Canada’s Earliest Printers

By Meaghan Scanlon

As you walk through the exhibition Premiere: New acquisitions at Library and Archives Canada, you will see two items from Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC’s) Rare Book Collection. One is a short medical pamphlet published in Quebec in 1785 that explains the symptoms and treatment of a disease thought to have been a form of syphilis. The other is a proclamation on the subject of French fishing rights, issued by the Governor of Newfoundland in 1822.

A colour photograph of a book open to the title page. It reads: Direction pour la guerison du mal de la Baie St Paul. A Quebec : Chez Guillaume Brown, au milieu de la grande cote. M, DCC, LXXXV.

Title page of Direction pour la guerison du mal de la Baie St Paul. Printed by Guillaume (William) Brown at Quebec City in 1785 (AMICUS 10851364)

These two publications may not appear to have much in common. In fact, though, they share an interesting historical connection: both are the work of the first printers in their respective provinces. William Brown, publisher of Direction pour la guerison du mal de la Baie St Paul [A guide to treating the Baie St Paul malady], and his partner, Thomas Gilmore, became the first printers in the province of Quebec when they set up shop at Quebec City in 1764. John Ryan, who produced the Newfoundland broadside, holds the distinction of having been the first printer in two separate provinces. Ryan and his partner, William Lewis, were already in business in Saint John when the province of New Brunswick was created in 1784. Ryan then relocated to St. John’s, Newfoundland, in 1806, and opened the island’s first press.

A black-and-white document proclaiming the rights of French fishermen under the Treaty of Paris, which confirmed the rights laid out in the Treaty of Utrecht, to fish in the waters off Newfoundland without hindrance or harassment by British subjects. The proclamation directs officers and magistrates to prevent British subjects from obstructing the French fishery, and gives warnings about potential actions to be taken against those British fishermen who refuse to comply.

By His Excellency Sir Charles Hamilton … a proclamation. Printed by John Ryan at St. John’s, Newfoundland, ca. 1822 (AMICUS 45262655)

Johann Gutenberg introduced printing to Europe in the middle of the 15th century, completing his famous Bible in Mainz, Germany, around 1454. By 1500, Gutenberg’s innovation had been adopted widely in Europe. European colonists then transported printing technology to the Americas. It was not until 1751—almost 300 years post-Gutenberg—that the first press reached Canada. This alone seems to us like an incredibly lengthy interval, accustomed as we are to rapid changes in technology. But it actually took close to another 150 years for printing to spread to all regions of the country. Through holdings like these items printed by William Brown and John Ryan, LAC’s Rare Book Collection documents the long and fascinating history of how printing made its way across Canada.

A colour reproduction of the cover page of a newspaper. The newsprint is creased near the top and sepia-tinged.

The Halifax Gazette, no. 1 (March 23, 1752). Printed by John Bushell (AMICUS 7589124)

This history begins with John Bushell, Canada’s first printer. In 1751, Bushell moved from Boston, Massachusetts, to Halifax, Nova Scotia. There, he published the country’s first newspaper, The Halifax Gazette, on March 23, 1752. As previously noted, Quebec and New Brunswick got their first presses in 1764 and 1784, respectively. By the end of the 18th century, printers had come to Prince Edward Island and Ontario, where Louis Roy established the first press in Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake) in 1792. After John Ryan’s arrival in Newfoundland in 1806, there were presses in all of the eastern provinces. Many early eastern Canadian printers, including Ryan and Prince Edward Island’s first printer, James Robertson, were Loyalists—Americans who left the United States during the American Revolutionary War out of loyalty to the British monarchy.

The advent of printing in Western Canada and the North occurred before the close of the 19th century. In both Alberta and Manitoba, the first printers were missionaries who produced Indigenous language translations of Christian religious texts. Using a makeshift press and type he had cast himself, Methodist minister James Evans started printing in Cree syllabics at Rossville, Manitoba, in 1840. The Oblate priest Émile Grouard brought the first press to Alberta when he settled at Lac La Biche in 1876. In 1878, Grouard completed the province’s first book, entitled Histoire sainte en Montagnais (“Montagnais” was the term non-Indigenous people used for the Dene language). That same year, Saskatchewan’s first printer, Scottish-born Patrick Gammie Laurie, began publishing his newspaper, the Saskatchewan Herald (AMICUS 4970721), in Battleford. Laurie had walked to Battleford from Winnipeg—a distance of about 1000 kilometres!—leading an ox cart that carried his press.

