The Scarecrow on the Other Side of the Pond: The Paris Commune of 1871 in the Canadian Press

By Bargain-Villeger, Alban | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

The Scarecrow on the Other Side of the Pond: The Paris Commune of 1871 in the Canadian Press


Bargain-Villeger, Alban, Labour/Le Travail


It would be hard to imagine two more divergent projects in 19th-century state making than the Dominion of Canada and the Paris Commune. Yet they were products of the same historical moment, and, while the Communards no doubt paid little attention to transatlantic politics, Canadian newspapers viewed the developments in France through the spring of 1871 with some concern. The principles that animated the Parisian revolutionaries were antithetical to the cautious, less democratic precepts of the nation-building process then taking shape in Canada. Not surprisingly, Canadian commentators disliked what they saw, and their discourse about the Commune became part of their efforts to promote a different sense of liberal nationhood in the new dominion.

Between 18 March and 28 May 1871, in the wake of France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, a simultaneously socialist and republican insurrection occurred in Paris that gave rise to a veritable state within the state. Communards had their own elected government and resisted the assaults of the official French government before falling in late May. The last major insurrection of 19th-century France is not just a significant event in left history. It also had an impact across the Atlantic, as the overwhelming majority of Canadian newspapers made use of the Paris events to make sense of the new nation. For despite the lofty pronouncements and ringing bells of 1 July 1867, Canada found itself in a quest for a concrete legitimation of its existence and purpose. Socialism was an ideal scapegoat, as it allowed both Francophones and Anglophones, liberals and conservatives to share a common antipathy for what appeared to be a foreign and pernicious political system.

The press acted as the main vehicle for the demonization of the Commune. As Paul Rutherford has pointed out in A Victorian Authority, the creation of national mythologies was central to the Confederation-era nation-building process. In that process, "the daily press was the prime mythmaker." (1) Indeed, in its coverage of the Commune, the press was concerned with order, a factor that had added significance due to the young age and the seemingly fragile political edifice of Confederation.

This research note argues that the Canadian press coverage of the Commune played a role in constructing a consensual idea of what the moral basis of Confederation should be. Although some Canadians certainly felt sympathy for the Communards, most newspapers agreed on one thing: the insurrection and the regime it established were an aberration. This unanimous condemnation of the Commune and its use as a cautionary tale contributed to strengthening the nation-building process.

Nation building, in Canada as elsewhere, rarely is a finite moment in a country's history. Even relatively old countries still strive to define their respective identities. (2) This phenomenon seems to have been inherent to any national entity that has not lived in isolation from the rest of the world. Openness to foreign material and cultural goods as well as immigration flows and international contacts of all kinds unsurprisingly engender the periodical reconsideration of those identities and encourage continuous changes to national narratives.

Like most other national projects, Canada is a non-finite entity that has been shaped by dialogues and conflicts among various individuals, institutions, and organizations that contributed to its creation. This perpetuum mobile can be seen as a laboratory, one in which various individuals and groups that partake of that community add their contributions to the crucible of national consciousness. Though at times the result of compromise among various forces, a nation's official identity is nevertheless often proposed from above to (and sometimes imposed on) individuals, who then interpret it, albeit within a frame acceptable to the rules of that newly created national consciousness.

As the main information medium at the time (the newspaper circulation figures for 1872 amounted to 670,000 copies--more than one issue per family), the press played an important role in demonizing the Commune. …

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