by Bruce Cherney (part 3 of 3)
In the very first issue of the Nor’Wester, published on December 28, 1859, editors William Buckingham and William Coldwell were somewhat vague about their political leanings, but they hinted that the Red River Settlement should strengthen its ties to the Province of Canada (now Ontario and Quebec) and promote British government actions that would lessen the monopoly held by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in Rupert’s Land.
In effect, the initial issue of their newspaper was tentative in its politics in order to test the waters and not alienate the long-time residents — many of whom had past and present links to the HBC — who called the settlement home. Bolder statements confirming their political agenda could wait for a later date.
In the December 28 newspaper, the editors announced that “the time has arrived when this fertile and magnificent country, thrown open to all people of all lands, needs an exponent of its opinion, its feelings, its varied but common interests, through the medium of the Press ...
“Of course the Red River will have its politics — has them now in fact,” they wrote in the first newspaper to be published in Western Canada. “But we contend that at present these pertain to material development, not to theoretical argument, still less to retrospective quarrels. The not distant action of the Imperial Government, coupled with the policy which the Canadian Legislature may indicate at its next session, will necessarily throw upon us the duty of dealing more specifically with matters to which we now generally refer.”
In future issues, the two editors wrote favourably about the possibility of Red River attaining the status of a Crown colony. The prospect of HBC-controlled Rupert’s Land (also commonly referred to as the Northwest) becoming a Crown colony had been first proposed in 1857 by Sir Edmund Head, the governor general of the united Province of Canada, which was created by the Act of Union passed in 1840 by the British Parliament.
In 1858, even the British Parliament’s Select Committee on the Hudson’s Bay Company recommended annexation of the Red River Settlement to Canada, or “to consider whether some temporary provision for its administration may not be advisable.” Neither of these options would leave the governing of the settlement in the hands of the HBC.
The Nor’Wester openly challenged the HBC-appointed Council of Assiniboia as non-representative of the settlement’s residents. As a Crown colony, Red River would have had a governor appointed by the government in London and an elected, representative assembly to oversee local affairs and its own court system as was then the case in British Columbia, which had been granted Crown colony status by the British Parliament in 1858, although its first representative assembly was not elected until 1864.
The make-up of the Red River Settlement was in a state of flux when the two editors arrived from Toronto. While the Métis remained the most numerous of Red River’s few thousand inhabitants, there was a growing community of settlers from Ontario, who brought with them religious and racial animosities that would eventually throw the settlement into turmoil. Aided and abetted by the Nor’Wester’s editors, the Ontarians exercised a sway over local affairs far out of proportion to their numbers. It was they who would eventually dominate the community’s business enterprises. It was also this group who initially favoured Crown colony status.
But there is some question as to how much influence the Nor’Wester had on the affairs of the settlement. In his book, Red River, fur trader and historian Joseph James Hargrave, who was present in the settlement when the Nor’Wester was being published, wrote: “Some regarded it as having been an instrument of unmixed evil, others as having been productive of some benefit to the community, while possibly the greatest number believe it to have been destitute of any appreciable influence whatever.”
Though as an employee of the HBC, Hargrave can be expected to question the real influence of the newspaper in the community.
Certainly, Louis Riel, the leader of the Métis during the Red River Resistance of 1869-70, became so frustrated with the newspaper’s criticisms and “influence” with the English-speaking segment of the local population that he seized its offices in 1869 and ceased its publication. The Nor’wester’s last issue appeared on November 23, 1869.
Becoming a Crown colony was just one of a number of options discussed in Red River. Others were annexation to the U.S., annexation to the Province of Canada or maintaining the status quo. The latter was favoured by the highly-influential Roman Catholic clergy in Red River, who felt that a gradual transition from the HBC sphere of influence to an association with Canada would best protect the rights of the Catholic and French-speaking Métis in the settlement.
In later issues, editorials in the Nor’Wester would promote a union with the Province of Canada, while other editorials attacked the HBC and its Council of Assiniboia as an inappropriate system of government for the settlement.
The newspaper’s opposition eventually resulted in the council barring reporters from a meeting by a 7-4 vote. The editors wrote in the March 14, 1860, Nor’Wester: “It may be suggested that the Council is not elective and therefore the people cannot claim those privileges in relation to it which we accorded to British subjects everywhere else. We reply that if its non-elective character is a sufficient defence for all abuses with which it may be chargeable, the sooner it is made elective, the better ... for we want, and this rising Colony requires, a genuine Council of the people, and not a mere semblance or sham.”