The Fraser River gold rush lured prospectors to the west coast in 1858. A demand for printed news accompanied this influx of people, resulting in the establishment of British Columbia’s first five newspapers, all in Victoria. One of the five was The British Colonist (AMICUS 7670749), founded by the future premier of British Columbia, Amor de Cosmos. Gold also spurred the introduction of the press to Canada’s northern territories. During the Klondike gold rush in 1898, printer G.B. Swinehart left Juneau, Alaska, with the intention of starting a newspaper in Dawson City, Yukon. Swinehart’s journey stalled at Caribou Crossing due to the weather, so he published a single issue there while he waited. This paper, the Caribou Sun (AMICUS 7502915) for May 16, 1898, is the first document known to have been printed in Canada’s North.

A black-and-white photograph of a group of men standing in front of a log building with a sign that reads The Yukon Sun.

Office of G.B. Swinehart’s paper, renamed The Yukon Sun, at Dawson City, 1899. (MIKAN 3299688)

LAC’s published collection holds a lot of early Canadian printed material, including over 500 items printed in Canada before 1800. This is a significant number, but the collection still has many gaps. It is always exciting for LAC staff when we come across imprints that aren’t already in the collection because documents printed by Canada’s first printers tend to be very rare. The two publications featured in the Premiere exhibition are good examples. Only about five copies of Direction pour la guerison du mal de la Baie St Paul survive today. The John Ryan broadside was previously unrecorded, meaning that no other copies are known to exist.

If you’re in the Ottawa area, check out Premiere: New Acquisitions at Library and Archives Canada to see these rare early Canadian imprints in person, along with new acquisitions from other parts of LAC’s collection. The exhibition runs at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa until December 3, 2018. Admission is free!

Additional resources


Meaghan Scanlon is Senior Special Collections Librarian in the Published Heritage Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

What lies beneath the fig tree: Solomon Ibn Gabirol and the search for wisdom

Web banner with the words: Premiere: New acquisitions at Library and Archives Canada showing a small picture of an otter fishing on the rightBy Dr. Guy Berthiaume

There is a legend that a jealous poet murdered Solomon Ibn Gabirol, the 11th- century Jewish poet and philosopher, and buried him under a fig tree. The fruit of that tree was so sweet and so plentiful, the people of the town where the tree was located decided to dig it up and uncover the source of its richness. The legend finishes with the discovery of Gabirol’s remains beneath the tree, lending a truly poetic explanation of the tree’s abundant nature, one Gabirol himself might well have appreciated.

Legend aside, Gabirol was an important philosopher and the author of over 100 poetical works. His writings contain a fascinating blend of Jewish, Islamic, Neoplatonic, Pythagorean, Biblical, mystical and philosophical sources, bearing out Gabirol’s advice that we should “seek wisdom with the avidity with which thou wouldst search for hidden treasures, for it is more precious than gold and silver.” This sage instruction is taken from Mivachar Ha-Peninim, or Choice of Pearls, the most recent addition to Library and Archives Canada’s collection of incunabula, acquired with the generous donation of Ruth and Arnon Miller.

While incunabulum is actually a five-star Latin word for “cradle,” it has come to mean any book, pamphlet or broadside printed before the year 1501. In fact, before this term came into popular use, such books were known as “fifteeners,” which, while descriptive, lacks a certain syntactical mystique! But whichever way you choose to describe them, incunabula are compelling artifacts, both for their contents, and for their beauty as objects in and of themselves. Choice of Pearls is no exception.

Gabirol had a wide following in both Islamic and Christian circles, and this collection of proverbs, moral reflections and maxims was probably the equivalent of a New York Times bestseller in its day. Choice of Pearls feels surprisingly modern, with a relevance that applies as much today as it did in the 11th century. The book is studded with insights and observations such as these:  “Wisdom lying dormant is like an unproductive treasure”; “Man without wisdom is like a house without a foundation”; and the surprisingly prescient “Truth establishes all things; falsehood overthrows them,” which takes on a special meaning in this age of “post-truth”.

Although the text was originally written in Arabic by a Jewish philosopher who has been compared to Plato, its wisdom and wit was popular with both Jewish and Arab readers of the time. This demonstrates something I have long believed, that poetry and philosophy have a unique ability to transcend boundaries, and that libraries, by sharing works across cultures, can do the same.

