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a nation's paper

In the 1890s, The Globe’s editor and Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier were close allies who loved to argue – and that helped English and French Canada defuse a national unity crisis

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.

Canadians of the 21st century might think that “sunny ways” originated with Justin Trudeau. It did not. The phrase entered Canada’s lexicon more than a century earlier, at one of the nation’s gloomiest times. The 1890s brought new strife between anglophone Protestants and francophone Catholics angered by Métis leader Louis Riel’s execution after the rebellions he led in the West. Canadians had to decide whether their bicultural bargain could last.

Into this came the Manitoba government’s illegal decision to abolish French-language, Catholic-run schools, the crux of what became known as the Manitoba Schools Question. Could a province do this, inflaming half the country, or should Ottawa invoke its constitutional right to disallow the legislation, incensing the other half?

The governing Conservatives, in disarray after Sir John A. Macdonald’s death, leaned toward the second answer. Opposition leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier, however, sought a deal with Manitoba that he likened to Aesop’s fable The North Wind and the Sun: Whereas the wind (disallowance) would make a man grip his coat tighter, the sunny way (friendly negotiations) would coax him to remove it.

But imagine if Aesop’s contest had been rigged. Imagine that a mountain blocked the wind while advising his friend, the sun, on how to shine to maximum effect. That mountain was Sir John Willison, The Globe’s editor and one of Laurier’s most important Ontario apparatchiks. From 1890 to 1896, the Protestant newspaperman and the Catholic politician haggled over a policy that could break Canada if they got it wrong.

For The Globe, The Mail and The Empire – all ancestors of the modern Globe and Mail – the 1890s radically shifted the balance of media power, testing newspapers’ relationships with the parties that paid their bills. “Sunny ways” would not change Canada as much as Laurier hoped. But for Canadian journalism, it was a moment that moved mountains.

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A British flag flies over a school near Brandon in the 1900s. Years earlier, Manitoba reorganized its schools into a single English-only, secular board, angering francophones who used to have Catholic-run schools.Dept. of Mines and Resources/Library and Archives Canada

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Wilfrid Laurier in 1874, his first year as the Liberal MP for Drummond-Arthabaska.William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada

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John Willison in the early 20th century, decades after he befriended Laurier in Ottawa.Archives de la Ville de Montréal

When Willison and Laurier met in the 1880s, one was The Globe’s correspondent in Ottawa, the other a promising MP who, in 1887, became Liberal leader. Willison “was quite fascinated by Laurier’s abilities” from the start, says Carleton University historian Richard Clippingdale, author of the Willison biography The Power of the Pen.

In his 1919 memoirs, Willison remembered an early visit to Laurier’s home in Arthabaskaville, Que., that impressed upon him Laurier’s “knowledge of men and of books, his clarity and vigour of mind.” Laurier, doubt-stricken about whether English Canada would accept a francophone Catholic leader, valued the insight of someone like Willison, who could explain the Ontarian perspective.

The friendship deepened Willison’s ties to a party he had supported since his youth. When he was a teenager in Southwestern Ontario’s rural Huron County, a visit to an uncle’s house introduced Willison to The Globe, the antithesis of the Tory-allied Leader and Daily Telegraph that his parents read at home. When the Tories established a more formidable Toronto organ, The Mail, in 1872, Willison read that paper too. But his dream was to one day become a journalist at The Globe, the Dominion’s most influential English-language paper and an ally of, but never totally beholden to, the Liberal Party.

Now that he was The Globe’s man in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, Willison not only reported on what the Liberals were doing, but advised Laurier on what the public was thinking. And the Liberal leader took that advice.

“Even if somebody in Ottawa, in the caucus, told [Laurier] differently, he tended to think that Willison probably knew what the opinion in Ontario was better than they did,” Clippingdale says.

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On a provincial election night in the 1880s, Torontonians follow results at the Telegram newspaper building, which announces Liberal premier Oliver Mowat’s return to office.

Willison needed to know plenty about Ontario’s politics just to survive in Toronto’s cutthroat newspaper business. In the Gilded Age, at least five and briefly seven newspapers fought for attention in a city with fewer people than modern-day Regina.

Ontario’s capital and largest city had been dubbed “the Belfast of Canada” because of unending feuds between its Orange Protestant ruling class and Catholics, immigrants and the poor. A paper could flourish or fail depending on whose side it chose.

In 1887, Macdonald and his Conservatives created a new paper, The Empire, when The Mail broke away to pursue a more anti-Catholic, anti-French course than the Old Chieftain would allow. The Mail wanted French abolished as an official language in anglophone provinces, and even advocated the creation of a third federal party that might break up Confederation to keep the “British column” supreme.

