WILLISON, Sir JOHN STEPHEN, newspaperman, author, and businessman; b. 9 Nov. 1856 near Hills Green, Upper Canada, third child of Stephen Willison, a blacksmith, and Jane Abram; m. first 3 June 1885 Rachel Wood Turner (d. 19 Jan. 1925) in Tiverton, Ont., and they had two sons; m. secondly 10 April 1926 Marjory Jardine Ramsay MacMurchy* in Toronto; d. there 27 May 1927.
After leaving school at 15, John Willison worked as a hired hand in Hills Green and later in the Whitby area near Greenwood, where he impressed the postmaster as “full of ambition.” The Toronto Globe and Liberal politics fascinated him, as did the library of the Greenwood Mechanics’ Institute. In his teens he was the assistant teacher at the local school. He clerked in stores in Stanton and Tiverton, and had his poetry and prose published in newspapers; turning to journalism, he joined the London Advertiser in 1881 before following editor John Cameron* to the Globe in 1883. Willison reported well enough from the Ontario legislature to be promoted in March 1886 to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa, where he was drawn to the Liberals’ rising Quebec star, Wilfrid Laurier*. They became friends, with a common love of politics and literature. In June 1887 Edward Blake* gave up the Liberal leadership and Willison boldly supported Laurier, forging a powerful alliance. He told Laurier he would perform “any service” to help the party win Ontario. During the explosive Jesuit estates controversy in 1889, although he loathed the Parti National of Quebec premier Honoré Mercier*, which supported the Liberals, he assured Globe readers in a feature article that the Catholic Laurier was “a Liberal in every conviction of his mind.”
As part of a restructuring by Globe president Robert Jaffray*, Willison, with Laurier’s support, replaced Cameron as editor in 1890, though the more experienced, but mercurial, Edward Farrer* took charge of the editorial page. Farrer drew fire during the election of 1891 when the pamphlet he had allegedly written on how Canada could be pressured into union with the United States was leaked to Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald*, who delightedly denounced “veiled treason” at the Globe. Meanwhile, Willison prevented publication of Blake’s condemnation of Laurier’s policy of unrestricted reciprocity until after the election. The Liberals lost (but not disastrously), Farrer departed in July 1892, and Willison’s ascendancy at the Globe was confirmed.
By the mid 1890s he had assembled a gifted staff of expert editorialists and writers, including the pro-labour radical John Lewis, municipal affairs specialist Thomas Stewart Lyon, and economics analyst Samuel Thomas Wood*. In December 1895 Thomas Charles Patteson, a thorough Tory who had edited the Toronto Mail in the 1870s, told Willison that the Globe was “certainly now the best paper . . . ever published in Canada. Temperate in its comment, and vigorous in all departments.” Patteson was sure that “the converts or waverers made by the Globe’s style of comment are ten times as numerous . . . as those made by the old style of polemical writing.” Willison’s reputation would soar during the election of 1896 as the Liberals found safe footing in trade protection and the case for provincial rights in the controversy over Manitoba’s abolition of public funding for Catholic schools [see Thomas Greenway*]. Willison opposed any federal interference. Laurier, worried about Catholic Quebec, complained to him in 1895 about his “altogether . . . too absolute” editorials. Willison responded that Ontario “will destroy any party that attempts arbitrary interference with Manitoba.” When the governing Tories, under the ageing Sir Charles Tupper*, tried to restore Catholic school rights early in 1896, the Globe backed Laurier’s proposal of a negotiated compromise. Electoral victory came in June to the Liberals, who tied the Conservatives in Ontario, and the Globe’s circulation rose to dizzy heights.
Willison increasingly articulated an imperialist nationalism. In 1888 he had told Laurier that he was “strongly Canada first” and he even led the Toronto Young Men’s Liberal Club, of which he was president, to vote for Canadian independence. As editor of the Globe, however, he moved in high intellectual and social circles that were generally imperialist. In his memoirs he would remember that “no one gave me wiser counsel” than Principal George Monro Grant* of Queen’s College in Kingston, who, as the Globe put it, promoted “that habit of thought” which saw Canada as a “factor” in the world as part of the British empire. Willison’s friendship with George Taylor Denison, president of the Canadian branch of the British Empire League, was helped by their shared views on corruption and by the new commercial policy the Liberals had adopted in 1893 – “freer” trade with Britain and the United States. In 1896 American tariff pressures caused Willison to conclude, in a speech to the National Club, that Canada would have to “lean upon our Imperial relationships.” Then came the party’s adroit imperial-preference budget [see William Stevens Fielding] and Laurier’s lionization in the summer of 1897 at the celebration of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. Willison told the Globe from London in October that Canada was “at last the favorite child of the empire,” but a year later he would celebrate the “firmly self-reliant mood” of a nation of destiny. Soon enough, however, imperialism showed its divisive side. In October 1899 war broke out in South Africa between the Boers and Britain. The Globe argued that the dominion’s dispatch of troops would be “a national declaration of Canada’s stake in the British Empire.” Privately Willison told the prime minister that “he would either send troops or go out of office.” A contingent went, and Laurier was attacked as too imperialist in Quebec and as “not British enough” in Ontario.
