History of Public Relations in the Canadian Federal Government

The practice of public relations is closely associated with the Government of Canada, over four different periods of history. France and Great Britain engaged in typical public relations activities in forming what is now Canada— and subsequent Canadian national governments continued and improved on those activities. Today, the Government of Canada maintains the largest number of public relations practitioners, approximately 4000, in the country.

Early Government Practice

In 1613, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain wrote a book to promote New France (Canada) as a settlement opportunity (Devereaux Ferguson and Johansen (2005, p. 112). Thus began a 300-year public relations program that continued under Great Britain’s rule from 1763 to 1867 and then under the Canadian government.

By the 1880s, that program included: media tours of Canada for European journalists; visits to Canada for clergymen and farmers; monitoring of newspapers and letters to editors to correct perceived errors; exhibits and lectures at European fairs; pamphlets in numerous languages; advertisements; and lobbying efforts to have Canadian geography taught in UK schools (Emms 1995). John Donaldson, an immigration agent in the Department of Agriculture, was Canada’s first “government publicist” (Thurlow and Yue 2015). These programs continued under Clifford Sifton until World War I. With more modern techniques, Sifton’s campaigns displayed “all the hallmarks of contemporary strategic public relations programs” (Thurlow and Yue 2015, p. 25).

Besides these campaigns, the Canadian Government used public relations techniques to deal with activist groups demanding responsible government; petitioning movements; rebellions; wars; efforts to free the press from government control; and religious and patronage dissent; and so on. Summarizing, Johansen concludes that “public relations here [in Canada] was first embraced by government” (Johansen 1998, p. 7).

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