Snapshot of Canada: An Accidental Reading List

An incomplete portrait of a nation emerges from a stash of old print magazines.

Cleaning our basement recently, I found a box of old Canadian magazines. The covers were crisp, the bindings intact. Published between 2011 and 2013, I’d gathered these issues of The Walrus and Maisonneuve as research for an abandoned book project. Curious about what was inside, I sat down with them and a pot of very British black tea — the kind The Empress Hotel serves with tiny sandwiches in Victoria, British Columbia.

People call The Walrus the Canadian New Yorker. Maisonneuve was named Magazine of the Year in 2005, 2012, and 2016. Between their striking glossy covers I found the stylish, substantial writing these magazines are still known for, and stories both evergreen and of their time: stories about food, sex, drugs, immigration, politics, Indigenous rights, art, and the environment.

Thumbing through old magazines can be fun. Dated advertisements reveal bizarre worldviews and outdated thinking, like the doctors who famously preferred Camel cigarettes, and a mid-century ad I found featuring two poodles smoking the Old Gold brand. Those were the days. Back issues also capture a country’s struggles, its psyche, mythology, and national narratives, and these Canadian issues returned me to a particular time in my own life.

Years ago, I pitched an idea for a book called Canphilia to a literary agent. Philia is a suffix denoting love or an affection for something, and I loved Canada. The title was too scientific for a first-person narrative travelogue in search of the Canadian national identity, but I was younger then, and that was the best I could come up with.

Covering 3,854,085 square miles, Canada is the second-largest country in the world. Canada and the United States share the world’s longest international border, yet few Americans can name half of the 10 provinces let alone name beloved Canadian icons or defining cultural characteristics. “To outsiders,” my proposal said, “Canada seems like the perfect country: scenic, peaceful, friendly, progressive. Its national parks are the envy of the developed world. The country has one of the highest standards of living on earth, a functioning public health system, and it’s the only G8 country with balanced books. Canada legalized same-sex marriage in 2005, outlawed the death penalty, and operates North America’s only federally authorized drug injection site. Naturally, when people talk about it, most utter some variation of, Ah, I love Canada. But beyond vague notions of Britishness, hockey, and maple syrup production, what do we really know about it?” One thing I knew was that living next to one of the most loud-mouthed, aggressive, arrogant countries in history could make any neighboring country appear quiet, peaceful, and humble. Or maybe their voice was drowned out by all of our patriotic, idiotic, saber-rattling nonsense.

The vast majority of Canada’s 38 million inhabitants lived in larger urban centers within 125 miles of the US border, so I planned to drive, hike, and ferry across the entire country, from west to east, sticking to the border, to investigate. “More importantly,” my proposal said, “do we even know what makes a Canadian a Canadian? What they stand for? How they think and act? And what do they think of us, anyway?”

I was ambitious and slightly bananas, and I wanted to do for Canada what Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones did for China, and Ian Frazier’s The Great Plains did for the American Midwest: write a vivid, nuanced, humorous portrait of a people and their homeland, that would appeal to a general readership and enlighten myself as much as my fellow Americans. In addition to Canada’s national character, I would interrogate my own interest, search for the reasons so many of us disgruntled Americans fall under the country’s spell. Obviously Canada wasn’t perfect, with its clear-cut logging and historically egregious treatment of Indigenous people. I wanted to examine Canada’s contradictions, and debunk popular stereotypes. I wasn’t interested so much in defining “constitutional monarchy” or “parliamentary democracy” for American readers, or helping them reconcile Canada’s independence with its connection to the Queen. I was interested in profiling the personality of the Canadian people and their culture while trying to figure out why I longed to live somewhere I knew so little about.

The agent loved the idea, but we never shopped it to publishers. I couldn’t afford to take enough of the trip to write any sample chapters, and supposedly, Americans don’t care enough about Canada to read books about it. I filed “the Canada book” away in the back of my mind as I developed other niche book ideas that never sold, because that’s the kind of writer I am. As I moved around, my Canada books and back issues came with me.

