James S. Freer

The first Canadian filmmaker

James Freer was born in Woodstock, Oxfordshire and emigrated from Bristol to Canada in 1877 where he became a farmer in the Brandon Hills district near Winnipeg, Manitoba. In the autumn of 1897, having purchased some Edison equipment he began to take films of farming and railways in Manitoba, with the encouragement of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, which then sponsored Freer's touring show Ten Years in Manitoba, which visited Britain in April 1898. As with the films of Frederick Wills in Australia (but here with positive official backing) Freer's programme of films and lectures was intended to encourage emigration, emphasising Canada's agricultural riches and the land available. The Canadian Pacific Railway Company was to become a significant sponsor of film at this period, notably the 'phantom ride' railway films of the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company and travel films shot for Charles Urban by Joseph Rosenthal. Freer's programme included such titles as Six Binders at Work in Hundred Acre Wheatfield, Harvesting Scene, with Trains Passing By, and Arrival of CPR Express at Winnipeg. He may also have taken film in Britain during his travels. Press reports of Freer's successful British tours indicate that at least one film showed his own home and family as a model of what potential emigrants could expect. He returned to Manitoba in the spring of 1899, making a film of his journey from Liverpool to Quebec, but although he continued to tour with his existing films he found the amateur was being squeezed out of the film market and was forced to purchase further films of Canadian events from Edison. Freer's second tour to Britain in 1901 was not so successful, and the CPR turned to the professional Charles Urban Trading Company. Freer went back to his farm, though he continued to give the occasional film show locally. In 1917 he moved to Winnipeg and became a printer with the Winnipeg Free Press.

Luke McKernan (revised December 2012)