Joseph Howe and the Battle for Freedom of Speech


63 pages
ISBN 1-55447-018-8
DDC 323.44'3'0971





Reviewed by Graeme S. Mount

Graeme S. Mount is a professor of history at Laurentian University. He
is the author of Canada’s Enemies: Spies and Spying in the Peaceable
Kingdom, Chile and the Nazis, and The Diplomacy of War: The Case of


John Ralston Saul clearly demonstrates that, at least in one respect,
Joseph Howe is to Canada what Thomas Jefferson was to the United States.
In both countries, there were political leaders who could not
distinguish between legitimate political criticism and libel.

During the presidency of Jefferson’s predecessor, journalists had
paid fines and gone to jail for violating the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Jefferson campaigned successfully against those Acts in 1800, and on
becoming president pardoned anyone convicted under them and refunded the

For his part, in 1835, Joseph Howe’s newspaper, The Nova Scotian,
exposed corruption in the colony’s political establishment, whose
members then charged Howe with criminal libel. Howe defended himself
successfully and then launched a political career that lasted for
decades. Like Jefferson, Howe tried to leave the political jurisdiction
that he served more democratic than it had been when he assumed office.

This book contains the text of a speech that Saul delivered in 2004 to
the School of Journalism at King’s College, Halifax. Saul wanted the
students to realize the extent to which they had benefited from Howe’s
legacy. In 1919, Fred Dickson, a leader of the Winnipeg General Strike,
found himself in court facing a charge of criminal libel. Using ideas
lifted from Howe’s trial, he successfully defended himself. The Crown
then dropped charges against J.S. Woodsworth, who later became leader of
the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (predecessor of the New
Democratic Party), and other defendants. More recently, the Canadian
Charter of Rights and Freedoms, says Saul, owes some of its inspiration
to Howe.

Saul’s message is that Canadians are fortunate people, and Joseph
Howe is partly responsible for that good fortune. Columnists are a
“media aristocracy,” and journalists have responsibilities that, as
in Howe’s day, require courage.


Saul, John Ralston., “Joseph Howe and the Battle for Freedom of Speech,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 14, 2024,