Willison’s prestige was growing enormously. In March 1900 he was elected president of the Canadian Press Association and in May he became a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. His Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberal party: a political history was published in Toronto in 1903. Sometimes brilliant but devoid of critical analysis, it draws upon Hansard and newspapers, and is infused with Willison’s detailed knowledge of Liberalism and flattering admiration. He praises Laurier’s “patient and courageous resistance to the denationalizing tendencies of racialism, sectarianism, and provincialism.” Reviews were commendatory – the Canadian Magazine (Toronto) lauded the study as “the greatest biography yet produced in this country.” In 1903 Willison was elected an officer of the Canadian Society of Authors and three years later Queen’s awarded him an lld.
Party journalism, however, had begun to frustrate him. He was embarrassed in 1897 when his editorial support for the extension of the Canadian Pacific Railway became linked to efforts by Globe proprietors Jaffray and George Albertus Cox* to profit from deals on railway lands in British Columbia. The following year Ontario’s Liberal premier, Arthur Sturgis Hardy*, berated him for his even-handed election coverage. In January 1900 a Globe manifesto called for an independent railway commission, reform of the Senate and the civil service, and a judicial redistribution of seats in the House of Commons, measures that Laurier criticized as “advanced radicalism.” Willison would recall that “as far back as 1897 he said to me ‘I wish the Globe would stop urging reforms. Reforms are for Oppositions. It is the business of governments to stay in office.’” When Liberals attacked him for his fair treatment of the Conservatives in the election of 1900, he exploded in a letter to cabinet minister Clifford Sifton: “Personally I resent the assumption of every Liberal politician that I am his hired man.”
Salvation came in the summer of 1902 when Joseph Wesley Flavelle*, the Toronto pork packer and financier, promised to finance a paper in which Willison could express his views without interference. The Toronto Evening News was secured, and on 28 November Willison left the Globe. His first editorial, which appeared on 19 Jan. 1903, announced “an independent course in politics,” but this goal proved elusive. In March, Willison chastised the Ontario Liberals for bribing an opposition mla to join them, and by early 1905 he had helped hound them from office. Federally the News had supported Conservative leader Robert Laird Borden* in 1904 for promoting national ownership as an alternative to Laurier’s private-sector project for a second transcontinental railway. Sectarian controversy broke out the following year when Laurier revealed his plan to entrench Catholic separate-school rights for the new provinces to be carved out of the North-West Territories. Willison wanted full provincial autonomy and he had told Laurier so in June 1904: this “was my position on the Manitoba question and I do not see how it is possible to take any other position with respect to the Territories.” In March 1905 the News denounced the bills creating Alberta and Saskatchewan as “a great betrayal of Liberal principles” and many Liberals agreed, causing the prime minister to compromise. Only religious education within essentially public schools, which had existed under territorial ordinances, was to be tolerated in the new provinces, but Willison was not mollified. He explained to a friend that he had written his book on Laurier largely to celebrate the leader’s “devotion to the federal principle and his resolute resistance to clerical interference in education.” When Laurier had “turned squarely in the other direction,” Willison had been obliged to oppose or “I would have been a joke from one end of the country to the other.”
Days of trouble began for the News as the populist Toronto Daily Star drew even in circulation in 1905 and then surged ahead, draining away much advertising. In 1907 Flavelle put an extra $50,000 into the paper, but financial markets plummeted and he decided he had to sell. Willison could find no other backer. His attacks on William Mackenzie’s Toronto Railway Company and, in the debate over the public ownership of electricity in Ontario [see Sir Adam Beck], his reluctance to abandon private enterprise only brought the News discredit. He talked with Laurier about a return to the Globe but this could not be sorted out. In 1908 Ontario premier James Pliny Whitney* arranged for the purchase of the News by a Tory syndicate led by Francis Cochrane*. Willison would be president and editor, but real control rested with the syndicate. Flavelle’s penny-pinching illusions and then the syndicate’s demand for slavish partisanship undoubtedly contributed to the paper’s weakness and tedious moralizing, along with Willison’s tendency to hope against hope that things would improve. The war too may have reduced the ability of the News to assemble capital. “I cannot go on as I have gone on for twelve years,” Willison told John Dowsley Reid in 1916. “We have wasted tens of thousands of dollars by producing a poor paper.”
