Dafoe of the Free Press

John W. Dafoe is more than an unfettered editor: he is a maker and destroyer of governments

M. GRATTAN O’LEARY April 1 1929

Dafoe of the Free Press

John W. Dafoe is more than an unfettered editor: he is a maker and destroyer of governments

M. GRATTAN O’LEARY April 1 1929

Dafoe of the Free Press

John W. Dafoe is more than an unfettered editor: he is a maker and destroyer of governments


THE London Times,” said Punch, “is not as great as it used to be—it never was.” It was Punch’s inimitable answer to the claim that giants are no longer among us, that all the great statesmen and soldiers, poets and journalists are dead. But the quip was more clever than true. Argue as we may, it remains unchallengeable that our times lack a Gladstone, a Disraeli or a Macdonald; that we have no Tennyson or Matthew Arnold; no Huxley or Darwin; no literary successors of the Victorian giants.

And as with politics, science and literature, so with the press. Two or three generations ago the Englishspeaking world was rich in editors. It was rich in newspapermen, real, if not “great” in the sense that that adjective was dedicated to the figure of a Delane. In England there were Morley and Cook and W. T. Stead. In the United States there were Greely and Bowen, Godkin and Bowles. And in Canada we had Brown and McGee and Joe Howe and, later on, W. S. Fielding of the Halifax Chronicle, the Dougalds of the Montreal Witness, and the famous Edward Farrar.

The journalism of these men was arrogant, narrow, and perhaps entirely too self-centred. But it was a journalism whose freedom was boundless, whose open avenues were vistas of patriotic usefulness immeasurably valuable to a nation. The old editors were not concerned with, or fettered by, commercial considerations. Their pens were not lamed by employers who, in a new economic world, feel compelled to make journalism a business of selling news. They profoundly stirred the conscience of their public because they either owned their journals or were given a complete freedom of expression. That they were also tremendously engrossed in political and moral causes helps to explain their power.

These men, apart from one or two notable exceptions, have left no successors. In England there is the tempestuous J. L. Garvin, an Irishman trying to run England by the grace of an American who owns the Observer: and in the United States there is Waldo R. Cook, free spirit, on the historic Springfield Republican. In Canada one lone name rises above the anonymity of a large city daily. Of all the men on the landscape of our journalism, some of them great in the guidance of editorial policies, others mighty in the garnering of profits, but one measures up to the great captains of the past. He is John Wesley Dafoe—Dafoe of the Manitoba Free Press.

It is not easy, even for a journalist, to define a great editor. But a great editor, I think, is a man who, without perhaps doing anything in particular, and certainly without interfering unduly with his subordinates, manages to imprint his personality on everything permitting the expression of personality that appears in his paper. The great editor, therefore, must be to a very large extent an uncontrolled editor. Nobody under him must suspect that there is some lively intelligence in the background prompting or controlling him. The moment that occurs, there is a want of coherence which the reader feels, though he may not be able to explain.

Of the precise relations between John W. Dafoe and those who own the Free Press, the writer of this sketch has no knowledge. But what is as clear as crystal is that, as editor, Dafoe is free and uncontrolled. His personality, his prejudices, his judgments; the policies and creeds and fetishes that he believes in; his whole outlook and temperament and character—these, and these only, are the Free Press.

But John W. Dafoe is more than an unfettered editor: he is a power in the land. For more than a generation he has inspired, shaped and guided the politico-economic doctrines of a large part of the West. It is no exaggeration to say of him that he has pulled down governments, set up governments, counseled governments; that, without arrogance or pretence of dictatorship, he has had more influence in determining the political course of a large section of this nation than perhaps any other man of his time.

Who, then, is John W. Dafoe? What manner of man is this who, from an editorial sanctum in Winnipeg, wields a sceptre of journalistic power unrivaled by his contemporaries? What of his antecedents, background and personality? What does he stand for in our national life?

