Do What You Must: Jesse Brown and Henri Bourassa

Most of our readers have probably been following the story of CBC host Jian Ghomeshi as more and more women come forward alleging assault from the once-popular CBC host. The story broke last week after months of investigation from a team of journalists at the Toronto Star, Kevin Donovan and Jesse Brown. While Donovan works for the Star, you may have noticed in the byline that Jesse Brown’s contribution is a “Special to the Star.” In fact, Brown is an independent journalist and lately has reminded us of another fiercely independent journalist from the early 20th century, Henri Bourassa.

Jesse Brown is not a household name by any means. You may have viewed his somewhat popular video about the Globe and Mail hating young people. Or heard of his recent story about the Globe and Mail editorial board being overruled in their endorsement of Kathleen Wynne in the last Ontario provincial election. You might have seen an article in The Walrus debating the integrity of Canadian journalism in June. Maybe you did notice his mention in the Star's reporting about Ghomeshi as the “Freelancer” that helped Donovan break the story. But, to be honest, it’s unlikely you've ever heard the name Jesse Brown or of his self-funded podcast on his website, CANADALAND. After all, the internet is a big place.

But you should pay attention to Brown. He’s an independent journalist in the best sense of that word – his salary is currently funded by a novel online system called Patreon. On Patreon, a group of individuals can fund an artist for weekly or monthly content as patrons, just like a noble could have done centuries ago. Thanks to the digital world, Brown has some 1,200 supporters paying him $6,300 a month to be a journalist. No editorial board, no corporate strings, no political masters. Brown can truly examine what he wants, when he wants, so long as he keeps the trust of his supporters who presumably are paying him to ask the hard questions, as he has over the last few years.

He reminds us of another journalist from a different time: Henri Bourassa. Now, if you know much about Bourassa, the comparison does not jump out at you. Bourassa is a famous historical figure. He was a politician before being a journalist, elected alongside Wilfrid Laurier in 1896 then leaving the Liberal Party to sit as an independent over his opposition to Canadian involvement in the Boer War. He feared Canada’s submission to Great Britain and similarly opposed the First World War, and even the Second World War as an aging symbol of French Canadian nationalism. Hopefully most of our readers have heard his name before – Bourassa remains a dominating figure in French and English Canadian history.

Despite his presence in Canadian history courses across the country, Bourassa is an unfamiliar figure to Canadians of 2014. Many of his views no longer align with how we see the world. Perhaps understandably, given he was a product of the 19th century. He was a fierce and devoted Catholic who believed that the Papacy was the ultimate authority in earthly affairs. The Pope’s word was law. Bourassa’s Catholic duty was more important than even his national or ethnic duty as a French Canadian and forever coloured his perspective and opinions.

Paradoxically, Bourassa was a committed liberal nationalist as much as he was a conservative ultramontane Catholic. As we’ve discussed here before and citing James Kennedy’s excellent work, some French Canadians liberalized their nationalism to form the nationalistes in 1904. Bourassa was the defacto leader of this group as one of the most prominent, passionate, and evocative French Canadians of his age, probably right behind Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Bourassa, like his former Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier, was a classical British Liberal. As Bourassa’s most recent biographer Réal Bélanger writes, Bourassa and Laurier both adopted ideas drawn from British liberalism of the late 19th century. They were fierce defenders of individual freedom in accordance with the Constitution and the law, of free and representative government, and the need for tolerance, justice, and respect for the equality of individuals in a democracy. Despite Bourassa’s incredibly conservative religious views, his political views were equally as liberal and forward thinking – not to say there were not conflicts between them. Such as Bourassa’s anti-feminism, since he believed in a religious view of the family unit where women had no political voice. It was increasingly out of step in an age when women were gaining the right to vote across the country. Quebec would be the last province granting women the right to vote in 1944.

Obviously, the comparison between Jesse Brown and Henri Bourassa does not come from their political and religious views. Instead, Bourassa’s vision of journalism reveals his commitment to an independent voice much like Brown today. In early 20th century Canada, most newspapers had a known political leaning – either for Conservatives or Liberals. Some “independent” journals had none, and they walked a line between Canada’s two major parties. Bourassa’s newspaper, Le Devoir or The Duty, was one such journal.

He explained the decision behind naming his paper Le Devoir at its founding in his first editorial in January 1910. Bourassa wrote that he began his periodical because he wanted to awaken in his fellow citizens a commitment to public duty, which included religious duty, national duty, and civic duty. In his first editorial, he explained that “our ambition is limited to seeking, as best we can, to do what we preach: the duty of every day.” His publication would not be filled with the empty words like the partisan pages of other newspapers. Instead, Bourassa promised to write for his readers, and remind them of their duty as French Canadians, as Catholics, and as citizens. The paper’s tagline, “Fais ce que dois” or “Do what you must,” reinforced that message, as well as Bourassa's own commitment. Bourassa would not back down – his duty was to his readers and his principles.

Bourassa entered many of Canada’s fiercest political debates through the words of his editorials over the next two decades. From the outset he lambasted Laurier’s policy on the creation of a Canadian Navy in 1910. A year later, he significantly influenced the Liberals’ loss of Quebec seats in the 1911 election. But for our purposes, his views were best outlined on 2 September, 1914, just after the beginning of the First World War. As other newspapers and politicians offered tribute to coming victory and to the justness of their cause, Bourassa gave a solemn promise. Pardon the awkward translations from French:

In my humble sphere of action I propose to research the war conscientiously, loyally and honestly, and openly explain anything that seems to be urgently needed and done if we want to avoid in Canada, and by implication the Empire, the disasters which people discuss in whispers, but which very few seem to have the courage to call to the attention of governments. In this research and its conclusions, I am firmly resolved not to depart from the tone that the circumstances require. No provocation, no injury, no slander, no rudeness will lead me from this path. I will not even be looking for reasons behind the grotesque or brutal attacks that I will be subject to. I have witnessed in Europe grand and touching shows of support that have enabled me to make the comparison between the selfless patriotism, the true devotion to the public good, and the sordid exploitation of the most sacred things.

Bourassa would not entirely fulfill his promise – his wartime writing is not known for its gentle tone. But he did continue to raise issues about the war that no other Canadians did – even if they were unpopular, Bourassa was willing to give a voice to dissent on principle alone.

By no means is Bourassa some perfect or ideal journalist. His entire career has points where he was outright wrong or incredibly hyperbolic to the point of ridiculous. The spring of 1917 saw him write in an almost conspiratorial tone about the nefarious plans of businessmen and the political elite to ruin the world by plunging it into war. He may have been committed to the truth, but did not always recognize it. Still, that commitment to exploring the unexplored, to visiting topics that were ignored, and leading his readers to places that few others dared to tread was admirable. Bourassa, like many other British political figures before him, was a “dissenter” or in the words of A.J.P. Taylor, “a trouble-maker.”

Jesse Brown also looks like a trouble-maker. It’s still early in his career as crowd-funded independent journalist, but it is clear Brown is not afraid to make waves. Like Bourassa, Brown has committed himself to presenting stories that might not have received attention in established media outlets. As his Patreon states: “I provide media criticism to a country that really needs it.” Or in other words, do what you must. Brown may take a more oblique political path than Bourassa trod, but it's clear that he is an important voice in Canadian journalism today.