The book is also significant because its publisher, Soncino Press, is one of the oldest and most influential printers in the history of Jewish books. Based in Northern Italy, Joshua Soncino set up one of the world’s first Hebrew printing presses in 1484.

A colour photograph of an open book with Hebrew writing.

Mivachar Ha-Peninim by Solomon Ibn Gabirol, 1484 (AMICUS 45283149)

Choice of Pearls was purchased at auction from the Valmadonna Trust Library, which was the world’s largest private collection of rare Judaica. It now joins its fellow incunabula in Library and Archives Canada’s Jacob M. Lowy Collection. The Collection, amassed over a lifetime, contains over 3,000 old and rare books printed between the 15th and 20th centuries in Hebrew, Latin, Yiddish and other languages. Highlights include first and early editions of the Talmud, 34 incunabula, and over 120 Bibles in many languages, including Inuktitut.


Dr. Guy Berthiaume is the Librarian and Archivist of Canada.

A Unique Example of Canadian Research: HMCS Bras d’Or

Web banner with the words: Premiere: New acquisitions at Library and Archives Canada showing a small picture of an otter fishing on the rightBy Marcelle Cinq-Mars

What is the connection between a digital watch, a GPS in a car, a microwave oven in a kitchen, and an epinephrine auto-injector for allergic reactions? Hint: It is the same as the link between radar, night vision goggles and the Internet. They are all technological developments from scientific research for military purposes.

Military-related scientific research has led to countless technological developments. And it goes back a long time!

In Canada, the Defence Research Board (DRB) was created in 1947; its mandate concerned military research in areas of Canadian expertise such as the Arctic, ballistics and biochemical warfare. Over the years, the DRB developed Canada’s first (and only) air-to-air missile, called the Velvet Glove. The DRB was also directly involved in the development of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, an extensive network of radar stations to detect enemies in Canadian airspace.

A colour photograph of the red nose cone of a rocket next to two men working on the instruments that will go inside it.

Defence Research Board technicians adjust an antenna in a Javelin rocket in 1961 (e010975999)

At the height of the Cold War, the detection of enemies was also needed in the oceans. Submarines posed a real threat there, especially when they became armed with nuclear warheads. Accordingly, DRB scientists started working on a type of boat designed specifically to hunt enemy submarines. What they developed was a hydrofoil.

Hydrofoil technology dates back to the early 1900s. The famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell even made prototypes of them, which he tested on Bras d’Or Lake in Nova Scotia. Wing-like structures called “foils” are mounted under a vessel and lift it out of the water as the speed increases. As a result, water friction on the hull is reduced, and the vessel can reach impressive speeds.

In the 1960s, Marine Industries Limited in Sorel, Quebec, started building a hydrofoil for the Royal Canadian Navy. The hull was made of aluminum, the foils of steel. This special boat had features and technologies from both aeronautics and nautical science, so the captain had to be both an aircraft pilot and a naval captain.

The new vessel was commissioned into the Royal Canadian Navy on July 12, 1968, as HMCS Bras d’Or. Sea trials began off Halifax in April 1969. During the trials, the vessel reached an impressive speed of 63 knots (117 km/h), a record speed for a warship at the time.

A colour photograph of a hydrofoil in motion.

HMCS Bras d’Or, Royal Canadian Navy, demonstrates its hydrofoil system on February 18, 1970 (e011154076)

HMCS Bras d’Or saw service for a short time only. On November 2, 1971, the Government of Canada ended the hydrofoil program. Canada’s priority shifted from anti-submarine warfare to the protection of sovereignty. The Bras d’Or was donated to the Musée maritime du Québec in L’Islet-sur-Mer, where it remains on display.

Related resources


Marcelle Cinq-Mars is a senior military archivist.

“My darling dearest Jeanie” The Joseph Gaetz fonds

Web banner with the words: Premiere: New acquisitions at Library and Archives Canada showing a small picture of an otter fishing on the rightBy Katie Cholette

“My darling dearest Jeanie.” That’s how Joseph Gaetz began every one of the more than 530 letters he wrote to his fiancée, Jean McRae, during the Second World War. Stationed in England, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany during and after the Second World War, Joseph was, at times, desperately homesick. His deepest desire was for the war to be over so that he could return to Canada and marry his sweetheart. Between July 1943 and November 1945, Joseph wrote to Jean whenever he could, sometimes sending both an airmail and a regular letter in the same day. He also collected a number of souvenirs from German prisoners that he sent to Jean with his letters. In 2017, his three daughters, Cathy Gaetz-Brothen, Bonnie Gaetz-Simpson and Linda Gaetz-Roberts donated his letters and souvenirs to Library and Archives Canada.