Some outlets for independence had continued. Willison was a highly informed speaker on public affairs, and he remained in demand. He was still a correspondent in Canada for the London Morning Post, a position he had been invited to accept in 1905. On the nomination of Governor General Lord Grey* and Laurier, in 1908 he became the Canadian correspondent of the pre-eminent London Times. Willison assured Laurier that he would be abstaining there from utterances bearing “partisan interpretation.”
A great national crisis arose when American-Canadian negotiations led to the sudden announcement in parliament in January 1911 of a comprehensive agreement on reciprocal trade. Willison, who had embraced moderate protection, recorded in the Times on 28 January “an undercurrent of unrest and dissatisfaction in financial and business circles” in Toronto. Within days the News articulated the basic case against the agreement. For markets that were possibly illusory, and which the United States could take away, Canada was to “imperil our whole national experiment” by undercutting its east-west rail and financial networks, transcontinental and cross-Atlantic trade, and British investment. “Practically . . . we commercially annex the Canadian West to the United States,” the News continued, with even the manufacturing sector made hostage. In sum, “we strengthen all the influences towards continentalism and risk the sacrifice both of a young nation and an ancient Empire.” Flavelle would tell Willison that the subsequent opposition merely enlarged upon his points. In February, Willison reached out to his unparalleled network of Liberal friends – he worked mainly with Clifford Sifton and banker Sir Byron Edmund Walker – to put together the “Toronto Eighteen,” a group of prominent businessmen who totally rejected the agreement. Willison then went to Ottawa, accompanied by Zebulon Aiton Lash*, one of the 18, to meet with Sifton and Robert Borden to arrange (as Willison recorded) “a basis of co-operation” with the Conservatives. The reciprocity agreement met with filibuster in the commons, and Laurier called an election for September. Willison and Sifton wrote Borden’s campaign manifesto using Willison’s “parting of the ways” phraseology, and Borden won a majority. In Toronto thousands of revellers surrounded the News building crying “Willison, Willison.” As 1911 closed, his reputation had never been greater; in the New Year’s honours list of 1913 he was awarded a knighthood.
During the early years of Borden’s government, Willison worried that Canada’s hesitations about naval defence and British delays on trade preferences impeded real progress in the reconciliation of national and imperial dreams. During the “naval scare” in 1909, over Germany’s threat to Britain’s supremacy, he had supported bipartisan resolutions for the “speedy” beginning of a Canadian navy, though, like other imperialists, he had wanted a special contribution of two Dreadnoughts for Britain. In late 1912 Borden delayed development of a Canadian navy and proposed three Dreadnoughts, but the Liberal Senate refused. Willison would lament the partisanship on both sides. On British resistance to preference, he noted for the Times in 1913 Canada’s “intense concern,” which he also expressed in the London-based imperialist journal the Round Table.
After the empire went to war in August 1914, Willison became embattled on several fronts. He and the other Canadian members of the Round Table movement [see Edward Joseph Kylie*] insisted that Britain share direction of foreign and defence policy with the matured dominions, thus contradicting the more centralist prescriptions of the movement’s London leader, Lionel George Curtis. In Canada, with military victory in doubt in 1916 and voluntary enlistments lagging, pressure built for a union or coalition government. For months the News pilloried Laurier as a hostage to the Nationalistes in Quebec and strongly advised Borden not to agree to the union idea. But after meeting with him in February 1917, Willison hinted in the News that coalition might be necessary after all. Then, in May, Borden adopted conscription, stirring many English Canadian Liberals, including Ontario leader Newton Wesley Rowell*, to press Laurier to join with Borden. Laurier refused, but Willison, having resigned in June from the News, its financial situation beyond salvation, acted for Borden to help bring Rowell aboard. When western Liberals came too [see Arthur Lewis Watkins Sifton], the coalition was constructed. The Union government then sought a mandate. Willison, with Sir Clifford Sifton, wrote Borden’s election address of 12 November, and he served as chief coordinator of publicity in the campaign that led to a landslide victory in December.
