The Nation’s Business

The Canadian dream loses a big round

Peter C. Newman January 27 1997
The Nation’s Business

The Canadian dream loses a big round

Peter C. Newman January 27 1997

The Canadian dream loses a big round

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman

We live in a magnificent hunk of geography naked to the skies, filling up with electronic birds threatening to destroy our culture. In the millennium to come, those signals— that are helping create the 500-channel universe—will expose us to even greater gallups of American values and ideas.

In that context, the continued existence of Canadian magazines becomes more essential than ever. Commercial U.S. television, which is what most of us watch, is fun to view, but a steady diet not only blunts intuitions, homogenizes feelings, and eradicates subtleties—it makes us forget who we are and why we are here.

It’s only when that all-powerful bullhorn in the corner of the living room is shut off that we have the time and the silence to ponder what it is we still share in this country, and why we want Canada to survive. Magazines—Maclean’s and more than 1,300 other Canadian periodicals—can’t offer the immediacy of television, but they place events in perspective and can lay claim to collectively publishing the first draft of Canada’s evolving history.

The formula works. Nearly 26 million copies of Maclean’s are now sold annually, reaching more than two million readers weekly. On a yearly basis, more than half a billion copies of Canadian magazines keep us on our toes.

That happy situation is about to end.

The World Trade Organization, a Genevabased adjudicatory panel, last week decided to back American contentions that the Canadian laws that keep the industry in business be struck down because they violate GATT’s open trade rules.

What’s at stake here is nothing less than the magazine industry’s continued existence. Apart from its essential cultural dimensions, it has become a major employer, with annual revenues of about $1 billion and a talented labor force of more than 6,000.

The legislation at issue is Bill C-103, passed by Parliament last year to prevent U.S. magazines from launching split-run publications in Canada. This involves wrapping the editorial content of U.S. periodicals around Canadian ads. Since these hybrid publications pay few, if any, Canadian writers, editors or illustrators, their ad rates are a fraction of those charged by indigenous competitors.

This was precisely what Sports Illustrated attempted in 1993, when it launched a pseudo-Canadian magazine by recycling its American contents. Full-page ads in the split-run edition that year cost $6,250, compared with $25,400 in Maclean’s. When Ottawa raised a fuss, Sports Illustrated temporarily dropped its venture. Had the sports magazine been allowed to continue, some 40 U.S. magazines with Canadian circulations of 50,000 or more were ready to invade the northern territory. They are now free to proceed.

It’s tough enough to compete with American magazines, since their economies of scale allow them to afford editorial budgets 10 times the clout of ours. But when Canadian magazines must fight for their home market against rivals who enjoy a free editorial ride, the odds hardly seem fair. Discounts in these surrogate magazines are so deep that although Sports Illustrated publishes similar regional editions in the United States, the magazine’s Canadian ad rates are half those charged in their domestic split-runs.

The dispute dates back more than 50 years. Time first launched a pretend-Canadian edition in 1943, and by 1970 the American newsmagazine plus Reader’s Digest, which came into the country in 1947, had siphoned off so much advertising that more than 200 Canadian magazines with combined circulations of 10 million were forced out of business. That was when the government stepped into the picture.

Even the most nationalistic members of Canada’s magazine industry have never objected to American magazines swamping our newsstands. But unless Ottawa can devise some other technique for protecting this vital industry, the split-run editions will quickly put Canadian periodicals out of business.

The essence of the dispute is not really about Sports Illustrated, Maclean’s or any other magazines. It’s about two very different views of national culture. To Americans, culture is their most successful export; they thrive on influencing the minds, fashions, manners and outlooks of a world tuned into their movies, television, clothes, books and heroes.

Canadian culture is a far more subtle and fragile commodity, involving scattered truths about our past history, current hopes and future aspirations—about why we hold our ground in this cold land with empty horizons. Unlike the American product, Canadian culture is not negotiable, and its many expressions—including Canadian magazines—must continue to find a market in order to give it voice and shape.

Henry Luce, who founded Time Inc. (nowTime Warner), understood that, having once declared, “The whole concept of the American proposition requires Time to exist.”

Right on. Magazines do have a particularly strong identification with their countries of origin. At best, they are woven into the dreams and memories of a people. But American dreams and memories are not ours. As Senator Grattan O’Leary, who headed the first of many government inquiries into the issue, declared back in 1961: “Only a truly Canadian periodical press, one with the feel of Canada and directly responsible to Canada, can give us the critical analysis, the informed discourse and dialogue which are indispensable in sovereign society.”

That was true then. And it’s doubly true now.

What’s at stake here is nothing less than the magazine industry’s continued existence