After reading these issues, I thought it’d be fun to assemble some of their stories, which reveal new sides of Canada to outsiders like me (and maybe you). This is not meant as a definitive Canada reading list. It’s a sample of what I pulled from one stack of issues from 2011 — 2013. That makes this collection more of a tiny time capsule, an incomplete portrait of a particular place in time. Actual Canadians can gather more wide-ranging, complete lists that capture the totality of Canada, its breadth and depth. These older stories also provide an interesting baseline to compare Canada now with Canada then. After reading them, I wondered: Has Canadian secondary education improved? Is Kraft mac ’n cheese still Canada’s national dish? What happened to that hyped comedy troupe Picnicface? Here they are in chronological order, with their subheads included as description. None of these stories feature hockey or The Tragically Hip, but one is about Labatt beer. Part of Canada’s identity involves outsiders’ reliance on cliché. Enjoy, eh?

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Going Viral” (Maisonneuve, Kaitlin Fontana, Summer 2011)

“This fall, the sketch comedy group and online-video machine Picnicface will simultaneously launch a feature-length movie, a TV show, and a book. Can eight nerds from Halifax resuscitate Canada’s ailing comedy scene?”

In Halifax, far from the showbiz machine, Picnicface has been free to both develop a unique voice in front of a warm audience, and to cultivate a show without fear of high-profile failure. McKinney likes that the group is from Halifax—it reminds him of his early days in Calgary, before he moved to Toronto. “If they’d been born in LA, they’d have all been poached before they could create this voice that develops between like-minded people, this ecosystem that happens in smaller places,” he says. Halifax, for Picnicface, is an incubator. Little goes further: “We’ve done some garbage here, but I’m really happy we did, because it helped mold us.”

Canada’s Most Unwanted” (The Walrus, Jasmine Budak, December 2011)

“Domestic adoption is rarely the first choice for prospective parents. But with rising infertility rates and the availability of foreign infants declining, some 30,000 children in government care have a better shot at finding a family.”

Canadians have long adopted from abroad, but largely for humanitarian reasons, in spurts and small numbers: orphans of the Irish famine, World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars; and, later, in the mid-’70s, from orphanages in Cambodia, Bangladesh, India, and Latin America, through Ottawa’s newly established national Adoption Desk. But over the next two decades, as adoption became normalized and the supply of domestic infants began to wane, inter-country adoption became less about finding parents for destitute babies and more about finding babies for hopeful parents. It was no longer motivated by goodwill, but rather became a transaction in the business of fulfilling the developed world’s growing demand for infants.

Visions of the Future” (Maisonneuve, Chandler Levack, Summer 2012)

“A twenty-four-year-old singer named Grimes is the world’s hottest independent pop star, and her fame has cast Montreal into the spotlight yet again.”

Grimes’ success and the exposure she’s brought her Arbutus label-mates—Sean Nicholas Savage, TOPS and TONSTARTSSBANDHT, among others—have made Montreal a high-profile indie-rock hotspot once again, reminiscent of the time, several years ago, when Arcade Fire attracted the world’s attention to the city. Although Montreal has plenty of other worthy independent labels, like Secret City and Alien8, the rise of Grimes has made Arbutus a litmus test for the promise of the city’s young musicians. Today’s tastemakers are fickle, and too much hype can cause a community to cannibalize itself—especially one as small and tight-knit as Montreal’s music scene. As Morrissey once said, “We hate it when our friends become successful.”

Calgary Reconsidered” (The Walrus, Chris Turner, June 2012)

“Six truths about the city that’s no longer, simply, Cowtown.”

Even if you love the city deep down, you sometimes feel as if you’re merely putting up with it, waiting for it to grow all the way up and become what it pretends to be. Calgary is an overnight millionaire fresh from the sale of a gas exploration company, complaining about the greed of all those farmers who jacked up the lease rates. Calgary is the home riding of the prime minister abutting the home riding of the premier, and still insisting that it doesn’t get a fair shake in Ottawa or Edmonton. Calgary is the highest per capita income in Canada in a province with no sales tax, indignant that its property taxes are going up. Its conservatism sometimes scans as a youngster’s I-got-mine insolence. Its emerging power and prominence come across from some angles as pure teenage bluster.

The Hunter Artist” (The Walrus, Sarah Milroy, July/August 2012)

“In Cape Dorset, Nunavut, a new generation is redefining Inuit art, preserving northern traditions as it adapts to southern ways of life. One of these artists is Tim Pitsiulak.”

