John Wesley Dafoe has been called the greatest Canadian journalist of his time. He called himself a "scribbler." Now his grandson, Christopher Dafoe, an accomplished journalist and editor in his own right, has written a biography of his legendary grandfather.
'There was the famous occasion when he was supposed to be attending a very important meeting to decide the future of the Free Press and he suddenly remembered he was taking us to the circus, so the meeting was cancelled' - Christopher Dafoe
John Wesley Dafoe was editor of the Winnipeg Free Press from 1901 until his death in 1944 at the age of 77. He was an important national and international figure, serving on the Canadian delegation to the Versailles peace conference in 1919, was Chancellor of the University of Manitoba and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and was a member of the Royal Commission on Dominion-Provincial Relations. He also published many books including studies of Wilfrid Laurier and Clifford Sifton, who he knew well.
Christopher Dafoe chose to focus on his grandfather's early years leading up to his appointment as the Free Press's editor.
"I thought I needed to write about how he was formed and how he became somebody who could do all these things from very unpromising beginnings. It seemed that when he was very young that he had almost no chance at all," he said.
John Wesley, or Jack, as he was known, grew up in the backwoods of Ontario, the son of a lumberjack. Neither of his parents went to school. Jack was determined that he would make a success of his life.
He started teaching at the age of 15, then got his first newspaper job at the Montreal Weekly Star at the age of 17.
"The editor liked the look of him, he though he had an honest face," said Dafoe, laughing.
He arrived in Winnipeg in 1886 to work on the Manitoba Free Press, having no idea what to expect of this prairie place. The city impressed him and he gradually worked his way up the ladder at the newspaper.
Dafoe says while his grandfather held such an important position and worked very hard, he remained a devoted family man.
"He was a great hit with us as children. He had lots of time for us," he said.
"There was the famous occasion when he was supposed to be attending a very important meeting to decide the future of the Free Press and he suddenly remembered he was taking us to the circus, so the meeting was cancelled," he recalled.
Jack was above all a proud Canadian and Dafoe called his book In Search of Canada.
"Right from his school days he was dissatisfied with our status as a nation, that we'd become the dominion of Canada but foreign policy and all sorts of things were still handled in London.
"He thought Canadian identity is important. There are people from all over the world coming here and we're going to create a new country and that's what he fought for all his life."
Christopher Dafoe launches In Search of Canada: The Early Years of John Wesley Dafoe at McNally Robinson on June 26 at 7:00.