For a nation under construction, a magazine that strove to capture, and to shape, its times

Peter C. Newman October 10 2005


For a nation under construction, a magazine that strove to capture, and to shape, its times

Peter C. Newman October 10 2005


For a nation under construction, a magazine that strove to capture, and to shape, its times



BETWEEN 1905, when a fresh epoch dawned over an unsuspecting Dominion then barely a nation, and this sprightly autumn of 2005 as Maclean’s celebrates its centennial, I am struck by the parallels between the magazine and the country. Both have journeyed from primitive to possible to prosperous to postmodern.

Canada began the century by gradually jettisoning the final vestiges of British rule, and ended it by bringing home the Constitution. As a nation, we gained medicare and lost our innocence, survived bitter tensions within our borders and were drawn into three wars

beyond. We became our neighbour’s senior trading partner, but demonstrated our independence by opting out ofWashington's military adventures.

Like some giant stirred by feelings of power that come late to the adolescent not yet daunted by the failures and misgivings of maturity, the country was first populated, then settled and developed until it ranked as the world’s eighth-most-productive economic powerhouse. Everything changed and this magazine was there to chronicle the process. The comforting traditions of home and hearth were turned inside out; the economy tobogganed from boom to bust and back again; Ottawa’s politicians altered their sustaining ideologies as often as the shadings in the puff of a pigeon’s breast. Our calming rural landscape was largely abandoned as Canada turned into a frenetic collection of city states. Once an impregnable WASP stronghold, the country was transformed into the most multicultural of cultures—the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding that had symbolized the taste of its former elite became an ethnic dish.

Likewise, this magazine went from a slim, disposable pamphlet to a lively journal with an annual cumulative circulation of 19 million. It was and remains indispensable to the Canadian experience, keeping pace with the tectonic changes of the country it serves. From its precarious birth as a business digest with sales of6,000 to its current incarnation as an energetic newsweekly with nearly three million readers a week, this publication has chronicled every leap and twitch of the country’s dramatic sea change.

As both the nation and the magazine matured, reading Maclean’s became a way of looking at the world. At its best, it was a mirror in which Canadians glimpsed each other and recognized themselves. In the process, it was woven into the dreams and memories of its readers. Historically, it is the closest Canada has ever come to having a national house organ, providing a running commentary on who we are and why we are here. Owned by the Maclean Hunter publishing firm for most of its existence (and now belonging to the Rogers group of companies), the original firm’s attitude toward the magazine was best described by Floyd Chalmers, its long-time president: “We are holding Maclean’s in trust for the people of Canada.”

Leafing through all those stacks of back issues and rereading the magazine’s obsessive hunt for some glimmer of what constitutes our identity, it is clear that Maclean’s influenced the collective consciousness of succeeding generations, helping them discover individual reasons for celebrating their citizenship. In the pre-television age, it was the kind of magazine subscribers saved in their attics where keepsakes were tucked away. Sitting by the glare of a single light bulb, they would spend a rainy afternoon rummaging through back issues, coming across the tatters of pages cut out by them or their children to fill scrapbooks for grade-school projects.

Magazines have always managed to stir up special excitement. Unlike books, in which the writer basically addresses himself to the reader as an audience of one, magazines owe their genesis to the much more lively ancestry of the Roman forums and village fairs of medieval Europe. In few countries has a national magazine exerted such influence. This land’s outrageous geographyone-sixteenth of the Earth’s land area stretched across six time zones—made it impossible during most of Canada’s history to distribute a newspaper nationally. It was thus left to national magazines, led by Maclean’s, to provide such an essential, if fragile, east-west link.

