Associate Professor, School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University
Historian, Canadian War Museum
For as long as people have been fighting among themselves, someone has been there to observe events and relay the news to others. In the centuries before newspapers began to dispatch civilian ‘war correspondents’ in the latter half of the 1800s, people most often heard about war from official proclamations and the participants themselves.
Indigenous peoples in what is now Canada learned of minor raids, great battles and warriors through oral accounts. The Greenland Saga documents skirmishes between 10th century Vikings and the Beothuk in Newfoundland. Samuel de Champlain recorded in Voyages how he joined a Huron-Algonkian war expedition to Mohawk country in 1609.
In pre-Confederation Canada, most newspaper reporting on war– such as accounts of the War of 1812 or the 1837 rebellions – was written by soldiers. The personal journals or memoirs of campaigns composed by literate officers were often published on their own or excerpted by newspapers, providing a first-hand perspective of warfighting that was eagerly read by consumers on the home front. They were also the only way that readers could open a window to war, as the civilian war correspondent didn’t gain access to the frontlines until the mid-19th century.
The first civilian war correspondent may have been William Howard Russell, who chronicled the foibles of the British military in the Crimea in the 1850s for the venerable Times of London. Following in his footsteps Canadian journalists began to report on conflict. Among them was George A. Flinn, who reported critically on the Riel rebellion in 1885 for the Winnipeg Sun and the Toronto Telegram and, like other reporters, clashed with the commander, General Frederick Middleton. By the end of the century, Canadian journalists were also among 200 correspondents covering the Boer War.
Kathleen “Kit” Blake Coleman, who reported for the Toronto Mail and Empire, is credited with being the first woman accredited as a war correspondent when she was somewhat reluctantly given permission to cover the 1898 Spanish-American War in Cuba. The letter of introduction provided by U.S. Secretary of War Russel H. Alger gave her permission “to accompany the military expedition of the United States out of this country, if not inconsistent with the best interests of the service.”
Alger’s proviso about the military’s “best interests” has proven very influential in governing what Canadian and international war correspondents have been able to report on in the years since.
In the First World War, highly restrictive provisions for reporting on the Western Front meant that only a handful of reporters were given access at any given time. Canadian coverage was largely shaped by Max Aitken—aka Lord Beaverbrook—the Canadian newspaper baron who established the government’s official “Eye Witness” program to provide newspapers with official accounts of the battles. The news promoted Canada’s participation in the war and was subject to heavy censorship, presenting a skewed vision of the horrors of the trenches.
Newspapers at home also published long casualty lists, as well as soldiers’ letters that often provided a more personalized picture of the war. The ruinous costs of transmitting news by transatlantic telegraph cables led to significant changes in news organization in Canada, including the consolidation of several wire services in 1917 into “The Canadian Press.”
Second World War reporters enjoyed a much better relationship with the forces they covered, receiving the honorary rank of captain, services of a driver, and greater access. Added to this was the technology of radio broadcasting, which for the first time brought the sounds of war into living rooms across the country, complete with moving accounts from iconic voices such as Peter Stursberg, Matthew Halton and Marcel Ouimet.
Still subject to censorship, journalists ended up as part of the war effort, helping to sell Victory Bonds and self-censoring information in the name of victory. The symbiotic relationship between war correspondents and military public relations nevertheless helped to produce some stirring reporting of the war, with reporters sharing much of the risks with the soldiers they covered.
In recent decades, Canadian war correspondents have covered conflict in far flung corners of the world and followed this country’s involvement in United Nations and NATO missions in the Balkans, Africa and the Middle East. Canada’s decade-long engagement in Afghanistan introduced a new generation of Canadian journalists to the rigours of war correspondence, the ethical quandary of signing embed agreements with the Canadian Forces and Canada’s most intensive combat operation since Korea. Along the way, as they have always done, Canadian correspondents helped shape the way we see war.