A colour photograph of piles of letters, with one bundle held together by a red ribbon. Underneath them is a photograph of a young woman wearing a coat and stylish hat.

Letters addressed to Jean McRae of Turner Valley

A black-and-white photograph of a man in a military uniform with his arm around a young woman wearing a flowered dress standing in front of a clapboard house.

Joe and Jean on their first day of engagement. November 1, 1942, Turner Valley.

Joseph Gaetz was from the small community of Faith, Alberta. His parents were Russian immigrants and he grew up speaking English and German. On 13 May 1942, he attested in the Calgary Highlanders; five months later, he became engaged to Jean McRae of Turner Valley, Alberta. In early 1943, he shipped out to England with the Canadian Infantry Reinforcement Unit.

A black-and-white photograph of a group of 18 soldiers in uniform in a tilled field.

Royal Hamilton Light Infantry Scout Platoon.

In August 1944, Joe was sent into action in France with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry; he would soon move into Belgium and Holland. When his superiors realized that he spoke German, Joe became an interpreter with their scout platoon, going on a number of expeditions behind enemy lines to bring back German prisoners. In one letter to Jean from late 1944, he wrote, “My officer and I went a mile into the Jerry lines one night and took 52 prisoners to a barn…That was quite an experience.” In another letter, he told Jean how odd it felt to be capturing Germans who had lived in Canada before the war. In still other letters, he talks about picking up a pistol (one of several he acquired during the war) from No Man’s Land. Joe also told Jean how he got nervous before every patrol but learned to walk silently to avoid detection. He attributed his ability to avoid injury or capture to the photo of Jean that he kept in his breast pocket. He called it his “lucky charm” and said that all the other men had some sort of talisman.

Joe’s ability to speak German allowed him to converse with the men they captured. Although Joe had no particular fondness for Germans, he did recognize their humanity and common plight. While guarding captured prisoners, or bringing them back to camp, Joe often talked with them. Sometimes he challenged their convictions—in one instance, he asked a group of prisoners if they thought Hitler was still a god. One young soldier, who surrendered, told Joe he was afraid he was going to be sent back to Germany after the war and shot for being a deserter. Joe told the young man not to worry; there wasn’t going to be a Germany after the war.

A colour photograph of a book opened at the first page. A pamphlet has been glued on the inside cover which has a photograph on one side and an ode to the women who stayed home entitled “For Honour and for Her!”

Joe’s Service Book showing the poem and photograph of Jeanie glued on the inside cover (e011202230)

Like many other soldiers, Joe kept a photo of his sweetheart tucked in the front of his Service Book, accompanied by a patriotic and moralistic poem entitled For Service and for Her! After inquiring about Jean’s health, he would reassure her that he was fine, tell her whether he had received her most recent letters, and then discuss the weather or some other inconsequential details. He followed these pleasantries with observations on military life—the routine chores he had to perform, what his accommodations were like, the food, who he’d met from back home, and so on.

Conditions at the front were often harsh, but Joe rarely complained. In fact, he joked about sleeping in trenches he’d dug himself and constructing makeshift chimneys from empty tin cans. Joe had a strong sense of personal duty; he refused to send anyone else in to do his job, and he went for seven months without a single day of leave. In one letter, he stoically told Jean about spending Christmas Day 1944 on duty in No Man’s Land.

Sometimes Joe and his fellow scouts were billeted with local families. Joe quickly picked up enough Flemish to be able to communicate with the people he came into contact with, and he writes how the locals would often invite the soldiers to dinner or offer to do their laundry. In his letters, he describes the little children he met, and he occasionally included photos of them in his letters home.

He came back to Canada on November 1945 and was discharged in Calgary, Alberta, on January 18, 1946, at the rank of Sergeant. He worked his way up to manager of the Fort Macleod lumberyard and he and Jean were finally married on June 21, 1948. They had three daughters before he died at the age of 41 of chronic hypertension. Cathy Gaetz-Brothen, the youngest of the girls was only one-year-old when her father died. The letters he wrote to her mother are especially important to her because they allowed her to get to know a father she had no memory of.

A black-and-white photograph of a man in uniform.

