Historicist: The Conservative Empire

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Historicist: The Conservative Empire

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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The Empire Building, Adelaide Street West. Toronto Called Back From 1892 to 1847 by Conyngham Crawford Taylor (Toronto: William Briggs, 1892).

Nineteenth-century Toronto journalism was often a war field of conflicting political outlooks. Some newspaper proprietors, such as George Brown of the Globe, had deep ties with the parties of the day but (usually) kept their publications separate from the official party apparatus. Not so with the Empire, whose operations were maintained by the federal Conservatives. For just under a decade, the Empire provided morning readers with the news as filtered by the prime minister and his associates. But, as reporter Hector Charlesworth noted in his memoirs, “a newspaper established and conducted primarily by an official partisan junta has in its system the seed of death from the outset.”


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Advertisement announcing the launch of the Empire. The Mail, December 17, 1887.

Starting in 1872, the Conservatives used their sway with the proprietors of the Mail to present Torontonians with the party’s viewpoints that fell in step with the party line. Tory brass was happy with this relationship until the mid-1880s, when, like a stereotypical teen, the Mail’s editors printed opinions on topics like commercial union with the United States that were not shared by party officials. When the Mail declared its editorial independence from any party, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald and other Tory leaders looked for a means to get their message across without any questions. While there were other Conservative-leaning papers based in Toronto, such as the Evening Telegram, their proprietors were too independent-minded to ever follow party requests to the letter. The party’s solution: why not launch our own daily rag?
When the Empire debuted on December 27, 1887, its premiere editorial made no attempt to hide its political ties:

There can be no misunderstanding the wishes and intentions of the owners and management of THE EMPIRE. It is proposed to strengthen by all legitimate means the hands of the Party and the Government that have controlled the politics of the Dominion (with the exception of a term of five years) ever since the foundations of Confederation were laid. Believing that the public affairs of Canada have been, on the whole, wisely and ably administered under the premiership of Sir John A. Macdonald and holding that the remarkable progress of our country has been due in large measure to his far-sighted and patriotic administration, THE EMPIRE will extend to the Leader and his Government its fullest confidence and heartiest support…There is no necessity, here and now, for enlarging on the liberal, enlightened and patriotic policy that has placed Canada in the front rank among civilized countries. It is sufficient for our purpose to say that a Government and a party formulating, promoting and adhering to such a policy deserves well of the country and should count upon the support of all who are able to rise above the plane of purely partisan politics.

Content-wise, the Empire focused on pushing key Conservative platforms, such as the National Policy. Foreign items and agricultural news often took up more space than local news and lifestyle items that may have mattered little to the paper’s audience of die-hard Tories outside of the city. Rival papers were quick to pounce on the Empire, though some, like Saturday Night, expressed not venom but pity for the pressures the paper’s editorial staff had to work under:

The task of the partisan editor is still more difficult, because he must be eternally weighing not what is right but what is expedient. It is his function to say that which is best suited to the party’s interests, no matter whether it is right or wrong. It is his business to declare what the party desires the public to believe, and it is frequently a task of great magnitude to find an excuse for wrong-doing, or to palliate transgressions which are capable of no defence.

Even jokes in the Empire had to be carefully vetted so that party hacks and potential supporters wouldn’t be offended.

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Front page coverage of the death of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald. The Empire, June 8, 1891.

