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Denominational Publishing in Early Canada: Two Unitarian Periodicals [1]

  • Mary Lu MacDonald
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Wherever Western European culture prevailed, periodical publishing was a growth industry throughout the nineteenth century. Almost everything that was more than a single sheet, but was not a monograph, including annuals, was labeled as a “periodical”. A combination of technological advances within the paper, printing and publishing industries, [2] combined with improvements in distribution, plus an increase in literacy that cut across class and gender, resulting in an enlarged reading market, contributed to this phenomenal growth. The statistical data for newspaper production in Britain during the first half of the nineteenth century, which would have included what we now identify as periodicals, relies on the records of the stamp tax and offers ample evidence that the demand for stamped journals “...rose relentlessly” until the mid-1850s when the duty was abolished. In the following decade the number of titles doubled. A more subjective assessment, that “…the sheer scale and range of material is alarming…” is confirmed by The Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Periodicals, 1800-1900 which lists in excess of 50,000 periodicals and newspapers in its second series with a total of 125,000 projected by the completion of the fifth series. [3]

This paper will consider the place of religious periodicals in mid-nineteenth century British North American publishing, with particular focus on two Montreal publications: The Bible Christian (1845-48) and the Liberal Christian (1854-55). Both were published by the “Committee” of the fledgling Unitarian Church in that city. Unitarian theologians considered themselves to be the only true Christians. They believed in the unity of God, but finding nothing in the Bible about the Holy Spirit or the divinity of Christ, considered Jesus to be a great spiritual leader but not co-equal with the Father. Publication of these beliefs did not make them popular with the mainstream Christian churches in Montreal.

Periodicals played an essential role in the transmission of ideas and information. They engaged readers over time because they were open-ended; any given issue referred both to previous and future issues, and also because they contained information about an ever-expanding world. The characteristics generally attributed to nineteenth-century life, - industrialization, rise of a middle class, increase in literacy, expansion of the franchise, urbanization, advancement of science, improvements in transportation and communication, – contributed to and in turn were strengthened by the dominance of newspapers and periodicals in the life of a nation. The challenge for these publications was to explain what was happening around them, how it had come about, and to offer guidance to their readers.

Almost all religious denominations responded to this challenge by producing their own periodicals. Although there were a few Roman Catholic periodicals it was essentially a Protestant phenomenon. Among Protestants, early nineteenth-century Britain and British North America witnessed a burgeoning of both religious denominations and church attendance, the establishment of religious and missionary organizations, and a concomitant increase in religious publishing. [4] Every religious cause and organization, however far from the mainstream it was situated, quickly realized that its claims to legitimacy were enhanced by publication of a magazine. In Britain, for example, the Wesleyan Methodists had a strong and centrally-controlled publishing operation beginning in the eighteenth century, and Methodist schismatics in the nineteenth century followed the same practice. Similarly, both the Unitarians and the Universalists had been publishing periodicals in England since the eighteenth century. Joseph Priestley’s Theological Repository was first published in 1769. Three volumes were published and a second series appeared in 1784,’86 and’88 after his move to Birmingham. A Universalist publication, ThePhiladelphian, existed briefly in 1788-89 and was followed by others with a similar message. The long-running Monthly Repository, founded in 1806, having passed through several name changes, grew out of a Unitarian publication. The Eclectic Review also had strong Unitarian connections. In a period of ecclesiastical particularism, most religious groups and denominations, motivated by the need to sustain a sense of community, instruct the faithful, win converts, and bring forward pressure for social and political change, established their own publications.

The adherents of Protestant denominations, settling in Canada, responded to these objectives. The editor of the Bible Christian acknowledged their importance in explaining the advent of that publication:

…the Unitarian Congregation of this City, then commencing to assume a permanent form, laboured under great disadvantages, owing to the mistaken opinions which so generally prevailed in the community concerning Unitarian principles. The unfounded prejudice of multitudes shut them out from any reasonable hope of ever hearing our views properly expounded from the pulpit, and if such persons were to be reached at all, it became evident that it must be done by some other method than oral teaching. The only other method was to be found in the use of the press, and hence the establishment of the Bible Christian[5]

In other Canadian examples, the Wesleyan acknowledged in its prospectus that “…the general readers of our periodical are mutually agreed in the cordial belief of the same views of divine truth, and of pure and undefiled religion considered in its personal aspects…”, thus emphasizing the communal aspect of that publication. The editor of the Canadian Christian Examiner and Presbyterian Review cited the “…widespread irreligion, and spiritual destitution of these Provinces and of the neighbouring Republic….” [6] as the reason for starting a periodical. Both the Berean, (Church of England) and the Colonial Protestant, (Presbyterian) perceived their purpose as countering Roman Catholicism. Church of England publications saw their purpose as preserving Establishment and downgrading Dissent. Dissenting publications were inherently anti-Established Church and thus often supportive of social reform.

