The Gleaner
Arts & LifeHistory

A country, a region, and a newspaper defined

Almost 160 years ago, a young Robert Sellar was recruited by the Toronto Globe through his brother, Thomas, to create a George-Brown-style Reformist newspaper in the small town of Huntingdon, Lower Canada. While he was considering whether to accept the task, his brother wrote to him, saying:
“I have been to Huntingdon and had a meeting with the leading men who want the Reform paper started. They want the paper commenced in four weeks, so as to advertise the Fall goods, Agricultural shows, etc. Huntingdon is not a large place, but nearly all the storekeepers around will advertise … The country is prosperous and looks more like Upper Canada than Lower… One old wealthy farmer gives $50 towards the fund for buying the office, and promises a cord of wood and a leg of mutton when you start … A beautiful river runs through the village, which is very healthy.”

Sellar made his decision, left Toronto, and had just turned 22 years old when the first issue of the Canadian Gleaner was published on September 18, 1863. He went on to steer the Gleaner for almost 57 years, except for a brief period of about one year during which he took a leave of absence to be a typesetter in New England. He wrote in his diary over the years of several occasions when he wanted to quit the whole thing, but the newspaper committee convinced him to stay on.

The power of the rural press

Initially, the paper was created to be a platform for Reformist voices, but when the Globe’s George Brown endorsed Confederation in 1864, Sellar sat down in the traces and used the Gleaner to try to rally the readership against federal union. His argument, and many agreed with him, was that Canada as such would cause British Protestant citizens of Quebec to become a powerless minority. Sellar aimed to integrate a non-sectarian Quebec into a British Canada and attempted to use the Gleaner to that end, to no avail.

However, he remained an outspoken and controversial individual of that time. He was a noted foe of Premier Honoré Mercier from 1887 to 1891 as he fought for Quebec to “remain British.” A strong advocate for free trade and farmers’ rights, he endeavoured to stop what he saw as a plan to push Protestant farmers out of Quebec. He was a strong supporter of Prohibition and the temperance movement.

He fought tooth and nail for his views on issues of the day and used the Gleaner to do it. He denounced Sir John A. MacDonald’s National Policy; he accused Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberal government of “betraying the farming interest,” and he organized a farmers’ protest in 1899 which provoked a national debate on farm income.

He was so outspoken that many who did not agree with the views expressed in the Canadian Gleaner let their displeasure be known. Over the years, Sellar was evicted, burnt in effigy, assaulted, and his dog was shot; he was accused of larceny and burglary. In 1870 the original Gleaner office was burned down by a Fenian arsonist.

Various parties with various types of influence tried to ruin him by creating rival newspapers, suing him for libel, and banning the paper for certain groups of the population.

Editorializing to the end

In 1912, Sellar rebooted. He changed the newspaper’s name to The Huntingdon Gleaner, and he removed the crown and bible design from the masthead. He reintroduced the enterprise under the “new” management of his sons, and stepped down.

During WW1 he was brought back as editor, but he suffered a stroke in 1919. He wrote his last editorial on his deathbed.

History has likely whitewashed aspects of his time in the Valley as it has many figures of influence, but the facts remain that he founded this newspaper, fought its battles, and remained dedicated to it. His gravestone in Huntingdon, allegedly designed by his wife, carried at one time the crown and bible emblem from the old Canadian Gleaner masthead.

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