Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Manitoba Free Press, precursor of the Winnipeg Free Press (the name change took place in 1931), printed its first edition in November 1872, only two years after Manitoba joined the Confederation and two years before its host city, Winnipeg, was incorporated. The founders, John A. Kenny (publisher) and W. F. Luxton (editor), lived above the paper's offices in a tar-paper shack on the corner of Main and James Streets. The early papers were cranked out on a handpress that was surrounded by coal-tar lamps to keep the ink from freezing. From this rudimentary beginning the Free Press grew with Winnipeg to become not only Manitoba's leading newspaper but also one of the most respected papers in the country.

Much of the success of the Winnipeg Free Press can be attributed to two men, politician Sir Clifford Sifton (1861-1929) and journalist John W. Dafoe (1866-1944). Sifton took over ownership of a rather floundering enterprise in 1898, determined to make the paper the voice of the Liberal Party in the Prairie Provinces. To that end he appointed Dafoe, a young Montreal journalist, as editor in 1901. Dafoe edited the paper until his death. In his editorials Dafoe championed the interests of western Canada, strenuously argued for greater Canadian autonomy from Britain, and promoted the Liberal Party (though not all individuals affiliated with it). In the 1930s his pessimistic editorials candidly chronicled the devastation of drought and unemployment on the Prairies, and in 1938, alone among leading Canadian editorialists, he refused to support the Munich Pact.

Dafoe carefully amassed a superb cast of journalists. For example, he appointed the talented Cora Hind (1861–1942) as agricultural editor in 1901, twenty years after she had been refused a job at the paper because she was a woman. Dafoe also nurtured the career of A. Grant Dexter (1896–1961), who joined the Free Press in 1912 and became one of Canada's preeminent political journalists. Dexter went on to edit the Free Press from 1948 to 1954.

In 1980 the Winnipeg Free Press absorbed its main rival, the Winnipeg Tribune. By the year 2000 the paper was being read by more than 50 percent of the adults in Winnipeg, its main market. Weekday circulation was 128,988, Saturday circulation was 191,076, and Sunday circulation stood at 144,588. In all, its circulation is more than three times that of its main competitor, the Winnipeg Sun. In 1991 the Free Press abandoned its cramped downtown offices for a new 150-million-dollar production plant in northwestern Winnipeg. There, three computerized presses can each print papers at the rate of 75,000 an hour. The Winnipeg Free Press has come a long way since Kenny and Luxton turned out the first edition.

See also CITIES AND TOWNS: Winnipeg, Manitoba / GENDER: Hind, Cora / POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT: Sifton, Clifford.

David J. Wishart University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Donnelly, Murray S. Dafoe of the Free Press. Toronto: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1968.

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