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FARRER, EDWARD, journalist; b. probably in 1846 or 1850 of Irish parents; m. probably c. 1873 Annie Carter Peters (or Annie Carter) of Pickering, Ont., and they had one son; d. 27 April 1916 in Ottawa.

Edward Farrer was an itinerant journalist who worked to promote political union between Canada and the United States. The facts of his parentage, birth, and education are obscure, and it appears he may have changed his name and fabricated a background. Accounts published during his lifetime, some by people who knew him well, differed widely: his birthplace was located in Ireland (in County Mayo or County Donegal) or in England, and he was reported to have received his early education at a seminary in Maynooth near Dublin or at Stonyhurst College in England. He was commonly assumed to have trained for the priesthood before breaking with the church: one report said that he was the nephew of an Irish archbishop and had left a seminary in Rome on impulse to go to the United States, another that he had left Rome to become secretary to an Irish archbishop. Farrer’s registration of death lists his mother’s name as Kathleen Delaney; a memoir by a friend claimed he was the nephew of Bishop William Delany of Cork.

Farrer apparently came to Canada from New York in 1870 and worked for a time on John Ross Robertson’s Daily Telegraph before joining the Toronto Daily Mail as a leader writer after it was started by Sir John A. Macdonald* as a Conservative party organ in March 1872. In December 1873 he was appointed an immigration agent in Ireland by the Liberal government of Alexander Mackenzie*, but by 1875 he had returned to the Mail and he was prominent in its columns during the 1878 election that returned Macdonald to office. Although Farrer became editor of the Mail, he left, probably in 1881, to work for the New York World. He returned to Canada in 1882 to help with Macdonald’s re-election and write for the Mail, and then he became editor of the Conservative Winnipeg Daily Times. There his tenure was marked by an anti-imperial tone and sporadic attacks on Conservative policy. In 1884, after apparently being dismissed from the Times as a result of a drinking spree, he became editor of the Winnipeg Daily Sun. Again, he was controversial, at times advocating western separatism and annexation to the United States. Nevertheless, he returned to the Mail in late 1884 and the following year resumed the editorship.

Sir John Stephen Willison* in 1919 would write of the Mail from 1885 to 1890: “I cannot think that Canada has ever had a greater newspaper.” Under Farrer’s editorship the Mail was a well-written, well-designed newspaper and it reflected a broad range of interests. It attracted talented journalists, including Kathleen Blake Watkins [Catherine Ferguson], and became reformist on social issues. More significant, although it had been until then the leading Conservative organ, it unexpectedly and at great risk to itself broke from the control of Macdonald, a split acknowledged publicly in January 1886. Combining his own anti-clericalism with the anti-Catholic and anti-French views of Christopher William Bunting*, managing director of the Mail, Farrer mounted several brilliant but controversial campaigns. In the wake of the North-West rebellion and the hanging of Louis Riel* in 1885, the Mail launched a crusade against French Canadian influence in the federal government and the secular influence of the Catholic Church, and followed it in 1887 and 1888 with one promoting commercial union with the United States. The paper’s greatest notoriety came in the Jesuit estates controversy in 1889, when it helped to start the “equal rights” movement, which worked to abrogate constitutional protections for French Canadians and Roman Catholics [see D’Alton McCarthy*]. Along with Goldwin Smith*, who wrote some of the more extreme Mail editorials, Farrer argued that a fundamental conflict was looming between the doctrine of the Catholic Church and a New World belief in religious equality, liberty of opinion, and secular control of courts and legislatures. As a result, the two writers were accused of aggravating “race and creed” tensions in Canada with the aim of breaking up confederation and encouraging annexation.

In early 1890, even after the paper had dropped its campaign for commercial union, the charges persisted. The Globe and other papers specifically accused Farrer of conspiring with the committee of the United States Senate on relations with Canada, to which he supplied research material. Yet, that summer Farrer moved to the Globe to take charge of the editorial page under the nominal direction of Willison. Hired with the encouragement of Sir Richard John Cartwright, the principal advocate of the Liberals’ policy of unrestricted reciprocity, Farrer was given the task of promoting that policy. During several trips to Washington, ostensibly to seek American support, he apparently implied that the Liberal party was sympathetic to political union. During the election campaign of 1891 Macdonald exposed, as evidence of Liberal “disloyalty,” a pamphlet allegedly written by Farrer to advise the United States on how to pressure Canada into union. Although Farrer accepted responsibility for the pamphlet, denying that it had any connection with the Liberal party, after his death a close friend, George Henry Ham*, claimed Farrer had not in fact written the pamphlet but had taken the responsibility to shield other prominent men; another associate hinted the pamphlet was sponsored by the American secretary of state, James Gillespie Blaine.