A Son of the Backwoods

J’OHN W. DAFOE was born on a farm a few miles west of Ottawa. His first known North American ancestor was a Flemish immigrant who spelt his name Deffaux, and who settled in New York about 1740. The name, like the names of so many immigrants, underwent various changes, and when the War of Independence broke out it appeared in the Loyalist roll in three different spellings. One of these three was Dafoe, who, having no use for George Washington, made his way to Adolphustown at the eastern end of Lake Ontario. Two generations of Dafoes lived there, and then Calvin Dafoe trekked north to the Ottawa Valley. He married a young English girl whose people came from Kent, and in 1866 their first son was born. Like the good Methodists that they were, they christened him John Wesley.

Young Dafoe’s youth was the average life of the sons of pioneer parents. Canada in these days lived by candle light. The Ottawa Valley was a backwoods; lumbering the sole industry; farming restricted to the needs of shantymen. Even in the small villages the horseshoe and the buggy were the bases of established and, so far as any one could foresee, permanent businesses. Oxteams could still be seen on country roads; horses were practically the sole means of rapid transportation; livery stables were everywhere. The blacksmith beneath the spreading chestnut tree was a reality; neither the garage mechanic nor the service station even threatened to retire that scene to poetry. The hitching post had not been supplanted by the parking problem; men cut grain with a sickle and threshed it with a flail.

In that atmosphere Dafoe grew up. He learned to wield an axe; learned a little at school; met and worked with shantymen; saw Orange and Green fight gloriously on July 12 and St. Patrick’s Day. At the age of fifteen, his mother, proud of her red-headed son, sent him to High School at Arnprior. In due course he became a school teacher; got a country school.

His First Assignment

rT'HEN occurred something that was to effect permanently the whole tenor of his life. In the lodgings of his pedagogic predecessor, to which he moved, he found a small library. The old master, an Englishman, had been a Liberal, a Manchester School Free Trader, and his books consisted mostly of the pamphlets issued by the Corn Law Repeal League in England—many of them by Cobden and Bright. These pamphlets—they are resting to-day in the office of the Manitoba Free Press —became Dafoe’s economic bible. He read and re-read them; became converted from the ardent Toryism of his family; decided with all of the ardor of youth that some day he, too, would go out and crusade for the masses.

It was not long delayed. One day, when his little schoolroom palled, and the great city and the plight of the masses beckoned, he packed up his pamphlets and belongings, bought a ticket for Montreal, and, arriving there, presented himself to the city editor of the Montreal Star. Fate was not unkind to him. With his baggedkneed trousers, red tousled head and rustic atmosphere he looked anything but a potential Delane, and it is certain that the city editor would have disdainfully dismissed him but for one thing. The Star, fighting its way under Hugh Graham—now Lord Atholstan—was campaigning against swindlers who operated clothing stores, and whose scheme was to lure simple country folk and immigrants into their establishments and sell them shoddy garments at high prices. The matter was the subject of acute controversy. The city was claiming that tne swindlers had been cleaned out; the Star claimed they had not. What was wanted was direct evidence.

The Star city editor had an inspiration. Why not use Dafoe as a decoy? With his make-up perfect, because it was natural, why not send him down, a willing prey, to the business section sharks with detectives at the right moment for the evidence? So Dafoe was hired. He ambled innocently down to the swindlers; fell an easy prey; was fleeced; obtained the necessary evidence. The detectives arrested the shopkeeper; he was convicted; and Dafoe, writing all about it from the standpoint of the “fleeced,” became a full-fledged reporter.

An Editor At Twenty-Six

DAFOE took to journalism 1 ke a mosquito to a shantyman back home. He took to it so thoroughly, mastered its technique so completely, that Hugh Graham, always on the lookout for bright young men, sent him to the Ottawa Press Gallery to represent the Star. There, a mere stripling among hard-bitten, bewhiskered veterans, he became an innovator. These old-timers, upon whom the dead hand of tradition lay heavily, always began their reports: “The House met to-day at three p.m.” Dafoe, with a flair for the dramatic, and with a propensity for getting the “news behind the news,” determined on something new. It was all right to tell about the play on the stage but what about the wings? What was taking place behind the scenes? In Cabinet councils? Behind green-baized doors? To do that, it would be necessary to know the politicians; to meet and talk with them; to gain their confidence. If a cat might meow at a King, a mere reporter might even talk with a Blake or a Macdonald.

