When I finished my PhD, I had absolutely no prospects of finding employment in academia, because everything I was turned out to be an obstacle: a French Canadian male specializing in Canadian political history — at the very bottom on anyone’s hiring list. So when I was offered a decent job in government, I seized it.
I joined the Ministry of Intergovernmental Affairs as a policy adviser not long after the Meech Lake Accord. And even as I was learning innumerable lessons about the policy process, the nature of bureaucratic leadership, and tricks of statecraft, I was grumpy. Here I was writing memoranda, responding to correspondence, scanning articles for tidbits of intelligence on above-the-fold topics such as constitutional change, free trade, and the emerging issues of environmental protection, and I saw nothing of the richness of these many debates in Canadian newspapers and magazines.
I was and still am a voracious reader of periodicals. I swallowed The Guardian Weekly, The New Yorker, The New Republic, Mother Jones, The Atlantic, and Harper’s, as well as Time and Maclean’s. But my favourite drop in the mailbox was always The New York Review of Books. I loved its crackling erudition, the quality of the language, its ability to telescope ideas, and the sheer range of what was on tap. And it was full of that wondrous Anglo American invention: the book review. But where were the reviews of Canadian books? Nowhere.
Even then, the Toronto newspapers were, frankly, pathetic; their book sections were laughably short and all but ignored Canadian works. The magazines were hardly better. Books in Canada, fattened by government grants, was utterly inadequate, as it consistently hired amateurs to pronounce judgment in areas where they had no expertise or credibility.
I had no experience in publishing and no connections, but I did have new technology. I enrolled in a night course in desktop publishing and learned how to mock up a twenty-page paper on the tiny screen of a Macintosh (which I still have somewhere). And while flying over the Rockies to a meeting of environment ministers in Vancouver, I decided to borrow the title of a British quarterly.
In spring 1990, I bit the bullet: I found a job outside government that had reliably stable hours (my wife and I had two small children, and a third was on the way), so I could work late into the night. I started writing to publishers about advertising and to prospective contributors. The goal was very much like the NYRB of Silvers and Epstein: long essays on history, politics, biography, international affairs, and the arts. Despite the name, we’d ignore fiction. Amazingly, I managed to convince Carolyn Wood of the University of Toronto Press to buy a full-page ad (without her, none of this would have happened). Copp Clark also took a chance on an unknown and bought a half page.
The first issue came out in November 1991 and featured my sister Odette’s drawings, as well as some visible lines where my Scotch-taped columns had left shadows. The table of contents listed pieces from Patrick Kyba, on James Gray’s biography of young R. B. Bennett; Desmond Morton, on Jocelyn Coulon’s En première ligne; W. J. Keith, on Royce MacGillivray and rural myths in Ontario; Ronald Rudin on Jean Daigle’s book about Acadian caisses populaires; and Michael Behiels on Patrick Monahan’s insider account of Meech Lake. And I contributed an essay on André Laurendeau, headed “The Unbearable Lightness of Canada,” a phrase that Richard Gwyn later borrowed. The issue wasn’t pretty, but it had the feel of artisanry, and, most important, the content was really good.
I spent $5,000 of my own money to publish way too many copies (most of that money went to a mailing list that proved useless). With kids in tow, I dropped off samples at key departments at York University and the University of Toronto and left complimentary stacks at numerous second-hand bookshops. Within days, I received a cheque from Michael Bliss. (I didn’t meet him until 2015, and he was delighted when I told him he was subscriber number 1.) I also received an order from the New York Public Library, which maybe recognized something with potential. A magazine was thus born.