A Short History of the National Magazine Awards

For 40 years the National Magazine Awards have honoured Canada’s most outstanding and memorable writers, artists, stories, and publications. It all began in 1976, when Andrew MacFarlane, dean of journalism at the University of Western Ontario, established a working group towards the creation of a National Magazine Awards. He was joined by John S. Crosbie, president of the Magazine Association of Canada; Michael de Pencier, publisher of Toronto Life; Roger de la Garde, dean of journalism at Université Laval; Alan Edmunds, head of the Periodical Writers Association of Canada (PWAC), and others. The rest is history.

As we get ready to celebrate the 40th anniversary National Magazine Awards on Friday May 26 [Tickets] [Nominees], here’s a quick look at some of our most enduring memories…

 

1977

Michael de Pencier in the 1970s. Photo credit: Harold Barkley / Getty Images via Toronto Life

The National Magazine Awards Foundation (NMAF) receives its charter of non-profit foundation status from the Province of Ontario. Michael de Pencier, then the publisher of Toronto Life, is named the first president of the board of the directors. The NMAF establishes 14 categories, and more than 60 magazines submit 1377 entries. The submission fee is $10 per entry.

  • Among the 62 judges of the first National Magazine Awards were Joan Fraser (later a senator), author and essayist George Woodcock, and Adrienne Clarkson, then a CBC journalist, later the Governor General.

 

1978

Pierre Berton. Photo credit: CBC Archives

Pierre Berton hosts the first National Magazine Awards gala at the Hotel Toronto. Berton proclaims to the audience, “In a bold departure from tradition, there are to be no thank you speeches. We can do that because we are giving money, not some cheap statuette.” Harrowsmith (English) and L’actualité (French) win Magazine of the Year. Roy MacGregor (English) and Louise Coté (French) win the President’s Medals for the best overall article.

  • Image courtesy Town of Huntsville; photo illustration by Vessy Stroumsky

    The University of Western Ontario donated the original President’s Medals. From 1978 until 2001, the NMAF bestowed the President’s Medal upon the top overall magazine story of the year. Roy MacGregor’s original President’s Medal now resides in the Canada Summit Centre Sports Memorabilia Collection in the Town of Huntsville, Ontario.

Magazine types really know how to party.
Toronto Sun headline, following the first NMA gala

 

1979

Weekend Magazine, under the art direction of Robert Priest, wins the National Magazine Award for Best Cover, depicting a bloody image of the controversial baby seal hunt. Weekend Magazine, founded in 1951, wins 5 NMAs in 1979 before folding later that year.

 

1980

B.C. journalist Silver Donald Cameron wins the gold medal for Culture Writing, for a literary essay on author Farley Mowat published in Atlantic Insight.

 

1981

Photojournalist Nigel Dickson wins the first of his six NMA gold medals for a photo essay of the drought in the Canadian Prairies—one of the worst on record—published in Maclean’s.

 

1982

Jean Paré. Photo: Ordre national du Québec

At the fifth anniversary NMAs gala, legendary Quebec journalist Jean Paré wins the gold medal in Comment (later Columns) for L’actualité. From 1977 to 2009, Paré was nominated for 22 National Magazine Awards, winning 11. In 1996 he was the recipient of the Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement.

  • Jean Paré founded the weekly news magazine L’actualité in 1976 after three years as deputy editor of Maclean’s.

 

1983

Margaret Atwood wins the silver medal in Travel Writing, for “The Five Faces of Mexico,” published in Quest magazine. Quest, then under the editorship of the famously bespectacled and bow-tied Michael Enright, would fold a year later after winning 14 National Magazine Awards since 1978.

  • Margaret Atwood has won 3 National Magazine Awards (in Poetry, Travel Writing, and Environmental Journalism). She’s been nominated 3 times in Fiction but never won.

 

1984

Sylvia Barrett Wright wins her first of two gold medals in the category Science, Technology & the Environment for Equinox magazine (the other came in 1988). She becomes the first woman to win gold in this category. From 1984-2016 only eight women won the gold medal in Science, Technology & the Environment, including Noémi Mercier (also twice) and Margaret Atwood.

