Maple Leaf Rags

Why Toronto has the hottest indie magazine scene in North America

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Jessica Coulter

Content Tools

Of the nearly 1,600 magazines, newsletters, alt weeklies, zines, and other periodicals from around the globe that come through the Utne library, Toronto has always stood out as a return address of distinction. This past year, we were especially impressed with the Toronto magazines that were showing up on our desks and repeatedly wondered aloud in editorial meetings what it is about this city by the lake, just across the border, that results in such a high level of quality and creativity. In January, we dispatched Leif Utne to check out the scene.—The Editors 

For generations, Canadians seemed resigned to their country’s status as the poor stepchild—politely (oh, so politely) standing in the shadow of its richer, more powerful neighbor to the south. It was enough to be defined quietly as those North Americans who were not so American.

In the past few years, though, as the Canadian government has defied the United States on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, something has turned. It’s as if the Great White North has finally arrived. And there’s more to this newfound self-confidence than creeping anti-Americanism. Canadians are also tapping into a deeper sense of pride, on their own terms in their own unique way. 

You can hear it on the lips of Canadian politicians as they move to legalize same-sex marriage, which enjoys overwhelming public support. You can read it on the editorial pages of the newspapers, which advocate for the expansion of child care and foreign aid. And, perhaps more palpably than anywhere else, you can sense this attitudinal shift in the burgeoning independent press that thrives in Toronto, Canada’s cultural epicenter. 

Consistently thoughtful, bold, and witty, Toronto-based magazines always figure prominently in the annual Utne Independent Press Awards. This year, they made an especially strong showing, garnering 10 nominations and taking home two categories (The Walrus for Best New Title and Musicworks in the category of Arts/Literary Coverage). The reasons for this relatively recent creative surge are as varied as the magazines themselves. 

Toronto is Canada’s New York, home to the venerable Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), both of the country’s national newspapers, and a majority of its private television and radio networks, book publishers, and mainstream magazines. Ranked by the United Nations as the world’s most multicultural metropolis (half the population was born outside Canada, and over 40 percent speak a foreign language at home), Toronto is a rich stew of cultures, cuisines, fashions, musical styles, and artistic traditions. This combination of forces exerts a gravitational pull on the creative class that no other Canadian city can match. 

There’s also something going on that’s harder to quantify: a sense that the city has finally stopped comparing itself to other places and fallen in love with itself. “Toronto has a sense of self-confidence now that wasn’t really here before,” says Shawn Micallef, a contributing editor at Spacing, a new Toronto publication passionately dedicated to covering the city’s urban landscape. 

Started in late 2003 and published three times a year, Spacing has a circulation of 3,000 and includes articles on topics such as exploring the city by walking its alleys, the politics of postering on lampposts, and the history of pedestrianism. In a recent issue, there was a photo essay on manhole covers. The magazine’s pages are longer side-to-side than top-to-bottom because, says Matt Blackett, the magazine’s artistic director, “When we walk through the city, we don’t experience the world vertically. We experience it horizontally.” 

David Berlin, a longtime figure in Toronto journalism, felt Canada needed a print forum for long-form investigative reporting and thoughtful essays on subjects like health care, gay marriage, and climate change. He teamed up with Ken Alexander, the former producer of a debate show on CBC TV, and in 2003 they introduced The Walrus, Canada’s answer to Harper’s. “Our mandate is to inspire conversation and stimulate debate,” Alexander says. 

In just two years, thanks to a $5 million (Canadian) investment from Alexander and copious advice from Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham, the magazine’s circulation has grown to 50,000 (huge by Canadian standards), and plans are under way to start marketing the magazine in the United States, where there seems to be a newfound fascination with all things north of the border. Alexander set up a charitable nonprofit trust to publish the magazine, and he hopes to win government support later this year. 

In the 1960s, Premier Pierre Trudeau increased Canada’s already generous public support for the arts and instituted strict “Canadian content” rules for all TV and radio broadcasters. In part Trudeau was hoping to promote a stronger Canadian identity in a marketplace flooded with American television, music, and movies; in part he was hoping to head off the threat of secession by restive Quebecois separatists. To this day, 60 percent of the TV broadcast schedule must be made up of programs that deal with subjects of Canadian interest or that are written, produced, or performed by Canadians. 

