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Editorials and Rejoinders

 
 

Canada’s earnest journal of opinion

by John Richards

We call it “the Canadian journal of opinion.” Given that few Canadians have ever seen Inroads, let alone read it, this is presumptuous. More honestly, we should call it “Canada’s earnest journal of opinion.” Inroads writers don’t display much humour or insouciant wit. Nor do they have titillating political gossip to pass along. Sometimes they use irony, particularly in the listserv exchanges. What they are really good at is generating earnest opinions. For example:

•   Non-francophone Canadians should respect the Quebec National Assembly’s efforts (i.e., Bill 101) to preserve French as the lingua franca of Montreal. This is something that many of us have argued in the pages of Inroads. The list includes Charles Castonguay, Jean-François Lisée and me. Chronologically, the first to write about this in the pages of Inroads was Stéphane Dion, back in 1995.

•   Many in the Department of Indian Affairs and most Aboriginal leaders are keen on expanding taxpayer-funded “first nation” governments. They are not nearly as keen on evaluating how well those governments are actually performing. Alan Cairns, Gordon Gibson, Tom Flanagan, Jean Allard and others have all said as much in our pages.

•   Far from retreating and accepting more private health care, Ottawa should launch a national pharmacare program. See Greg Marchildon on this subject.

•   Members of a radical Mormon sect in eastern British Columbia claim “sister wives” as a religiously inspired Charter-protected right. Hypocrisy, argues Daphne Bramham. They’re getting away with bigamy and child abuse because lawyers in the provincial and federal justice departments have let respect for the Charter destroy their common sense.

•   Canadians should adopt a proportional representation electoral system. Read Henry Milner and Gordon Gibson. Or maybe they should stick to first-past-the-post. Read Finn Poschmann and Doug McArthur.

•   McArthur, along with Marc-André Boivin and Hakan Tunç, wants Canada to engage actively in the military defence of Afghanistan against the Taliban. Ernie Regehr is not convinced. In a parallel feature on Nepal, Dominic Cardy worries about that country’s “Kerensky interlude.”

In sum, no one picks up Inroads for a light read.

Has all this effort by writers and editors – and by readers – been worth it? Perhaps it has. Sometimes, some people have paid attention. Two contributions that have generated public attention and that, without Inroads, would probably never have been published come to mind. The first is the epistolary exchange between Claude Ryan and André Burelle (2000). Ryan had written a critique of the federal-provincial social policy agreement in the previous issue (1999), and Le Devoir had published an excerpt. Burelle replied in Le Devoir and the two then undertook a lengthy exchange of private letters. Ryan sent copies to me. Here was as lucid a discussion of the dilemmas facing the Canadian federation as anything in the academic literature. Having read it, I prevailed on them to allow publication. (Greg Marchildon wrote an afterword, defending the social union agreement that had triggered the exchange.)

The second case is Jean Allard’s “Big Bear’s Treaty” (2002). Allard is a retired Manitoba MLA, a Métis lawyer who served in Ed Schreyer’s first government in the early 1970s. For several years prior to its publication in Inroads, his critique of federal Aboriginal policy had circulated in samizdat. When a copy came my way, we decided to edit and publish a major excerpt. “Big Bear’s Treaty” has since been cited many times, most recently in an Institute for Research on Public Policy survey of major Aboriginal policy studies.

IRPP’s journal Policy Options is probably Inroads’ closest counterpart in the small universe of Canadian policy journals. Over the years, the IRPP has reprinted several Inroads articles, in Policy Options and elsewhere. A few other Inroads articles are leading a second life as chapters in someone’s book. Much of the 1998 issue was reincarnated as a book on electoral reform, edited by Henry Milner. Despite my having criticized the Canadian International Development Agency in Inroads and elsewhere, CIDA featured recent Inroads articles on Afghanistan and Nepal on its “think tank watch.” Some journalists – I think gratefully of Barbara Yaffe at the Vancouver Sun – regularly comment on what they like and don’t like in Inroads. Bronwyn Drainie, editor of the Literary Review of Canada, volunteered that the last issue (Winter/Spring 2007) “is very good. I’ve read it almost cover to cover.” This praise may need discounting. The context was her asking me to write for her journal.

