Manitoba Historical Society
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MHS Celebrates: Manitoba 150 in the Winnipeg Free Press: Press Play

by Dwight MacAuley
Winnipeg, Manitoba

As all Manitobans, along with millions of people worldwide, hunkered down to “self-isolate” (a term few of us had really heard before the onset of COVID-19) to protect ourselves and those around us from a pandemic (another term not many of us were familiar with) it is perhaps as good a time as any to add another category to the seemingly neverending list of heroic people we are grateful for in these times of angst, uncertainty, hope and fear. The news media.

Yes, I’m talking about reporters — the individuals that people of power and influence often regard as a nuisance at best, or possibly as a clandestine group of ne’er-do-wells who lay awake at night thinking of how to destroy people’s reputations and lives. Of course, neither is true. Journalists are, and have always been, a group of dedicated individuals who work tirelessly to document, record and tell the history of this wonderful province, warts and all.

I write this as president of the Winnipeg Press Club. Although a mere shadow of the stature it once enjoyed in its heyday, the club technically exists and remains one of the oldest of its kind in the world. Many members, throughout its 133-year history, played a vital role in telling Manitobans and, in some instances, Canadians and people around the world, about the highs and lows of living in the keystone province. Many giants of the news media and the world of entertainment, along with the mighty and powerful leaders of government and industry, visited the club. To be frank, they often sought refuge there, where they regaled any and all who would listen with stories and adventures that were never to leave the confines of the club.

One ironclad rule of the club and its members was a self-imposed, unbreakable doctrine known as “the brass rail” which, in short, dictated that whatever was said or happened in the press club, stayed in the press club.

This allowed anyone total anonymity. Governors general, prime ministers, premiers, mayors, politicians of all stripes and rank, the rich and powerful and globally known and recognized journalists, broadcasters and movie stars — they all enjoyed the freedom to say what they thought and the freedom to enjoy a drink (or two) among friends.

For decades, the Winnipeg Press Club was the place to be and the place to be seen. Memberships were coveted, especially by those who were not active journalists. All new members were required to be recommended by existing members, screened and vetted by an executive who guarded admittance, recognizing it as an honour and a privilege.

Since 2007, I have had the honour to serve as the president of this august club whose membership has included dozens, perhaps hundreds, of men and women who became household names and, in many respects, became much better known than the individuals or events they reported on. Suffice to say that the shoes left to fill by my predecessors are enormous and to this day, we still recognize their legacy on the Manitoba landscape that, in all likelihood, will never be equalled.

In the interest of not missing a name or two of the press club members who all played a vital role in the history of the news media in the province, I’ve chosen to name only a very few.

Although Manitoba was fully established as a province when the club first breathed life in 1887, the “news media” of the day had already been in existence for nearly 30 years. The first newspaper published in Manitoba was The Nor’Wester, in December 1859.

Ken Goldstein, president of Communications Management Inc., and one of Canada’s foremost media historians, published a brilliant article in the 2012 fall edition of Manitoba History magazine titled “How Winnipeg Invented the Media.” The full article can be found at media-cmi.com. One cannot begin to discuss the media in Manitoba without paying homage to John W. Dafoe, editor of the Winnipeg Free Press from 1901-44 and the first executive director of the press club. And few, if any, have done a better job documenting the contributions of Dafoe than Goldstein.

In addition, Goldstein’s article outlined, with finesse and in great detail, Winnipeg’s links to the formation of the Canadian Press, the creation of the CBC and CTV, the freedom of the press in Canada, the regulation of the broadcasting industry and the creation of the “world’s” first co-operatively owned newspaper. Manitoba’s role in Harlequin Books, Reader’s Digest and the first Canadian movie are also highlighted.

Nearly six decades after the first newspaper was published in Manitoba, the province and the world embraced the magic of radio — and, hence, a new breed of member for the club was created.

Manitoba radio historian and press club board member Garry Moir has enjoyed a radio broadcasting career spanning a halfcentury, a milestone reached by very few. Moir, who is still heard daily on CJNU (93.7 FM), points out in his book The Golden Age of Manitoba Radio, this province was a hotbed for innovation in radio, ranging from the first publicly owned station to the first play-byplay broadcast of women’s hockey. During the Second World War, Winnipeg broadcaster Stu McPherson was as well-known in England as Churchill. In its first half-century, radio was a powerful, revolutionary force that touched and linked virtually everyone in the province.

As the history of radio in Manitoba evolved, it played an ever-decisive role in the rise and fall of governments and the urgency of its listeners to know about flood forecasts, road closures, grain and livestock prices, police activities, fires, calls for help to support a community in need and alerts about snowstorm-related closures.

Few people realize the first-ever around-the-world radio broadcast originated from a most unlikely locale in Winnipeg. The broadcast that circumnavigated the globe, in May 1939, came from the second-floor library in Government House. The broadcaster was none other than King George VI, who used the opportunity to talk to the Commonwealth about the darkening clouds of war gathering over Europe.

It was often irreverently said, at one time, that if you were looking for a writer or reporter and they weren’t at their desk, your next call would be to the press club.

With the advent of television yet another class of membership in the club arrived. While the members up until that time had included names and voices of members familiar to the public as columnists and broadcasters, now the press club gained even more prominence as the faces of television news and entertainment joined their colleagues from print and radio.

As Manitoba recognizes the historic milestone of 150 years in Confederation, few organizations, if any, can boast of a membership that played a pivotal role in shaping and influencing the direction of the province from its earliest days to the economic and cultural powerhouse it has become.

As we continue to offer richly deserved kudos and accolades to front-line workers who have put life and limb on the line to keep us safe, cared for and fed, let’s not overlook the Fourth Estate. The Winnipeg Press Club was, is, and will always be, proud to have been part of this amazing institution and the role it has played in keeping us informed, educated and entertained.

See also:

MHS Centennial Organization: Winnipeg Press Club

125 Years of the Winnipeg Press Club, Manitoba History Number 70, Fall 2012

Page revised: 26 July 2020

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