IT WAS CANADA’S special circumstances that encouraged the early success of Lt.-Col. John Bayne Maclean, a fencing champion with a triangular moustache, who owned a clutch of trade magazines. In 1905, he started the tiny-circulation The Business Magazine (the first of several names). Its contents consisted mainly of articles scalped from other publications. It was the mass adoption of the halftone engraving process and perfection of the high-speed rotary press that made the magazine possible. At about the same time, Canada’s merchants realized that the recently completed network of railroads had provided them with a national market, plus a dependable mode of distribution. Advertising in national magazines became the fastest way of turning brands into household names. Maclean changed the name of his magazine to bear his own in 1911, and it quickly expanded into more varied and far more relevant coverage.

Even before 1910, the magazine featured its first touch of erotica by running a picture of Maud Allan, a Canadian dancer in a London stage show, described as ajunoesque woman lightly adorned in veils and beads—who admitted she knew nothing about dancing.

Arthur Irwin, who joined the staff in 1925, remained at its helm for the next quarter of a century, sometimes without the official title of editor. During his lengthy tenure, he turned the magazine into a voice of Canada. “I’ve built a staff,” he once boasted, “which is as unmistakably Canadian as the smell of the autumn forest in Temagami.” Irwin also knew how to get the best from his staff, urging them to fashion sentences “that go off inside your head like a Roman candle.” It was not always a happy place. Two writers on assignment committed suicide, and an art director once rushed hysterically into Irwin’s office shouting, “What will I do? What will I do? My wife’s on the roof of the Plaza Hotel threatening to jump if I don’t buy her anew fur coat!”

I’VE BEEN PART of this magazine for half its existence, ever since Oct. 13,1954, when managing editor Pierre Berton bought my first feature story for $250. As editor-inchief during the 1970s, I turned Maclean’s into a newsmagazine, and remain a regular columnist. These are some highlights (and lowlights) from my memory of the magazine’s colourful recent past:

Ralph Allen, who succeeded Irwin, was the greatest of the magazine’s editors and one of its most luminous writers. He once described small Prairie towns as “much idealized by those who have never lived there, much moved-away from by those who have, and much mourned by people of both kinds.”

During the mid-’50s, when Pierre Berton was managing editor (second in command to Allen), he became so fed up with an Alberta subscriber’s complaints about the magazine that he cancelled the reader’s subscription.

June Callwood, the magazine’s star writer at the time, recalled a typical assignment session with Berton. “He phoned me one day and said, ‘We’d like a piece on the universe.’ “ ‘The universe?’ I asked, a baby on my lap, not sure I had heard right.

“ ‘Yes, the universe,’ he said, impatient that the conversation was dragging on. ‘Deadline in two weeks.’ ”

In 1969, when evangelist Charles Templeton was named editor of Maclean’s, his office had to be rebuilt because it was found to be six inches larger than that of Donald Hunter, the publishing firm’s proprietor.

When we published an article by Margaret Atwood and allowed a few errors to creep in, she sent me a pointed note: “There’s a wonderful invention kicking around. It’s called the telephone. Some magazines use it for a process called checking. That’s because they like the material they publish to be as accurate as possible. Sincerely, Margaret Atwood.” The revered broadcaster Peter Gzowski was with the magazine for a decade, including a stint as its editor. His first investigative story was a stunning bit of reportage about the inhuman conditions in the mental wing at Montreal’s Bordeaux Jail.

Allan Fotheringham, who graced the magazine’s back page for nearly three decades, had a wonderful way with words, such as his description of airport taxis “that emit the stale odour of muskoxen that have gone too long without a shampoo,” and his description of the Liberal party’s arrogance as “seeping through the underbelly of this country like a nuclear submarine in the deep.”

Another wit was Harry Bruce, who wrote a poignant memoir of young lust at Mount Allison University (“Going all the way was difficult when there was nowhere to go”).

The best writer during my time aiMackan’s was Roy MacGregor, recruited from the staff of a trade magazine called Office Equipment and Methods. This was his description of the renowned novelist Hugh MacLennan, then in the winter of his career: “Beyond him, the hardwood forest is blackening in the setting sun, blushing with the early rumours of fall. Soon the colours of Quebec’s Eastern Townships will rise to equal his own anxiety: October will come and with it the release of Voices in Time, his first novel in 13 years.”

