A brief history of conservative publications in Canada – updated to 2021 (Part One)
By Mark Wegierski
A survey of conservative publications in Canada tells a sorry tale of short-lived efforts lacking the ideological coherence and material support necessary to make a significant impact. Any group of conservative writers and thinkers needs to be aware of the struggles of those who have gone before and to learn, if possible, from their mistakes.
One of the most well-known quotations by Conrad Black concerns his promise (or threat) to establish a publication in Canada which would be a “National Review North.” Although Lord Black certainly created a revolution in the Canadian newspaper world, whose effects continue to be felt today, he did not manage to create a publication that could play as profound a role in Canadian politics as the early National Review played in the creation of an American conservative movement. Black never allocated the funding for a profound intellectual journal of conservative opinion in Canada (although The National Post and other Black papers partially undertook such writing). In earlier decades, The Toronto Sun (descendant of The Toronto Telegraph) had carried a number of conservative columnists (some of whom were remarkably acerbic), but lacked the consistent intellectual credentials to avoid classification by critics as a “tabloid”.
In the 1980s, with a huge Progressive Conservative majority, there was some quickening of conservative intellectual life in Canada, but all struggled to achieve a lasting impact. The businessman William A. B. Campbell launched a magazine called International Conservative Insight, but the venture disappeared when it became apparent he wasn’t going to turn a profit from this initiative. There was an attempt to produce a right-leaning newsmagazine in Ottawa called Seven Days, but it failed after a few issues. Dr. Branka Lapajne had somewhat more success with a monthly newspaper called The Phoenix, which continued for a few years before closing. There was also a brief attempt to launch a right-leaning student newspaper at the University of Toronto called The University of Toronto Magazine, but the paper faced troubles right from the start, for example over name duplication, and never managed to find its feet. Launched with great fanfare, Peter Worthington’s Influence magazine collapsed after about two years. It began with a misstep – billing itself as directed at “men of influence”-- and tried to sell itself as a magazine for wealthy businessmen, rather than for conservatives per se. The newsletters of the University of Toronto P.C.s, Rabble & Reaction, and of the young Ontario P.C.s, Blue Wave, were sometimes interesting but had nothing more than a local reach. The period was characterized by a variety of initiatives, none of which found a sustaining audience.
Finally, there arose The Idler, a precocious journal of literary-artistic-cultural pretensions, with some sotto voce conservative philosophizing. It was in a non-glossy large-magazine format, with artistic covers in colour, the interior in black and white, and some interesting illustrations. It had a broad variety of contributors, many of whom were literary aspirants who avoided forthright political statements. The main problem with The Idler could be summed up by saying that it offered a tiny, frothy dessert confection – as opposed to the “meat-and-potatoes” that many conservatives were hungering for at the time. The very title seemed redolent of affectation and political inaction. Considering that it often made a point of putting down ordinary people, it never achieved much of a circulation (apparently – 8,000 at the maximum). The major conservative publications of the time were the Alberta Report/B.C. Report/Western Report of the Byfield family. Alberta Report had a circulation of about 60,000; B.C. Report about 15,000 (in the province of British Columbia); and Western Report (in the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba), about 5,000. Even the most successful conservative publications were limited in their readership and impact.
Some of the most long-lasting publications had an economic focus. The National Citizens’ Coalition put out a newsletter-type publication, and the Fraser Institute produced Fraser Forum, which continually improved in physical quality. The Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation also publishes a magazine.
The trend of short-lived and varyingly ambitious ventures continued into the early 1990s. At this time, The Idler finally folded when foundation funding was withdrawn. William D. Gairdner, the author of the bestselling The Trouble with Canada tried to launch a newsletter-type publication called Speaking Out that failed with the first issue. In Toronto, Judi McLeod, who had been a prominent Toronto Sun columnist, launched Our Toronto Free Press, a free-distribution monthly newspaper (which has subsequently become a webzine). Toronto’s free-distribution monthly newspaper Transforum was open to contributions from across the spectrum. There was also a free-distribution newspaper called Toronto Westend Express, in which some conservative articles appeared. Young writer Michael Taube attempted a ‘zine called From The Right, which lasted only three issues. It was packed with interesting articles during its short lifespan. A major magazine (glossy, full-colour) open to contributions from across the spectrum was The Next City, which was supported by the Donner Canada Foundation. Gravitas (non-glossy, black-and-white, but with high-quality paper) also funded by Donner, was a brief, brave attempt at a conservative intellectual magazine of considerably greater social and political engagement than The Idler. It too failed to take off, perhaps because it was perceived to be too narrowly intellectual.
The only real success among Canadian conservative publications were the Byfield newsmagazines. By the 1990s, the magazines looked in format somewhat like Time or Newsweek (glossy, full-colour covers, although mostly monochrome inside) and contained a variety of features.
In summation, the 1980s was a dreadful time for conservatives in Canada – unlike in the U.S. and Britain. Living in megapolitan Toronto before the coming of the Internet, it often must have seemed to conservative thinkers that nothing belonged to them except the few cubic centimeters inside their skull (as Orwell had put it). The Idler was certainly not an answer to this dilemma. With the rise of the Reform Party in the 1990s, there was greater hope -- but attempts to create an enduring conservative intellectual magazine (Gravitas came closest to it) continued to fail. In Part Two, the author will look at how subsequent ventures fared.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.