Friends or Foe

Friends or Foe

U.S.-Canada Relations

Today, Canada has a strong relationship with their American next door neighbours. But this wasn’t always the case…

Fears of annexation (as in taking over or becoming part of) were a real concern for Canadians in the early 20th century. Politicians used this fear to spark anti-American sentiment amongst the public. While cartoonists at the time were all too happy to provoke these feelings.


Through the magnifier…

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What was your first job?

For many young boys living in North American cities in the early 20th century, it was selling newspapers. By buying the newspapers in bulk and selling them to the businessmen on their way to work, these “newsboys” could make a few extra dollars. 

Although their shouts of “extra, extra” can no longer be heard on our city streets, their impact remains. The hats they typically wore are today still called “newsboy caps.”

In the city of Toronto…

One of the newsboy biggest competitions was the newsstands.

These newsstands were on the corners of towns throughout Canada. Today, you can still find their modern, smaller version on the streets.


Image source: City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, s0372, ss0058, it1452


When Uncle Sam Meets Johnny Canuck

One way artists portray abstract or complex ideas is through personification. Personification creates a human form to represent these ideas. Cartoonists used the characters of Uncle Sam and Johnny “Jack” Canuck to represent the U.S. and Canada. 

Just as John Canuck wears the stetson hat for Canada, many of Uncle Sam’s appearances have him in stars and stripes clothing.

Uncle Sam often appears in a top-hat, striped pants, and a star-shaped vest. 

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Can you identity what are some characteristics of Johnny Canuck in the following cartoons?

Uncle Sam and Jack Canuck smoke cigars together Johnny, or Jack, Canuck sits with Uncle Sam, the pair smoking cigars, with cordial smiles on their faces. Clouds of smoke billow about their heads. Canuck is dressed in a regular, plain three-piece suit and a wide-brimmed hat. He is leaning forward in his chair, pointing at Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam wears a black coat, a starry waistcoat, long striped pants, and a black tall top hat with stars on the band. He leans back in his chair, relaxed.

Just like any old friends, Uncle Sam and Jack Canuck are sitting back and reminiscing on old times. Jack alludes to a time during the War of 1812 when Americans invaded and burned down the Toronto Parliament buildings. He makes a promise that Americans won’t be able to do that again.

“Jack Canuck: Yes Sam, you burned the Toronto Parliament Buildings once, but Sir James Whitney was not in power then”

Newton McConnell. Circa 1913.

Another way to enliven a personification is to add associated symbols, often through clothes. Here John Cannuck is wearing a stetson hat, long associated with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Contrast this with the more formal top hat on Wilfrid Laurier’s head.

As John Cannuck resists entering the room marked “States”, is the artist indicating anything about the men’s values in this cartoon? Perhaps their clothing can shed some light.

“John Cannuck:-“No Sir Wilfrid; I’ll not expose myself to any disease that I don’t want to catch.”

Newton McConnell. Circa 1911.

Laurier fails to lure John Canuck into the United States. In the background is a house with the United States crest and a sign that reads “WARNING: THIS HOUSEHOLD HAS INDUSTRIAL DEPRESSION” on the door. Through the window next to the door, a bedridden Uncle Sam can be seen. Outside the house in the foreground, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, shown in a fine coat and top hat, stands positioned to guide the way into the house. In Laurier’s hand is a roll of paper that reads “RECIPROCITY TREATY.” Laurier looks concerned at John Canuck. John Cannuck [sic] turns his body away from while he looks back at the house and Laurier. His expression stern. Across the band of his hat reads “CANADA.”
Canada kicks the United States out of the Dominion House. Young Canada, shown here smoking, kicks the rear of Uncle Sam, sending him down the front steps of the Dominion House, while John Bull and a bulldog — one of many personifications of Britain — oversees from behind. Bull smiles, while Young Canada looks sternly on a confused Uncle Sam. The caption at the bottom of the image reads: “UNCLE SAM KICKED OUT; YOUNG CANADA— ‘WE DON’T WANT YOU HERE;’ JOHN BULL— ‘THAT’S RIGHT, MY SON—NO MATTER WHAT COMES, AN EMPTY HOUSE IS BETTER THAN SUCH A TENANT AS THAT!”

The caption also helps to indicate who the characters are with this one reading “Uncle Sam Kicked Out.” Cartoonists used all these techniques to help the viewers understand the content quickly. Today we are able to understand the cartoon without having to know the history or headlines of the day.