Joseph Gaetz in uniform (e011202231)

Joseph Gaetz didn’t have a particularly heroic war. He wasn’t a high-ranking commissioned officer leading a battalion; he didn’t singlehandedly storm any nests of German snipers. Instead he did what thousands of other Canadian soldiers did. He joined the army and fought alongside his fellow soldiers in the hope that he would one day come home to his sweetheart. Joe was one of the lucky ones.

Visit the exhibition Premiere: New acquisitions at Library and Archives Canada at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa. The exhibition, which runs until December 3, 2018, features our most recent acquisitions and celebrates the expertise of Library and Archives Canada’s acquisition specialists. A librarian or an archivist thoughtfully selected every one of the items in the exhibition and wrote the caption for the item that they chose. Admission is free.


Katie Cholette is an archivist in the Specialized Media section of Library and Archives Canada.

Come see our latest exhibition – Premiere: New acquisitions at Library and Archives Canada …

Web banner with the words: Premiere: New acquisitions at Library and Archives Canada showing a small picture of an otter fishing on the right

And keep an eye on this blog series…

There is something a bit different about Library and Archives Canada’s (LAC) latest exhibition, opening at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa, on April 24, 2018.

New exhibition showcases variety

Like other exhibitions, Premiere: New acquisitions at Library and Archives Canada showcases the great variety found in LAC’s collection. A few examples include a Chinese embroidery and a 1952–1953 replica of the original Stanley Cup.

An embroidered golden cloth of two dragons reaching for a pearl and flying amongst clouds with ocean waves rolling below them.

Design for Canada Post’s Year of the Dragon Stamp, Punchline Embroidery Centre, 1998 (e011202235) ©Canada Post. Selected by Emma Hamilton-Hobbs, Archivist, Government Archives.

A colour photograph of a copper silver-plated bowl engraved with “National Hockey League, Stanley Cup Winners, Season 1952–53.”

1952–1953 Stanley Cup souvenir bowl awarded to Montreal Canadiens Executive Vice-President William Northey, Roden Brothers Ltd., 1953 (e011202220). Selected by Normand Laplante, Senior Archivist, Social Life and Culture Private Archives.

New exhibition also showcases acquisitions expertise

However, this exhibition featuring LAC’s most recent acquisitions also celebrates the expertise of LAC’s acquisition specialists. Every one of the items featured in the exhibition was thoughtfully selected by one of LAC’s librarians or archivists. The same librarian or archivist also prepared the exhibition text for his or her own item, and each text is “signed” with the name and title of the specialist who prepared it. The Librarian and Archivist of Canada, Dr. Guy Berthiaume, even selected an item!

A colour photograph of an open book written in Hebrew.

Mivachar Ha-Peninim (Choice of Pearls) by Solomon Ibn Gabirol, 1484 (AMICUS 45283149). Acquired with the assistance of the Friends of Library and Archives Canada through the generous support of Ruth and Arnon Miller. Selected by Guy Berthiaume, Librarian and Archivist of Canada.

Whether donated, purchased, or assigned to LAC as part of established or evolving legal agreements, new acquisitions represent the lifeblood of Canada’s collection. Building a collection that captures Canada’s story is an essential part of LAC’s mandate.

Watercolour portraits of two young Inuit men wearing western-style clothing. One is captioned Augustus and the other, Junius.

Inuit interpreters from Churchill, Robert Hood, May 1821 (e011154367). Selected by Shane McCord, Art Archivist, Social Life and Culture Private Archives.

… and keep an eye on the Premiere blog series…

Through this blog series, which features in-depth articles on many of the items chosen for the exhibition, this emphasis on the importance of expertise in acquisitions is underlined. Each of the blog articles in this series will feature the work of one of LAC’s acquisition specialists. The blogs will be published once a month.

A colour photograph of a record label that reads “Improved Berliner Gram-O-Phone Record. Manufactured by [illegible] Montreal, Canada. Patented [illegible] 1897. Ye Banks and Braes. Played by The Kilties Band – Belleville, Ont.”

Ye Banks and Braes (Caledonian Hunt’s Delight), performed by the Kilties Band of Canada, released October 25, 1902, arranged by Bonniseau. Listen here! (AMICUS 31383290). Selected by Margaret Ashburner, Project Librarian, Retrospective Music, Published Heritage.

Look for new articles during the course of the exhibition, which closes on December 3, 2018.

And please visit the physical exhibition in Ottawa!

Premiere: New acquisitions at Library and Archives Canada opens on April 24, 2018, at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa and runs until December 3, 2018. Admission is free.