Evolving Communications Media 1869 – 1870 at Red River: Perceptions of the Power of Printed News
Perceptions of a 19th-century ‘Then’ from a 21st-century ‘Now’
Locally published newspapers were a relatively new means of mass communication at Red River in 1870. Historian Gerald Friesen has averred, “the way in which a society communicates shapes popular assumptions about how the world works.” The common-place way in which society had been shaped at Red River was oral communication — neighbours speaking to neighbours, face to face. Indeed, the settlement has often been described as though it ran on gossip. Written communication had long been present at the settlement, however, and could supply a basis for what inhabitants were talking, to each other, about.
People wrote notes and letters to send messages from one parish ranged along the Red and Assiniboine Rivers to another, distant parish. They corresponded with friends, relatives, and associates in locations that were farther away still — at trade posts throughout Rupert’s Land and the North-West, from Labrador to the colony of British Columbia. Letters were sent south of the international border to the United States (and answers came back). They were sent to, and received from, Canada and British colonies to the east, and the British Isles.
Reading material, from books to newspapers, had been imported to Red River from at least the 1820s, informing people of the settlement about the wider world. Not everyone in the settlement could read (or write). There was time and inclination, however, for sociability to include readings by the literate for the entertainment of others (and for the transcribing of letters on behalf of others as well).
Beginning in the 1860s, the people of Red River had the opportunity to do more that just learn, from imported print media, about ‘how the world works’ in other places and at other times. The arrival of a newspaper press at Red River in December of 1859 meant they could reciprocate: informing each other and the wider world about themselves, their activities, and their values — through the mass medium of newsprint.
During 1869 – 1870, the press at Red River certainly strove to inform settlers about a great deal — about the workings of the political world and how they might be affected, about the state of their society and how it might be strengthened. And, through their local paper, the settlers were made aware of the ability of ‘the press’ to generate ‘noise’ that might shape assumptions a world away — as the New Nation battled within its pages with opinions, expressed in Canadian newspapers, about how confederating with Canada ought to be achieved.
To use 21st-century terms to describe the phenomenon witnessed in 1869 – 1870: in the prevailing ‘social media’ of the time, Red River was a ‘trending topic.’
“A newspaper is a window through which men look out on all that is going on in the world—without a newspaper a man is shut up in a small room, and knows little or nothing of what is happening outside of himself. In our day, newspapers keep pace with history and record it. A good newspaper will keep a sensible man in sympathy with the world’s current history. It is an ever unfolding encyclopedia; an unbound book forever issuing and never finished.” [Henry Ward Beecher quoted in “The Newspaper,” New Nation (3 June 1870). Photo source: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Henry_Ward_Beecher_daguerreotype.jpg]
On 17 April 1874, on being questioned about the Resistance of 1869- 1870, The Right Reverend Alexander-A. Taché, Archbishop of St. Boniface deposed:
“I am of opinion that the articles published in the newspapers gave rise to a great deal of the feeling regarding Governor McDougall, and I may say that I consider the newspapers were, to some extent, the cause of the disturbances: not the Canadian Newspapers alone, but especially a paper called the Nor’-Wester, which was published for some time before the troubles in the Colony of Assiniboia, and which contained attacks, first against the Company, and afterwards against the half-breeds, especially the French half-breeds.” [Source: Canada, Parliament, House of Commons, “Report of the Select Committee on the Causes of the Difficulties in the North-West Territory in 1869–70,” 14. Photo source: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:AlexandreAntoninTache.jpg]
The New Nation commented on 11 February 1870 (page 3):
“The Toronto Globe picks us up, places us upon its editorial fork, dissects, annihilates, and leaves us for dead. Our funeral will take place shortly” [http://manitobia.ca/content/en/newspapers/NNT/1870/02/11/3/Ar00302.html/Olive]
On the uproar in the Ontario press that led to the arrest and imprisonment of the delegates to Ottawa (Rev. Noel-Joseph Ritchot and Hon. Alfred Henry Scott), Taché remarked in a letter, to Joseph Howe, dated 3 May 1870:
“We do not care for the scandalous accusations of [Charles] Mair, not the gross injuries addressed by the Globe to the Commissioners … the old proverb ‘Lie, lie, something will always come of it,’ will find a new illustration in this affair.” [Source: Canada, Parliament, House of Commons, “Report of the Select Committee on the Causes of the Difficulties in the North-West Territory in 1869–70,” 28. Photo source: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Joehowe.JPG]
On 13 June 1870, Rev. N.-J. Ritchot wrote to Sir George-Étienne Cartier:
The representations of a certain number of newspapers, of newspapers even which ought to support their position, render the inhabitants of Manitoba inimical. They persist in declaring that they have never rebelled against any authority; they are displeased at seeing that the Canadians accuse them of having been rebels, because they have driven back adventurers from Canada who came without any right to disturb them and to make war upon them in their own country. The want of tact on the part of some French Canadian newspapers has injured their cause much. [Source: Canada, Parliament, House of Commons, “Report of the Select Committee on the Causes of the Difficulties in the North-West Territory in 1869–70,” 79.]
Link to: “History of the Red River Press” New Nation (7 January 1870), 2.
Link to: Additional Resources
Link to: Readers and writers with unacknowledged editorial influence: Women associated with the men who ‘made’ the news
Published: 14 August 2012