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Canada’s magazine industry recently threw its biggest party of the year: the National Magazine Awards. The Canadian event differs from the American Ellies, with more categories and more nominees per category: this year’s awards were up for grabs among 326 nominees from 80 publications, spread across 43 categories. “Gold” and “silver” winners get awards, and the balance of the nominees receive honorable mentions. That spawns the occasional joke about how in Canadian magazines, everyone gets a medal for participation, but—go ahead, call me biased (I was a nominee/honorable mention in the “society” category, for “The Forgotten Internment”)—I like the way our format lets us celebrate many different sorts of work, not just the “biggest,” most ambitious features.
Here are a few of my favorites from among this year’s winners:
“High and Dry” (Stephanie Nolen, Report on Business Magazine)
The Globe and Mail’s Stephanie Nolen was one of my favorite reporter-writers years before I first heard the term #longreads. My college roommates and I used to pass around the paper’s “Focus” section whenever one of her long features appeared—back then, she was based in Johannesburg, and roaming around Africa in search of stories. (After a subsequent stint in India, she’s now the paper’s South America correspondent.) I can still conjure up scenes from her reporting on the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, ten years later, or on an AIDS clinic operating in the midst of the Congo’s lingering war.
One of her latest big stories won the gold award in the business category. (It was also nominated in three other categories: investigative reporting, politics and public interest, and science, technology and the environment.) “High and Dry” ran in the Globe’s Report on Business Magazine—imagine if Bloomberg Businessweek was delivered inside the New York Times once a month—in April 2014. It’s about the saga of Pascua-Lama, a rich gold-mine-to-be owned by Barrick Gold, a Canadian company and the world’s largest gold miner. Pascua-Lama is no ordinary mine: it sits among glaciers at 17,000 feet above sea level—the height of the highest camp on Denali, North America’s tallest mountain, from which climbers make a final dash for the summit. Barrick and the mine have faced years of opposition from locals, who’ve managed to bring the project to a standstill, and Nolen digs into the complicated cycle of unforced errors, suspicion, science and rumor that have doomed the project—at least for now.
“For Kids, By Kids – But Not For Long” (Nicholas Hune-Brown, Hazlitt)
I love stories that introduce me to worlds that I had no idea even existed: little (or large) subcultures hidden in plain sight. The gold award winner in the arts and entertainment category is one of those stories. Nicholas Hune-Brown contemplates the world of teenage YouTube stars—self-made celebrities with millions, even hundreds of millions, of fans:
In a poll conducted by Variety in August, the five most influential celebrities among Americans aged 13-18 were all YouTube stars. Ryan Higa, KSI, Smosh, Jenna Marbles, and other YouTubers with equally absurd names were all more popular than notable old person Leonardo DiCaprio. The highest-ranking movie star, Jennifer Lawrence, lagged well behind someone named PewDiePie, a Swedish 25-year-old who films himself cracking jokes while playing video games. His videos have been seen more than 6.5 billion times, making his the most viewed channel of all time—bigger than Beyoncé, bigger than Bieber.
The question, for Hune-Brown and the young stars he’s writing about, is what happens to them and their homegrown fame as they grow up. The resulting story is fascinating, and unexpectedly poignant.
“Water Upon the Earth” (Andrea Bennett, Maisonneuve)
Andrea Bennett visited southern Alberta’s dinosaur heartland—also, coincidentally, its creationist heartland—in the midst of June 2013’s massive (dare I say biblical?) flooding. The story she wrote about that trip, which won the gold award for essays, is part travelogue, part meditation on the intersection of religion and science. It’s a powerful combination:
Though the Royal Tyrrell’s mission is science, its proximity to Alberta’s Christian conservatives occasionally results in creationist interventions. A few days before my trip, I’d visited the home of the president of the Creation Science Association of BC and purchased a Creation Science-approved alternative tour guide for the Royal Tyrrell, written by Dr. Margaret J. Helder. I fished it out of my backpack, curious about whether or not Henderson had seen it.
He hadn’t. He held it briefly, shrugging as he flipped through the pages. “I think we should be glad, in our society, that people are free to print what they want,” Henderson said. “Let the masses decide who’s got the better story.” Royal Tyrrell’s docents occasionally find (and remove) similar Christian literature tucked into the nooks and crannies of the exhibits. Henderson’s reaction to the Big Valley Creation Science Museum paralleled that of the docents’ to the literature—minor nuisance, rather than big threat. “Some people are uncomfortable with the idea that the creatures of the Earth are a collection of self-replicating atoms,” Henderson said. “They would rather believe in something more profound.”
“The Captive” (Jason McBride, Toronto Life)
The gold award winner in the profile category is Jason McBride’s “The Captive,” a harrowing look at the 50-day imprisonment of Canadian filmmaker and activist John Greyson in Egypt’s Tora prison. It’s full of perfect details about life in the notorious facility, and it’s also unexpectedly funny. (“They kept saying, ‘You’re Hamas,’ ” Greyson remembers, “and I was tempted to say, ‘Yeah, that’s how desperate Hamas is these days, that they’re recruiting gay Canadian experimental filmmakers.’”)
“Home and Really Far Away” (Dan Robson, Sportsnet)
It wouldn’t be a Canadian reading list without at least one hockey story—and Dan Robson’s, the gold winner for sports writing and a finalist in the travel category, is a doozy. It follows the journey of the Whalers, a cobbled-together team of self-taught high school hockey players from Whale Cove, one of Nunavut’s far-flung, frozen villages, down to Ontario to play hockey in an urban world they’d never seen before. Here’s Robson:
The temperature is one thing, but hockey is also played differently in Whale Cove. It’s full-time shinny, a finesse game built on speed and goal scoring and remarkable goaltending. Here the local rink up the hill from the bay is the central hub of town. It was built in 1996 with natural ice that sets by late November. Once it was ready this past year, McFarlane watched his students drag their equipment up the hill to play together every day after school without coaches or parents telling them how. Self-taught and self-governed, they played until the buzzer went and the older kids took the ice—a perfect utopia of puck. In the kids’ love for the game, however, there was also an unfulfilled pride. McFarlane first saw it in the pen-pal letters he arranged for his class to send to his old students back at Geraldton Composite High in Greenstone, Ont., a small community itself, about four hours north of Thunder Bay. The students in the two schools—especially the boys—bonded over the timeless art of chirping each other about their hockey skills. The Whale Cove side made a declaration that “We would destroy you” and 10 days later a reply would come back: “Not a chance.” Empty words, of course, because Whale Cove faced a seemingly unsolvable dilemma: How do you know how good you are if you never get the chance to prove it?