Farrer left the Globe in July 1892 under pressure from Ontario premier Sir Oliver Mowat*, who believed he was “making lively annexationists of the entire Globe staff and directorate.” He then worked openly, along with Smith and Walter Dymond Gregory, for annexation. For a time he wrote signed columns in Charles Anderson Dana’s New York Sun advocating political union, and he worked as well for the Continental Union Association of Ontario, sponsored by Smith. He also served for years as an unofficial agent for Liberal leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier, with whom he appears to have had cordial relations. He worked as a Liberal agent in 1893 investigating the Thomas McGreevy* scandal, and he helped arrange the alliance of the Liberals with the Patrons of Industry and the followers of D’Alton McCarthy for the 1896 election. His work for the Liberals picked up after their election victory. For example, from 1900 to 1903 he visited Manitoba repeatedly in efforts to implement the compromise over the school question worked out by Laurier and Thomas Greenway*, and in 1904 he investigated a conspiracy implicating Hugh Graham* to unseat Laurier [see Andrew George Blair*]. In addition, he was involved in the Alaska boundary dispute and worked as a lobbyist in Washington. Farrer also served as correspondent for a number of British and American publications, notably the Economist (London). After leaving the Globe he lived at various times in Washington and Montreal before settling in 1905 in Ottawa. He continued to be an annexationist, but in 1911 wrote for a number of Conservative newspapers opposing Laurier’s renewed efforts in favour of reciprocity.

Farrer was noted for his economic analyses and his satirical writing, but he was admired principally as a polemicist. In contrast to the shrill and partisan editorial tone of the day, his style was restrained and reasoned, calculated to persuade the uncommitted. He was adept at advocating a cause without seeming to do so, gradually creating a sympathetic public opinion. Much of his work at the Mail, while conforming to the anti-Catholic and anti-French prejudices of the paper’s controllers, seems to have been secretly designed to create a climate favourable to political union. He argued, for instance, that confederation was only a makeshift arrangement, that economic union would be of great benefit to Ontario, and that English-speaking Canada’s fear of French Canadian and Catholic domination was moving it closer to the United States.

Respected by associates as a “master craftsman” who helped promote journalistic independence, Farrer had considerable personal impact. Willison wrote that he was “whimsical, happy, alert, companionable, unpretentious, scholarly, simple, profound, mysterious, and elusive.” “I have known no more remarkable man than Edward Farrer nor any of greater gifts or greater knowledge. . . . The story of his life would reveal remarkable connections and far-reaching influences. But no one can tell the story from the fragmentary material that remains.”

Carman Cumming

[Most contemporary sources give the name of Farrer’s wife as Annie Peters, but in a letter of 6 July 1914 to J. S. Willison in NA, MG 30, D29, 14, she signed Annie Carter Farrer. Efforts to find a marriage certificate have been unavailing.  c.c.]

NA, MG 26, A; G; MG 30, A4; RG 13, F7, 963. QUA, W. D. Gregory papers. R. T. Clippingdale, “J. S. Willison, political journalist: from liberalism to independence, 1881–1905” (phd thesis, 2v., Univ. of Toronto, 1970). Carman Cumming, Secret craft: the journalism of Edward Farrer (Toronto, 1992); “The Toronto Daily Mail, Edward Farrer, and the question of Canadian-American union,” JCS, 24 (1989–90), no.1: 121–39. G. H. Ham, Reminiscences of a raconteur between the ’40s and the ’20s (Toronto, 1921). W. B. Harte, “Canadian journalists and journalism,” New England Magazine (Boston), new ser., 5 (1891–92): 411–41. S. E. D. Shortt, “Social change and political crisis in rural Ontario: the Patrons of Industry, 1889–1896,” in Oliver Mowat’s Ontario: papers presented to the Oliver Mowat colloquium, Queen’s University, November 25–26, 1970, ed. Donald Swainson (Toronto, 1972), 211–35. G. R. Tennant, “The policy of the Mail, 1882–1892” (ma thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1946). D. F. Warner, The idea of continental union; agitation for the annexation of Canada to the United States, 1849–1893 ([Lexington, Ky], 1960). J. [S.] Willison, Reminiscences, political and personal (Toronto, 1919).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Carman Cumming, “FARRER, EDWARD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 16, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/farrer_edward_14E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/farrer_edward_14E.html
Author of Article:   Carman Cumming
Title of Article:   FARRER, EDWARD
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1998
Year of revision:   1998
Access Date:   April 16, 2024