Very soon a new type of despatch came out of Ottawa. It amplified, interpreted, explained the news. It told about the men who were controlling the performances in Parliament; foretold events; sketched personalities; gave the public a glimpse behind the scenes. It was a new kind of political correspondence.

Dafoe, like all of Hugh Graham’s young men, had varied assignments and experiences. He covered the Quebec Legislature; got to know the leading Frénch-Canadian politicians of the day, including the famous Mercier; almost lost his life when, in comradeship with a brother of the novelist, R. W. Chambers, he went down the St. Lawrence on a tug in a storm, forced his way on board the City of Florida, and scooped the continent on one of the biggest marine wrecks of those years.

In 1886, Dafoe, his reputation growing, became editor of The Ottawa Journal, later to become the property of one of his friends and contemporaries, P. D. Ross.

A respectable job which the average journalist would have clung to, it set too close a boundary upon the ambitions of Dafoe. So one day—his people having moved from the Ottawa Valley to the prairies—he went out to the Manitoba Free Press as reporter and jack of all jobs.

These were the days when Winnipeg was a frontier town. The Free Press lived vicariously under the direction of W. P. Luxton—editor and proprietor. Dafoe “covered” the town, consorted with roughs and toughs, and in his spare time sought to supplement the mail services by loitering around the telegraph office— the Government had put in a line of telegraph, famous in political history— for odd bits of news. There, one day, he picked up a “scoop” about which he still chuckles. Sir John Macdonald died in Ottawa on a Sunday and the telegraph tickers in Winnipeg recorded the event early in the evening. Dafoe, getting the news first, put out a bulletin in front of the Free Press, and, satisfied with his day’s work, went to church. At the close of the sermon a note was handed to the minister. He faced the congregation and said, “I regret to announce that Sir John Macdonald died in Ottawa to-day. We will now sing the Doxology.” Whereupon the congregation rose and sang, “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow.” Dafoe, after a year or two of adventurings, tired of outpost journalism. C. E. Montague once wrote that great minds always make their way to wherever is the full stir of life; and Dafoe, his horizons of knowledge broadened, and with politics luring him powerfully, retraced his footsteps East. At the age of twenty-six he found himself editor-in-chief of the M ontreal H er aid.

Political History in the Making

THESE were stirring years in Canadian politics. Sir John Macdonald had explored ashes and dust, and although succeeded by Sir John Thompson, in the full plenitude of his powers, the shadows were already lengthening in the long day of Toryism. Out in Manitoba a school question was arising that was to change the course of political history, while in the parliamentary firmament the star of Laurier rose steadily with little to set it atremble. In the historic struggle that followed, Dafoe threw himself with all the ardor of a valiant knight errant. He had been in Ottawa in the days when Laurier leaped from obscurity to fame with his unforgettable defence of Riel; he knew all the captains of both parties; and he knew something of political strategy. It was not surprising, therefore, that one of the men with whom he came into contact, and with whom he seems to have worked on terms of intimacy, was that brilliant, wayward figure, J. Israel Tarte. Tarte, whatever his talents in a Ministry, was the most picturesque, colorful and effective of all the fighting men who marched and bivouacked with Laurier in the campaign of ’96. And it was Tarte who, with the aid of Dafoe, played a bold stroke which, more than anything else in that bitter struggle, doomed the Conservative Party.

It was the stroke by which, just when the battle over the Manitoba school question ebbed and flowed, the newspapers came out one day with the celebrated letter written to Laurier by Father Lacombe. “If the Government is beaten,” it said, “I inform you with regret that the episcopacy, like one man, united with the clergy, will rise to support those who may have fallen in defending us.”