On June 6, 1891, shortly after winning his sixth general election, Macdonald died of a stroke. Over five years, the Tories cycled through four replacements. First was Sir John Abbott, a septuagenarian senator who resigned after a diagnosis of terminal cancer; next, Sir John S. Thompson, a fortysomething MP who died of a heart attack in 1894.

Then came senator Sir Mackenzie Bowell, a veteran newspaperman and owner of The Belleville Intelligencer. Bowell saw no need to keep both The Mail and The Empire going in Toronto. On Feb. 6, 1895, The Empire announced that it was finished, and the next day, The Daily Mail and Empire took its place. All Empire journalists lost their jobs.

Weeks earlier, after a fire had destroyed the Globe building at Yonge and Melinda Streets along with much of the surrounding block, the Conservative Empire had offered space in its newsroom to its Liberal rival. Citing the two staffs’ “exceedingly pleasant relations” when they were working together in the same office, Willison’s paper declared The Empire’s end “a matter of unusual regret to The Globe.”

The Globe and Empire joined forces on Jan. 7, 1895, to report the fire that destroyed the Globe office. The rivals even co-organized an event to show live municipal election results that night. ‘We expect Globe sympathizers will howl when we announce Mayor [Warring] Kennedy’s victory,’ The Empire wrote, ‘but unregenerate Tories will have to grin and bear it when the Globe men triumph in some minor contests.’ University of Toronto archives, The Globe and Mail

The instigator of the Manitoba schools crisis, premier Thomas Greenway, had been an acquaintance of Willison’s for more than a decade, once offering him a job in the Manitoba town Greenway had founded. Willison refused. Now, 13 years later, the premier was poking at one of Confederation’s sore spots, and Willison, The Globe’s editor, sought to understand what was happening in Manitoba and to help Laurier respond.

When Manitoba was made a province in 1870, its francophone population, mostly Métis, was roughly equal in number to anglophones. Riel and his allies had secured for each a separate school system: one Catholic and French, one Protestant and English. But new English-speaking settlers, mostly from Ontario, quickly became the majority, especially when Métis, denied land that Canada had promised, moved west.

In 1890, after a rally in Portage la Prairie energized anglophones against all things French, Greenway defunded Catholic schools and stripped French of official-language status. Parliament could have disallowed this immediately. Instead Macdonald, and later Thompson, punted the issue to the courts, hoping they would sort it out.

Initially, Globe editorials were quiet on the subject. Laurier, writing to Willison in June, 1890, had warned him to avoid “irritating questions” of language and religion.

The final judicial answer came from Britain five years later, in January, 1895: Franco-Manitobans had a real grievance, and it was up to Parliament to decide whether to remedy or ignore it.

Macdonald, Abbott and Thompson were all dead now, and Bowell was in a bind. He was a former Orange grand master, so doing nothing would look like Protestant prejudice, but national disunity would ruin his party’s legacy. In the end, Bowell tried, and failed at, everything at once. His efforts to reach a deal with Greenway went nowhere; he waffled about whether and when to use the remedial law his cabinet was preparing to disallow the Manitoba law; Quebec MPs who wanted swifter action threatened to resign or revolt.

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Under Mackenzie Bowell, the Manitoba question fractured the Conservatives and threatened to escalate into a wider national unity crisis.William James Topley/National Archives of Canada/CP/The Canadian Press

Through early 1895, Laurier and Willison argued through the mail about the Liberals’ next moves. Laurier asked that The Globe leave room open for remedial laws in case a Liberal government needed them. Willison pushed back, careful to stress that this was for political and not sectarian reasons.

“I do not object at all to Separate Schools for Manitoba,” he wrote on April 1. “… But Manitoba has taken a course, and so long as she chooses to adhere to that course interference from Ottawa, in my humble judgement, will be futile and mischievous, possibly disastrous.” The best outcome, Willison believed, would be “some sort of an agreement between Manitoba and the Dominion Government.”

Laurier lost his patience over a July 17 Globe editorial that dared Bowell to dissolve Parliament and accused politicians in Ottawa of stoking Quebeckers’ sectarian grudges over Manitoba. That, Laurier wrote Willison in an angry letter, seemed to be “as much an attack on the Liberal Party as on the Conservative Party.” Willison apologized. “I would just about attack my own father,” he wrote back.

In the fall of 1895, Willison went on a tour of the Prairies, where Greenway squired him around Manitoba’s wheat fields. In a report from Banff in the Sept. 20 Globe, Willison concluded separate schools were a non-starter. “Here, English must be the commercial tongue, and English sentiment dominate, and English institutions grow and flourish.” To oppose this would be “a vain battle with the gods and provoke retaliation when the west reaches the full measure of its strength.”