This public support goes a long way toward explaining why Toronto’s independent press is so vital. In 2000 the government launched the Canada Magazine Fund, which doles out over $10 million (Canadian) a year to some 170 publications ranging from the mainstream national newsweekly McLean’s to feisty independents such as This Magazine, a 39-year-old mainstay of progressive political and cultural commentary. 

In 2003 the Canada Council for the Arts granted $1.6 million (Canadian) to 107 arts and literary magazines. Nearly a third of the publications that were funded are published in Toronto, including such gems as Broken Pencil, a lively review of Canadian zine culture and independent arts; POV, a professional journal for documentary filmmakers; and Fuse Magazine, a provocative forum for art and media criticism. 

The Canadian Magazine Publishers Association has an aggressive government-backed campaign to promote “genuine Canadian magazines.” Many of the association’s member publications display the campaign’s red maple leaf logo on their covers, and the web site provides descriptions and ordering information for more than 150 titles. 

Toronto may have North America’s hottest independent magazine scene right now, but its future is not so certain. Canadian magazines are heavily dependent on government support, and trade negotiators in Washington, at the behest of giant media and entertainment conglomerates, have targeted cultural protectionism (local content requirements, government media subsidies) as a new area for deregulation in upcoming negotiations at the World Trade Organization and the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Their hope is to force governments to privatize valuable state-run television and radio properties, which are protected under current trade rules. That could spell the end of Canadian-content rules (imagine Rupert Murdoch or TimeWarner buying the CBC), as well as national subsidies for private media, including magazines. To keep abreast of the issue, check out Public Citizen’s Global Tradewatch. And, when you’re at the newsstand, don’t forget to buy Canadian. 

Brick
Russell Banks calls this beautiful literary magazine “one of the best, if not the best, journals of ideas in the world.” Full of essays, poetry, reviews, even the odd obituary, it’s published twice a year and co-edited by The English Patient author Michael Ondaatje. www.brickmag.com 

Kiss Machine
This quarterly zine, lovingly crafted by editor Emily Pohl Weary, is a playful romp through the surrealism inherent in daily life. Each issue combines art, essays, and fiction exploring seemingly mismatched themes, like bugs and small business, babies and robots. www.kissmachine.org 

Outpost
A bimonthly travel magazine for the Lonely Planet set, Outpost recently chronicled a trip through the Canadian Rockies by canoe and folding tandem bicycle, and a walk through the English countryside with three of the world’s best crop-circle hoaxsters. www.outpostmagazine.com 

C Magazine
A quarterly journal exploring the intersection of contemporary art and international politics, C strives to be “proudly Canadian without being provincial.” The Spring 2005 “Pro/Anti-Americanism” issue features a look at artistic exchanges as an alternative model of diplomacy and reports on cutting-edge artists from Iran, Germany, and the UK. www.cmagazine.com 

Mix
“A declaration of creative independence,” this 30-year-old quarterly is dedicated to uncovering independent and noncommercial artists and creative trends across North America. www.mixmagazine.com 

This Magazine
Founded in 1966 by a group of radical teachers under the title This Magazine Is About Schools, the publication shortened its name and expanded its editorial focus in 1979. The tiny staff and an army of volunteers do an impressive, professional job of putting together hard-hitting reporting and cultural commentary. Before writing No Logo, author Naomi Klein served as editor. www.thismagazine.ca 

Green Teacher
This quarterly journal is for teachers who are interested in bringing ecology into the classroom. Recent issues include a classroom guide to the Earth Charter, teaching kids to keep nature journals, and the poop on the study of animal scat. www.greenteacher.com 

Peace Magazine
First published in 1983, this quarterly journal of the Canadian peace movement provides inspiring stories of peacemakers around the globe, useful information for activists, and even a recipe for Peace Cake. www.peacemagazine.org