  • Vancouver Magazine, under veteran editor Mac Parry, won Magazine of the Year at the 1985 NMA gala. Originally known as Dick McLean’s Greater Vancouver Greeter Guide, VanMag was also briefly known as Vancouver’s Leisure Magazine before the current, simple title took hold in 1973.

 

1985

P.K. Page. Photo: Wikicommons

The poet Patricia Kathleen “P.K.” Page wins the National Magazine Award for poetry, for a suite of poems published in The Malahat Review. From 1944 under her death in 2010 at the age of 93, Page published more than three dozen books of poetry, prose, and children’s literature.

  • Since 1978 The Malahat Review has won 28 National Magazine Awards for fiction, poetry, and non-fiction.

 

1986

Saturday Night art director Louis Fishauf wins both the gold and silver medals in Art Direction of a Single Article. Since 1979 Fishauf has been nominated for over 30 National Magazine Awards for his work in Saturday Night, The City, City Woman, Executive Magazine, T.O. Magazine, and Toronto Life.

My dream, when I was a young writer starting out, was to one day write for Saturday Night magazine. I pitched them ideas, to no avail, until one day in 2005 an editor emailed me out of the blue. I squeaked into one of their very last issues, and I still miss what Saturday Night stood for: a space of serious (but not too serious) intellectual engagement and storytelling as good as any in the world.
– Deborah Campbell, author and 3-time National Magazine Award winner

 

1987

At the tenth anniversary National Magazine Awards, graphic artist Simon Ng wins both gold and silver in Best Illustration, for work in Canadian Business and Toronto magazine. Blair Dawson and Gracia Lam are the only other illustrators to accomplish that double.

  • CBC “Morningside” host Peter Gzowski emceed the NMA gala for the second time (he also hosted in 1979 and for a final time in 1991) at the 10th anniversary gala in 1987, where Report on Business won Magazine of the Year.

 

1988

Elaine Dewar’s “The Mysterious Reichmanns: The Untold Story” (Toronto Life) wins the President’s Medal for best article (it also wins the gold medal for Investigative Journalism and Illustration). The Reichmann family, known for their real estate empire, had sued Dewar and Toronto Life for libel, for $102 million.

  • According to a contemporary story in the Ryerson Review of Journalism, in a show of journalistic support at that year’s NMA gala, “virtually everyone in the Grand Ballroom at Toronto’s Sheraton Centre stood up and cheered when [Dewar’s] victories were announced.”

 

1989

Photo courtesy James Ireland

James Ireland wins the National Magazine Award for Art Direction of a Single Magazine Article, for Canadian Art. Over a 40-year career designing magazines like Report on BusinessToronto LifeCanadian BusinessMaclean’sCanadian Art, U of T Magazine, Chatelaine, and many more, Ireland was one of the most celebrated and admired art directors in Canada. In 1997 the NMAF presented him with its Outstanding Achievement Award.

The art staff at The Canadian magazine were known for taking long liquid lunches each Friday. Every now and then the publisher of the magazine would wander through the art department around 2pm to make sure we were all back at our desks. One Friday morning, one of the artists, Harry Shepherd, took some foam board and magic markers, and cut out full-sized, silhouette likenesses of each designer. He slumped them over their drawing boards with scalpels in hand so they looked hard at work. The strong backlight from the windows made them look very convincing—it was spectacular! We all had to work late that night.
– James Ireland

 

1990

The Idler wins its first National Magazine Award (for Best Cover). Writing in The Globe and Mail in 2007, novelist and NMA winner Russell Smith remarked of The Idler: It was “a bit like The Walrus, but more eccentric and unpredictable, and with less reporting and more reflection. It was an elegant, brilliant and often irritating thing, proudly pretentious and nostalgic, written by philosophers, curmudgeons, pedants, intellectual dandies.”

One night, long ago, when I was still an undergraduate student at U of T, I found myself at The Idler pub. Upstairs, I knew, were the offices of the magazine by the same name. That night, a bunch of journos and thinkers of various stripes sat around a long table, arguing and drinking the night away. When I fantasize about magazine journalism, my thoughts often drift back to that: a great watering hole, the exchange of ideas, and writers retreating upstairs to put some of those ideas into words.
Alison Motluk, 5-time National Magazine Award winner

  • The Idler won Magazine of the Year in 1992 and then folded a year later.

