Cartoons are distinguished by their use of exaggeration, distortion, and humour and will use common imagery and text to drive their point home. Seemingly in the spirit of good fun and political commentary, these cartoons can also cause harm.
The cartoons by Newton McConnell and others are limited by their own perspectives and the editorial voice of newspapers at the time. These newspapers catered to a white, Protestant, English majority, both assuming this was their readership and employing people who fit into those categories.
These editorial cartoons cannot tell the full story of Canada, but their limitations and ignorances do reveal prevailing viewpoints of the time.
French Canadians by English Canada
After the end of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), France gave up the majority of their land in North America to the British. Since then, French Canadians have developed their own distinct culture, while fighting to maintain the French language and presence in Canada.
French Canadians did not fit into the ideal of Canadians the newspapers pushed – someone who was Protestant, English speaking, and pro-monarchy. So English Canadian cartoonists spread the idea of a plotting Quebec looking to make Canada French. While also personifying the province and French Canadians as a small, brutish man in the style of a stereotypical fur-trapper.
Some cartoonists also shared Anti-Francophone beliefs dominant in Canadian newspapers. As World War One began, these beliefs came to the forefront with the introduction of conscription (a mandatory draft into the army).
“Quebec must not rule all Canada”
Unknown Artist. Circa 1914 to 1918.
Racism in Editorial Cartoons
Editorial cartoonists also relied on racist stereotypes and depictions, as they were and still are familiar imagery to readers.
McConnell in particular portrayed some of his characters in blackface and stereotypical Indigenous clothing. Blackface has been used by white people since the 19th century to imitate, mimic, and trivialize Black people, often under the guise of artistic portrayals.
Even today, its harmful effects and the racist stereotypes it perpetuates are too often forgotten. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been caught multiple times in blackface and brownface. He characterized his actions as a “dumb choice,” yet faced few lasting consequences to his actions. When these photos were revealed to the public during the 2019 election, his party (Liberal) still won the election and he retained his seat.
In this cartoon, Uncle Sam and Johnny Canuck are wearing blackface. Johnny Canuck sits in front of a watermelon labelled “Canada’s 20th Century.” Watermelons are another racist imagery long associated with Black Americans. Uncle Sam speaks in a dialect supposedly meant to represent African American Vernacular English.
What does the racism here tell us about the artist and the intended audience? Can it tell us anything about who does and does not belong in Canada?
Uncle Sam:-“Lemme divide that mellion foh yo’ Johnnie I’se had experience.”
Newton McConnell, circa 1911, C 301-0-0-0-469, Archives of Ontario, I0006440
Who gets to be the hero in editorial cartoons? We’re invited to laugh at politicians and leading public figures of the day, but they already have power and influence. It’s the white, working man who McConnell tries to elicit our sympathies for, for example the brave workman here.
Women, French Canadians, Black people, and Indigenous peoples are laughed at, stereotypically portrayed, and have their causes belittled. Is this different from us laughing at politicians? When the interests and identities of those running the national newspapers align with politicians, it matters how those outside that group are portrayed.
As you browsed through the exhibit today, you may have noticed the lack of women, Black people, Indigenous peoples, and/or racialized individuals depicted in the cartoons. When they were present, what context were they in? Why do you think that is?
“The workman: We’ll have to stand together, for if he gets you, he’ll get me next”
Newton McConnell, circa 1910, C 301-0-0-0-988, Archives of Ontario, I0008925
Laurier addresses the constituency, a body made up of older, white, bearded men wearing hats and smoking cigars. These were the people who held the power. They were also the ones who ran newspapers and decided on what would appear in editorial cartoons.
“Dispenser Laurier: This one is on the house; what will you have gentlemen”
Newton McConnell, circa 1911, C 301-0-0-0-783, Archives of Ontario, I0007358
In 1910 as well as today, everyone rode the streetcar in Toronto. Here the cartoonist depicts a group of white, presumably well to do streetcar riders going about their day. Albeit jam packed into a crowded streetcar.
Even when white people in English Canada were portrayed humorously, the cartoonists did not seek to cause harm. Within these cartoons there is an assumption that this is your “normal, average” Canadian.
“The Czar’s orders. Pray-as-you-enter!”
Newton McConnell, circa 1910, C 301-0-0-0-732, Archives of Ontario, I0007306
What voices and concerns are not reflected in the cartoons you have seen? The majority of newspapers from this time were controlled by white men living in English Canada with access to wealth and power. That means it was their stories that were told and what we see in these cartoons.
When we only see caricatures and stereotypes of groups of people, we cannot hear their voices. However, to combat the lack of representation in national and provincial papers and detail their own experiences, papers focused on locally, culturally, ethnically specific newspapers were created.
Indigenous peoples are a rare appearance in the cartoons from this time period. When they do appear, they’re often portrayed in a stereotypical way. Or Indigenous cultures are appropriated by white people in the cartoons. This example does both.
Only the two white men are given names: George Eulas Foster and John Dowsley Reid. McConnell may be referring to them as “Ottawa Indians” because they had served as Members of Parliament since Canadian Confederation in 1867 until the 1920s.
“Canadian Historic scene. The West Indians make trade treaty with the Ottawa Indians.”
Newton McConnell, circa 1910, C 301-0-0-0-990, Archives of Ontario, I0008927
The voices of Indigenous peoples weren’t present in these larger newspapers, heightening a need for critical reflection when aspects or stereotypical versions of Indigenous cultures are present. Here Laurier is drawn in stereotypical, nondescript clothing of an Indigenous person.
To ‘bury the hatchet’ means to reconcile with someone you’ve been at odds with. Here, Laurier is depicted as stirring trouble by digging up the hatchet of racial prejudice between the French and English. What is the significance of how Laurier is being portrayed here?
“Digging up the hatchet. Will this be the outcome of the strife at Ottawa?”
Newton McConnell, circa 1910, C 301-0-0-0-961, Archives of Ontario, I0008898
One of the earliest newspapers focused on the Black communities in North America was The Provincial Freeman (1853-1860), an anti-slavery newspaper. It was founded by Mary Ann Shadd Cary, making her the first Black woman publisher in North America and the first woman publisher in Canada.
Editorial cartoons offer a rich, humorous look at history and the everyday lives of people who read the newspaper. Yet who is missing in the cartoon reveals that the artists behind the cartoon were not representative of everyone in the time period.
These issues persist today as major newspapers in Canada fail to include all voices. The dominance of narratives from white, heterosexual, and wealthy people continues to craft a narrow version of Canada. Just as we need to be critical of our history, we need to continue to ask why the media chooses to paint issues, people, and events a certain way. Only then can we picture politics in a new light.