Volume 47, Issue 2: March/April 2013

Reflections on CD through five decades

Going the Distance

What motivated me to start producing a magazine in the basement of my rented house in Winnipeg in the fall of 1963? I was 27 years old at the time, and knew nothing at all about how to run a business, let alone publish a magazine. I had no money, nor did I know anyone who did. Even worse, I barely knew anyone who might want to write for a magazine.

But it was precisely the last point that mainly motivated me. I had just returned home after spending the better part of a decade in the most intellectually alive city in North America. That was Berkeley, California, hotbed of American radicalism, the birthplace of the New Left on this side of the Atlantic. I had barely begun my political education and I desperately wanted to continue it. But for that you need to be part of a community of like-minded people. I prowled local bookstores, poked around libraries, attended some NDP meetings — and concluded that there was no Left intellectual community, at least none that I could discover. To be part of one, I had to help create it.

That’s how Canadian Dimension came to be. Readership grew from a hundred or so in the first year to a solid 3,000 by 1970. As owner and editor I stumbled along, learning on the go, getting some help here and there. Donations dribbled in; a marvelous art director came forward and gave Dimension its own unique look. Within a few years the magazine had begun to take shape around a few key issues that we sought to link together: American imperialism, Canadian independence, socialism, and self-determination for Québec. But Dimension’s ultimate validation came as young authors, a new generation of activist writers and public intellectuals, found a space in the magazine to exchange ideas about how to change the world, define their own thinking and in so doing redefine what Canada was becoming and what it could become. By 1970, young professors like Charles Taylor, George Grant, Gad Horowitz, G. David Sheps, Philip Resnick, John Warnock and Mel Watkins; graduate students like James Laxer, Stan Gray, Jim Harding; labour journalists like Ed Finn; and still others like middle-distance runner Bruce Kidd, Varda Burstyn, Stan Persky and Peter Usher had found in Canadian Dimension a space to share and debate their ideas. James Petras, who I had first met in grad school, sent articles to Dimension from day one, a practice he kept up long after he had become one of America’s notable radical writers. By then, too, CD had formed a collective and had long since moved out of my basement. In fact, it was when Al Finkel, who I had taken on as an assistant editor, began wearing gloves in my basement because it was so cold that we moved into our first office, a studio space we shared with Kelly Clark, CD’s designer and art director. About a decade ago, with the help of the internet, our editorial capacity expanded greatly, with a collective bringing together members from every part of the country.

In 1970, nearly 10 percent of CD subscribers were under 25 years of age and 36 percent were between 26 and 35. Another 25 percent were between the ages of 36 and 50, with 29 percent over 50. A survey ten years later, however, confirmed a troubling trend to which we had not paid sufficient attention. The average age of Dimension subscribers was rising. Nearly half were over 50; less than 20 percent were under 35. But it would be a few years before we started working on turning that tide.

1975 was the peak year for CD’s circulation. Hundreds of thousands of young Canadians, holding a powerful belief that a better world is possible, came into the movement for social change. Hungry for analysis and new ideas, they turned to Canadian Dimension as one of their sources. But soon the collapse of the anti-war movement, the New Left and the Waffle, and the defeat of the Allende experiment in Chile all took their toll on the movements — and just as quickly our readership dropped back to its core. By 1984 it sank below 4,000, dropping still and finally hitting bottom in the early 90s.

Canadian Dimension exists at the political margins of this country. It was never intended as a mass-circulation magazine. When people are in motion, however, the margin stretches and magazines like Dimension thrive. When, on the other hand, they are discouraged, quiescent and immobilized, the magazine suffers too. That is our political cycle. So, we picked up with the anti-globalization movement and fell back again after 9/11 and the criminalization of dissent. Predictably, our optimism and our creative juices have surged these past few years with Occupy, the Maple Spring and Idle No More — and we expect that our readership will follow.

One distinguishing feature of Canadian Dimension is that we’ve never been afraid to criticize ourselves or our friends. We’ve exposed union-bashing at Greenpeace, the Catholic Church’s complicity with anti-abortion terrorism, environmental organizations taking money from some of our biggest polluters. And we’ve debated racism on the Left, opposed sexism in the labour movement and criticized the NDP’s drift toward neoliberalism. And that’s just for starters. At one time or another, Dimension has managed to piss off just about every participant in civil society. Being independent has allowed us to take our shots and give space to activists to take theirs. At times we’ve paid a steep price for this independence. We’ve been boycotted, lost our charity number, sued and threatened with suits.

Through all the ups and downs, my commitment to radical politics and to this project of Canadian Dimension has rarely wavered. CD has been for me an unfailing vehicle for meeting exciting thinkers, exploring new ideas, confronting current developments, and developing the skills and the grit to survive in a tough industry on a tiny budget.

Capitalism is crisis-prone, driving a relentless assault on nature and humankind. There has to be a better way, call it what you may, to organize ourselves and live together. Magazines like Canadian Dimension are essential in charting that course.

Cy Gonick is the founding editor of Canadian Dimension.

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