 

1991

West Magazine wins Magazine of the Year at the National Magazine Awards, hosted for the third and final time by Pierre Berton. The magazine then folds later that year.

  • Magazines come and magazines go. Other magazines that folded the year they won a National Magazine Award: The Canadian (1979); Weekend Magazine (1979); Quest (1984); City Woman (1985); T.O. Magazine (1989); Vista (1990); Domino (1991); The Idler (1993); City & Country Home (1994); Destinations (1994); Shift (2003) Elm Street (2004); Saturday Night (2005); Toro (2007); unlimited (2008); More (2012); The Grid (2014).

 

1992

At the 15th anniversary NMA gala, Andrew Cohen of Saturday Night wins 3 medals, including the President’s Medal, for his profile of the former Prime Minister called “That Bastard Trudeau.”

  • Singer-songwriter Nancy White, of CBC fame, hosted the 15th anniversary National Magazine Awards gala at the Sheraton Centre in Toronto.

 

1993

Paul Quarrington. Image credit: Wikicommons

Paul Quarrington wins his first of two consecutive NMA gold medals in Humour, for Harrowsmith magazine (he would later win a third humour award for Outdoor Canada). The beloved novelist, playwright, musician, and magazine writer passed away in 2010, shortly after writing his final memoir, Cigar Box Banjo: Notes on Music and Life.

  • At the 1993 NMAs Yann Martel, later the author of The Life of Pi, won the gold medal in Fiction for a story in The Malahat Review.

 

1994

The One-of-a-Kind category makes its NMA debut, celebrating magazine writing whose style or content is so unique it just can’t be classified into any other category. Zoe Landale, writing in Saturday Night, wins the first gold medal.

  • Toronto Life won 5 straight gold medals in One-of-a-Kind from 2001-2006, but The Walrus has won the last 4 heading into 2017. Check out this year’s nominees.

 

1995

Catherine Keachie, the long-time president of the Canadian Magazine Publishers’ Association, is presented with the Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement. Keachie was also an instructor of journalism at Ryerson University and today the program offers an annual scholarship in her memory.

In order for us to make the case for how Canadian magazines mattered, Catherine knew that it was essential for the industry to work together. The major publishers needed the cultural legitimacy of the small and literary publishers. The smalls and literaries needed the financial and political heft of the bigs… Catherine’s words have guided me throughout my career, and her passion for the possibility of what the many talented people in this industry can accomplish together continues to inspire me.
Kim Pittaway, on Catherine Keachie’s inspiration to her career, from Kim’s acceptance speech at the 2016 NMAs

 

1996

For the only time in its history, the NMAs present an award for best Display Writing, at a gala hosted for the first time by Ian Brown. Vancouver Magazine wins the award, but the category is discontinued the following year.

  • In 2008 Julia Belluz won the NMA Best Student Writer Award for her profile of Ian Brown in the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

 

1997

Photo Edward Burtynsky 

Edward Burtynsky wins the gold medal in Photojournalism for his famous “Tailings” series—highlighting the environmentally degrading waste produced by heavy industry—published in Canadian Art.

 

1998

Hosting the NMA gala for the second consecutive year, Massey College master John Fraser presents the Outstanding Achievement Award to former Saturday Night editor Robert Fulford.

  • Since 1978, Fulford has won more NMA gold medals (15) than any other writer or artist. But fashion photographer Chris Nicholls is the winningest creator in NMA history, with 20 total medals (10 gold; 10 silver).

 

1999

Jane O’Hara’s investigative report “Rape in the Military” (Maclean’s) wins two National Magazine Awards, including the President’s Medal. It remains one of the most significant and studied feature stories in the history of Canadian magazines.