Whites imagine Inuit, and Inuit imagine whites; Inuit art is where their fantasies meet, but the interface is changing. Kinngait continues to release its annual portfolio of about forty prints, as it has for more than fifty years. Despite stars like Kenojuak, prices for the prints have remained fairly consistent and modest, in the $500 to $2,500 range. But one-of-a-kind drawings are gaining a following and, as with the prints, the prices are regulated by Dorset Fine Arts, the co-op’s Toronto distributor, which sends the art to dealers across Canada and around the world, who then charge what the market will bear. Pitsiulak’s largest and best drawings can now sell for as much as $12,500, making him one of the most successful artists in the North. His aunt Kenojuak’s best works sell for around $16,000. Shuvinai Ashoona’s prices are close behind Pitsiulak’s and rising fast. This phenomenon of individual artists’ commanding widely differing levels of remuneration could someday lead to a break with the old co-op way of doing things, in which the revenue from higher-priced artists supports the costs of maintaining the studio and distribution, helping to fund the production of those artists who are less likely to sell. Inuit artists in Cape Dorset may hesitate to abandon a system that has afforded them predictable prices for pieces on completion (as well as studio space and material costs), irrespective of the vagaries of the southern art market.

Manufacturing Taste” (The Walrus, Sasha Chapman, September 2012)

“The (un)natural history of Kraft Dinner — a dish that has shaped not only what we eat, but also who we are.”

The point is, it’s nearly impossible to live in Canada without forming an opinion about one of the world’s first and most successful convenience foods. In 1997, sixty years after the first box promised “dinner in seven minutes — no baking required,” we celebrated by making Kraft Dinner the top-selling grocery item in the country.

This makes KD, not poutine, our de facto national dish. We eat 3.2 boxes each in an average year, about 55 percent more than Americans do. We are also the only people to refer to Kraft Dinner as a generic for instant mac and cheese. The Barenaked Ladies sang wistfully about eating the stuff: “If I had a million dollars / we wouldn’t have to eat Kraft Dinner / But we would eat Kraft Dinner / Of course we would, we’d just eat more.” In response, fans threw boxes of KD at the band members as they performed. This was an act of veneration.

John Cage’s Canada” (Maisonneuve, Crystal Chan, Fall 2012)

“The twentieth century’s most important avant-garde composer may have been American, Crystal Chan writes, but he found his greatest inspiration north of the border.”

On a Thursday night in August 1961, Cage took the podium at Montreal’s Théâtre de la Comédie-Canadienne and moved his arms in a circle, imitating the hands of a clock. In response, eighteen musicians began to play. The piece, called Atlas Eclipticalis, was Cage’s first Canadian premiere, and he had written it by matching notes to star positions in an astronomical atlas. At the time, the whole world had its eyes on the stars; earlier that spring, a Soviet cosmonaut had beaten the Americans to space. Composing music with the help of astronomy was still an eccentric method, though, and one that marked an important shift in Cage’s career. After Atlas Eclipticalis, Cage moved away from writing music with notes, rests and other conventional symbols. Instead, he went on to create graphic scores—essentially, drawn music—and write textual instructions. He started to see himself as a creator of experiences through sound, rather than a composer of music.

The Place Where Art Sleeps” (Maisonneuve, Chris Hampton, Fall 2012)

“The vast majority of the art gallery of Ontario’s priceless collection isn’t on display — it’s tucked away in high-security, top-secret vaults.”

Of the AGO’s eighty-five-thousand-piece permanent collection, only about 3,900 works are on display right now. At any given time, 95 percent of the collection is in storage. Paintings, sculptures and installations account for roughly eleven thousand pieces in the vaults, while photography and works on paper make up the other seventy thousand. This isn’t unique to the AGO. Art institutions are a bit like icebergs; the public sees less than a tenth of their holdings. But that may finally be changing. While security and conservation remain top priorities, galleries are beginning to experiment with new ways for the public to engage with their broader collections. Visitors increasingly want to see everything—including what’s behind the scenes.

Doppel Gang: Why Canada Needs Quebec” (The Walrus, Mark Kingwell, January/February 2013)

“Why Canada needs Quebec.”

