Barbara Kay: The Dorchester Review — the little magazine that can

My heroes in the writing game are the contrarians who beat against cultural currents by publishing small magazines. These magazines boast rich content, but appeal to circumscribed markets. The monetary reward is zilch. Satisfaction is almost entirely bound up (both for the editor and the usually unpaid writers) with pride in the product.

Which brings me to my subject for today, the biannual Dorchester Review (DR), a journal of historical commentary, celebrating its fifth anniversary with June’s forthcoming edition. (Full disclosure: I have had several long book reviews published in the DR; nevertheless, I can assure you that it is a very high-quality magazine.) It does not promote a specific ideology, but it does boast of a “robustly polemical” agenda, resisting the prevailing progressivist view that historians must choose between a right and wrong side of history.

Thus, you will find in the magazine a good deal of politically incorrect and iconoclastic writing: for example, an article by Robert Henderson, “The Myth of the ‘Militia Myth,’ ” which argues that Canadians were not of lacklustre mettle in the 1812 war, as establishment historians have claimed. Proving his case with battle statistics, Henderson’s article caused a bit of a stir in the military-academic community — a good thing, ensuring continued keen attention from Canadian Forces academics in Quebec and English Canada.

Similar probings of received wisdom in other areas include: Phil Buckner’s “Whatever Happened to the British Empire?” (another piece by Buckner, a review of Richard Gwyn’s biography of Sir John A. Macdonald, is the only review that questions Gwyn’s nationalistic premise that Macdonald was a perfect hero for our time); Tom Flanagan’s eyebrow-lifting “The Sexual Politics of Louis Riel;” Greg Melleuish’s “Letter from Australia” (there is something Australian in every issue because Canada and Australia have so much in common); Paul Cowan’s “Canadians in Defence of the Raj;” Brigitte Pellerin and John Robson’s “Harper and the Intellectuals;” J.R. Miller’s “Joseph Boyden’s Iroquois Fiction” (a rare critical review of Boyden); Conrad Black’s “Revisiting the War of the Conquest;” Ken Coates’s “Were Residential Schools All Bad?” (where else would you see that question asked and answered?) John Pepall’s “ ‘Vanity of Vanities:’ Canada’s External Affairs;” the late George Jonas’s “Tony Judt’s Socialist Illusions” (best metaphor ever: “But an old vial of Marxist perfume broken inside Judt’s baggage makes every item reek of the pervasive odour of his moral illusion”); and Jonathan Kay’s “How they Lynched Tom Flanagan” (who gets the recognition he deserves in the DR as an academic treasure, one of Canada’s most original historical and policy intellectuals).

In the June issue, Ed Hollett writes about how Canada and Newfoundland — two nations — went to war in 1914 against the Triple Alliance, and why July 1 has a very different meaning in Newfoundland than in the rest of Canada.

The DR is like the “little engine that could” in the children’s story: modest in appearance, with a core readership of perhaps 500 people — half professionals and business types, 10 per cent academics, 15 to 20 per cent politicians (the Quebec National Assembly library took out a subscription), and the rest ordinary history buffs with eclectic interests.

Chris Champion, the DR’s publisher/editor and frequent contributor, a University of Ottawa professor of Canadian history, inherited his (English) father’s love of British history, which was broadened and enhanced through discovery of American magazines like National Review and Commentary. Champion commissions all the articles, so the journal is stamped with his eclectic range of interests: from the inner workings of the German Reich, to Quebec’s “new historical sensibility,” to the myths of Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising, to the Falklands War, to the history of Vancouver Island maps.

That Champion for many years worked as a senior adviser to Jason Kenney for seven of the nine Harper government years (and Stephen Harper was once spotted reading the DR in the House of Commons) has contributed to the suspicion in some quarters the magazine carries a torch for the Conservative party. Not the case. One observer has labeled the DR “the Canadian journal of right-wing stuff,” but in political centrist Jonathan Kay’s more nuanced assessment, it is “the only high-level publication in Canada that examines our history and traditions without even a passing nod to academic fashions and identity politics.”

I hope the subscription numbers will grow. This first-rate journal deserves a wide readership. The articles and reviews are pitched to the curious, open-minded middlebrow — the independent thinker, not the scholar. They are delightfully jargon-free and lively, but never superficial or “populist” in tone. Politicians and young journalists especially, graduating from universities dominated by progressive perspectives of history as most do, should make the DR priority reading. Canadian history profs should put it on their students’ reading lists.

Find out more about the DR, and read past issues at

National Post