News & the Imagining of National Space: Canada, 1890-1930

Annabel Gillings writes:

You might be wondering what late Victorian Canadian news and its imagined national space have to do with any 21st century person not brought up on a diet of maple syrup, ice hockey and highly obscure sociology texts. I certainly was.

But it turns out that in focusing on the early newspapers of a newly emerged, and truly enormous, country Professor Gene Allen (Ryerson University) has addressed a question still relevant to every national newspaper today: how do you speak to a national audience? How do you conjure an idea of unity - of identity - in a sprawling population, whose predilections and prejudices one can only guess at?

To begin to answer this question, Allen sampled national newspapers produced all across Canada, as a 'constructed week' from each decade between 1890 (when Canada and its national papers were comfortably settled) and 1930 (when radio elbowed in and dislodged the primacy of the papers). He measured volume of content on the basis of where it was produced (which province) and what the story covered, so creating a vast database of news stories and inter-provincial interests across the period in question.

What he found was this: Ontario (home to the capital Ottawa) received by far the most newspaper coverage, a strong factor reinforcing the primacy of its political role. Similarly, larger cities with state functions received more coverage for these roles while small towns cropped up only when they were home to accidents, crime or feats of agriculture (this latter being a Canadian whimsy, one suspects). Focus on Quebec declined over time, as it waned as a financial force; Montreal ceased to be the financial capital in 1930. The most unfiying force of all was the creation of a national news agency in 1917, replacing a hotch-potch of clippings and stringers with an organised system feeding the same stories out to papers across the nation.

These were the ways in which early newspapers in Canada helped to form a unified notion of 'nation-ness' (as distinct from the stronger feeling of 'nationalism') says Allen. So far, so much in agreement with the idea of 'shared experience' put forward by political theorist Benedict Anderson. In his 1983 book: 'Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism', Anderson describes the creation of a national identity by readers all consuming a mass media, aware of other readers simultaneously consuming the same paper - perhaps the same article - at the same time.

But the rest of Allen's research disturbs this cosy picture painted by Anderson. It reveals that the experience of 'nation-ness' through newspapers was not quite so homogenous. In fact, there were consistent imbalances: the maritime provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island) showed an enduring interest in Quebec's affairs but Quebec didn't return the compliment. English-speaking papers gave more coverage to the outside world (in particular the Boer War and WW1) while the French-speaking papers were more internalised. These differences didn't fade over time, and indicate fractures in the unity of the nation.

So, while newspapers can force some cohesion in the experience of nation-ness - through functional factors such as a single press agency, or a focus on the seat of power - ultimately this may be limited by the audience's preferences. Quebecois wanted to read about Quebecois; the British wanted to read about their wars.

Allen suggests Anderson's ideas be taken with a pinch of salt: above all, he points out, people can be paying attention to the same thing, but have profoundly different ideas about it. A profusion of news articles about Ottawa may be read by citizens in Ontario and in Quebec...but with pleasure in the former and resentment in the latter. Anderson's picture of simultaneity is a nice one, but perhaps just too neat. And not just for late Victorian Canadians.