General Knowledge

No Canadian Stereotype

Cree Hymn Book with type
Cree Hymn Book with type

The story of the first Canadian typeface is a good one – and very Canadian.

James Evans was an English-born missionary and linguist who migrated to Canada. In the mid-1800s, he worked with the Ojibwa and Cree people to develop a clever syllabic script. It consists of several consonant symbols which you rotate to signal different vowel sounds in the syllable. This he used for teaching, translating and writing. Many groups have adapted the script to other indigenous languages in Canada.

When it came to creating type for printing, Evans began by making wooden moulds. Using these, he cast the type (metal letters) using lead from old musket balls and the linings of tea chests.

He then needed a printing press. This he built by modifying a fur-trader’s press – used to flatten pelts. The ink he made from lampblack and fish oil. Finally, besides paper, he used deer hide and birch bark to print on.

There you have it: Cooperation, innovation and resourcefulness. Canada does have interesting stories – some without any mention of Tim Hortons, hockey sticks or maple syrup. Enjoy your Canada Day!

References

  • The Surface of Meaning: Books and Book Design in Canada, Robert Bringhurst – 2008
  • The Man Who Made Birch Bark Talk, by Irene Craig, Manitoba Pageant, January 1959, Volume 4, Number 2. Now available at: The Manitoba Historical Society
  • Cree Syllabics, Historica Canada