SELLAR, ROBERT, newspaper editor and author; b. 1 Aug. 1841 in Glasgow, Scotland, ninth of the ten children of Alexander Sellar, a notary, and Isabella Grant; m. 1 July 1886 Mary Watson in Huntingdon, Que., and they had four sons and a daughter; d. there 29 Nov. 1919.
Robert Sellar’s youth was beset by poverty and hardship endured out of duty to his family. He left school at age 12 to help support his mother, younger brother, and two sisters after his elder brother Thomas* emigrated to Upper Canada in 1853; his father followed Thomas the next year. In 1856 Robert and his charges reached Toronto, where Thomas, a sub-editor of the Globe, secured employment for him as a printer’s apprentice. Their father’s death in 1860, coupled with Thomas’s personal and financial difficulties, left Robert the pillar of the struggling family. In 1863 he was recruited to found a newspaper for supporters of George Brown*, an mla and editor of the Globe, in the backwoods community of Huntingdon, Lower Canada. The first issue of his Canadian Gleaner appeared on 18 September.
Identifying himself as a “Scotch radical,” Sellar espoused throughout his life a liberalism rooted in 19th-century principles of free trade and separation of church and state. During the 1850s Brown seemed to be the incarnation of such ideals, but when he endorsed confederation in 1864 the Gleaner forsook party ties to rally its readers against the movement. Instead of assimilating the laws and people of Lower Canada, Sellar argued, federal union would entrench French Catholic exclusiveness within a constitutional enclave in the new province. The British Protestant citizens there would become a minority at the mercy of such French Catholic influence. This campaign was the first of Sellar’s many lost crusades aimed at integrating a non-sectarian Quebec into a British Canada.
Events after confederation reinforced his apprehension that the “sectarian virus” was spreading in Quebec. During the 1870s, while the Gleaner railed against ultramontanism [see François-Xavier-Anselme Trudel*] and a host of alleged priestly invasions of public affairs, its publisher founded the Loyal Reformers’ League – a short-lived attempt to commit provincial Liberals to an anticlerical program of his own design. In the 1880s and 1890s Sellar was an implacable foe of Honoré Mercier*, premier of the province from 1887 to 1891, whom he suspected of plotting to erect a theocratic French Catholic state. Sellar’s contribution to the uproar over the settlement of the Jesuit estates question in 1888 [see Mercier] was a pamphlet, circulated two years later by the Equal Rights Association [see D’Alton McCarthy*], entitled Important letter by a resident of Quebec as to “The disabilities of Protestants in that province”. Mercier’s reply assailed Sellar as an “apostle of irreligion, apostacy, and even of atheism.” French Canada’s “national idea” would not die with Mercier, predicted the Gleaner. It would continue to grow until “the question whether Quebec is to remain British will again have to be decided.”
Sellar’s thesis, so vehemently attacked by Mercier, was that Protestant farmers were being deliberately squeezed out of Quebec by the Roman Catholic parish, school, and tithe system which, on township soil, functioned in violation of early imperial statutes. These concerns, first aroused by census returns depicting the Frenchification of rural English-speaking communities, had already been publicized by Sellar in a prolonged editorial debate with the Toronto Globe early in 1886 and in a series of provocative contributions to the Toronto Daily Mail later that summer. Sellar’s collections of simple stories of backwoods life, published in various editions under the collective title Gleaner tales, and his more formidable History of the county of Huntingdon, were intended not only to chronicle the heroism of the region’s original settlers, but to legitimize their presence in Quebec by refuting the growing notion that the only true “children of the soil” were French Canadian. Both were published in his office at his expense. Other literary works by Sellar depicting pioneer life in Canada would include Hemlock, Morven, The U. S. campaign of 1813 to capture Montreal, and The narrative of Gordon Sellar.
The most widely read of Sellar’s works, however, was The tragedy of Quebec: the expulsion of its Protestant farmers, printed in his office in 1907 for want of a commercial publisher. By interpreting the decline of Quebec’s Protestant yeomanry to a new generation of readers, Sellar hoped to rally Canadians against the spread of the “Quebec system” to Ontario and the west. Although never an Orangeman himself, he ceded publication rights to Horatio Clarence Hocken, publisher of the Toronto Sentinel and Orange and Protestant Advocate, to ensure wider circulation. The tragedy of Quebec became a potent tract in the hands of Ontario Orangemen [see Thomas Simpson Sproule] in their conflict with Franco-Ontarians [see Napoléon-Antoine Belcourt*] over separate and bilingual schools. Three revised editions, published in 1909, 1910, and 1916, pushed total sales beyond 20,000 copies as opinion hardened against Quebec during World War I.
Another of Sellar’s recurring editorial themes, also treated with special reference to the English-speaking farmers of Quebec, was free trade and farmers’ rights. His economic theories, gleaned from the Manchester school, were reinforced in Huntingdon county, a border region which had suffered from the abrogation of reciprocity with the United States in 1866. The Gleaner’s denunciations of the National Policy of Sir John A. Macdonald* reverberated through the Châteauguay valley for years. When the budget speech of 1897 made it clear that the new Liberal government of Wilfrid Laurier would maintain a protective tariff, Sellar accused it of betraying the farming interest. He was quoted by Conservative newspapers in four provinces while Liberals reproached him for “stabbing his party in the back.” Undismayed, Sellar organized an early farmers’ protest movement in Huntingdon in 1899 and he provoked a national debate on farm income when he appeared in 1905 before the tariff commission organized by finance minister William Stevens Fielding* with a balance sheet showing an annual profit of less than one per cent on a typical farm. When he spoke in the House of Commons for the Quebec delegation to the farmers’ protest march of 1910, he was cheered to the echo and was dubbed the “Grand Old Man of the Farmers’ Movement” by the Toronto Weekly Sun.