THE SCORE of strong-willed individuals who have edited Maclean’s since its inception regarded their mandate as nothing less than to set the national agenda. They stalked the unknown heroes and closet villains who populated these northern latitudes, and explored that handful of metaphors that cut across private and regional interests. They and their talented staffs created and sustained a family of subscribers and contributors united by common concerns and commitments. Never afraid to shape as well as reflect the times, they defended the realm against French-Canadian separatists and English-Canadian continentalists. They echoed the mute shout: “Listen, there are too many of us who care about this country. We won’t let Canada go!”

Any great magazine reflects the instincts of its editorial staff. What makes it successful is that its writers and editors are possessed by a sense of audience. It is the readers who ideally drive a publication. This is not a matter of dictating its precise contents. It comes down to aligning the priorities and aspirations, tastes and sensibilities of editors with those of the readers, and vice versa. “The vitality of a magazine,” pointed out long-time magazine editor and consultant Clay Felker, “depends not on great publishing organizations, precision editorial formulas, vivid promotion, or high-powered salesmen, but on the vitality of one man’s editorial dream. It’s the beginning and end of magazines.” At Maclean’s, another essential qualification was that its editors think nationally. As they sent back their dispatches from the brawling outbacks, Maclean’s staff writers and contributors found themselves describing and photographing a country of the mind—and more often a country of the spirit—that they frequently swore existed only in the mind’s eye of their editor, comfortably ensconced in downtown Toronto. New-style writers and editors had to be invented to run the magazine. This was a particularly touchy assignment when set against the dominant reality of Maclean’s own geographic location. The magazine’s offices have inevitably been within arm’s reach of just about every national medium in the country. Each editorial staff’s willingness to seek talent beyond their own literary family compact determined its success. Random episodes and unconnected personalities in the economic hinterland flowed and merged to form national trends and perceptions.

The men and women who have occupied Maclean’s editorial perches have had widely different backgrounds, interests and perceptions, but the good ones treated their po-

sitions less as a job than as a calling. If there was a cause that united them, it was the conviction that Canada was built on dreams as well as appetites; that this country was put together not by bloodlines, kin or tradition, but waves of newcomers of every seed and stock who arrived here dreaming big dreams about their future. “The mind supplies the idea of a nation,” wrote the French philosopher André Malraux, “but what gives this idea its sentimental force is a community of dreams.” Like gold, news depends on its assay. The ideal issue of Maclean’s—or run of issues, since no individual copy can hope to meet such grandiose expectations—becomes a point of reference that helps define the collective interests and aspirations of its readers. By having faith that our politicians who rule a country as scarcely governable as Canada could learn from their failures, Maclean’s built up a tradition of criticizing whatever coalition of hopefuls happened to hold authority at any given moment. The important test was never party affiliation. The differences that mattered were between those public men who facilitated the Canadian experiment, and those who thought it had gone far enough.

When Maclean’s was founded a century ago, Canada was a nation of small audiences, a lonely crowd united by rigid personal values that must have seemed like God-given truths. Then, as the nature of the country and its people changed, the magazine widened its purview, altering its frequency and content. But Maclean’s purpose never

changed. At the moment it has come under the editorial baton of Ken Whyte, who had remarkable success reviving Saturday Night magazine and was the founding editor-inchief of the National Post.

History consists of moments and periods. The moments give it excitement; the periods give it meaning. This special issue is a modest attempt to salute the magazine’s past 100 years, not only by illustrating how it reacted to the times it was reporting, but by trying to divine our next century. Canada and Maclean’s have always existed on the edge, the country and the magazine moving from fragile to confident and back again. Canada’s self-proclaimed National Magazine remains a lively icon, its mandate as essential as ever. Long may it thrive. Hfl