The newspaper man with ink in his blood

by George Siamandas



John Dafoe is the celebrated editor in chief of the Winnipeg Free Press between 1902 and his death in 1944. Dafoe was a well known Liberal supporter who did not hesitate to criticize the party when it strayed from its Liberal principles. John Dafoe the legendary newspaperman is reputed to have had ink in his blood.

John Wesley Dafoe grew up a farm boy who was brought up as a Tory and Orangeman. His parents were from United Empire stock that came up from the US. Dafoe was born on March 6, 1866 in Combermere Ontario where he gained only a high school education. He was considered awful at grammar and spelling, even later as the editor of the Free Press.


Dafoe's first assignment as a cub reporter with the Montreal Star was to help expose a crooked clothing store. The Star suspected the clothier was drawing in farm boys fresh into the city, showing them and charging them for a fine suit, but substituting a cheap one when it came time to pick it up. Young Dafoe, the farm boy from Ontario seemed the perfect bait. And indeed, his experience was as expected, the police were called, and the Montreal Star exposed the store's wickedness in a four day special series.

Dafoe went on to bigger better things reporting on Parliament. Listening to John Blake's eloquence, the young Tory was immediately converted to Liberalism. Dafoe rose quickly in journalism. At age 17 he was the Montreal Star's parliamentary reporter during a time Parliament was still lit with gaslights.

At 19 he was editor of the Ottawa Evening Journal. Dafoe joined the Free Press at age 20 in 1886 and stayed for 6 years. During this time Winnipeg had a population of 20,000 but Dafoe marvelled that it had four newspapers and he was glad to be with the best. After another stint in the east Dafoe returned to take over the Manitoba free Press in 1901 and ran it for the next 43 years.

Reflecting on his 60 year career and referring to that fateful offer to be editor of the Free Press, Dafoe remarked that took him only a millionth of a second to decide to take what he considered as the best job in the world. His boss, publisher of the Free Press, Clifford Sifton was a strong willed and autocratic man with whom Dafoe often differed on politics. Yet a kind of common view emerged.


While the Free press was a regional paper it had influence all over the west and was read in Ottawa. Dafoe had a great interest in international affairs and his paper gave them wide coverage. Before WW2 the Winnipeg Free Press was considered the most influential paper in Canada. He believed that a newspaper should be an advocate of things it believes are right even if they are unpopular views. He was the first voice to criticise the Munich agreement of 1938 and of British PM Chamberlain's appeasement of Adolph Hitler. He knew it would only lead to war.

Dafoe was staunch free-enterpriser and was very critical of unions especially during the 1919 strike but during the depression his views on economics became more moderate. He was a fierce advocate of free trade and of individual initiative.

Dafoe was well respected and well liked at the Free Press. But it was noted that he never uttered a word of praise. He was described as the quiet lonely man who worked tirelessly to get the story right. He received a doctor of laws degree but felt uncomfortable with the title.

Dafoe married Alice in 1890. Members of Dafoe's family, including Dafoe's daughter Elizabeth Dafoe, and grandson Christopher Dafoe, have gone on to become significant personalities in their own right. John Dafoe died on Jan 9, 1944.


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