Political Cartoons

This page has been archived on the Web

Information identified as archived is provided for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It is not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards and has not been altered or updated since it was archived. Please contact us to request a format other than those available.

A Unique Historical Record

Newspapers and other periodicals played a vital role in the progress of Confederation throughout British North America. While articles and editorials provided the most direct source of information on political developments and public opinion, political cartoons were just as effective in communicating popular concerns. Illustrators employed exaggeration, analogy and other techniques in order to critique current events or to satirize public figures. Influential political cartoonists such as Jean-Baptiste Côté and John Wilson Bengough not only generated a unique record of the Confederation era, but they also dealt with many issues that remain important to contemporary Canadians - such as regional identities within Confederation and the character and conduct of federal politicians.

Jean-Baptiste Côté

Trained as an architect, Jean-Baptiste Côté (1832-1907) chose instead to pursue a career as a wood carver in the Quebec shipbuilding industry. His skills in that field were well known by the 1860s, when he began contributing to a number of literary publications as an engraver and caricaturist. He revealed his talent for uncompromising satire in La Scie, a periodical that opposed Confederation and caricatured its supporters, such as George-Étienne Cartier, Joseph-Édouard Cauchon, Hector-Louis Langevin and George Brown. Côté's productivity in the 1860s was remarkable, as he generated hundreds of caricatures and other graphic elements for activist newspapers. The humor and intensity of Côté's political cartoons are still evident, thanks to a distinctive style, in which a concentrated political statement is delivered through a purposefully simplified image.

John Wilson Bengough

When J.W. Bengough (1851-1923) was 22 years old, he founded the satirical magazine Grip. The launch of that publication in 1873 coincided with the eruption of the Pacific Scandal; as a result, Bengough had ample material to "draw upon" as an artist and humorist. His depictions of impish parliamentarians, and in particular his portrayal of Sir John A. Macdonald as a figure of endless mischief, were immensely popular: Grip claimed a circulation of anywhere between 7,000 and 50,000 readers. Bengough's engagement with public affairs did not stop on the printed page, as he championed a number of social reform issues and was elected as a Toronto alderman.

Annexation versus Confederation

Canada has always had close and complex ties with its neighbour, the United States of America. In the decades immediately before and after Confederation, the possible annexation of British North American territories to the United States preoccupied citizens on both sides of the border. Cartoonists took advantage of the political and cultural symbolism of the annexation movement to produce insightful illustrated commentaries.

"Dropping a Hint"

Colonel Gugy, MP, was a prominent member of the Opposition under the Baldwin-Lafontaine Ministry, but announced his withdrawal from that position during the heated scenes that followed the Rebellion Losses riots. He is regarded as having been the progenitor of the Liberal-Conservative Party of the present time. The cartoon conveys the insinuation that Colonel Gugy sympathized with the Annexation movement, which was the sensation of the day.

"The Annexation Engine"

This was another attack upon the Annexation sentiment that prevailed in Lower Canada. Punch's idea was that if Annexation were ever realized its first effect would be to rob the French-Canadians of the special privileges they enjoyed under British rule. The artist's conception of Brother Jonathan ('Jonathan' was the term used by the British to refer to the United States) is somewhat unusual.

"Pawning the Flag"

Mr. Benjamin Holmes was one of the Members for Montreal in the first Parliament after the Union, and was amongst the most active public men of the time. In 1849 he was an advocate of Annexation, and subsequently voted for the reception of an address in favour of Canadian independence. His Annexation proclivities are satirized in the cartoon, which represents him as pawning the British flag to Brother Jonathan.

"The Eagle and the Fawn"

A piece of excusable self-glorification on the part of Mr. Punch, who was 'truly loyal' from first to last. Here he dashes forth upon his charger to rescue the Canadian fawn from the talons of the designing American eagle.

"Cross Roads"

Charles Tupper was a warm advocate of Confederation, and did more than any other public man to induce his native province, Nova Scotia (Acadia), to enter the union in 1867. Joseph Howe, a much greater statesman than Tupper, and a man of vast influence, was amongst the opponents of the measure in question, and was suspected of a preference for Annexation to the United States. In the cartoon the Province is represented as halting between the two opinions, and the loyal artist takes pains to point out that the advantages are all in the way that leads 'to Ottawa.'