How much of a guiding force Macdonald provided the paper was proven when the Old Chieftain fell fatally ill during the spring of 1891. The paper’s coverage of his fight against the Grim Reaper was best summed up by Douglas Fetherling in his book The Rise of the Canadian Newspaper: “The Empire behaved with the special lack of dignity reserved for distant relations, eager to emphasize their membership in the family.” While other Toronto papers counted down the minutes to Macdonald’s death, the Empire acted as if his “amazing vitality” would carry him through the severe strokes he had suffered. Hints were also dropped that dastardly Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier, by pursuing “disloyal and degrading” pro-American policies, caused Sir John to over-exert himself in the name of protecting Canadian independence. Headlines screamed “A RAY OF HOPE!” when every other paper indicated the opposite was true. For a week after Macdonald died, the Empire displayed its grief by printing thick black bars around every column and interviewed every human being who had ever had contact with the prime minister.
The pitfalls of working for a party-run organ were always apparent to the Empire‘s employees. As the Conservatives fell into disarray amid a five-year-long game of musical prime ministers to fill out Macdonald’s term, no member of the paper’s staff was safe from incurring the wrath of any disgruntled politician who felt his prominence within the party gave him free rein to interfere in editorial content. Important stories without any political relevance could be suppressed by the whims of party officials. The situation was, in the words of Hector Charlesworth, “like trying to conduct a Sunday school picnic in a jungle.” In his thirteen months as an Empire reporter, Charlesworth saw at least two city editors pass through. He was himself dismissed for three weeks in the fall of 1894 to placate an incensed politician, was rehired, then decided he’d had enough and went back to his previous employer, the Toronto World.

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Front page coverage of the death of Prime Minister Sir John Thompson. The Empire, December 13, 1894.

By 1895, party officials had mended fences with the Mail and determined there was no good reason to keep the Empire alive in a market overflowing with morning papers. New Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell had a reputation for letting floundering projects sink (he had favoured killing the Canadian Pacific Railway at one point) and losses of up to $150,000 a year at the Empire could not have impressed him. Rumours of the paper’s fate swirled around newspaper circles until the announcement was made that as of February 7, the Mail and the Empire would merge. The Empire‘s farewell editorial on February 6 was brief — it stated the merger, told creditors their payments were still due, and that subscribers would receive the new paper, for which “there is every assurance will faithfully maintain the policy in political matters hitherto advocated by the Empire.”
The Empire‘s employees came out on the losing end of the merger, as their faith in the Conservative party went unrewarded. While the Mail‘s staff, whose paper had faced liquidation before the merger, was guaranteed continued employment, workers at the Empire were left to fend for themselves. Bowell refused to offer temporary clerkships in Ottawa during the upcoming session of the House of Commons, which led to one of the paper’s enemies, Liberal Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat, finding jobs at Queen’s Park for the displaced employees.
Ironically, the Empire‘s last major gesture was to reach out to its ideological polar opposite. When a fire destroyed the offices of the Globe in January 1895, the Empire cleared space in its building for the Liberal-leaning paper to continue publishing without missing an issue. When the Empire published its final edition, the Globe bestowed front-page condolences on those being tossed out of work in light of the “exceedingly pleasant relations between the staffs of the two journals” after the fire. Those “pleasant relations” were long in the past when the Globe later caused the Empire name to fade from Toronto’s newsstands for good. A month after buying the Globe in 1936, George McCullagh consolidated Toronto’s morning paper market by purchasing the Mail and Empire. When the merged paper debuted on November 23, the Mail achieved its ultimate victory as its name remained in the masthead, while the Empire‘s was consigned to the trash heap.
The final word on the Empire goes to a Saturday Night editorial that appeared the week the paper expired in 1895:

When one picked up the Empire in the morning no surprises were to be expected. If looking out of the window one sees an organ-grinder, the first few notes settle the question of what is to be played; so on opening that thoroughly respectable but now deceased sheet we always knew what was coming.

Additional material from Candid Chronicles: Leaves from the Note Book of a Canadian Journalist by Hector Charlesworth (Toronto: Macmillan, 1925), The Rise of the Canadian Newspaper by Douglas Fetherling (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1990) and the following newspapers: the December 27, 1887, June 5, 1891, and February 6, 1895 editions of the Empire; the February 6, 1895 edition of the Globe; and the December 31, 1887 and February 9, 1895 editions of Saturday Night. Portions of this post originally appeared on Heritage Toronto’s website.

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