Many writers and biographers have speculated as to how this letter, so disastrous to Toryism in Ontario, got itself published, and Professor Skelton, in his “Life of Laurier,” says that it was “made public through ecclesiastical channels.” Dafoe’s own comment upon this, restrained by his characteristic modesty, is found in his own “Laurier.” He says:

“It would be interesting to know his (Skelton’s) authority for this statement. The writer of this article says it was published as the result of a calculated indiscretion by the Liberal board of strategy. As it was through his agency that publication of the letter was sought and secured, it will be agreed that he speaks with knowledge. It does not, of course, follow that Laurier was a party to its publication.”

With the election over, and Liberalism enthroned in power, Dafoe continued as editor of the Montreal Herald, and under his editorial direction that paper achieved a prestige it has never equaled since. But again the West was beckoning.

In 1902, when Clifford Sifton was crowding the gates of Winnipeg with people going in that they might choke it again with wheat coming out, Dafoe was ! offered the editorship of the Manitoba Free Press. It was the beginning of an editorial career which, for influence and prestige and independence, has had no parallel in Canada in our time. Dafoe’s j first notable achievement came when, in 1911, Sifton, the owner of the Free Press, broke with Laurier over Reciprocity. The spectacle was then seen of an editor big enough to run counter to the policies of the man who owned his paper; and although the Free Press lost and Sifton won, the influence of the paper throughout the West was immeasurably increased.

Dafoe and the Union Government

"D LIT it was the war, the graveyard of so H many reputations, that made Dafoe national in size. Up to then he had given the West watchwords of debate; had become on the prairies almost what Henry Watterson was in the South; had fought a battle against the Roblin Government which for skill and power and sustained drive had seldom been equaled in journalism. Now he was to show that on a larger j stage, in the greatest crisis that ever faced i his country, he could give direction to national thought and discussion in a way that would help to make history.

Dafoe was the first editor in Canada to advocate from the beginning of the war a Coalition Government. The cynical said that this was because the Free Press had no faith in the Borden Ministry or in Bob Rogers, owner of the Winnipeg Telegram. But they were to learn differently later on. By the summer of 1916 the Free Press was in the thick of a Coalition campaign. A year later, when Sir Robert Borden came back from England, declaring for conscription and inviting Laurier to join in a Coalition, the Free Press supported him.

Those of us who were in the Press Gallery in those stirring days saw much of Dafoe. He was one of the few Liberal editors whose counsel Laurier sought until the last; one of the still rarer few who, hateful of breaking with the Old Chieftain whom he had followed so loyally and long, yet could debate with him with candor and sincerity. There is no need to dwell here upon those days; days which saw Sir Wilfrid’s old captains leave him one by one, days which saw party loyalties and comradeships and lifelong friendships torn up by the roots. Dafoe, it is certain, would have had it otherwise: his ideal would have been a Union Ministry in which the long services and great prestige and personality of Laurier would have made him the head.

That, however, was not to be. A bilingual debate, flung into the arena at Ottawa, drew heavily upon the loyalty of a large section of Liberalism; conscription split it in two; and Dafoe, a leader of the eonscriptionists, returned to Winnipeg to throw the weight of the Free Press on the side of Borden in the 1917 campaign with a series of editorials as powerful as any that have ever appeared in a Canadian newspaper.

There are Liberals in Canada who refuse to let the sun go down upon the wrath stirred up by Dafoe when he broke with “The Chief.” They said, and still say— that he was “bought”; that he was motivated by racial prejudice; that he sought merely place and power. Dafoe’s record since the war has risen in judgment upon all such foolish strictures. To those in particular who charge that he sought place and honor, there is the crushing repartee that Dafoe is one of two editors in Canada—the other being the late John Ross Robertson—to refuse a title.