“Uncle Sam Kicked Out!”

Unknown Artist. Circa 1880s.

Johnny Canuck is not the only face of Canada. In some portrayals, Canada was a young woman guided by the motherly figure of Mrs. Britannia. Instead of Uncle Sam, here there is a similarly styled man named Jonathan representing the U.S. Personifications are reflective of their time periods, just as this one shows the fashion and values of wealthy white people in the Victorian era. What could a personified Canada look like today?

“A Pertinent Question”

Unknown Artist. 1886.

Canada and Britannia sit together while the United States leers nearby. Miss Canada, dressed in a fur coat and cap, leans on her mother, Mrs Britannia, seated at a park bench. In the background, a personification of the United States watches them, leaning against a post while smoking a cigar. The caption below reads “A PERTINENT QUESTION. MRS BRITANNIA— ‘Is it possible, my dear, that you have ever given your cousin Jonathan any encouragement?’ MISS CANADA— ‘Encouragement! Certainly not, Mamma. I have told him that we can never be united.’”


What do these images say about how Canadians view themselves and Americans?


In the imagination of Canadians, the United States could be Canada’s friendliest neighbour or fiercest foe. As Canada moved away from Britain’s influence in the early 20th century, the concerns over American dominance grew. 

Many Canadians had strong connections to their “motherland” and a growing closeness between the two countries became personal. Others saw it as another imperial power that could take away their rights, freedom, and possessions, just as Britain and Canada did. 

By picking up the pen, political cartoonists made the choice to portray a welcoming neighbour or a plotting enemy. They also relied on stereotypical images of nations and peoples to get their point across.

To help readers understand the cartoons quickly, cartoonists would draw on common, familiar images. On the woman’s hat are maple leaves and a beaver, imagery associated with Canada. Yet, the beaver is stuck to her hat with an American flag hat pin and another flag is wrapped around her hat. As Uncle Sam smirks beside her, whose side does she represent? (Newton McConnell. Between 1905 and 1914)

"Miss U. S. Democracy's new annexation Easter hat"

To help readers understand the cartoons quickly, cartoonists would draw on common, familiar images. On the woman’s hat are maple leaves and a beaver, imagery associated with Canada. Yet, the beaver is stuck to her hat with an American flag hat pin and another flag is wrapped around her hat. As Uncle Sam smirks beside her, whose side does she represent? (Newton McConnell. Between 1905 and 1914)
In 1867, Canada officially became a country. This cartoon from just a few years later portrays Canada as a young child with “Mother Britannia” and “Uncle Sam” standing over him. This fight continued into the 20th century. (Unknown Artist. 1870)

“1879 Political Cartoon”

In 1867, Canada officially became a country. This cartoon from just a few years later portrays Canada as a young child with “Mother Britannia” and “Uncle Sam” standing over him. This fight continued into the 20th century. (Unknown Artist. 1870)


Tension between the United States and Canada grew when the Liberal Party of Canada proposed a new “reciprocity” agreement in 1911. Reciprocity would eliminate tariffs – a type of tax on goods crossing the border – between the two countries. 

Many people were opposed to the growing influence of the U.S. and the potential loss of their livelihood. In particular, farmers were frequent figures in the cartoons, showing an affinity on the part of the cartoonist for the white, male, working class.

The cartoons from this time show how this issue became a contentious topic during the 1911 federal election. With the Liberals in favour and the Conservative party opposed, it created a new battle stage for the cartoonists to draw on.

Definition of Reciprocity

Reciprocity is a type of exchange with the goal of having a win-win trade. For example, if you were to help a friend with their homework, you might expect them to pay you back in the future. 

In these cartoons, reciprocity refers to a type of trade between two countries, but the core idea of a mutually beneficial relationship remains.

Reciprocity and annexation were portrayed in cartoons as of the same stripe, tiger stripe in this case. The small tiger cub of reciprocity could one day grow into the annexation tiger. (Newton McConnell. Circa 1911)

“Looking our way”

Reciprocity and annexation were portrayed in cartoons as of the same stripe, tiger stripe in this case. The small tiger cub of reciprocity could one day grow into the annexation tiger. (Newton McConnell. Circa 1911)

Notice on the ground the bones labelled Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Porto Rico, and Philippines – were they once tigers too?

In reviewing this time period’s political cartoons, Peter Desbarats and Terry Mosher, authors of The Hecklers, A history of Canadian Political Cartooning and a Cartoonists History of Canada, said how “Elisha Newton McConnell was credited as being instrumental in the defeat of Laurier and his reciprocity policy in 1911.”


