Important Canadian periodicals feel government's wrath

  • February 8, 2010
The economic downturns in North America over the last 100 years, paradoxically, have often been times of strong creative upsurge in the arts. American painting, poetry, theatre and music flourished in the 1930s, despite the crushing Great Depression. In the midst of financial turmoil in the 1970s, the Canadian non-profit parallel gallery movement covered the country with incubators for visual artists who would later go on to national and international careers.

Such innovation in difficult moments has traditionally been made possible by active public-sector investment, without which the many small-scale artistic enterprises that dot the cultural landscape would languish. Since the Second World War, Canada has believed that this public investment in new art, film, theatre, music and the other arts is an important contribution to building a national artistic fibre strong enough to resist the powerful cultural influence of the United States. But this long-standing conviction has become old hat in the Harper government’s ruling circles, if Ottawa’s recent changes in magazine funding policy are anything to go on.

While the overall federal budget for periodical publishing remains the same as last year — $73 million — the new rules for dividing up the pie exclude dozens of small Canadian arts, literary and scholarly periodicals from sharing in the program. Among these magazines are Malahat Review, Grain, Arc Poetry Magazine, Fiddlehead and numerous other periodicals on the leading edge of new art. Their crime, according to the politicians: the inability of any one of them to show it has an annual circulation of 5,000 copies.

Circulation figures, however, offer only a crude, misleading measure of a magazine’s importance. Few of the hundreds of significant small periodicals published in Canada, the United States and Britain in the 20th century could boast more than a few hundred readers. Yet it was there, in magazines with little press-runs and often limited distribution, that some of the most important poetry, fiction, photography and art of modern times was presented for the first time.

Nor are the new rules being administered fairly. The 5,000-copy regulation targets arts and literary magazines. Periodicals that cater mainly to aboriginal or gay and lesbian interests, on the other hand, are exempt from the requirement. For the Canadian government to treat arts and letters journals as though they don’t matter in Canadian culture, and gay and lesbian topics as though they’re important indeed, is to misunderstand fatefully the role of the little magazine in promoting fresh creativity in the artistic disciplines.

Quite apart from the historic part they have always played in introducing soon-to-be influential writers and artists to an interested public — one thinks of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and many others — the little magazines provide many other not-so-famous creative people the opportunity to break into print and find their audiences.

While the fate of little magazines immediately affects only a few of us, I believe Christians should oppose the punitive actions taken by Ottawa against these periodicals. They are vital components of the publishing mix in a free society, and they advance the cause of the free expression we Catholics think should abound. A hard economic time should be used, not as an excuse to cut off a valuable resource, but as a good reason for watering the creative ground ever more abundantly.

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