After 1917 Willison mixed achievements and disappointments. Known for his chairmanship in 1914–16 of the Ontario commission on unemployment, in 1918 he was made head of the Ontario Housing Committee, which unsuccessfully urged federal funding. In addition, on the invitation of business leaders, he served as president of the Canadian Reconstruction Association from 1918 to 1922, but he could not bridge the divisions between business, labour, and agrarian interests. As a member in 1920–21 of the Ontario royal commission on university finances, he felt that the new United Farmers government was not inclined to be generous. Willison himself was a trustee of Queen’s University, and a governor of both the University of Toronto and Upper Canada College. At the national level he was at odds in 1918–20 with Borden, who was bent on Canadian autonomy, and in the 1920s with the new Liberal leader, William Lyon Mackenzie King*, who also opposed imperial policies. As an imperialist nationalist, Willison complained to a friend that “those who hold my view seem to have been deserted.” In 1919 his Reminiscences, political and personal was published in Toronto. Rich in opinion on journalism and politics, especially before 1900, the book returns in a final chapter (“Laurier and the empire”) to imperialist musings. “No one who knew Laurier could believe that he was an Imperialist,” Willison stated. He pointed out, however, that the late prime minister had had no quarrel with Britain and noted his work for British preference, his shipment of troops to South Africa, and his belief in Canada’s “obligation for naval defence.” The autobiography was certainly not as current as Willison’s speeches and publications for the Reconstruction Association. Augustus Bridle probably spoke for many when he said in The masques of Ottawa (Toronto, 1921) that Willison should “stop writing Reconstruction bulletins and do something of more value to the country, so that the older enthusiasm of men who used to think he was Canada’s greatest editor may not altogether die.” In 1923 Willison began a biography of Sir George Robert Parkin and in 1925 he added some chapters to his biography of Laurier. A last hurrah was Willisons Monthly, a stylish newsmagazine started that year in Toronto, but with Willison’s death in 1927 there was no time to see what lasting impact it could have under his direction.
Compared with Willison’s public record, personal information on him and his family is slight. He was an avid clubman and lawn bowler, a Prohibitionist, and a Methodist turned Anglican. Beyond journalism, he had business interests in the 1920s as president of the Municipal Bankers’ Corporation Limited, Mortgage, Discount and Finance Limited, and Canadian Rail and Harbour Terminals Limited, as a co-founder with bond-broker Thomas A. Neeley of the financing firm Willison-Neeley Corporation, and as a director of the Western Canada Colonization Association. Willison’s first wife had been a founder of the Toronto Ladies’ Club in 1904, a councillor of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, and a wartime president of the Canadian National Ladies’ Guild for British and Foreign Sailors. Their twin sons both became journalists; one, William Taylor, was killed in France in 1916. Just a year after Willison’s remarriage, to Marjory MacMurchy, a former literary editor at the News and an accomplished writer, he died of cancer at age 70.
Willison had major champions as well as detractors. Many Liberals could never forgive his turn against Laurier. In July 1927 King told his diary that the editor had been “a tory snob in his behaviour, tho’ he had within him qualities that might have made him a truly great man.” Writing in the Dalhousie Review (Halifax), educationist Arthur Hugh Urquhart Colquhoun* remembered “a formidable antagonist and a pillar of strength in the storm. So men of all sorts sought his counsel in an emergency, trusting to his balanced judgment, his unique experience and his incorruptible integrity.” Self-educated, very much self-promoting, and widely admired, although he surely faced more criticism, rivalry, and jealousy than uncritical acclaim, Willison rose on the strength of his abilities to become an advocate for major national causes and a close counsellor to Laurier and Borden, astonishingly across the Liberal-Conservative divide and over three decades of rapidly changing conditions, issues, and ideas.
Sir John Willison was one of the most influential English-speaking journalists in Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and a pivotal figure in national political shifts in 1896, 1911, and 1917. With his incisive pen and clear reasoning, he raised the Globe to unprecedented prominence. Although he failed to find sustainability for the News as a journalist-centred, independent newspaper, he used it effectively as a vehicle for the expression of his large ideas for 14 years. For two highly eventful decades in British-Canadian relations he interpreted Canada brilliantly for the Times. His history of Laurier and his Reminiscences constituted major literary achievements. In all its facets, his career powerfully touched and expressively reflected the evolution of Canada’s nationhood.
Sir John Stephen Willison apparently destroyed virtually all of his private family correspondence, but there are collections of other Willison papers at the AO (F 1083) and the LAC (MG 30, D29). The AO holdings also contain two biographical manuscripts, one an insightful memoir by Lady Willison, the other a long letter to her from historian Jesse Edgar Middleton* that appears to be the text of a speech (presumably by Middleton) to the Canadian Literature Club in Toronto on 1 Oct. 1928. The only published biography is A. H. U. Colquhoun, Press, politics and people: the life and letters of Sir John Willison, journalist and correspondent of the “Times” (Toronto, 1935). Rather than an objective analysis, it is an admiring tribute by a friend and journalistic contemporary who allowed Willison to be his own biographer by speaking through his letters. Newspaperman John Wesley Dafoe* characterized it as “a careful blend of biography and quotation.”