How much is the US and Canada trade and investment relationship worth today?

A. Over $1 million

B. Over $100 million

C. Over $1 billion

D. Over $1 trillion


“Sir Wilfrid Laurier” Sir Leslie Ward (Pseudonym “Spy”)

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You may recognize this face from a $5 bill.

The portrait is of Sir Wilfred Laurier, Canada’s seventh Prime Minister. For over 30 years he led the Liberal Party of Canada, one of the major political parties in the country.

As a frequent star of cartoons from the time period, make note of how his official portrait differs from his more cartoonish appearances.

Unknown Artist. Circa 1891.

“Election Poster - Conservative Campaign Against Reciprocity”

Unknown Artist. Circa 1891.

What do sand, a 1960s Western novel, and Liberals have in common?

They’re all called grit. In the 1870s, the nickname became widely used to describe members of the Liberal party. 

A single species of insect can wipe out an entire forest. After feasting on the “grit policy” tree, the annexation worms are moving towards the “national policy” tree. The grit tree now stands barren, the only thing hanging from it is the annexation cocoon that gave birth to the worms.

Cartoon of a man in a boat on top of Niagara Falls, attempting to lure another man into the boat In this cartoon, on the far side of Niagara Falls flies an American flag. At the base of the Falls, amidst mist and spray are the words “DIRECT TAXATION.” On the near side, a man with glasses, a tall hat, and a beard sits in a small rowboat and beckons to a man in a suit with the tag “CANADIAN VOTER” on the shore. The name of the boat reads “GRIT POLICY” and a flag at the front of the boat reads “UNRESTRICTED RECIPROCITY POLICY.” The man in the boat says “Get in and I’ll row you over!”

Taxation without representation becoming a popular slogan from the American Revolution to convey that they would not pay taxes without a say in government. 

Reciprocity was seen as the starting point to Americans taking money away from Canadians without their say. With reciprocity, Canadians would not be able to paddle against the current of American power.

“Election Poster – Conservative Campaign Against Reciprocity”

Unknown Artist. Circa 1891.

Similar to political cartoons, posters are used to quickly convey a political message in a visual way. This poster comes from the 1891 federal election. It attempts to humorously jab at the Liberal Party’s support of reciprocity. Your reaction to viewing this poster at the time may tell you what party you would be voting for.

“Election Poster – Conservative Campaign Against Reciprocity”

Unknown Artist. Circa 1891.

Two men beg at the feet of Uncle Sam. This cartoon shows Uncle Sam standing before two men in fine black suits. Uncle Sam is saying “BLAINE, IF THESE FELLERS GIT INTO OFFICE, CANADY IS OURS!” Behind him stands a man in a colorless suit holding a paper labeled “ANNEXATION.” At his feet, two Canadian men kneel. The first has his hands clasped together, and has lain at the feet of Uncle Sam a message that reads “PLEASE ACCEPT OUR COUNTRY.” The second man beckons to Uncle Sam with his top hat, and in a wavering text, says to him “GIVE US RECIPROCITY.”
Unknown Artist. Circa 1891.

“Election Poster - Reciprocity”

Unknown Artist. Circa 1891.

For centuries, farmers have been the backbone of the Canadian economy. They were one of the biggest groups against reciprocity, as they worried about competition with American resources. Yet this poster shows that the Conservatives were not successful in convincing farmers they were on the same side.

Cartoon of Laurier and Johnny Canuck in conversation at a railway station In the forefront, on the left half of the image, Laurier is seen in profile facing left, with his right hand on the shoulder of a man and his left hand resting on the man’s left forearm. Laurier is wearing a long jacket reaching down to his knee and an exaggeratedly tall top hat. The man next to Laurier is wearing a hat with the label “CANADIAN FARMER” on it. The man’s knees are slightly bent and his hands are deep in his trouser pockets. Immediately behind the man’s right foot is a small dog. Behind the two men on the left hand side is a railway station building with the title “PROSPERITY STATION”. Under this sign and to the leftmost side there are three signs. On the topmost sign is written “RECIPROCITY SPECIAL” and just under it “TO RECIPROCITY”. The sign underneath it reads “COMMERCIAL UNION”, and underneath it is another sign that reads “WASHINGTON”. To the right of the station building there is a train, with an attendant standing at the front of the train facing out to the station, with the word “TAFT” written on the front of his uniform. To his immediate right there is a sign hanging over the train that reads “DUE TO LEAVE SEPT 21ST 1911”. Underneath it the words “RECIPROCITY ROUTE” are written on the side of the train. At the immediate bottom of the drawing is a caption written in cursive that reads “AGENT LAURIER: YOU TRY IT FOR A YEAR, IF YOU DON'T LIKE IT THEN, JUMP OFF THE TRAIN AND WALK BACK" NEWTON MCCONNELL. CIRCA 1910.”.