Claude Ryan, whose death deprived Quebec and Canada of an important voice, was another person who thought Inroads mattered – and his interest mattered to us. He became a regular contributor in the last years of his life, and he took it upon himself to review each issue. A month following publication, we would receive a letter setting out in detail his evaluation of individual articles.

So the case can be made: sometimes, some people have paid attention. But back to the question: has the effort been worth it? Do the benefits exceed the costs? Inroads is neither Prospect, the well-edited, well-written British monthly policy magazine, nor the New York Review of Books, an even more ambitious publication of opinions and long book review essays. Relative to either, Inroads is a runt. Why so? I leave to you as reader to tick off our failings as journal editors – inadequate editing of drafts, allowing turgid authors to get into print, choosing parochial subjects, and so on.

I don’t minimize this set of problems. I wince at some of the mediocre prose we have inflicted on readers, particularly in early issues. But not all the blame can be placed on editorial failings. Geographically large, Canada is a small country when it comes to the number of public intellectuals willing to write for a general audience. And in addition to being small in number, Canadian pundits are not as engaged in the world’s policy crises as are their equivalents in the pages of Prospect or NYRB. London and New York are centres of imperial power, past or present; Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver are not. As Conrad Black never tires of telling us, Canada is a peaceful, somewhat parochial place. Before our more or less accidental military engagement in Afghanistan – Jean Chrétien’s tactic for avoiding engagement in Iraq – the great majority of Canadians knew nothing about the tragic history of the region and, truth be told, most have no desire to learn.

Yet another set of problems bedevils even the best policy magazines or journals: the risk of falling between stools. Newspaper editors occupy the first stool. Inroads articles usually deal with topical events, but our articles can never compete in terms of immediacy with a good newspaper “op-ed.” We compensate by giving authors more time for reflection and by allowing them 5,000 words rather than 800 to develop their ideas. (En passant, I note that newspapers typically pay for their 800 words, whereas we have no budget for authors.)

Editors of peer-reviewed journals occupy the second stool. Having time and space to reflect is all very well, say those astride this stool, but to indulge in writing for journals like Inroads is to avoid the rigour of peer review. In defence of informal writing for a general public, such writing often advances understanding of complex policy problems. The failing of academic peer-reviewed journals is to be beholden to the ways of thinking within a particular discipline and to ignore the insights of those writing from without. No academic editor deigned to work with Allard on his manuscript.

If newspaper editors are on the first and academics on the second stool, literate ideologues sit on the third. Ideologues know how the world works, are not troubled by deep uncertainties, and produce journals that advance their respective worldviews. We at Inroads consciously fell off this stool by seeking editors and writers who rather obviously disagree with each other. At our best, we thereby achieve “inroads” into ideological solitudes. The downside is not to enjoy the sustaining enthusiasm of fellow ideologues.

And then there is the Internet.

Kevin, Chad and Chris run Magpie, a magazine store here in Vancouver, on the Drive. Magpie is nearly as earnest in its way as is Inroads, and the Internet is destroying their business. As recently as three or four years ago, a steady stream of customers bought large numbers of newspapers, magazines and journals. Most of these publications can now be read online.

Inroads faces a similar problem. The market test for relevance of policy writing is increasingly online. Thanks to volunteer effort, Inroads has a rough-and-ready website, on which we make available most past articles. The site generates a respectable number of hits. In a five-week period in early 2007, for example, more than 2,600 articles were downloaded. The top four were the Afghanistan/Nepal articles (1,200 downloads from the newly released Winter/Spring 2007 issue); the Alan Cairns–Tom Flanagan exchange on Aboriginal policy (more than 500 downloads); the articles on shari‘a courts (140 downloads); and the interviews with Allan Blakeney and Patrick Monahan over the controversial Chaoulli Supreme Court case (also 140).

To survive for another 20 issues – something I would not bet on – we must accept that few people will be buying “hard copies.” Are our readers prepared to pay for their downloaded reading? We can redesign the website to “make ’em pay.” If people then continue to download at the same rate, that would be heartening. But would they?

So, has all this effort been worth it? Perhaps it has, perhaps not.

 

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About the Author

John Richards
John Richards is co-publisher of Inroads and an economist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.




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