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a nation's paper

For those who have filled the letters pages over the decades, the resilience of the form feels as essential as journalism itself

This is an excerpt from A Nation’s Paper: The Globe and Mail in the Life of Canada, a collection of history essays from Globe writers past and present, coming this fall from Signal/McClelland & Stewart.

Former federal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy has worn many hats during his long career in politics and academia. In 1964, however, he was but a young Winnipegger who had recently completed a graduate degree in politics at Princeton University and was looking forward to coming home. Unfortunately, he wasn’t having much luck landing suitable work in Canada.

So, when he read The Globe and Mail’s lead editorial on April 13, which lamented the brain drain of Canadian talent to the south, something stirred in him.

“While Canada bleats out its anguish over the desertion of many of its talented citizens, it might pause to consider the cases of unrequited love, of which I am sure mine is not alone,” he wrote in a letter to the editor that the paper published about a week later.

Before the pervasiveness of social media and online commentary, a letter to the editor was one of the few ways that ordinary citizens and public figures alike could prominently voice an opinion on the news of the day, even if one was a then-unknown young Canadian, thousands of kilometres away at school in New Jersey.

As former letters editor Jack Kapica crystallizes in the introduction of the book Shocked and Appalled: A Century of Letters to The Globe and Mail, published in 1985, “the letters page of a newspaper must be a forum dedicated to its readers, a page where their opinion can be heard, their honour defended, their spleens spilled.” (The phrase “shocked and appalled” has become a fond shorthand for letter writers and Globe editors, used as a knowing wink to exaggerated indignation.)

Amid the instantaneous connectivity of modern life, letters persist. They are a bulwark against the volatility of online conversation, which can be enlightening and respectful, but is oftentimes knee-jerk and inflammatory despite the best efforts of those tasked with its moderation. Letters are a bastion of civility and consideration appreciated by readers, even as they have evolved from physical mail, to faxes for a blip, to e-mails.

There may be a future where they cease to exist, finally succumbing to digital disruption. But for letter writers and letters editors, who together form a delicate ecosystem, the resilience of the form feels as essential as journalism itself.

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Jack Kapica, shown at work in 1999, fielded thousands of letters to The Globe and Mail over the years. Some were from first-time writers, others from regulars such as journalist Pierre Berton and history teacher J.D.M. Stewart.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Letters are, by the nature of journalism, edited. The Globe carefully curates and publishes as many as a dozen of them each day from the hundreds that readers send.

As letters editor for more than a decade from 1979, Kapica read about a quarter-million letters of every conceivable type, particularly during his 18 months of archival research for the book.

What he found true then remains true today: “History plays a part in the letters page only as it is manifest in the readers’ minds,” Kapica wrote. While wars and other strife rage around the world, letter writers are often more concerned with the daily rhythms of domestic affairs, whether the author is a prominent figure or general reader.

Here, a chronological sampling of Canadian preoccupations through the years:

Jan. 25, 1889: A.M. Taylor of Toronto fretted over the identity and culture of a nascent nation, proclaiming that “there is not a Canadian literature because there is no Canada. The Dominion has not yet cast aside its swaddling clothes and evinced the courage to announce its own majority.”

Aug. 16, 1902: A pseudonymous writer from Hamilton (“Civis”) wonders about the dangers of electricity, still limited then, and its potential effects on the Canadian climate: “Our men of science should collect facts and inform us as to the future consequences of unlimited production of electricity and using it as power.”

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Suffragist Nellie McClung wrote The Globe about one of her dedicated causes, temperance.C. Jessop/National Archives of Canada/CP

Nov. 24, 1926: Amid the debate over prohibition in Ontario, former Alberta MLA Nellie L. McClung asked, “Is it all right for a country to produce drinkers and drunkards if it is done legally, and the Government receives a rake-off?”

May 4, 1929: The Globe’s coverage of the news could excite readers’ ire or admiration – or both. S. Stuart Crouch of Toronto concludes that, “For your narrow, bigoted, religious opinions and editorials, and for your fanatical personal attacks on those you dislike … I despise the Globe, and am frequently tempted to stop taking it, but for the sake of accurate news I enclose renewal cheque for six dollars.”

March 26, 1945: As the Second World War stretched on, readers such as Beecher Parkhouse of Fergus, Ont., found ways to stay positive: “I guess the war must be going pretty well for our side. We have not been called on for a Day of Prayer for some time.”

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The Globe reports on the declaration of the War Measures Act during the 1970 October Crisis.

Oct. 24, 1970: Poet Irving Layton took stock of a dark chapter in Canadian history. “It’s to the great credit of Canadians that they’ve decided their lives and liberty are safer with Pierre Trudeau than with the degenerates of the FLQ and bleeding heart liblabs who … haven’t a clue to what’s rising up to smash them.”