It [“Rape in the Military”] was such a groundbreaking and heartbreaking story—20 years later, it haunts me still. The raw honesty of the women who shared their stories, and the abusive betrayal of those who destroyed their lives and careers. You can feel the mastery of the interviewer in how she was able to get these victims to open up to her and feel her sensitivity in how she told the story.
– Dawn Chafe, editor-in-chief, Atlantic Business Magazine

 

2000

The upstart Shift magazine wins 9 National Magazine Awards, including a sweep for art directors Carmen Dunjko and Malcolm Brown in the categories Art Direction and Best Cover. From 1994 until it folded in 2003, Shift won 27 NMAs and became a notorious rival to Saturday Night. After the magazine won its huge haul of awards, much to the chagrin of its critics, editor Laas Turnbull told The Globe and Mail: “I have found that people’s reaction to Shift often says a great deal more about them than it does about the magazine. It’s so unusual to launch something new in this country and then to actually survive.”

Shift on Beck… never forget it.
– Malcolm Brown, 15-time National Magazine Award-winning art director

 

2001

The National Magazine Awards expands to 37 categories, up from 14 at the 1978 awards. George Whiteside wins the first gold medal in the category Food Photography, for President’s Choice magazine. (The category is discontinued in 2003.)

  • Other discontinued categories in the history of the NMAs include Conceptual Photography, Food Writing, Leisure Pursuits, Community Feature, Studio Photography, Best Repurposed or Adapted Content, and Best New Magazine.

 

2002

George Elliott Clarke. Photo credit: Carmelita Linta / CBC

George Elliott Clarke wins the gold medal in Poetry, for a suite of six poems in Prairie Fire.

  • Prairie Fire has won 15 National Magazine Awards since 1996, most recently a silver medal in 2016 for Poetry (Harold Hoefle).

 

2003

Don Obe. Photo by John Reeves

For the 25th NMA gala, Don Obe edits a special anniversary magazine featuring the top stories, issues, photography, and design from each year since the first National Magazine Awards. A beloved Ryerson University instructor and former editor at Maclean’s, The Canadian, and Toronto Life, Obe received the Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement in 1994. He passed away in 2014.

  • At the 25th anniversary NMA gala, hosted by Second City comedienne Judy Croon, Adbusters won for Best Art Direction of a Single Article, The New Quarterly swept the gold medals in Fiction and Poetry, Elm Street won for Portrait Photography, and Outpost won Magazine of the Year.

 

2004

Marci McDonald’s investigation into Paul Martin’s controversial private business dealings, published in the inaugural issue of The Walrus, wins that magazine its first (of many) National Magazine Awards.

  • Marci McDonald won the gold medal in Business at the very first NMAs in 1978, and has won 11 in total since then. In 2017 she served on the NMA jury in the category Long-Form Feature Writing.

 

2005

Gerald Hannon is a double gold medallist for his story “The Eyes of Edward Burtynsky” (Toronto Life) in the categories Profiles and Arts & Entertainment.

Lynn Cunningham, my editor at Toronto Life, assigned me a major feature on the AIDS crisis in 1988 when I had no magazine experience and when I was mostly known for having been on trial for publishing immoral, indecent, or scurrilous matter. She took a chance on me, and thanks to her support and encouragement my writing career took off.
– Gerald Hannon, 13-time National Magazine Award-winning writer

 

2006

The June 1969 cover of Saturday Night

Saturday Night, after folding (for the second and final time) in November the previous year, wins 7 National Magazine Awards, bringing its legendary haul to 231 NMAs since 1978. The same night, The Walrus breaks Saturday Night’s record by winning 13 gold medals (and 16 overall).

  • In 2015, Toronto Life finally passed Saturday Night for most NMAs in history, when writer Lauren McKeon won the gold medal in Personal Journalism for “Save Me From My Workout.” Toronto Life now has 244 NMAs heading into the 2017 awards.

 

2007

Program cover of the 30th anniversary National Magazine Awards gala. Illustration by Dan Page. Art direction by Levi Nicholson.

At the 30th anniversary National Magazine Awards gala at the Carlu in Toronto, Scott Feschuk hosts, David Gilmour‘s “My Life with Tolstoy” is a double gold medal winner, and The Walrus wins Magazine of the Year. Jeremy Klaszus is presented with the award for Best New Magazine Writer (formerly known as the Alexander Ross Award) for his investigation into unsavoury practices in Alberta’s oil industry, published in Alberta Views.