The situation was similar in the United States. Proselytizing through print was important to all denominations. Writing of the Universalists, Russell Miller in The LargerHope begins a complete chapter on the newspaper press in Universalist history with the following paragraph:

Richard Eddy, the leading nineteenth-century historian of Univeralism had accumulated a bibliography of no less than 2,096 books and pamphlets published in American alone on the subject of Univeralism up to 1886. …Universalists were responsible for no less than 182 periodicals, including weekly, monthly and quarterly newspapers, with subscription lists ranging from a few hundred to over 5,000; an almanac and annual register beginning in 1836; magazines (both ‘family’ and scholarly); and Sunday School papers. The heyday of both book and pamphlet, and newspaper publication, occurred between 1820 and 1850, coinciding with a period of significant denominational expansion. In that period, books and pamphlets appeared at the rate of over thirty a year, and 138 periodicals were launched, although few survived for long. [7]

From the 1760s, most denominational magazines followed a basic format: an article or sermon on a theological or doctrinal issue, a biographical memoir, religious and missionary news, obituaries and a miscellany which could include brief articles or poetry devoted to moral issues. Book reviews were sometimes included. This format retained its utility, in both the old and the new world, well into the nineteenth century. Despite similarities in format among the various magazines, the particular denominational emphasis was always notable in the actual content.

Distribution of Methodist magazines was primarily through the organization’s itinerant preachers who were required to sell them. Other denominations relied on ministers to promote, if not to sell, their publications. Although they were often distributed for free, the official price for the major denominational magazines in both Britain and British North America was generally six shillings per annum, less than the cost of most quarterlies and general monthly magazines. Circulation figures are difficult to establish because extravagant claims were often made. In the United Kingdom circulation of 18,000 for The Methodist Magazine in the 1820s seems reasonable since the major reviews had circulations of 13,000 to 14,000 at their peak; while many general monthlies had press runs of less than 8,000. Publications of the smaller Methodist sects would have had circulations of a few hundred to a few thousand and would generally have been priced at less than sixpence. (Billington, 116 f) In the colonies, circulation figures would have been much lower and denominational periodical editors were usually careful not to publish them, although they would highlight the number of denominational adherents.

While all the customary elements of writing, publishing and distribution were present, denominational publications in both Britain and British America functioned in a different manner than commercial publications. Religious periodicals operated outside the cash nexus. Few authors were paid for their contribution, editing was generally the work of clergy, printing would have been done at cost by a sympathetic publisher or in the denomination’s own printing house and distribution was through denominational channels. In many cases they were distributed free of charge because they served a “higher” purpose. Those who purchased them did not consider them to be a luxury.

In the colonies, with their thinly distributed population, the periodical copies that could not be distributed by hand circulated through the post, by subscription. The high cost of postage in the colonies was a constant complaint by the editors of publications of all types. The subscription rate for denominational periodicals thus often included an extra amount for postage. Subscriptions, when not paid in advance, could result in a failure to pay. In ending publication, the editor of the Christian Mirror complained that “…a very large sum is now due by many whose names are enrolled among its patrons, and from whom we had expected better things.” [8]

