canadian counter culture

dave lazzarino

“Canada doesn’t have a culture,” says the young man at the bar, interrupting a conversation on national identity. The irony is not lost on him as he opts to swig his suds and wipe his chin with his parka rather than explain himself.

He is not suggesting we are void of culture, but that we have as many cultures as we do communities across this giant country.

Canadian Geographic magazine uses this cultural dispersion to its advantage, covering stories on Senegalese musicians in Montreal to Muslim communities in Inuvik.

“We take culture to be a response to geography,” says Rick Boychuk, Canadian Geographic’s editor. “So if your geography is a dense urban neighbourhood in Toronto, you will get a distinct culture emerging from it.”

“The way people gather, the way they party, the way they look at the world springs directly from where they are, how isolated they are, how connected or disconnected they feel from the rest of Canada,” he says.

Canadian cultural and artistic ventures tend to share a common message. With so many flags on our backpacks in foreign countries we seem to scream, “I am NOT American!”

In fact, our natural reactions to U.S. consumer culture are becoming influential in alternative press circles south of the border.

“Over the last six months or so, we’ve been noticing great stuff coming out of independent magazines out of Canada,” says Leif Utne, associate editor of Utne magazine, a Minnesota-based publication that searches North American periodicals for groundbreaking ideas to reprint.

“Utne has been described as kind of a print portal to the alternative media that was sort of like a print web site long before the web existed,” Utne says.

“We’re professional sifters,” says Leif, referring to his magazine’s affinity for finding alternative needles in the haystack of mainstream media.

Utne looks for articles that examine alternative solutions to the common social problems Americans face.

In the Canadian magazine world, being “alternative” is increasingly difficult. The desire to be different has become a popular trend – a Catch-22 that has lead some in the industry to think counter-culture is nothing more than a myth. Hal Niedzviecky is one of these sceptics.

“Some people will think ‘well, I’m underground culture so I’ll slap a bunch of bad poems together and it’s underground.’ And there’s a mythology around underground,” says Niedzviecky, co-founder of Broken Pencil Magazine and author of the book Hello I’m Special: How individuality became the new conformity.

“There’s nothing really aesthetically that we can do that will be counter to the culture. Once upon a time you could, say, show two men kissing and that would be really radical. You can’t really do that any more because the so-called mainstream has pretty much incorporated anything that sells into its body of work.”

Niedzviecky says the only avenue left for cultural upheaval in this sense is the route of the starving artist. These days, not-for-profit is the only rebellion.

“You want to have a voice. You’re doing it not for profit but to put yourself out there to show, in a way, that you exist.”

This begs the question: where is the magazine industry heading? If there is no monetary carrot on the stick, what drives magazine producers to create anything that might be groundbreaking and new?

According to Niedzviecky, the future of magazines lies in creating publications as a vehicle for individuals’ ideas and not a catalyst for revenue.

Enter the zine – the independently produced specialty magazine. These include anything from pamphlets voicing the ideas of those owning publishing software, to a full-sized magazine on feminist thought. The latter was recently the brainchild of Anne Pryde, a Halifax visual artist.

“The purpose of the magazine was to have an open forum for women to say whatever they wanted to say,” says Pryde about her publication, playfully entitled foxberri . She says it was more of a seven-month hobby than a full-time job.

“I didn’t want it to be like a commercialized magazine so I just worked until I saved up enough money to print it. I did a little bit of fundraising as well, but not a lot. I think I raised $60 and that’s it,” says Pryde giggling. “I gave up and just worked. It’s easier.”

She says the project was a success and plans on doing another, this time attempting it even more cheaply.

“We’ll make kind of a guerrilla print and anyone who has access to photocopiers late at night will be photocopying things instead of going with a print shop. I think it could work.”

As far as content goes, Pryde is again planning on taking the road slightly less traveled. Her call for submissions says it all: “Do you have a vagina? Are you thinking of getting one?”

Photo illustration by David Lazzarino