Laurier did not need more convincing. He had resolved privately to oppose remedial legislation; now, it was a matter of bringing that message to voters. Laurier tested his Aesop metaphor at a speech in Morrisburg, Ont., on Oct. 8: “The government are very windy,” he said. “They have blown and raged and threatened, but the more they have threatened and raged and blown the more that man Greenway has stuck to his coat. If it were in my power, I would try the sunny way.”

In the next day’s Globe, those words ran a few columns over from a big Eaton’s department store ad for winter coats and blankets. The metaphor-muddling coincidence was also a reminder: Cold days were coming. There was still time for Tory disallowance legislation to make compromise impossible. Unless Laurier acted first.

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On Oct. 12, 1895, days after the ‘sunny ways’ speech in Morrisburg, The Globe quoted it again on the front page with this Bengough cartoon making the point more obvious: the north wind has Bowell’s face, the sun has Laurier’s and the man in the coat is Thomas Greenway, the Manitoba premier.Globe and Mail archives

In Toronto, The Mail and Empire struggled to make sense of its new circumstances. Journalists who once amplified Orange Protestant francophobia were now aligned with a party seeking to rescue Franco-Manitobans. Ontarians noticed: The paper’s circulation stagnated in the first six months of 1896, while The Globe’s grew.

Soon it was Bowell who needed rescuing. A faction of ministers, fed up with his equivocation on Manitoba, forced him to cede power to elder statesman and diplomat Sir Charles Tupper. Tupper pressed ahead with the remedial bill, now dubbed C-58, but Laurier’s Liberals were able to filibuster the legislation until Tupper’s time was up and an election was scheduled for June 23, 1896.

The Globe got busy touting the Liberals as the party of provincial rights. As Willison predicted, it was a winning issue, even in Quebec. In 1896, provincial rights trumped French-language rights in the eyes of French Canadians. The Liberals got a majority and Tupper became the shortest-serving prime minister in Canadian history. The next day’s Globe called Laurier’s victory “a bond of union between the two great divisions of the people.”

Laurier and Greenway worked out a compromise that kept a single non-denominational school board, but added some French-language Catholic instruction in regions where demand warranted. Laurier’s solution may have averted a national crisis, but it was not the deliverance francophones hoped for. Manitoba made its schools English-only again in 1916, when Laurier was in opposition, and it would take decades of Franco-Manitoban activism to undo that. As for Indigenous people in Manitoba – whose children were forced to unlearn their mother tongues in residential schools that mostly taught in English – neither Laurier nor The Globe spared much thought for their minority language rights.

Still, the Manitoba solution was critical to Laurier’s reputation as a great conciliator, a legend that Willison helped to build in a 1903 biography of his friend. In later interviews, Willison boasted that “sunny ways” couldn’t have happened without The Globe, that without its opposition, Laurier would have supported remedial action from the start.

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A Globe magazine chronicles Laurier's re-election campaign in 1908, the first federal race in which Alberta and Saskatchewan participated as full provinces.Globe and Mail archives

The events of 1895-96 put The Globe on a new path to success. Its competition was in disarray, its incinerated headquarters was rebuilt, and patronage and printing contracts – which governing parties of the era would often use to reward their own newspapers – flowed from now-Liberal Ottawa. But one thing Laurier’s election couldn’t change was Willison’s propensity to argue with him. They clashed over trade, the Anglo-Boer War and The Globe’s even-handed coverage of the Conservatives in the 1902 Ontario election. That was the year Willison decided he had had enough: He left to run the rival News, whose owners promised him more independence.

In leaving, Willison wrote in his memoirs, “I had no thought of a political separation from Sir Wilfrid Laurier.” But they had a new argument brewing over Laurier’s wish to guarantee separate French schools in Alberta and Saskatchewan. “I doubted if he would ever give effect to his intention,” Willison recalled, but in 1905 Laurier did just that in the acts that created those provinces. To Willison, this was the kind of federal meddling that he and Laurier had worked so hard to avoid in Manitoba, and The News came out hard against it. “I regard with no respect at all the contention that we are constitutionally obliged to create an educational system for the Western Territories,” Willison told Laurier in a terse exchange of letters that would be their last for three years.

But in 1908, Willison, nostalgic in his advancing age, wrote to the prime minister that “my personal affection for yourself has not been overcome” and he considered their feud settled. “I cannot find fault with a friend if he differs from me, but loss of friendship is painful; in your case it was particularly painful,” Laurier replied. “But no more of this: let it rest in oblivion until such time as meeting again as of old at the fireside, talking of this, that and the other thing, that one may also turn up.”

Even when their political opinions clashed, Willison and Laurier never lost respect for each other. For all the frosty rhetoric between their cultures and creeds, sunny ways prevailed.

Evan Annett is an editor on the visuals team at The Globe and Mail.

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John Gillies/The Globe and Mail

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