You can take the boy out of the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy. The cartoonist McConnell grew up on a farm and many of his cartoons featuring farmers were sympathetic towards the cause.

In this cartoon, as the election quickly approaches on September 21, 1911, Uncle Sam tries to convince the Canadian farm to hop on the reciprocity route.

“Agent Laurier: You try it for a year, if you don’t like it then, jump off the train and walk back”

Newton McConnell. Circa 1910.

The reciprocity train has departed for the U.S. market. As the “Canadian Farming Industry” dog chases after it, does this mean the farmer left with it?

“Try it for a year.”

Newton McConnell. Circa 1911.

Drawing of a train being chased by a beaver. In the top left half of the cartoon there is a train that is receding into the distance. The word “RECIPROCITY” is written into the smoke from the locomotive. A banner with the words “U.S. MARKET” is being waived by an indistinct figure at the back of the train. The train rails run diagonally towards the bottom right of the drawing and off page. A beaver is running on the rails on the bottom right part of the cartoon. The beaver’s mouth is agape and sweat drops are visible around the beaver’s head. On the bottom left, a small do is watching the scene. The caption written in cursive at the bottom of the cartoon reads ““TRY IT FOR A YEAR.” NEWTON MCCONNELL. CIRCA 1911.”
Newton McConnell. Circa 1911.

"One year's trial. Canadian Farmer: If it takes a year to motor this far, how long will it take to walk back?"

Newton McConnell. Circa 1911.

New inventions like the automobile sparked a belief in the power of American innovation. When reciprocity did not pass, McConnell represented it as a crashed car. Perhaps showing that the strength of American creation could also be its own demise.

Election Outcome

Who won the reciprocity argument? The Conservative Party were against reciprocity due to concerns over U.S. control, loss of revenue, and the replacement of British goods. They would win the 1911 election and their leader Robert Borden became the 8th Prime Minister of Canada.

The dream of reciprocity would die for the next few decades. Although one of the dominant issues in political cartoons from this year, recipocity’s relatively small impact on Canada puts to question whether we can fully trust political cartoons as a historical document.

An eagle hunts for a beaver Soaring above a beaver pond, shored up by a beaver “PROTECTION DAM,” a “U.S. EAGLE” looks for the beaver it was hunting, wings outstretched, with a look of astonishment on its face. Below in the water, ripples on the pond suggest something has dove below the surface.

Eagles have long been associated with strength and authority. From the Roman Empire to the U.S. government, they are used to symbolize the state’s power.

The Eagle in this cartoon flies over the dam saying “I thought for sure I’d get the Canadian beaver’s raw material; but he’s ducked”

“I Thought I for sure I’d get the Canadian beaver’s raw material; but he’s ducked”

Newton McConnell. Circa 1911.

Newton McConnell. Circa 1914.


Newton McConnell. Circa 1914.

Reciprocity came to an end with the election of the Conservative Party in 1911. They had run on the idea of “Canadianism or Continentalism”, successfully convincing voters to remain loyal to the British Empire. Borden would become well-known for leading Canada throughout World War One.

McConnell became well known for his drawings of the 1911 election. One of his most famous portrays the Liberals as an extinct species, after they lost the election. His prediction did not remain true, as the Liberal Party remains one of the major political forces in Canada today.

“In the year 2211.”

Newton McConnell. Circa 1911.

A man looks at a pile of bones in a display case. In the Canadian Archives in Ottawa, a man wearing a suit, an ascot, and top hat holds a cane and smokes a cigar. He looks onto a glass domed display case with a pair of bones inside. The case is labeled “ONTARIO LIBERAL” THIS SPECIES IS SUPPOSED TO HAVE BECOME EXTINCT ABOUT THE YEAR 1911”


What year would the United States and Canada first sign an agreement to reciprocity (aka free trade)?

A. 1979 

B. 1988 

C. 1994 

D. 2018