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WILLAN, JOHN HENRY, journalist and lawyer; b. 17 March 1826 in Quebec City, son of Thomas William Willan, lawyer, and Julia Gugy, sister of Bartholomew Conrad Augustus Gugy*; d. 22 May 1888 in Quebec City.

John Henry Willan’s Canadian birth made him a rarity among 19th-century English-speaking journalists. He was, however, educated in England and Normandy. While in England he published two letters in Frasers Magazine for Town and Country (London) describing life in Quebec to British readers. In 1844 he returned to Quebec City and studied law with Andrew Stuart*. At the same time Willan began what was to be a lifelong career in journalism, editing in 1845 the Quebec Times, a conservative journal, and in 1846–47 the Freemans Journal and Commercial Advertiser (Quebec), which he turned into the “fiercest of the Canadian Tory magazines.”

In 1846 he published a monograph entitled To whom are we to belong? in which he made an eloquent plea for emigration from Britain. He wrote a spate of letters on this subject both to London papers such as the Times, the Herald, the Standard, the Post, and John Bull, and to such Quebec papers as the long-established Quebec Gazette, the Liberal Quebec Spectator, the newly founded Morning Chronicle, and the Emigrant. Willan also acted as parliamentary reporter for the Montreal Gazette in 1847, reporting from memory the critical debates involving William Henry Draper*, Henry Sherwood*, Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine*, Robert Baldwin*, and Francis Hincks as they vied for control of the government.

In 1848 Willan became editor of the Emigrant, a Tory newspaper that opposed the Rebellion Losses Bill in 1849 and reproached England for bidding adieu to the colonies. He moved to the Quebec Mercury in 1850 as political editor and law reporter. During the annexationist crisis, the Mercury, while not actively urging that Canada join the United States, did support the right of annexationists to express their views, and Willan protested against the La Fontaine-Baldwin government’s dismissal of Montreal annexationists from their positions. He also supported Joseph Légaré*, an annexationist candidate in Quebec County in the by-election of January 1850, and waged a running journalistic war against Le Canadien which was anti-annexationist. Willan added a literary magazine to his responsibilities in 1852, assisting on the short-lived Our Journal (Quebec). The Mercury continued under Willan’s editorship till 1862 when Josiah Blackburn leased the paper from its owners, the Cary family, to support Reformer John Sandfield Macdonald*. As opposition, Willan founded the ultra-Tory Exponent. It ran for six months in 1863 under his editorship, but in March 1864, when the Tories under John A. Macdonald* returned to power, Willan was invited by owner George Thomas Cary to return to the Mercury. Willan redirected the Mercury into support of confederation, and settled down to bickering with the Quebec Gazette over local issues.

Willan’s legal career had been maintained over the years. He had been admitted to the bar in 1857 and was known for his eloquence in expounding the law as a criminal lawyer. In 1861 he published A manual of the criminal law of Canada and in 1867 he turned his legal perceptions toward constitutional theory, publishing Some loose suggestions for the improvement of the criminal law in its present state of transition.

His death on 22 May 1888 ended a double career which had established him as a pioneer in the theory of Canadian criminal law and as “one of the well-known figures in Lower Canadian journalism.”

Elizabeth Waterston

John Henry Willan was the author of: A manual of the criminal law of Canada (Quebec, 1861); Some loose suggestions for the improvement of the criminal law in its present state of transition (Quebec, 1867); Thoughts on the position of the British inhabitants composing the minority in Lower Canada, brought about by the maladministration of justice, and the tyranny of the majority in that province, and the remedy therefor (Quebec, 1859); and To whom are we to belong? Dedicated to her majestys principal secretary of state for the colonies (Quebec, 1846).

PAC, MG 30, DI, 30: 717–21. Thomas White, Newspapers, their development in the province of Quebec: a lecture delivered . . . under the auspices of the Young Men’s Christian Association of Montreal, on the 5th November, 1883 ([Montreal, 1883]). Emigrant (Quebec), 1848–49. Exponent (Quebec), 1863. Freeman’s Journal and Commercial Advertiser (Quebec), 1846–47. Our Journal (Quebec), 1853. Quebec Daily Mercury, 1850–62, 1864–67. Quebec Times, 1845. Beaulieu et J. Hamelin, La presse québécoise, I. Canada, an encyclopædia (Hopkins), V. Morgan, Bibliotheca Canadensis. A history of Canadian journalism . . . (2v., Toronto, 1908–59; v.2 by W. A. Craick). W. H. Kesterton, A history of journalism in Canada (Toronto, 1967). S. M. E. Read, “An account of English journalism in Canada from the middle of the eighteenth-century to the beginning of the twentieth, with special emphasis being given to the periods prior to confederation” (ma thesis, McGill Univ., Montreal, 1925).

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Cite This Article

Elizabeth Waterston, “WILLAN, JOHN HENRY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 16, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/willan_john_henry_11E.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/willan_john_henry_11E.html
Author of Article:   Elizabeth Waterston
Title of Article:   WILLAN, JOHN HENRY
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1982
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   June 16, 2024