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Oh, Canada

An erstwhile New York writer now living in Toronto gives a her neighbors to the south a look at Canada's hot new magazines.

By Sarah Lazarovic - March 3, 2004

You know they smoke pot with impunity. You know they can marry whomever they please. And perhaps you even know that they have two-dollar coins and charmingly colorful legal tender. But who knows what they read? When I was a student, living in Manhattan's East Village, I used to fruitlessly scan newsstands for Canadian titles, hoping for news from home in the form of pricey, imported periodicals. Now that I've returned home to Toronto, I can finally get my fill of Northern glossies. And, I've learned, there's a spate of new publications jockeying for newsstand space here, which means Canadian content may finally begin to make its way south of the border. Allow me to share the benefit of my chilly experience and fill you in on some Canadian mags worth reading.

Once upon a time, Canada had but one magazine of record. Founded in 1887, the venerable Saturday Night has gone through many incarnations and a few hibernations. It had a few years of excellence as a weekly insert in the National Post in the latter part of the last century, but since that time has unfortunately been demoted to an erratic 10 issues per year. And despite a recent redesign, MacLean's, Canada's long-running magazine of the mundane, hasn't jazzed itself up very much either. But out of this climate of mild stagnation and subzero temperatures, a renaissance has developed. Three new, promising magazines have hit the stands: Toro, The Walrus, and Maisonneuve.

Toro is already a half-dozen issues deep, and it looks poised for success. A lighter and less manly Esquire-esque publication, it culls from the best Canadian writers and, even better, has lovely design and illustration. Its cover choices speak of the eclectic breadth within: Montreal rocker Sam Roberts poses intensely on issue one while Hole bassist Melissa Auf Der Maur looks out softly from the winter issue. With a circulation of 300,000 (much of which is distributed through The Globe and Mail newspaper), Toro is hoping to branch out. Subscriptions have already begun trickling in from the United States ("a few from San Francisco came in today," the receptionist told me when I called), and the mag has plans to hit U.S. newsstands in the near future. And the best thing about Toro: Its front-of-book is actually funny, with clever items like a recent look at the phallic properties of Jiffy Pop.

Just after Toro's launch came The Walrus, which positions itself as Canada's answer to Harper's or The Atlantic. With the support of Lewis Lapham and a cushion of private funding, The Walrus may be just the animal to give Toronto its New Yorker, minus the 20,000-word profiles of Karl Rove. The mag, which launched in September 2003, hasn't dazzled with its cover art, but its content is solid and focused. It tries, gamely, to be both serious and interesting, and appears to be slowly developing itself. Recent top-level masthead changes have seen a new editor-in-chief take the reins, so how this animal develops is anybody's guess.

Maisonneuve, meanwhile, is the Canadian East Coast's aspirant to literary magazine glory. Its tagline, "Eclectic Curiosity," is apt, if a little clunky. In a short span of time, the Montreal offering has gone from a small-time, black-and-white literary magazine to a beautifully designed, tastefully curated, full-service publication. At first, the magazine felt a bit too regional, drawing as it did from the usual stable of Anglo Montreal writers. In recent issues, however, Maisonneuve, which is available on newsstands throughout the United States, has improved steadily. The latest issue includes an original excerpt of Bernard-Henri Levy's Who Killed Daniel Pearl? as well as a piece by Canadian abortion-rights activist Henry Morgentaler. As an added bonus, last month's cover looks like an Irvine Welsh novel crossed with a Woody Allen movie.

There's also a West Coast counterpart to Maisonneuve, Geist, which is a bit older—it was founded in 1990—but has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. It began as a small-time literary magazine with a circulation of 300, but it's gotten darn lovely of late, winning Magazine of the Year at Canada's Western Magazine Awards in both 2001 and 2003. Billing itself as "The Magazine of Canadian Culture and Ideas," it's a down-to-earth mag, with a lot of poetry, and accessible but interesting art and prose.

These heavyweights aside, there are also many smaller publications quietly working towards paginated perfection. And beyond print, Canada is host to some progressive web work. Though the magazine-cum-website Shift folded a year ago—its co-founder Clive Thompson has gone on to cover all things tech for The New York Times, among other publications—in its stead came the Canadian Broadcasting Company's most youthful effort to date, CBC3. The online magazine-slash-radio station has fun features on bands and odd happenings and a weekly music set to accompany one's reading. A few months ago, CBC3 showcased an article and live concert with Brit musician Billy Bragg, and last week's concert featured Rufus Wainwright unplugged. The site also offers a weekly set list of mostly Canadian independent music that can be played from its slightly finicky jukebox. In some ways, it's the tops of the new Canadian offerings: It's got nice music, great photos, and quirky, if underwritten, pieces. Best of all, it's free.

Ultimately, the Canadian media market mirrors our junk food market: We've got our own periodicals and our native Coffee Crisps, but we can also pick up some M&M's along with our New Yorker. In this era of free trade and accessibility, perhaps it's time things swung the other way: How about a box of Smarties and a dozen copies of The Walrus at every American newsstand?

Sarah Lazarovic is a writer and animator living in Toronto. Her latest movies and writings can be seen at www.longliveirony.com, a portfolio named in a fit of exasperation after fellow Canadian Graydon Carter pronounced her favorite literary device dead.



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