By Philippe Devos
“The public will pay more for laughing than for any other privilege.”
Those words were written by one of the best and certainly the most quotable newspapermen in Canada. Robert Chambers Edwards didn’t work for The Globe, The Mail, The Toronto Star, The Toronto Telegram or any of the other powerful dailies that figure large in Canada’s newspaper history. He was the founder, editor, publisher and sole contributor to the Calgary Eye Opener, a newspaper he ran in Alberta for over 20 years in the early 1900s.
Sunday, Nov. 14, marks the 77th anniversary of Edwards’ death at the age of 63.
Edwards was a bundle of contradictions. He wrote with eloquence and fearless conviction, but was rather shy in person. He drank so heavily he occasionally needed hospitalization to dry out, but he wrote passionately in support of temperance. He ridiculed and chastised politicians mercilessly, often calling them “stuffed shirts,” but later served in the provincial legislature.
Perhaps the greatest contradiction was his newspaper. Edwards’ success as a newspaperman was not financial. He started the Eye Opener in 1902 with $1.47 in cash. Reflecting upon the 20th anniversary of the newspaper he noted the newspaper has in reserve “67 cents and half a bottle of scotch” at the time.
“If money talks,” Edwards remarked, “all it ever said to me was goodbye.”
Bob Edwards (as he was known) was more successful at entertaining people and effecting change than he was at making a buck. The weekly actually came out “semi-occasionally” with Edwards often apologizing for long spans between editions by explaining that his old enemy booze had overtaken him.
Without benefit of a subscription list, a printing plant or any staff save himself, a secretary and the young boys who sold the paper, Edwards managed to build the largest circulation of any newspaper published west of Winnipeg.
Although the Eye Opener was financially vulnerable, it was very powerful editorially. One Calgary mayor told friends he couldn’t be re-elected because Edwards was opposed to him. R.B. Bennett blamed the Eye Opener’s influence for his defeat in provincial elections in 1905.
When Edwards wrote in favour of prohibition before a referendum on the matter in Alberta, anti-prohibition supporters tried to buy every copy of the issue to keep it from influencing readers. They were unsuccessful, and four days after the Eye Opener hit the streets, Calgarians and the rest of Alberta voted by a substantial majority to support prohibition. Edwards himself however did not vote. He was in the hospital recovering from a drinking binge that started before the issue was even finished.
Though influential and well-liked, the Eye Opener also drew enemies. It was condemned from many a pulpit and was banned from sale on trains. Occasionally Edwards would be denied his mail by a disgruntled postal employee. Despite sparing no one from ridicule or criticism when deemed necessary, none of the threatened libel suits against Edwards ever made it to court. There were lost of homes where the Eye Opener was forbidden and many people who wouldn’t be seen reading it, but the rascally paper was often passed from home to home so neighbours could share in its contentious content.
Forty-five years after Edwards died, a friend brought the Eye Opener to the attention of Tom Thorne, an enterprising radio and television arts student who was starting a newspaper at Ryerson. It was 1967 and Thorne called Ryerson’s new newspaper The Eyeopener. He may have been too drunk or too stoned to get the spelling right, but Thorne made sure Edwards’ editorial mix of humour, satire, rebellion and scorn for authority lived on at Ryerson.