Aug. 16, 1973: Writer (and frequent traveller) Pierre Berton relayed that “I have just emerged from my umpteenth experience at Terminal 2 – one which has again reduced me to a stage of helpless rage.” (“Berton would never stop,” Kapica remembers. “You had to go off and yell at him to stop.”)

Feb. 11, 1977: Former Nova Scotia premier and federal Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield defended his honour after a columnist wrote that “he has the reputation among his friends of being the worst driver this side of Hull.” Stanfield considered “suing The Globe and Mail and Geoffrey Stevens for several millions of dollars, and I most certainly will if his irresponsible comment should cause an increase in my insurance rates.”

Feb. 7, 1980: On economic inequality, author Robertson Davies wondered “if the poverty level is anything under $10,000 a year, above what line may we place wealth? In my novelist’s innocence, I thought it might be $100,000 a year. Where does it truly begin?”

There are also letter-writing giants such as Eugene Forsey, a former senator and constitutional expert who, having written some 800 letters to various publications over his lifetime, is the subject of his own academic compendium from 2000, The Sound of One Voice: Eugene Forsey and His Letters to the Press. “The moment you saw the name Eugene Forsey,” Kapica recalls, you knew you had a contender. “The guy required no grammatical correction, no spelling or anything like that. The man was very educated.”

Forsey’s letters appeared in The Globe roughly 300 times. His high dudgeon could entertain in a single sentence, such as a one-liner from July 27, 1967, three days after the French president’s infamous declaration of “Vive le Québec libre!” Forsey was not impressed: “General de Gaulle and Quebec Premier Daniel Johnson appear to believe that Quebec is Canada’s Sudetenland.”

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Senator Eugene Forsey, shown in 1986, wrote letters to The Globe over more than 40 years.The Canadian Press

He was further at his best when bringing his encyclopedic knowledge of government and country to bear on the pages of The Globe. On Feb. 10, 1977, he was particularly vexed by an article that suggested a fully decentralized Canada with 10 separate tax systems. But even while taking the contributors to task for omitting the issues of provincial equalization and economic imbalances, his serious concerns were tempered by the acerbic wit that made him so popular with readers. In this case, he even broke out in song: “With glowing hearts we’ve seen arise / Ten Norths, nor strong nor free / But we’ll stand on guard, O Canada!”

(The Globe’s appreciation for the original poetry and prose of letter writers waxes and wanes; at the time of this writing, it is very much on the wane.)

Forsey published his first letter to The Globe in 1948; his last was in December, 1990, just months before his death. His final grievance took on a familiar topic: “Some months ago there was talk of privatizing the Post Office. Now it’s the CBC.”

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J.D.M. Stewart, a teacher at Bishop Strachan School in Toronto, is one of the more prolific letter writers.Supplied

While Forsey’s letter-writing record isn’t likely to be surpassed, one man who became a prolific letter writer in his own right has been a favourite of Globe readers since 1991. That’s when James Stewart, who first appeared in The Globe in 1990 defending the pugnacity of hockey, published his first letter using his three initials: J.D.M. Stewart. A history teacher who has published “probably around 250″ letters by his own count (the number is difficult to nail down in The Globe’s archives), Stewart has mastered what Kapica calls whimsy. “No one – not even the editor of The Globe and Mail – can take relentless earnestness forever,” Kapica noted.

Because of his knowledge of quotations and his humour, Stewart’s musings have often appeared as the kicker on the letters page. He also understands the latter-day letter-writing art of brevity: “A lot of people spend 75 words clearing their throat before they get to their point. You just can’t do that,” Stewart says, adding that “humour is always great.”

Put that all together and a honed letter writer might submit what Stewart successfully had published on Nov. 2, 2006: “I would just like to remind the good U.S. ambassador of Canada’s sovereignty over the Arctic by quoting former prime minister Brian Mulroney, who said of the area: ‘We own it. Lock, stock and iceberg.’”

Stewart’s popularity and frequency on the letters page soon invited detractors. Eventually, one frustrated letter writer suggested The Globe would surely publish any letter, no questions asked, if it was signed “J.D.M. Stewart.” From there, it was determined that regular contributors would be limited to every two weeks. Today, like many other daily publications, The Globe tries to limit writers to every four weeks.

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For decades, the editorial cartoons of Brian Gable sat on top of the letters section of The Globe. In 2021, enterprising readers got a chance to put his art on their mail, when Canada Post issued a stamp in his honour. He retired in September of 2023.Canada Post

The form of letters has always changed along with the country. Today they bear little relation to what graced The Globe at its founding in 1844: from anonymous, gossip-laden dispatches that made up most news before and after Confederation, to full pages of letters on single topics by the end of that century (a Christian populace was invested in the issue of trolleys operating on the Sabbath, for example).

In the early 1900s, The Globe tried to tame the epistolary overflow by breaking letters into column filler wherever they could fit. By 1910, reader opposition forced the singular return of letters to the editorial section, where they have resided on the printed page ever since.

That real estate is now at a premium. A single epic missive of yore could take up the entire space allotted for modern-day letters, where writers are today limited to 150 words. In 1991, such constraints were met with consternation by a researcher, who filed a complaint with the Ontario Press Council after The Globe declined to help reduce his 1,200-word letter to size. The complaint was dismissed.

There were still other developments: Letters to correct the record, often cheeky correspondence that relishes in the thrill of being right, became the purview of the public editor, rechristened the standards editor in 2023; preposterous pseudonyms such as “Fidelis” and “Veritas” gave way to real names, first in 1930 on divisive letters about religion, then on all letters by 1940; the preponderance of letter-writing public figures plummeted in recent decades with the advent of a dedicated op-ed section. Lloyd Axworthy is a frequent contributor.

As the institution of letters continues to evolve with the times, it would be fair to ask: What next? A pessimist may hold the view that its stubborn resilience is generational and tied to an aging population of boomers, the main demographic for printed periodicals. An informal survey of more than 200 of The Globe’s most frequent letter writers conducted for this essay bears that out: The majority of respondents were 50-plus, many of them retired; more than a few were in their 90s.

But their reasons for writing give less credence to the form of letters, and more to the importance of journalism and the act of engaging with it meaningfully. “Writing letters puts me in the habit of being an active reader, and possibly a more active citizen,” says Chester Fedoruk, a contributor from Toronto who counts more than 50 published letters in The Globe since 2016. “Putting myself on the spot to develop a point of view – to get beyond my initial ignorance, confusion, support, disagreement, indignation and resentment – often requires additional reading and research (a purposeful mission for a retiree). The excitement of reading and writing letters makes me feel part of the Canadian conversation: imperfect, iterative, open-ended, balancing passion and respect and striving for both rigour and humour.”

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Letters sent on behalf of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, two Canadians then detained in China, pile up at the Globe newsroom in 2021.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

It remains to be seen if there will be a generational shift in those active citizens who write letters. For now, the journalists who edit them will continue their publication as long as they are still sent by the hundreds. And, at least, there has been succession among their – our – ranks that provides reasons for optimism.

As of this writing, Elliot Kaufman, a twentysomething Canadian, is the letters editor at The Wall Street Journal in New York. Like the fortysomething writer of this essay, he inherited the position from a highly regarded colleague who retired after more than a decade on the job. His childhood claim to fame: at the age of 9, publishing a letter in the National Post that called for the privatization of the Canadian Wheat Board (he got his wish when it was dissolved in 2015).

“In a way, letters are free from some of the drawbacks of debate in a way that social media isn’t,” he says of his youthful hobby turned professional preoccupation. “In a debate, you can make a point and an audience can applaud. That’s bias. Let people come to their own decisions. If you want a pure exchange of views, I think the letters section is still the way to get that at its best.”

Others also see a strong digital future for letters, acting as a complement to online comments rather than a contrast. The Globe, for its part, links to online versions of the daily letters offering at the bottom of every article, where subscribers post and read comments. And in 2019, the newsroom began to publish additional letters online on Sundays (a day when there is no printed paper), owing to the sizable number of worthy submissions left over by the end of the week. It’s become a popular feature on a quieter publishing day.

At The Telegraph, letters editor Orlando Bird (who took the baton from a colleague who held the role for nearly two decades) has experimented with a letters-focused newsletter to attract new audiences. “It can be seen as part of this wider rise of reader-generated content. Audiences do expect to be more part of the conversation now, rather than just listening to columnists and so on,” Bird says, adding that letters differ from social media. “It’s curated, it’s edited. There’s accountability. At its best, it’s the opposite of an echo chamber.”

The future of letters to the editor, like the future of news, will boil down to age and engaging new readers – and writers. Stewart, the history teacher and prolific letter writer, is doing his part to foster the medium’s next generation, urging his students to craft letters as a way to learn the value of reasoning and pithiness in one’s writing. He offers one more important piece of advice to young, aspiring letter writers: “Don’t be afraid to say, ‘Ashley Smith, Grade 9 student.’ Because papers love to run the odd letter when it’s by a kid. Right?”

Who knows: Maybe that’s how The Globe’s future letters editor gets their start.

Cliff Lee is letters editor at The Globe and Mail.

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John H. Boyd/The Globe and Mail

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