A brief article in the Bible Christian on the establishment of a steam press, purchased by subscription for Joseph Barker in Wortley (near Leeds) England, mentions all the good denominational messages that will soon flow from this new press. [9] Religious publishers in Britain were also pleased with technological advances which enabled them to reduce the prices of their periodicals. Many titles sold for as little as a penny or at a bulk discount for free distribution to the poor. As cheap weekly magazines designed to appeal to the literate lower-middle and working classes became increasingly popular, religious weeklies were established to compete directly with these secular offerings. With its large format, illustrations and lively articles written from a Christian perspective, the Weekly Visitor (1833-1836), published by the Religious Tract Society, was designed to compete directly with the Penny Magazine and Chambers Edinburgh Magazine[10] Large circulations were often claimed for these inexpensive denominational publications; for example, the Christian’s Penny Magazine and Friend of the People asserted a monthly circulation of 101,500 in 1846. This figure, if accurate, certainly resulted from extensive free distribution, and in 1848 the magazine referred to a trust fund that enabled such distribution. [11]

Despite the efforts of the various denominations, the popularity of cheap weekly magazines was a continuing source of concern to the deeply religious, particularly because these secular works were designed to appeal to the working classes. The Colonial Protestant (Montreal, 1848), a supporter of the Church of England, reprinted from a British source [12] “The Power of the Press and the Duty of the Church” in which it was stated that:

…11,702,000 copies of absolutely vicious and Sabbath-breaking newspapers are annually circulated in these realms; while the issues of the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Trinitarian Bible Society, the Coldstream Free Press Bible Society, and the grants of the Religious Tract Society, did not amount last year to one-third of this immense number.

The article complains of a journal in which “vicious principles are avowedly repudiated” but in which “French novels and similar trash” nonetheless appear. Further down in the hierarchy is a “catalogue of polluting trash, which closely examined, will make the Christian shudder.” The concluding paragraph, revealing the class roots of the writer’s distress, begins:

Let it then be imagined, if imagined it can be, what must be the moral state of multitudes in this country, when nearly thirty millions of such pestiferous publications are annually going out among the masses of our population. Let the minds of all Christian people be fixed upon these facts. Let them dwell upon the insult offered to God, the ruin brought upon souls, the injury done to morals, and the mischief perpetrated in the nation by such a state of things.

If the “multitudes” were to be amused, rather than instructed in the proper attitudes to God and King, civilization would collapse. Regardless of denomination, most of the editors would have agreed that, for the good of society, instruction in correct moral and theological attitudes must be the basic purpose of their publication.

No fiction appeared in the two Unitarian publications, although some fiction appeared in some of the religious periodicals, where it was always for the purpose of sugar-coating a moral, usually one directed at children. Fiction was generally perceived as dangerous. “Put Down That Novel”, the British North American Wesleyan Methodist Magazine thundered, in capital letters, in 1846. “It is giving you wrong views of human life, of mankind, of domestic relations, and of social duties.…It is consuming that time which you might occupy in perusal of some historical, scientific, or religious work, which would furnish you with solid information. It is enfeebling your mind….” [13] These sentiments were typical of religious publications in both the old world and the new. The two Unitarian periodicals did not specifically condemn fiction – they just ignored it.

The name of the editor, or editors, rarely appeared in the majority of early Canadian denominational periodicals. Often we find the names only in the comments of rival publications. There is no indication in either the BibleChristian or the Liberal Christian of any specific editor, although an early twentieth century manuscript history of the Montreal Unitarian church states that the Foster sisters, Elizabeth Lane Cushing and Harriet Vaughn Cheney, were the editors of the Bible Christian. The Rev. John Cordner probably oversaw the content of both publications, particularly the LiberalChristian. Certainly the Foster sisters, who edited the Literary Garland in its last year of publication and who owned and edited the Snow Drop[14] the first Canadian children’s periodical, were experienced editors and writers as well as notable members of the Montreal church. With their cousin, Elizabeth Hedge, they were active in bringing together again in the early 1840s the scattered group of Montreal Unitarians who had been present in the city since the 1820s. Commitment to both Unitarianism and literature came naturally to the sisters, - their mother, Hannah Foster, was one of the earliest American novelists and their father, the Reverend John Foster, was an American Unitarian clergymen. Elizabeth Hedge, who worked with them on the Snow Drop, also came from an American Unitarian clerical family. [15]

The Bible Christian was officially “Printed for the Committee of the Montreal Unitarian Society”. No printer was listed in 1845 and 1848. 1846 and ‘47 were printed by Donahue & Mantz – Donahue being an active Unitarian and son of a British Unitarian minister. It consisted of 4 tabloid-style pages, set in very small type, published monthly. Most of the content consisted of long theological arguments, but there was occasional inspirational poetry and always a bit of Unitarian news. The masthead motto was “Truth, Holiness, Liberty, Love”. The Liberal Christian was also a monthly, its 32 quarto pages set in a slightly larger type face. The title page of each of its two extant volumes is in a more traditional looking format, similar to many of the great British quarterlies, and reads “The Liberal Christian. A Monthly Miscellany Designed to Illustrate the Spirit of Liberal Christianity, and to Promote the Practical Religious Life.” It was printed by H. & G.M. Rose, also a Unitarian connection. [16] The initial page of the monthly numbers just gives the short title, the volume and number, plus the date. Like the format, its content, which included many lengthy ariticles, is also more formal than the Bible Christian. Both periodicals followed the traditional content of sermons, commentary, denominationally related miscellany, and occasional inspirational poetry. Although subscribers were sought, neither periodical gives any indication of the subscription cost. The Liberal Christian, commencing publication in January 1854, refers to the circulation of the Bible Christian, which “…besides the copies subscribed for, was largely and gratuitously distributed.”

Unlike other denominations with a wider presence in the colonies, the Unitarians essentially focused their publications on Montreal and the world beyond as seen from that perspective. [17] Unitarian theology and its dissemination was their principal concern but we can nonetheless get glimpses of activity in Montreal and in the Montreal church, particularly in the Bible Christian. In 1845 the official opening of the new church building was recorded. Grants were made to the building fund by the American Unitarian Association and the British and Foreign Unitarian Association. Customary in that era, pews were advertised for rent, although there were free seats for strangers. There was a church library, open to the public, and Unitarian books, published in both the United Kingdom and the United States, were also for sale at the church. Membership statistics: went from “a few friends” in 1841, until in 1844 there were about 200 attending services, 56 of whom were communicants. The following year there were 80 communicants. [18] In November 1845 the church women are recorded as selling “useful and fancy articles” for a profit of £50. A “numerous and attentive” audience attended “Lectures on Christian Doctrine” in early 1846; subsequently the May number of the Bible Christian gleefully reported on the controversy these raised since “[M]any who came to our church out of mere curiosity, from having heard our views denounced, remained to be convinced of the truth.” Whole pages were devoted to replies to the outrage expressed, following these lectures, by the Montreal Herald and the Montreal Witness, as well as other local publications. In this, the Unitarians were typical of other Canadian denominational publications, all of whom engaged in print disputes with rival denominations. Such disputes were less common in Great Britain. In the colonies, although ostensibly about theology, the subtext of the argument was usually about power.

In Montreal, emphasizing denominational education, there were fund raising “soirées” for the benefit of the Sunday School. In April 1847 the “junior members” of the congregation presented John Cordner with a portrait miniature, painted on ivory “as a token of the esteem in which he is held.” In February it was reported that a Mutual Improvement Class for adults heard a series of biographical and theological lectures on Joseph Priestly. In December of that year public lectures were given in the church on four topics: War, Slavery, Intemperance and the Treatment of Criminals. The Unitarians were strongly opposed to war, slavery, alcohol and capital punishment and used their publications in support of social change on these subjects.

In May 1855, the Liberal Christian published an article in support of L’Institut Canadien in their battle with Catholic clergy over the content of the Institut’s library. Cordner addressed the annual meeting of the Institut on December 17, 1867, sharing the podium with L-J. Papineau. His speech, delivered in English, is translated into French in the records of the Institut. [19] The 1855 article is the only published indication of any connection between the Montreal Unitarians and the French-speaking population of the city.

Both periodicals show the extent of the Unitarian network. At a local level, there are familiar names, - Benjamin Workman, who had been owner of the Canadian Courant, was one of the Vice-Presidents of the American Unitarian Association meeting in Montreal; Benjamin Holmes, who had been accused of being an infidel in the heat of a Montreal mayoral election, was strongly defended as a true Christian in January 1848; Elizabeth Cushing, Harriet Cheney, Elizabeth Hedge and Emma Donahue [20] were all authors of poetry published in the Bible Christian; the initials of Francis Hincks, who was an active member of the congregation, appear in the Bible Christian attached to several theological articles. [21] Among the out-of-town agents for the Bible Christian were Alexander Workman in Bytown, J.P. Grant in Perth, B.R. Church in Merrickville and Dr. Gavin Russell in Carleton Place. [22] The Rev. Mr. Hassall, converted from Methodism by one of Cordner’s early lectures, sent regular messages from Meadville Theological College which were printed in the Bible Christian and also spoke at the AUA conference [23]. John Cordner’s visit to Toronto is recorded in August 1845 and subsequently a number of Toronto references appeared in the Bible Christian. On that same trip Cordner addressed the “Christians” [24] in Oshawa. Cordner also made “remarks” at the ordination of Oliver W.B. Peabody in Burlington, Vermont [25], later exchanged pulpits with him and then published an account of his funeral.

The small group of Unitarians founding a church in Montreal felt beleaguered in their orthodox Trinitarian community, but they knew they were not alone in the world. Their outreach was based on both local and international sources. Unlike early Canadian literary publications, regionally limited in both authorship and distribution, denominational material flowed into Montreal from around the Western world and, although chiefly intended for local distribution, copies of the two journals circulated internationally by exchange. In this they were typical of many Canadian denominational publications, whose non-local sources were most often English, Scottish (in the case of Presbyterians) or American. Some reached into Europe through translation. Reports of missionary activity also extended the reach of many religious periodicals. Both the Bible Christian and the Liberal Christian printed multitudinous “borrowings” from other publications, the source rarely acknowledged, and when acknowledged, indicating a wide range of international sources. It is unlikely, given the denominational perspective, that much would have been borrowed from other Montreal publications. As well, about half the text consisted of sermons and commentary by eminent clergy for which the source was not given, although the books advertised for sale offer a clue. The champion international cleric, in terms of frequency of publication was William Ellery Channing, followed by his fellow Americans Henry Ware, “Dr. Putnam” and “Dr. Dewey.” [26] James Martineau headed the British list, followed by Jeremy Taylor and Joseph Barker. [27] One of the most frequently cited female authors was Harriet Martineau, sister of the Rev. James Martineau. There are advertisements for one of her books, The Essential Faith of the Universal Church, along with a French translation, La Foi de l’Église Universelle. This was the only advertised theological work in French. In addition to the Montreal women mentioned above, other women writers were Lydia Sigourney, Mary S. B. Dana, and Mrs. Henry Ware, all Americans with Unitarian connections.

Most borrowings are not acknowledged at all but probably the most frequent acknowledged source was the Christian Register in Boston. However, the editor, or editors, of the two publications were obviously receiving periodicals from the all parts of the United Kingdom as well as the eastern and western United States, probably “exchanging” with them. John Cordner’s connection to Belfast, and the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster in which he was ordained, are responsible for much of the Irish material. Although the Unitarians did not consider themselves to be a missionary church [28] in the sense of converting far-away heathens, in both the Bible Christian and the Liberal Christian many small bits of international information were published: Switzerland, Germany, France, Transylvania, England, Ireland, and Scotland are all mentioned specifically - detailing the opening of new churches and buildings, ministerial settlements, clergy moves and retirements. In the Liberal Christian these appeared under the heading “Intelligence”. In the period spanned by the two publications the number of American references gradually prevailed over Irish and English references, as Cordner himself became closer to the American wing of the denomination. [29]

In addition to denominational networks, the editors of the two periodicals were obviously also receiving information and text from publications of the international peace movement, as well as from abolitionists and temperance (abstinence) advocates.

There was also a wider circle of communication flowing through the book trade. Almost every issue of the periodicals lists books for sale. Initially, in the Bible Christian, it is the bookstore of the church itself making denominational material, published elsewhere, available to the community. Eventually it is the bookstores of C. Bryson, St. Francois Xavier Street and Mr. McKay on Notre Dame Street where publications may be purchased. A decade later, indicative both of the increasing prominence of the Unitarians and the rapid growth of Montreal facilities, the bookstores of Benjamin Dawson and John Armour, as well as that of H. and G. M. Rose (the printers of the Liberal Christian), join Bryson. The first number of the Liberal Christian includes this comment: “On the cover of our present issue will be found an advertisement of books, for sale at Mr. Bryson’s, St. Francois Xavier Street, to which we would direct the attention of persons who seek agreeable and instructive reading. Reading is still for instruction, but advertising pays off. The Liberal Christian also refers readers to advertisements by both Bryson and Rose appearing in the periodicals’ covers – presumably for many other equally suitable books not mentioned in the text. It is a fact of book history life that such cover advertisements, common in nineteenth-century periodicals, have rarely survived.

