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Shades of fading blue: Canadian conservatives' quest for a "National Review North" publication has mostly failed

By Mark Wegierski
web posted December 4, 2006

Much of the apparent fragility of conservatism in Canada arises from the lack of an intellectual infrastructure outside of various party structures -- and especially of a major, highly influential publication like the early National Review in the United States.

Conrad Black

One of the best-known quotations by Conrad Black concerns his promise (or threat) to try 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, it is truly doubtful if he ever created 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.       

In the 1980s, with a huge Progressive Conservative majority, there was some quickening of conservative intellectual life in Canada. The businessman William A. B. Campbell tried to launch a publication called International Conservative Insight. There was an attempt to launch a right-leaning newsmagazine in Ottawa called Seven Days. Dr. Branka Lapajne was bringing out a monthly newspaper called The Phoenix. There was a brief attempt to launch a right-leaning student newspaper at the University of Toronto. Launched with great fanfare, Peter Worthington's Influence magazine collapsed after about two years. 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.

Finally, there arose The Idler, a precocious journal of literary-artistic-cultural pretensions, with some sotto voce conservative philosophizing.

The major conservative publications at that time were the Alberta Report/B.C. Report/Western Report of the Byfield family.
The National Citizens' Coalition had a newsletter-type publication, and the Fraser Institute had Fraser Forum, which continually improved in physical quality. Then as now they were mostly focussed on economic issues.

In the early 1990s, The Idler finally folded when foundation funding was withdrawn.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 publication called Speaking Out, but it 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. 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. Young writer Michael Taube tried to launch a 'zine called From The Right, which lasted only three issues. The Canadian branch of the Catholic group, Tradition, Family, and Property (TFP), published a low-circulation magazine in the early 1990s. A major magazine open to contributions from across the spectrum was The Next City, which was supported by the Donner Foundation. Gravitas, also funded by Donner, was a brief, brave attempt at a conservative intellectual magazine of considerably greater social and political engagement than The Idler.
The Conrad Black revolution of the mid- to late-1990s, it could be argued, reconstructed the hitherto unspectacular Southam papers (and the former Financial Post) into a snazzier, as well as more intellectually diverse, format -- with some surprisingly sharp-edged conservatism that had virtually never before been seen in Canada. As Black's fortunes ebbed, the ideological sharpness of the papers markedly diminished, but the changes could not be entirely expunged. Black had also controversially taken over Saturday Night, which, however, at no time came to resemble a conservative magazine.           

The Byfield newsmagazines, practically a Canadian conservative institution, failed shortly after the beginning of the Twenty-First Century, but have now been largely replaced in their "niche" by The Western Standard.

Social conservatism in Canada is now represented mostly by The Interim: Canada's Life and Family Newspaper (and its website, lifesite.net )  and Catholic Insight (Toronto).
The arising of the Internet after 1995 did certainly open up some new forums for Canadian conservatives. The main edited e-zine is probably enterstageright.com , the main self-posting forum is freedominion.ca , and conservativeforum.org is an archive of interesting articles that is extremely rarely updated. And there are the party-based Blogging Tories. The impact of various political websites and numerous personal blogs is sometimes ephemeral and difficult to estimate. It still remains to be seen whether political discourse on the Internet can become a basis for generating enough financial resources and infrastructural "weight" in society to create major social, political, and cultural shifts.
In any case, Canadian conservatives are still looking for a "National Review North." Although The Western Standard is to some extent playing that role, it is restricted by its newsmagazine format -- which often tends to the superficial -- and its somewhat regional nature. The main concept behind an intellectually- and ideologically-focussing magazine is that it would be a nucleus around which other political institutions such as think-tanks and other publications could grow. It was clearly the early years of National Review which were the most important in creating the American conservative movement that eventually led to what some have called "the Right Nation." It remains to be seen whether Canada can ever begin to follow along a similar path. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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