When William Nicholls decided to launch a magazine in 1993, he knew he was in for a challenge. With little capital and no prospects of government funding, the Mistissini Cree had to borrow computers, clean offices to cover the rent on his own, and go eight months without a salary.

But his perseverance paid off. Today, the Montreal-based Nicholls is executive editor of The Nation, a lively biweekly newsmagazine focussing on aboriginal issues, with a staff of 12 and a circulation of 6,000. “Money’s a bit tight,” says Nicholls says, “but we’re ahead of all our business plans and have recently expanded into another office.”

For native people, Nicholl’ success is heartening; keeping any kind of magazine afloat is tough at the best of times, but in recent years, aboriginal publishing has suffered particularly severe setbacks. Most notable was the axing of the $3.45-million Native Communications Program from the 1990 federal budget, which meant that 11 native newspapers and two magazines lost all their funding. It proved a lethal blow for several respected publications, including Micmac News and The Saskatchewan Indian.

Yet despite funding cuts and a weakened economy, native publications are making a comeback. Along with The Nation, several other native magazines and newspapers have been launched in the last two years, including Aboriginal Voices of Toronto, Eastern Door based in Kahnawake, Que., Tawow in Ottawa, and Neechee Culture in Winnipeg. And, if it can overcome its early funding and logistical problems, Native Life, the most ambitious project of all – a glossy, national magazine aimed at mainstream Canadians – will reach newsstands this fall.

What accounts for this mini-boom in aboriginal publishing? For one thing, high-profile and controversial issues such as native land claims and self-government, along with what has become an exciting cultural renaissance of native artists, writers, and musicians, are fuelling a growing hunger for news from the aboriginal world. As well, with native journalism programs offered throughout the country, more young native people are gaining the skills needed to enter publishing, and are choosing to do so in and for their communities.

Most significant of all, from a monetary point of view, is the fact that advertisers, noting the trend, are willing to put their dollars into aboriginal publications, in return for exposure to an audience of young, educated natives and increasingly, non-natives who have an interest in aboriginal issues and healthy disposable incomes. And we’re not talking bait shops and fly-in-hunting lodges. Flip through the pages of today’s aboriginal publications and find ads sponsored by Ford, Amoco Petroleum, The Royal Bank, CIBC, large pharmacies, insurance companies, and hotels.

While editorial skill and a thriving circulation base are crucial to the health of a magazine, it is this shift in advertisers’ perceptions that is allowing the new aboriginal publications a shot at success in a difficult and competitive publishing climate. Neechee Culture – which started up in late 1993 and currently reaches 6,000 readers eager to learn more about aboriginal musicians, visual artists, and culture in general -depends primarily on advertising from businesses such as car dealerships and small airlines. Eastern Door, now in its third year of publication and up to 2,600 in circulation, relies on local enterprises for most of its income.

Indeed, publishing without the aid of government funds is a source of pride for many of the new publications. “We are officially an independent publication produced solely from funds generated from subscriptions and advertising…without any government funds,” boasted native actor Gary Farmer in the second issue of Aboriginal Voices, the 10,000-circulation entertainment quarterly, of which he is publisher. Like Farmer, Neechee Culture’s publisher, Richard Grouette, and Ken Deet, publisher and editor of Eastern Door, are confident that they can make a go of their enterprises even in the absence of funding, and are optimistic about future prospects, based on the enthusiastic response from both readers and advertisers.

In the wake of the funding cuts, “we’re not out to kick government officials in the ass,” says Grouett, who sees his magazine’s mandate as educational rather than political. Still, Grouette admits that government help could have strengthened his magazine’s market position by giving it the financial means to expand quickly to a larger circulation base. “We didn’t bother to apply for grants, but the money would have made things much easier,” he says.

It was a small grant from the Grand Council of Cress that made things easier for The Nation to get up and running. And although the Native Communications Program is a thing of the past, opportunities to receive federal government funding have not completely dried up for aboriginal publications. The creators of Tawow (the name is the Cree word for “welcome”) successfully sought assistance from the Aboriginal Business Development Program, a government agency that helps native entrepreneurs start businesses with loans, grants, and access to experienced business consultants. The magazine was launched a year ago and appears once a year in four languages. I runs to 180 pages per issue, with stories and tourist information on cultural events in the Cree, Inuit, West Coast and Plains Indian communities across Canada. It’s aimed at the international tourist market and distributed throughout England, France, and Germany, where native North American culture is extremely popular. With two-thirds of its revenue coming from government loans and grants (the remaining third from advertising), Tawow occupies a unique position within the current aboriginal publishing scene.

For the publishers of Native Life, who were turned down by the same program that backed Tawow, the free-market economics of launching a national magazine have proven frustrating. The decision not to fund Native Life has hindered the development of what many see to be the most ambitious and exciting publishing enterprise ever undertaken in Canada.

The idea for Native Life was conceived back in 1992, by Wanda Big Canoe, a well-known and respected Ojibway elder based in Jackson’s Point, Ont,. along with John Moir, the non-native publisher of two medically related trade publications. Together, they wanted to create a sophisticated, entertaining, native-culture magazine that would be read by both native and non-native Canadians, and that would have the same high-quality production values and general appeal as Saturday Night or Cottage Life.

Over the last three years, the two have spent $80,000 of their own money on a series of detailed business plans and an impressive mock-up of the proposed magazine designed by Jim Ireland, one of the country’s top magazine art directors. The proposed contents include everything from profiles of native performing artists to regular columns on traditional native cuisine and medicine, written by leading freelancers. There’s also a plan for a mail-order catalogue call Dream Catcher, which would appear as an eight-page insert in Native Life selling authentic arts and crafts. Aiming optimistically (some might say naively) for a circulation of 90,000 (with 10,000 of that in newsstand sales), Big Canoe and Moir plan to hire Ireland as art director, Richard Own, a former Maclean Hunter publisher as advertising manager, and Dennis Martel, a well-known communications consultant in the native community (he is non-native), as the magazine’s editor.

When their planning and goals failed to convince the Aboriginal Business Development Program that their enterprise was worth funding, the partners turned to the private sector for help. In January, the two confirmed that they had struck a deal with the owner of a gold-mining conglomerate (who wishes to remain anonymous). Moir calls him “a philanthropic type of guy,” and says “he’s not expecting millions. He’s providing a long-term loan at a very at a very reasonable rate.” Whether such an unusual arrangement will pan out in the long run is difficult to predict, but for now, Big Canoe and Moir are confident that after enduring several setbacks, they will finally launch Native Life in the fall.

Is the new vigour in native publishing destined to be a short-lived trend? Not if the economy continues to recover, allowing advertisers to further loosen their purse strings, and if the general public sustains its growing interest in native affairs at the rate it has over the last years. “There’s a resurgence of confidence within the people in and around the native community,” observes John Parsons, magazine development officer at the Ontario Ministry of Culture. Parsons has seen a lot of magazine come and go, and acknowledges that aboriginal publishing in particular is “a diverse market that is difficult to break into.” But he’s also watched several aboriginal publications successfully adapt to current rigorous economic conditions, and considers that cause for optimism. With luck and determination – more reliable in these tough times than government hand-outs – the likes of The Nation, Neechee Culture and Native Life will live long and healthy lives.

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About the author

Vicent Hemmpsall was a Chief Copy Editor for the Summer 1995 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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