"A Pertinent Question"

This cartoon faithfully reflected the sentiments of the Canadian people on the subject of Annexation. While it is true that there is no general feeling in favour of the change indicated, there is an appreciable absence of the unfriendly feeling toward the United States that was generally cherished at this time.

"Uncle Sam Kicked Out"

The anti-Annexation sentiment that has always prevailed in Canada is presented with considerable 'force' in this picture.

"From Halifax to Vancouver"

The project of an all-rail route from the Atlantic to the Pacific on Canadian territory had begun to be put forth. The incredulity attributed to Uncle Sam in the cartoon was fully shared by many more immediately interested parties. The year 1886, however, saw the feat accomplished.

"Waiting for the Cat to Jump"

This cartoon gives an intimation that the views of Mr. Luther H. Holton on the subject of Canada's future destiny were not perfectly clear and fixed. In this Mr. Holton was by no means singular among our public men. The insinuation that he was a blind follower of public opinion does him less than justice.

Critical Reflections

The figure of Jean-Baptiste was adopted by cartoonists as a traditional embodiment of French Canada. In French-Canadian political cartoons, this recurring character expresses a range of attitudes toward Confederation, from physical distress to energetic patriotism. Especially during the 1860s, the desire to protect French-Canadian culture resulted in portraits of Confederation as a dangerous, even monstrous, political option. By the turn of the century, Jean-Baptiste became a champion of the Canadian identity.

"La Confédération!"

In December 1864, Côté represented Confederation as a devouring monster controlled by George Brown, George-Étienne Cartier and Joseph-Édouard Cauchon.

"La question"

Upper and Lower Canada will be consumed by Confederation or Annexation. Abraham Lincoln intends to devour turkeys and cooks alike (1865).

"Le statuquo de G. Brown"

Côté's representation of George Brown in April 1866 shows the editor of the Globe balanced uneasily between political options.


American Fenians threaten Canada across the neutral border in Côté's depiction of the leading national security concern of 1866.

"Le moment psychologique"

Jean-Baptiste rejects the clothing of imperialism and annexation in favour of the warm tuque and clothes of Canadian independence (1903).

"Notre drapeau national"

The flag adopted by Canada in 1965 was anticipated by this maple-leaf design, proudly displayed by Jean-Baptiste in 1903.

Atlantic Antics

The development of Confederation in Canada's Atlantic region spanned almost a century, and stimulated an equally broad range of creative commentary from regional and national cartoonists. Although Newfoundland and the Maritime provinces each brought a unique perspective to the issue of Confederation, the economic, social and political concerns evident in these cartoons reveal common preoccupations with such matters as responsible government, annexation and general political mischief.

"The Happy Pair" (John A. Macdonald and Joseph Howe)

In the interest of promoting closer relations amongst the colonies of British North America, Thomas D'Arcy McGee organized a visit to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick by a delegation of Canadian politicians and journalists for the late summer of 1864. Newspapers of the time were particularly amused by the "Hodge Podge dinner" held for the delegates.

"A Game of See-Saw"

A game of see-saw: fickleness exhibited by the Maritime Provinces. The battle over Confederation was fought in the newspapers as well as in the legislature.

"Scaring the Maritime Horse"

Charles Tupper demonstrates his control over Maritime political issues. Grip, November 24, 1877.

"Taxes under Confederation"

Union with Canada was often regarded as a solution to existing problems rather than as a desirable end in and of itself. Furthermore, Newfoundlanders could observe no clear benefits for the Maritime colonies that had joined.

"The Merchants and Responsible Government"

Despite the hopes of Newfoundland's responsible government supporters, the London delegation got a cold reception from the British government, which balked at promising any substantial amount of financial assistance if the island chose independence.

"Two Views of Responsible Government"

For Newfoundland, which was suffering economic difficulties after a bank crash, union with Canada gained an attractive financial aspect.

"The Bridge to Prosperity"

The strong American presence during the Second World War caused Canada to renew its interest in inviting Newfoundland to join Confederation.

"A Queer Fisherman!"

While Confederation is generally regarded as a positive event for Newfoundland, many feel that its execution should have been far different. There have even been suggestions of a conspiracy to force Newfoundland into Confederation.

"The Road to Confederation 1"

The fiftieth anniversary of Newfoundland's inclusion in Confederation, in 1999, provided many people with an opportunity for reflection on how Newfoundland has fared within the union. Many newspapers published stories about those who had witnessed the Confederation campaign.