Publishers’ names rarely appear in the book advertisements in the Bible Christian, but are usually found in the longer format of the Liberal Christian, a decade later. Initially, books came from England and Ireland, as well as the United States. By the 1850s, most of the books for sale were printed in the United States, the majority of them in Boston. Once the American Unitarian Association got its publication programme going in 1854 many books listed come from that source. However, commercial book publishers such as Appleton and, particularly, Crosby, Nichol & Co. also appear as publishers. The latter firm published much liberal Christian material, often written by Unitarian clergy, in the United States – as well as the American edition of Catherine Parr Traill’s The Canadian Crusoes[30]

An article in the August 1845 Bible Christian, simply titled “Books”, illustrates the complexity of the publishing network.

We would direct the attention of our readers to the advertisement of Books which appears in another column of our present sheet. Of Channing’s Works we need say nothing. They are now largely circulated and extensively known. The edition of Dr. Dewey’s Works now offered for sale is quite a new one. It comes from the same publishers that issued the ‘People’s edition’ of Channing, - Messrs Simms and McIntyre, of Aldine Chambers, London, and Belfast, Ireland.…. Livermore’s Commentary on the four Gospels, now offered for sale, is reprinted from the American Edition, and published by the Northern Sunday School Association of Ireland. It comprises in one larger volume, all the Comments contained in the first and second volumes of the American Edition, but without the text.

The books for sale in the very first number of the Bible Christian were: The Entire Works of William Ellery Channing; A.A.Livermore’s Commentary on the New Testament; Lectures on Christian Doctrine by Andrew Peabody; Sketches of the Life of Christ by Mrs. H. V. Cheney [31]; and a Collection of Hymns by Rev. Dr. Greenwood. No publishers were listed for any of these works. In the last surviving number four years later, still without listing publishers, Channing remains available, joined by The Entire Works of the Rev. Orville Dewey, and A Commentary on the Four Gospels by Livermore. In March 1854, a long review of Charles Kingsley’s Hypatia referred to Kingsley as “a beneficed clergyman of the Church of England, with generous culture, enlarged sympathies, and vivid imagination.” [32] The following year the Liberal Christian reviewed at length and advertised for sale Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century, and Kindred Papers relating to the Sphere, Condition, and Duties of Woman. The same number also offered Milestones of a Life Journey by Samuel Osgood, and Channing’s Works, and Memoir[33] Several months later there were brief notices of Beginning and Growth of the Christian Life, or the Sunday SchoolTeacher (no author listed); The Discipline of Sorrow by Rev. Dr. Eliot; and Early Piety, or Recollections of Harriet B_____.  [34] The latter two published by the AUA. The list on page 20 of the first number is an interesting contrast, - Memoir of Pierre Toussaint, born a Slave in St. Domingo (which gets a lengthy review) and Lectures to Young Men and Lectures to Young Women, both by William G. Eliot Jr., Pastor of the Church of the Messiah, St. Louis. The preponderance of published sermons is indicative of the movement from interpreting theology through authoritative public performance spaces, to private consideration of religious topics.

Although their theology was particular to the denomination, the two Unitarian periodicals are typical of religious publications in the same time period in both Britain and British America in format, distribution and financing. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries denominationally-sponsored periodicals followed the communication and distribution format of other publications. However, their emphasis on theology over profit resulted in variations at all stages of the process. Typically, subject matter was limited and authors were rarely paid; much of the content was “borrowed” through trans-national denominational networks; the printing was generally done either “in house” or at cost by a printer who was sympathetic to the denomination; distribution was usually directly through the church or its clergy, often without charge to the reader; and, although the purpose was to convert the general public to the theological base of the denomination, readers tended to be those already participating in the sponsoring community. The priority given to communication over the commercial element places these denominational periodicals in a book culture category of their own.

With their focus on the local as well as on the wider world, denominational periodicals such as those of the Montreal Unitarians are an untapped resource, both for studies of variations in print culture in disparate communities, as well as for Canadian social and intellectual history.

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