederacy of rebels, and its greatest statesmen murdered by a zealot.

On July 1, its peaceful Confederation seemed to show Canada tiptoeing a middle path between Ireland and the United States; between stifled colony and anarchic republic.

That spirit of cautious progress meant that the iconography of Confederation lacked the drama or originality of a Bastille storming or a Delaware crossing. "Old things have passed away," Brown wrote in his editorial, but Toronto was still very much a British colonial town. Even as the country celebrated its nascent nationality, the Union Jack was raised all over the city, Captain Woodhouse of the Lord Nelson led a feast for the poor, and groups of men sang Rule Britannia.

Still, glimmers of things to come were visible elsewhere in the paper. A few days before Confederation, The Globe reported, a group of 150 German immigrants passed through Toronto on their way out West. And on July 1, a classified ad sought 20 "choppers" to make cordwood for the Great Western Railway.

Meanwhile, as the future of the country swung toward the Pacific, Toronto was erupting into the bustling commercial metropolis it would become, albeit with a distinctly 19 th-century flavour. The back pages feature an ad for a "big little woman" without a name but with a precise weight (516 pounds) on display at a Queen Street doctor's office; a visiting menagerie featuring a baby African elephant; sales on Virginia tobacco and Castile soap, boiled hams and bog oak jewellery; and news that two "disorderly houses" had been raided by police.

If Brown's editorial and the paper's ad pages make up the bulk of the day's edition, and paint a picture of Confederation Day in Canada, it's a more unlikely figure who gets something like the last word. On the first column of the fourth and final page of the paper, a Methodist preacher and temperance advocate named Edward Hartley Dewart has written a "Confederation Ode" – 19 stanzas in defence of the idea of Canada.

It's an unusual patriotic poem, in that it makes few claims for the greatness of the country's past or even its present. In the typically narrow view of the Canadian settler – Dewart was born in Ireland – this was a country virtually without a past, never mind its millennia of Indigenous habitation.

Instead, the poet trains a proud chauvinist gaze on the future, insisting that the young country be defined by its potential. It's a gesture whose ignorance is hard to disentangle from its optimism, and seems to contain Canada's worst sins along with its signal virtues. It's a gesture that shares with that day's edition of The Globe the uncanny quality of being at once strange and very familiar.

Few proud historic names have we, / Whose memory thrills the heart – / No scenes embalmed by Poesie – / No hoary castles grand to see – / The pride of ancient art.
But though the past may barren be, / In battle, song, and story, / The Future rises fair to view, / Gleaming with morning’s youthful dew, / And bright with coming glory.

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THEN AND NOW

George Brown, data journalist


George Brown crammed The Globe's Confederation Day edition with boastful statistics about the new country: How many people lived there, their occupations, their religious affiliations, how much coal, lumber, fish, grain and butter they produced – and how they measured up, economically and socially, against the United States. It was data journalism, Victorian-style – that is, columns of dense text and lists of numbers laid out in lead type by human hands.

If Brown worked at The Globe and Mail today, he would have a team of graphics editors and a built-in-house digital chart tool to make those numbers look nicer.

Here's how some of the statistics used in the newspaper from July 1, 1867, would look if they were published with today's technology.


Population


Religion


Trade


Industry


Livestock

(Return to main story)


CANADA 150: MORE FROM THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Editor’s Note By George Brown's estimation, there were 4.4 Canadians for every horse in Canada, 3.2 per cow, 1.3 per sheep and 2.4 for other types of cattle. An earlier version of a chart in this story misidentified population per type of livestock as livestock per capita.
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