WILLIS, EDWARD, journalist, publisher, politician, and office holder; b. 5 Nov. 1835 in Halifax, youngest son of John Willis, a native of County Cavan (Republic of Ireland); brother of John Robert Willis*; m. 6 July 1858 in Saint John, N.B., Sarah Adams, eldest daughter of Zachariah Adams, a merchant, and they had four children; d. there 5 March 1891.
After graduating from Halifax’s National School, Edward Willis moved to Saint John, where in 1857 he launched two papers, one (with John Valentine Ellis*) a weekly family sheet and the other a monthly devoted to masonic affairs, in which he himself was active. Soon he became the lead writer for the New Brunswick Courier. Climbing rapidly up New Brunswick’s journalistic ladder, Willis succeeded the redoubtable George Edward Fenety in 1863 as editor of the influential Saint John Morning News. By then he had enlisted in the pro-confederation movement and supported Samuel Leonard Tilley. Pouring ridicule on New Brunswick anti-confederates, he accused them in 1865 of believing “that trade can best be fostered by isolation and the preservation of hostile tariffs; that railroads can be built without money, and capitalists induced to invest without security; that travel can best be promoted between the Provinces without railroad communication.” That year Willis bought a share in the Morning News, which prospered and became a daily paper after 1868.
In the early 1870s a debate raged throughout New Brunswick over a bill, introduced by George Edwin King* and strongly endorsed by Willis, that would end public assistance to separate schools. Tensions between Protestants and Catholics rose markedly. Willis, an Anglican and an active Orangeman, had been defeated on his first bid for a seat in the House of Assembly in 1867, but amid the rising tensions he won Saint John County and City in 1870 and helped lead the fight in the assembly for the Common Schools Bill, enacted the next year. Although he went over to the opposition in 1872, probably out of personal pique, and briefly became their leader, he still expected the law to receive a fair trial. When opposition members tried to weaken it, he returned to the King government benches and on 20 Feb. 1873 joined the Executive Council without portfolio. Reelected in 1874, he remained on the council until 1876.
As perhaps the most prominent member of the Orange order in the assembly, Willis regularly presented petitions calling for the incorporation of the provincial lodge. Finally successful in 1875, Willis and the order decided to celebrate the following year with a parade through the streets of Saint John on the “Glorious Twelfth.” The Orangemen’s last march, in 1849, had produced bloody rioting between Catholics and Protestants [see Robert Duncan Wilmot], and now the schools issue was fanning religious zealotry once again. But in 1876 the second-generation Irish only ritualized the violence of their forebears and no one was seriously hurt. That year Willis also helped organize a new Orange lodge which bore his name. He was re-elected to the House of Assembly in 1878, voting thereafter with the opposition led by Andrew George Blair*. By then he was tending to his ailing newspaper, which had been badly hurt in Saint John’s disastrous fire of 1877, and was frequently absent from the assembly. Willis lost his seat in the 1882 elections that ultimately brought Blair to power.
During his years in the assembly, Willis had taken a moderate position on hotly contested temperance issues [see Tilley], supported a mechanics’ lien law, and unsuccessfully promoted union of the Maritime provinces. He opposed publication of provincial documents in French, favoured lowering voting requirements, and regularly denounced tax concessions for private businesses.
When his newspaper went under in 1884, Willis turned to Tilley for assistance. At the time the Tories in Ottawa were anxious to demonstrate the success of the National Policy, and Tilley, Sir John A. Macdonald’s minister of finance, asked Willis to conduct a thorough investigation into its effects on the Maritime provinces. Criss-crossing the region, Willis interviewed scores of businessmen, artisans, and local notables, most of whom approved of the government’s action. He compiled detailed statistics that compared the number of workers employed in various occupations in 1878 with the many more working in 1884. Canada only needed more markets, he concluded, to absorb the outpouring of manufactured goods. The report was politically useful to the government and in 1886 Willis received an appointment as postmaster of Saint John. Over the next five years he remained in that position but withdrew from public life as his health declined.
At his death in 1891 the Saint John Daily Sun considered Willis to be better known as a journalist than as a politician. No doubt his extensive writing experience had helped him to prepare the excellent “Report . . . on the manufacturing industries of certain sections of the Maritime provinces.” Printed in the Sessional papers in 1885, it remains an enduring monument to his journalistic talents.
N.B. Museum, Misc. index; Tilley family papers, Willis to S. L. Tilley, 18 March 1861. Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1885, no.37: 35–197 (Edward Willis, “Report . . . on the manufacturing industries of certain sections of the Maritime provinces . . .”). R. H. Conwell, History of the great fire in Saint John, June 20 and 21, 1877 (Boston, 1877), 340. Davin, Irishman in Canada, 165. N.B., House of Assembly, Journal, 1871: 207–8; 1872: 121, 170, 180; 1873: 43–44, 50, 53, 114, 118–19, 132, 150, 176–77, 194; 1874: 17, 29, 44, 191; 1875: 26, 32, 43, 48, 51, 61, 73–75, 78–79, 148, 159, 173–74; 1876: 33, 44, 129; 1877: 68, 100, 129; 1878: 146; Synoptic report of the proc., 1874: 11, 16, 21, 34, 75, 84–85, 97, 123–24; 1875: 17–24, 28–29, 53; 1876: 34, 53, 97; 1880: 98–99, 105; 1881: 68–74. Provincial Grand Orange Lodge of New Brunswick, Report of the proc. (Fredericton, etc.), 1876: 1; 1877: 14–19; 1892: 13. St. John and its business: a history of St. John . . . (Saint John, N. B., 1875). Sentinel (Toronto), 26 March 1891. Stewart, Story of the great fire, 112–13. Daily Telegraph (Saint John), 5 March 1891. Morning News (Saint John), 19 April 1865. St. John Daily Sun, 5 March 1891. Western Recorder and Carleton Advertiser and Home Journal (Saint John), 20 March, 21 Aug. 1858. CPC, 1879. J. R. Harper, Historical directory of New Brunswick newspapers and periodicals (Fredericton, 1961). History and directory of the Provincial Grand Orange Lodge and primary lodges of New Brunswick, 1690–1934, comp. J. E. Steele (Saint John, 1934). Baker, Timothy Warren Anglin. [J. J.] B. Forster, A conjunction of interests: business, politics, and tariffs, 1825–1879 (Toronto, 1986), 205–6. C. A. Woodward, The history of New Brunswick provincial election campaigns and platforms, 1866–1974 . . . (n.p., 1976). S. W. See, “The Orange order and social violence in mid-nineteenth century Saint John,” Acadiensis (Fredericton), 13 (1983–84), no.1: 68–92.