Sellar’s most enduring local cause was the temperance movement. He founded the Huntingdon Temperance Society in 1879, but dissatisfaction with legislation providing for local option led him to withhold support from the local campaign of 1885 to implement the Scott Act and from any subsequent measure short of national prohibition.
Except for an interlude in 1866–67 when he had quit the Gleaner and worked as a typesetter in Hartford, Conn., Sellar remained at the helm of his newspaper for nearly 57 years. His tribulations, a result of his outspoken views, ranged from eviction, being burnt in effigy, and physical assault, to the shooting of his dog. In 1867 he was cleared of larceny and burglary charges trumped up by local enemies determined to block his repossession of the Gleaner’s printing plant on his return from New England. In 1870 the Gleaner office was burned to the ground by a Fenian arsonist following the abortive raid on Trout River. His coverage of the controversy surrounding the burial of Joseph Guibord* elicited a ban by local Roman Catholic clergy against his paper in 1875, to which he responded with an unrepentant open letter to Bishop Ignace Bourget* of Montreal. In 1883 and 1890 Montreal Conservatives tried to ruin him by subsidizing the establishment of rival newspapers in Huntingdon, and in 1883 he narrowly escaped conviction in a libel suit launched by Hugh Graham* of the Montreal Daily Star. In 1912, after Joseph-Médard Emard*, the Roman Catholic bishop of Valleyfield, had ordered the faithful to sever all dealings with him, Sellar changed his paper’s name to Huntingdon Gleaner, dropped the crown and bible from its masthead, and brought it out under the “new management” of his sons.
The Gleaner’s modest volume of business continued to expand, and an ageing Sellar was back in its editorial chair as his sons went off to war. In November 1919 he suffered a stroke that left him partially paralysed, and his last editorial was written on his deathbed. His headstone in the Huntingdon Protestant cemetery, designed by his wife, displays the crown and bible emblem which had appeared on the masthead of the old Gleaner.
Robert Sellar was editor of the Canadian Gleaner (Huntingdon, Que.), renamed the Huntingdon Gleaner on 4 Jan. 1912, for the greater part of the period from 18 Sept. 1863 until his death in 1919. His Important letter by a resident of Quebec as to “the disabilities of Protestants in that province” (Toronto, 1890) was reissued along with Mercier’s reply in Answer of the Hon. Honoré Mercier to the pamphlet of the Equal Rights Association against the majority of the inhabitants of the province of Quebec (Quebec, 1890). Both items, along with Sellar’s response to Mercier’s pamphlet and additional documents, were published as Letters relative to the rights and present position of the Quebec minority ([Huntingdon, 1890?]; [Quebec, 1890]). The Important letter and Mercier’s reply were also issued in a French version, Réponse de l’hon. Honoré Mercier au pamphlet de l’association des “equal rights” contre la majorité des habitants de la province de Québec (Québec, 1890).
In 1886 Sellar published “volume I” of Gleaner tales (Huntingdon), a collection of short stories that had appeared in his newspaper. He then published Hemlock: a tale of the War of 1812 (Montreal, 1890), with the half-title Gleaner tales, second series, which in fact contains a novel of more than 200 pages and a short story. The summer of sorrow, Abner’s device, and other stories (Huntingdon, 1895), with the half-title Gleaner tales, part two, reprints all but one of the items from the 1886 volume, along with an additional short story. Gleaner tales (Huntingdon, 1895), half-titled Gleaner tales, complete edition, includes all the texts which appeared in The summer of sorrow and Hemlock.
[A discussion of the controversy raised by the recent publication of Famine diary: journey to a new world, ed. J. J. Magnan (Dublin, 1991), which is based heavily on “The summer of sorrow,” appears in my article, “From famine to fraud: the truth about Ireland’s best-selling Famine diary,” Matrix (Lennoxville, Que.), 38 (autumn 1992): 5–13. r.a.h.]
Other works by Sellar include The history of the county of Huntingdon and of the seigniories of Chateaugay and Beauharnois from their first settlement to the year 1838 (Huntingdon, 1888); The tragedy of Quebec: the expulsion of its Protestant farmers (Huntingdon, 1907; repr. with intro. by R. [A.] Hill, Toronto, 1974; rev. eds., Toronto, 1909, 1910, and 1916); Morven (Huntingdon, 1911); The U.S. campaign of 1813 to capture Montreal; Crysler, the decisive battle of the War of 1812 (Huntingdon, 1913; repr. 1914); and The narrative of Gordon Sellar, who emigrated to Canada in 1825 (Huntingdon, 1915; repr. Toronto, 1916, under the title The true makers of Canada: the narrative . . .), which appeared with the half-title Gordon Sellar and the U.S. campaign of 1813 to capture Montreal . . . and includes the 1914 version of The U.S. campaign of 1813. These and other works written by Sellar are listed in CIHM, Reg., and the National union catalog. In addition, a list of Sellar’s publications is given in R. A. Hill, “Robert Sellar and the Huntingdon Gleaner; the conscience of rural Protestant Quebec, 1863–1919” (phd thesis, McGill Univ., Montreal, 1970), which also contains a detailed bibliography and provides the most complete study of Sellar’s career. His personal papers are in NA, MG 30, D314; NA, MG 29, C86 also contains information on the Sellar family.
© 1998–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
Robert Andrew Hill, “SELLAR, ROBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 21, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sellar_robert_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:
|Author of Article:||Robert Andrew Hill|
|Title of Article:||SELLAR, ROBERT|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1998|
|Year of revision:||1998|
|Access Date:||March 21, 2023|