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Far more interesting than these generic political posters are protest posters for specific causes and interests. Here again, LAC's holdings are limited. It is difficult to find posters promoting such causes as temperance (figure 3), women's suffrage, anti-fascism, nuclear disarmament (figure 4), anti-globalization and gay rights. This is partly due to the flimsy nature of the posters, but also because such causes are usually supported by non-profit, locally organized or anarchic organizations with neither the resources nor the desire to keep their own histories.
Figure 3: Notice in favour of liquor prohibition vote, September 29
Figure 4: Petition to stop nuclear weapons testing, The Canadian Peace Congress, Toronto, Ontario, ca. 1966 - 1970
Figure 5: Protest poster against mayoral candidate, Mel Lastman
Figure 6: Advertisement for pro-choice rally, featuring Moxy Fruvous & friends, Sunday, February 21
Posters featuring an ideology or a platform tend to be small, crudely-produced, and are usually taped or stapled to surfaces. Consequently, they are hard to remove and preserve. Major political issues are fought out in television and radio attack ads and sound bites, and increasingly, through YouTube videos and Twitter dialogues. LAC recently acquired posters from a private collector in Toronto, including many examples of contemporary small issue protest posters (figures 5, 6), preserved only through considerable personal dedication.
While the political poster has been around since the 1600s, it was not until after legislative assemblies were introduced in 1791 that elections began to take place in Canada. John Neilson, the Québec printer, published a number of broadsides for the 1792 election on behalf of William Grant (figure 7). Neilson may also have printed the earliest recorded political poster that featured both images and text. It was also published in Québec that year and addressed to the electors of the Upper Town. It is now part of McGill University's special collections.
Figure 7: Notice addressed to the voters of Basse-Ville, Quebec
Figure 8: Poster depicting anti-British sentiment versus a balanced view in favour of the interests of citizens and loyalty to England, ca. 1832 - 1837
Figure 9: Notice outlining classes of persons entitled to vote in Upper Canada in Parliamentary elections
Figure 10: Electoral broadside regarding the 1860 provincial election, Victoria, B.C.?, 1860?
The style of most political posters remained unchanged through the first few decades of the 19th century. The images and text were usually etched or engraved, and the number of copies printed would have been very small. Even after the introduction of lithography, only a few early political broadsides and posters managed to survive (figure 8, an anti-reform poster of 1834). The voting franchise continued to be based on property ownership-as noted in an 1855 broadside published by the Guelph Mercury (figure 9)-and election posters were invariably textual and informative in their approach (figure 10, an 1860 British Columbia provincial election poster). But as lithographic printing developed, and with it, technologies such as rotary and steam presses, both the visual impact and the production scale of political posters grew immensely.
The introduction of the secret ballot in 1874 and the standardization of federal voting qualifications in 1885 also helped the art of the political poster blossom. In the run-up to the 1891 federal election, the Toronto Industrial League produced full-sized colour lithographs on behalf of the Conservative Party, condemning their opponents as pro-American and willing to sell Canada into economic slavery (figures 11, 12). Meanwhile, the quintessential Canadian political poster, which featured "The Old Flag, the Old Policy, and the Old Leader" (figure 13) had a jingoistic appeal in a country that still felt a strong imperial connection. These 1891 posters, which were possibly designed by the well-known cartoonist J.W. Bengough, set the tone for political campaign posters for decades to come.
Figure 11: Conservative campaign poster condemning perceived Liberal party pro-Americanism, 1891
Figure 12: Conservative campaign poster implying the sale of Canada into slavery to the United States, ca. 1891
Figure 13: Conservative campaign poster supporting old policies, leader and allegiance to Britain, 1891
Figure 14: Conservative campaign poster against Canadian reciprocity with the United States, 1911
The 1911 anti-reciprocity campaign posters (designed by Toronto cartoonist Newton McConnell) helped the Conservatives overturn 15 years of rule by Laurier's Liberal Party (figures 14, 15). And things took a nastier turn during the 1917 election campaign, which pitted pro-conscription Conservatives and some Liberals under Robert Borden's Union government against Sir Wilfrid Laurier's fractured Liberal Party. Union Party posters showing Laurier and the Liberal Party in league with the Kaiser (figure 16) took their place alongside broadsides aimed at bringing in the vote of newly enfranchised women (figure 17).
Figure 15: Conservative campaign poster implying Canadian reciprocity would lead to annexation by the United States, 1911
Figure 16: Union government campaign poster implying Liberal party policy would benefit Germany during wartime, 1917
Figure 17: Campaign poster calling for enfranchised women to vote for the Union government, 1917
Figure 18: Campaign poster commenting on the Liberal Party's sound financial management. The National Liberal Bureau. Ottawa, 1930
For their part, the Liberals hired the brilliant French-Canadian cartoonist Albéric Bourgeois in the 1930 election campaign to develop bilingual campaign posters (possibly the first time bilingual posters were produced), extolling the virtues of Mackenzie King (figure 18). Unfortunately for the Liberals, King was defeated and the Conservatives won office.
With the foundation of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF-later to become the New Democratic Party) as well as regional protest parties (the United Farmers of Alberta, the United Farmers of Ontario, and Social Credit in the West and later in Quebec), the political landscape became more crowded. The CCF blamed both major parties in the 1935 federal election, some of its posters demanding "Who Owns Canada?" (figure 19).
Figure 19: Campaign broadside for the C.C.F. Winnipeg, Manitoba Provincial Council, C.C.F., 1935?
Figure 20: Campaign poster featuring image of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, based on artwork of Che Guevara, 1968
All political parties continued to use posters to get their message across in subsequent elections, but with the birth of the mass media (the radio in the 1930s and television in the 1950s), the political poster began to lose its dominant role in changing public opinion. It began to focus more on the individual than the message. The 1968 Pierre Elliott Trudeau campaign poster (figure 20), based on the contemporary image of Che Guevara, shows how the personality cult had replaced party messages on posters. For the most part, modern political posters are bland, devoid of rhetoric, and tightly controlled by party officials (figure 21). Only fringe parties, like the Parti Rhinocéros in Quebec, can still get away with entertainment and irreverence (figure 22).
Protest movements have existed throughout Canadian history. People who feel shut out of the political process, distrustful of mainstream politicians, or ignored by government have organized, marked and publicized their protests. The anti-nuclear campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s, which saw demonstrations on Parliament Hill (figure 23), featured the iconic peace symbol designed in 1958 by the British artist Gerald Holtom for a march against nuclear weapons. It was soon adopted by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and in turn by many other protest groups. Yet not all protest campaigns have been so lucky in creating such an easily understood and recognizable icon. Pro-choice and anti-abortion groups, environmental campaigners, gay rights advocates, and other interest groups have difficulty conveying their messages in such descriptive shorthand (figure 24, Pollution Probe poster from McLuhan fonds).
Figure 21: Election poster for the Rhinocerous Party candidate, Pierre Cantin
Figure 22: Protestors on Parliament Hill holding bilingual anti-nuclear arms signs
Figure 23: Poster satirizing pollution conditions and issues for the city of Toronto, Pollution Probe at the University of Toronto, 1970 - 1979
This is the challenge of a good poster design-conveying a message that is simple, readily understood and that clings to one's consciousness. The difference between a good poster and a bad one is not always in the graphics, the typography or even the design. Sometimes the circumstances and the context of the poster's placement work against it. This is part of both the excitement and the dismay political and protest posters can arouse in us.
Library and Archives Canada
Art and Photography
28 July 2009
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