Yes, there it is. Quebec is Canada’s familiar-strange double, a return of the repressed, so like the rest of the country and yet so minutely, eerily different. Are they plotting something large and secretive, some kind of surprise secession? Probably not. No, they probably just want things to go on like this more or less forever, teetering between passive entitlement and passionate outrage, sketching a glorious future free of any reality principle.

Unmasked” (Maisonneuve, Andrea Bennet, March, 2013)

“Before the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto, police infiltrated activist communities as part of a massive, costly campaign that resulted in high-profile arrests and prosecutors. Who were these undercovers, and how did they avoid scrutiny?”

Guelph was also home, in the lead-up to the G20 summit, to a branch of one of the largest undercover police operations in Canadian history. The $676 million security bill for the G20 summit and its G8 counterpart—which was held on June 25 and 26 in Huntsville, Ontario—included funding for an eighteen-month-long infiltration of activist communities, from January 2009 through June 2010. The Joint Intelligence Group, a well-staffed network of OPP and RCMP officers based in Barrie, Ontario, carried out this investigation. According to the JIG Operational Plan, the effort included twelve “trained covered  investigators,” as well as commanders, managers, and technical and office support. Over the course of those eighteen months, JIG made $8 million worth of capital purchases and had a $297 million operational budget. It set up commander offices, a project room, workstations—and, during the G20 summit itself, an operational “War Room.”

Fight of the Bumblebee” (The Walrus, Sasha Chapman, March 2013)

“Honeybee colonies are collapsing around the world, putting food production in danger. We may need Canada’s indigenous pollinators to save the day.”

South of Detroit and Windsor, sandwiched between Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair, the flat lines of Essex County farmland carve the southern tip of Ontario into tidy rectangular parcels of fertile, well-drained soil. When you approach Leamington from Highway 401, it is difficult to imagine this area as the nearly impenetrable forest it once was, or that the fires lit by would-be farmers to clear the land once burned so brightly they could be seen 500 kilometres west in Chicago. Today the aerial view looks more like a semi-industrial park, because the area is dominated by gunmetal grey–framed greenhouses. With some 355 hectares under greenhouse vegetable production, more than anywhere else in North America, the region’s output is larger than the entire industry in the US, and growing much faster than other types of agriculture.

First Do No Harm” (Maisonneuve, Ann Silversides, April 2013)

“Are doctors and drug companies to blame for the opioid-abuse crisis? After two shocking deaths in small-town Ontario, Ann Silversides reports from one of the largest coroner’s inquests in Canadian history.“

Under the Influence” (The Walrus, Matthew J. Bellamy, June 2013)

“Beer is to Canada as wine is to France. How Labatt and its allies brewed up a nation of beer drinkers.”

Before the Black Christmas of 1936, Mackenzie approached J. Walter Thompson Co., a major global advertising agency. Mark Napier of the Toronto office had an uncanny feel for the cultural logic of the age, and wanted to portray brewers like Labatt as instrumental, not detrimental, to the nation’s development. In a series of advertisements published in the national monthly Canadian Homes and Gardens, he highlighted Labatt’s long, influential past. “It really all began 70 years ago,” read the text of one ad in 1937, under the tag line “Then As Now.” In others, he linked the company’s evolution to watershed moments in our history, such as Confederation and the Boer War, when “soldiers knew good ale.” As Canadians searched for uniquely Canadian ideas, events, experiences, and commodities—the makings of a national identity—Napier served up Labatt’s product as an age-old piece of Canadiana.

The Marineland Dreamland” (The Walrus, Craig Davidson, July/August 2013

“Deconstructing memories of a scandal-ridden theme park.”

I worked at Marineland for eight summers. Brendan Kelly, six years. Phil Demers, twelve. It paid our rent and put beer in our fridges. Best summers of my life. To a man, we spoke those words.

It makes you wonder. What if, rather than fabrication, “The Tale of the Frozen Sea Lion” was an act of erasure? My unconscious mind embarking on a sly mission of disburdenment, of purposeful forgetting? If I forget enough, if my own story fills with holes, I can tell myself it’s a lie. And that’s easier, overall. Easier than holding on to the knowledge for twenty-plus years, doing nothing meaningful about it. Easier than remembering how I laughed as my supervisor kicked a dead sea lion.