In 1917, recognizing Dafoe’s great war services, Sir Robert Borden would have made him a baronet. Dafoe’s answer, which deserves to be immortalized was: “Heavens, no; why, I shovel the snow off my own sidewalk and stoke my own furnace!”

That refusal, it may be claimed, sounded the deathknell of titles in Canada. For had Dafoe taken a baronetcy, had he been the seeker after honors that his critics charged, the assault that was subsequently made in Parliament upon titles, and which was chiefly supported by Western Liberal Unionists, would probably never have been made.

Since the war, Dafoe’s editorial record is largely the contemporary story of the West. There was his memorable fight against the ultra-radicals in the Winnipeg strike; his conditional espousal of the cause of the Agrarians; his gradual return to preaching of a sanctified Liberalism; his absence, with measurable results, from the Liberal campaign of 1925; the equally notable consequences of his return to the Free Press editorial page in the election of 1926. The truth, indeed, is that there has not been a distinctive principle underlying any Western aspiration for which Dafoe has not found its best and most forcible expression, and not an impulse to action that has not received impetus, in many cases life, from his pen.

A Lovable Man with Baggy Trousers

"KTOR has he been merely sectional. He

^ has championed, and championed powerfully, every constructive national reform to unveil evils, to castigate wrongdoers, and to insist upon the fundamental moralities in the conduct of public life and the policies of the nation. In this he has been more than a partizan. There are some in Canada who, knowing little of the man, indict Dafoe as “narrow,” as a bigoted partizan, as one who, like Macaulay’s Whiggish lady, thinks all Tories are born wicked and grow worse. Yet it is in the columns of the Manitoba Free Press that one finds some of the most fearless criticism of the present Liberal Ministry; and it was John W. Dafoe who, in the presence of the writer of this article, ranked among the six greatest of Canadians none other than Arthur Meighen.

As an editorial writer, Dafoe has had no equals among contemporary Canadian journalists. Willison, at his best, perhaps, wrote with more literary grace, but for lucidity and directness, for clear, straightforward English, for logic and capacity to interest at all times, Dafoe stands alone. Reading those great double-leaded leaders in the Free Press, one becomes conscious in the beginning of the skill of the great surgeon in laying bare the seat of a disease before actually beginning to operate. That dissecting of his opponent’s position, or of the policy he wishes to destroy, is often enough to refute the argument he sets out to oppose; but when to it knowledge, logic and power add fact after fact and argument after argument, the tax upon persuasion is great.

Nor need anyone doubt his sincerity. Dafoe, whatever the world may say of his policies, is influenced by a passionate zeal to forward the cause of the people. He has never been one of those intellectual democrats of whom it was once said in England that they would write and preach eloquently on behalf of the masses, yet turn from a workman in the street. Behind all of his moods, in the very warp and woof of his nature, there is an intense loyalty to the class from which he sprang.

And there is something about Dafoe that bespeaks the democrat. The huge though not muscular frame; the great head with its mane of tousled sandy hair; the long, bushy eyebrows; the square jaws and somewhat heavy features—these do not suggest either the great pontifical editor, the crusader or the intellectual aristocrat. It is only, indeed, when Dafoe becomes animated in controversy, or waxes indignant about some abuse, that one becomes conscious of the man’s mental and moral power. One forgets then the unruly hair, the slovenly, rustic dress, the trousers bagged at the knees.

In his personal relations and friendships he is the most lovable of men. For once, in 1925, in a long voyage to Australia, the writer of this article had the privilege of his companionship, and always he will have recollections of his gentleness of soul, of his rich, cultured and many-sided mind, of his gay and buoyant courage, of his friendliness for youth. Somebody has written that if it be true that one generation after another has depended upon its young to equip it with gaiety and enthusiasm, it is no less true that each generation of the young depends upon those who have lived to illustrate what can be done with experience. That is why, because of what he has been in journalism, young newspapermen should feel themselves close to John W. Dafoe. He has never failed to tell them what they should want to hear, or to show them what they should wish a journalist to be.