Canada at the dawn of the 20th century was a literate nation. Practically every town had a newspaper and an editor who freely expressed his political opinions. Secular and religious libraries, private and public, offered information and recreation in both urban and rural settings in this era before broadcasting made learning a more passive experience.

Respect for education and a love of reading was one of the greatest gifts immigrants brought to Canada during the nineteenth century. The tradition reached back to Scotland in particular, and the poetry of Robert Burns was well known, and fondly read, in many an Ontario and Maritime household in the Confederation era. In Quebec literacy was concentrated in the Roman Catholic Church and less so in the population at large. In Western Canada the English-language experience was starting to take shape.

The interactive maps in this chapter draw attention to the different reading habits of the French-speaking and English-speaking cultures in Canada. Consider how reliably the map of newspaper publication centres in Québec reflects the distribution of the old French population. Take a look at a map of Roman Catholicism in Canada (see Chapter: Religious Adherence, 1891-1961). Notice the concentration of newspaper publishing in Montréal, Québec, and along the American border southeast of Montréal. Much of this tradition spread northward from Boston, New York and Philadelphia, where freedom of expression was one of the cornerstones of American liberty, willingly embraced in Canada.

The interactive map: Newspapers, 1891, showing the towns where newspapers were published is a crude indicator of the impact those papers had on society. Circulation to subscribers was small in outlying areas, and commonly occurred only once a week. We know something of this fact, but have no proper idea of how frequently people chose to stop at the local library to catch up on the news and serialized stories so often published by the papers. Besides newspapers, public libraries (see interactive map: Public Libraries, 1779-1891) offered political pamphlets, agricultural and industrial manuals and “how-to” almanacs, religious tracts, early magazines on domestic management, and literature as varied as Dickens, the Stricklands, and Mark Twain. Citizens had every opportunity to keep up on the American abolitionist movement, Fenianism, the Indian Mutiny and Queen Victoria 's Jubilee. The printed word enlightened Canadians in even the remotest parts of the country.