Hargrave wrote that the editors’ persistent opposition to the local government meant the council would have preferred its absence from the settlement, although the historian persisted in downplaying its true impact on local affairs. “In this respect, I think it certain, that had the influence of the Nor’Wester been at all commensurate with its ambition, it would have frequently so exercised it as to bring the settlement into a state of anarchy.”
The first issue of the Nor’Wester contained such local news as a meeting of the Council of Assiniboia (non-critical — merely a report on its proceedings), local agriculture and the HBC cargo ship Kitty being missing and feared lost in the Arctic with all its cargo that was slated to restock the shelves of Red River merchants and residents — a grave loss late in the season. Miscellaneous notes of U.S. and European events were also published as was news from Canada.
Of particular interest in the settlement was a report on the trial of Joseph Gazden for the “wilful murder” of George Lyon, both of whom were residents of the Red River. What is surprising about the case is that the alleged murder had occurred years earlier in 1853, but the trial in the General Quarterly Court of Assiniboia was held on December 15, 1859. The trial ended with the acquital of Gazden.
An ad in the paper announced that Buckingham and Coldwell were also in the bookselling business.
Another ad was for an apprentice, “a smart intelligent lad to learn the printing business in all its branches.” The newspaper’s first apprentice was W.F. Garrioch of Portage la Prairie.
In total, the first issue boasted four 22-by-15-inch pages.
The first issue received favourable notices from Eastern Canadian newspapers, including the Globe, which called it a “highly satisfactory specimen of the art typographical.”
In the February 14, 1860, issue, Buckingham and Coldwell announced that James Ross, a local resident, was to be associated with the publication of the newspaper, having bought a third interest in the venture. Ross, who was educated at St. John’s College and the University of Toronto and served as the HBC’s postmaster for Assiniboia, was praised by the two editors for being closely identified “with every movement having for its object the welfare of his native country. We therefore consider ourselves fortunate in securing services of so valuable coadjutor.”
Actually, Ross was a good fit with Buckingham and Coldwell as he shared their political opinions and became a voice calling for the end of the Council of Assiniboia. He was eventually deprived of his positions as the HBC-appointed sheriff, postmaster and governor of the local gaol by the “government he was doing all in his power, as editor of the newspaper and public agitator, to bring into contempt” (Hargrave).
Ross owned a hardware store and Coldwell apparently hoped to use its patrons as a source of information.
“Since Coldwell was a teetotaller he could not pick up news leads at the (Royal Hotel, the first licensed bar in Western Canada) tavern in the time-honoured fashion of newsmen” (The Nor’Wester, Manitoba Historical Resources Branch, 1981).
Another advantage of having Ross as a partner was that the printing operation could be moved to his estate at the foot of Rupert Street in Colony Gardens, between present-day Bannatyne and Alexander streets. Coldwell subsequently married Ross’ sister, Jemima.
When Ross joined the newspaper, what would become the nucleus of Winnipeg was described: “Five hundred acres adjoining Fort Garry were marked out as a camping space for all who traded with the Company. Adjoining that common was the property of the leading man among the freetraders, Andrew McDermot, a river lot whose north boundary is marked by McDermot Avenue in the city of Winnipeg. Next came the lot of A.G.B. Bannatyne, one of Andrew McDermot’s sons-in-law: its north boundary is marked by Bannatyne Avenue. Next came the lot of Sheriff Alexander Ross, whose name is likewise perpetuated in Ross Avenue. William and James Avenues bear the names of two of Sheriff Ross’s sons. Logan Avenue was named for Robert Logan, whose property came next; it included the site of Fort Douglas, the little stockaded stronghold built in 1812, after the arrival of the first Selkirk settlers. Beyond the Logan property lay the Point Douglas common” (Winnipeg’s Early Days: A Short Historical Sketch, by W.J. Healy, 1927).
“About a year after the establishment of the newspaper, Mr. William Buckingham, probably finding the outlook less promising than had been expected, returned to (Eastern) Canada” (Bryce).
With Buckingham’s departure, Ross obtained a half interest in the newspaper, and the original pioneering partnership that had brought the first newspaper to the Red River Settlement ended, although the paper that Buckingham and Coldwell established continued to be printed until 1869.