Willison’s publications include: Agriculture and industry . . . (Toronto, [1920?]); Anglo-Saxon amity ([Toronto?, 1906?]); The new Canada: a survey of the conditions and problems of the dominion (London, ); Partners in peace: the dominion, the empire and the republic (Toronto, 1923); The railway question in Canada . . . (Toronto, ); Sir George Parkin: a biography (London, 1929); Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberal party: a political history (2v., Toronto, 1903); and The United States and Canada (New York, 1908).
AO, RG 80-5-0-132, no.1588; RG 80-8-0-982, no.1347; RG 80-8-0-1051, no.4037. Globe & Mail Library (Toronto), M. O. Hammond, “History of the Globe,” ed. H. W. Charlesworth (typescript). LAC, MG 26, G; H; J13, 17 July 1927. QUA, Joseph Flavelle fonds. Times Arch. (London, Eng.), New Printing House Square papers, Willison file. Evening News (Toronto), 1902–17. Globe, 1883–1902, esp. 9 June 1885; 20, 22 Jan. 1925; 10, 12–13 April 1926. Morning Post (London, Eng.), 1906–8. Times (London), 1908–27. Toronto Daily Star, 1905; 26 Oct. 1935. Réal Bélanger, Wilfrid Laurier; quand la politique devient passion (Québec et Montréal, 1986). Carl Berger, The sense of power; studies in the ideas of Canadian imperialism, 1867–1914 (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1970). Michael Bliss, A Canadian millionaire: the life and business times of Sir Joseph Flavelle, bart., 1858–1939 (Toronto, 1978). R. C. Brown, Robert Laird Borden: a biography (2v., Toronto, 1975–80). R. C. Brown and Ramsay Cook, Canada, 1896–1921: a nation transformed (Toronto, 1974). Canadian annual rev., 1902–25/26. H. W. Charlesworth, Candid chronicles: leaves from the note book of a Canadian journalist (Toronto, 1925). R. T. Clippingdale, “J. S. Willison and Canadian nationalism, 1886–1902,” CHA, Hist. Papers (1969): 74–93; “J. S. Willison, political journalist: from liberalism to independence, 1881–1905” (phd thesis, 2v., Univ. of Toronto, 1970). A. H. U. Colquhoun, “Sir John Willison,” Dalhousie Rev. (Halifax), 7 (1927–28): 159–62. Ramsay Cook, The politics of John W. Dafoe and the “Free Press” (Toronto and Buffalo, 1963). Carman Cumming, Secret craft: the journalism of Edward Farrer (Toronto, 1992). J. W. Dafoe, Clifford Sifton in relation to his times (Toronto, 1931); Laurier; a study in Canadian politics (Toronto, 1922; repr., intro. M. S. Donnelly, 1963). Domino [Augustus Bridle], “A coat of many colours: Sir John Willison,” in his The masques of Ottawa (Toronto, 1921), 166–72. J. E. Kendle, The Round Table movement and imperial union (Toronto and Buffalo, 1975). J. E. Middleton and Fred Landon, The province of Ontario: a history, 1615–1927 (5v., Toronto, 1927–), 4: 509–10. H. V. Nelles, The politics of development: forests, mines & hydro-electric power in Ontario, 1849–1941 (Toronto, 1974). Margaret Prang, N. W. Rowell, Ontario nationalist (Toronto and Buffalo, 1975). Round Table (London), 1910–16. Paul Rutherford, A Victorian authority: the daily press in late nineteenth-century Canada (Toronto, 1982). Joseph Schull, Laurier: the first Canadian (Toronto, 1965). Minko Sotiron, From politics to profits: the commercialization of Canadian daily newspapers, 1890–1920 (Montreal and Kingston, 1997). P. B. Waite, Canada, 1874–1896: arduous destiny (Toronto and Montreal, 1971). Who’s who in Canada, 1922.
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Cite This Article
Richard T. Clippingdale, “WILLISON, Sir JOHN STEPHEN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 25, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/willison_john_stephen_15E.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:||Richard T. Clippingdale|
|Title of Article:||WILLISON, Sir JOHN STEPHEN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||2005|
|Year of revision:||2005|
|Access Date:||March 25, 2023|