"The Road to Confederation 2"

Scandal and Strife

Political cartoonists thrive on the notorious deeds and decisions of elected officials. The upheavals of the Confederation era, which included such controversial episodes as the Pacific Scandal and the trial of Louis Riel, inspired some of the most provocative illustrations in the history of Canadian political cartoons.

"The Dainty Dish"

The opposition leaders offer the Governor General evidence of the Pacific Scandal in Bengough's nursery rhyme satire from 1873.

"Blackwash and Whitewash"

In 1873 Bengough mocked Sir John A. Macdonald's role in the Pacific Scandal, as well as the Opposition's opportunistic use of "political tar."

"Will He Get Through?"

Macdonald faces an impossible trick -- surviving the Pacific Scandal. His government lost the election held in November 1873.

"The Political Giant-Killer; or, Canada First"

The "Canada First" movement reacted to the events of the 1870s with a vision of cultural and political unity (1873).

"Pity the Dominie; or Johnny's Return"

Although his government fell as a result of the Pacific Scandal, Macdonald was re-elected in 1874. Bengough anticipates more mischief.

"Pacific Pastimes"

Bengough often depicted politics as an unruly game. Here the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway is represented as a sack race (1874).

"Au Nord-Ouest"

The uncertain position of justice is depicted in this 1885 commentary on the fate of Louis Riel.

Grand Visions

Confederation and political cartoons have at least one thing in common: they both express a grand vision. However, the grand vision at work in political cartoons is usually a product of satire, a technique that uses exaggeration to ridicule a subject. Caricatures of the Fathers of Confederation often depict heroic figures in order to imply the opposite qualities. Yet as J. W. Bengough demonstrates, a cartoonist might recognize the limitations of his own grand vision, and present himself as a satirical subject.

"The Many-Counselled Ulysses"

This caricature from April 1873 depicts Sir John A. Macdonald as the legendary hero, Ulysses.

"Confederation! The much-fathered youngster"

Left to right: George Brown, Sir Francis Hincks, William McDougall, Sir John A. Macdonald.

"Renewing the Lease"

In this cartoon from September 1878, Bengough predicts that Macdonald will be rejected by Canada in the general election.

"O, Our Prophetic Soul!"

When Macdonald won the 1878 election, Bengough caricatured himself. Macdonald is shown holding Bengough's cartoon "Renewing the Lease."

"The Coming Attraction!"

In this 1879 cartoon, Bengough depicts politics as theatre, with Macdonald performing roles -- including several villains -- from Shakespearean tragedy.

"Sir Charles Tupper et le parlement"

This caricature of Sir Charles Tupper from February 1896 depicts Liberal anxiety, Conservative wishful thinking and Tupper's self-regard.

"See the mighty hosts advancing."

On September 1st, 1905, the Saskatchewan Act and the Alberta Act were adopted by the Canadian government and two new provinces joined Canada.


  • Béland, Mario. -- "Côté, Jean-Baptiste" -- Dictionary of Canadian biography online [online]. -- [Cited December 17, 2004].
  • Béland, Mario. -- Jean-Baptiste Côté, caricaturiste et sculpteur. -- [Québec] : Musée du Québec, c1996. -- 156 p.
  • Bengough, J.W. -- A caricature history of Canadian politics : events from the Union of 1841, as illustrated by cartoons from "Grip", and various other sources. -- Toronto : The Grip Printing and Publishing Co, 1886. -- 2 v.
  • Cook, Ramsay. -- "Bengough, John Wilson". -- Dictionary of Canadian biography online [online]. -- [Cited December 17, 2004].
  • Fetherling, Doug. -- "Introduction". -- A caricature history of Canadian politics. -- Toronto : Peter Martin Associates Limited, 1974. -- 269 p.
  • Hou, Charles. -- "Decoding political cartoons." -- Learning centre [online]. -- Library and Archives Canada. -- [Cited December 17, 2004].
  • Hou, Charles ; Hou, Cynthia. -- The art of decoding political cartoons : a teacher's guide. -- Vancouver : Moody's Lookout Press, 1998. -- 71 p.
  • Hou, Charles ; Hou, Cynthia. -- Great Canadian political cartoons, 1820 to 1914. -- Vancouver : Moody's Lookout Press, 1997. -- 232 p.
Date modified: