1805: Newspapers Left and Right & Other Quebec Curios

Part of “The Canadas in Britain”, 1792-1827

Montreal Gazette 1785 Montreal Gazette 1785

Ask somebody about some of Quebec’s famous newspapers and they might name the Montreal Gazette (1785, founded by Fleury Mesplet) or Le Devoir (1910, founded by Henri Bourassa). However, the first two political newspapers were in Lower Canada: Le Canadien and The Quebec Mercury.

Le Canadien embraced the French-Canadian philosophy and a liberal way of life, whereas The Quebec Mercury catered to the interests of the conservative English who had settled in Lower Canada. The Quebec Mercury was the first of the two newspapers, first being published in January 1805 and every Saturday thereafter. Le Canadien, on the other hand, started circulation in November 1806 in response to the Mercury’s opinions. In terms of longevity, The Quebec Mercury outlived Le Canadien. The Mercury died out in the 1950s, while Le Canadien had breathed its last breath towards the end of the 19th Century. However, the impact and the vigour with which these two opinions argued their points survives to our days.

The Mercury, being an anglophone, bourgeois paper, advocated the assimilation of the French-Canadians and for a widespread Anglicisation of the country. Far from being a purely political paper, it also featured poetry and reviews on poetry and ship ads that would thank captains of ships for a safe passage to Canada. Due to its ship ads, the Mercury is also a source for genealogy, since ship ads would also often post complete listings of people who were on the ship. Conservative in nature, in Confederation-era, it would be a place for Tory (Conservative) pro-Confederation propaganda. Its anti-francophone stance would soften over the years and ironically, by the time the newspaper folded, its editor in chief was a francophone.

The Mercury’s blatant attacks on the French-Canadians did not go without notice. The Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada, unhappy with these nasty remarks, would often decree his arrest. The primary response on the French-Canadian side, Le Canadien, was the complete opposite of The Mercury. Essentially a mouthpiece for the mainly francophone Lower Canadian Legislative Assembly, it catered to a rising francophone middle class. It advocated the novel idea of an elected government that could be held accountable by the people: very different from the semblance of a government structure that the 1791 Constitutional Act instated. Like its English counterpart, Le Canadien’s publication did not go without notice: initially, the English governor of Lower Canada at the time would try to silence it after getting tired of the (arguably legitimate) attacks on the government structure, but fortunately, his attempts did not work.

Arguments about political rights in the Canadas would continue in various forms. For the meanwhile, however, getting people elected to the Legislative Assembly was difficult, and even more difficult if one was from a religious minority. Next week, we’ll look at one man that managed to briefly break this barrier and launch a career into politics.

Read back issues of Le Canadien here and The Quebec Mercury here.