 

2008

Maisonneuve’s “Food Issue,” featuring a cover photo of miniature explorers attempting a dangerous crossing of the surface of a crème brûlée, wins the gold medal for Best Magazine Cover (art direction by Anna Minzhulina).

  • Recently the NMAF’s Richard A. Johnson interviewed Anna Minzhulina about her ten-year tenure at Maisonneuve, her creative process as an art director, and the importance of supporting emerging women magazine artists.

 

2009

Chris Turner wins the gold medal in Essays for “The Big Decision” (Alberta Views), arguing in favour of nuclear energy at a time when the province’s Oil Sands are booming.

  • Moose Jaw native Chris Turner, a 9-time NMA winner, hosted the 2016 National Magazine Awards gala, featuring a cameo from Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi.

 

2010

Up Here magazine, published in Yellowknife, wins Magazine of the Year, becoming the first magazine from Canada’s North to win the grand prize.

  • At the 2010 National Magazine Awards gala, Terry Sellwood of Cottage Life Media received the Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement. At the 2017 gala, Penny Caldwell will become the third member of the Cottage Life family to win the award, after Terry and founder Al Zikovitz (2002).

 

2011

Image: CBC

Sean Michaels wins the One-of-a-Kind gold medal for an account of his exploration of the catacombs of Paris, published in Brick. Michaels would later go on to win the Giller Prize for his novel, Us Conductors.

  • Other NMA winners for Brick literary magazine include Michael Ondaatje (1981), Alex Pugsley (2005), Patrick deWitt (2013), and Linda Spalding (2014), all in the Fiction category.

 

2012

The Grid, a weekly Toronto city magazine that launched the previous May, wins six National Magazine Awards, including three gold medals for art director Vanessa Wyse. The Grid’s boisterous cheering section remains one of the most enduring memories of its first NMA gala.

  • In 2013 The Grid won 7 National Magazine Awards, edging The Walrus (6). It’s the only time since 2004 that winningest magazine at the NMAs was not Toronto Life or The Walrus.

 

2013

For the first time, the NMAs honour outstanding achievement by tablet editions. Canadian House & Home wins the first award for Tablet Magazine of the Year.

  • In subsequent years, Today’s Parent and Sportsnet won the National Magazine Award for Tablet Magazine of the Year. The award was discontinued in 2016 as the NMAF launched the Digital Publishing Awards to recognize achievement in Canadian digital publishing. The 2017 Digital Publishing Awards are coming up on June 1.

 

2014

Edmonton newcomer Eighteen Bridges magazine wins four National Magazine Awards among 11 nominations, including two gold medals for editor and feature writer Curtis Gillespie.

  • In 2016 Eighteen Bridges also won four NMAs, including the gold medal in Investigative Reporting. Recently the NMAF’s Richard A. Johnson interviewed journalist Virgil Grandfield about his incredible 10-year investigation of human trafficking and murder related to Red Cross reconstruction projects in Indonesia.

Also, remember this:

 

2015

Crimes sexuels dans l’armée,” an extensive investigative report by journalists Noémi Mercier and Alec Castonguay about sexual assault in the Canadian military, published in L’actualité, wins two gold medals (Investigative Reporting and Politics & Public Interest).

  • Lainey Lui and Jessica Allen from CTV’s “The Social” co-hosted the 38th NMA gala in 2015, featuring a cameo by 4-time host Scott Feschuk.

 

2016

Desmond Cole accepts the award for Best New Magazine Writer to a standing ovation at the 2016 National Magazine Awards in Toronto (Photo: Steven Goetz / National Magazine Awards Foundation)

Desmond Cole is nominated for four National Magazine Awards for his exposé of Toronto police discrimination against the city’s Black community, “The Skin I’m In” (Toronto Life). Cole wins the gold medal for Best New Magazine Writer and two silver medals (Essays and Personal Journalism), and receives a standing ovation on stage at the gala.


Take a deeper dive into the history of the National Magazine Award by perusing the NMA archive.

The 40th anniversary National Magazine Awards will be held on Friday, May 26, at the Arcadian Court in Toronto. Tickets are on sale now. Check out all the nominees.

Not able to make it to the gala? Follow our exciting live tweet @MagAwards to catch all the live action.

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