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In wake of cultural appropriation debate, who will take helm of The Walrus?

Shelley Ambrose, publisher of The Walrus and executive director of The Walrus Foundation.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Onstage in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, Shelley Ambrose was charismatic and cheery. "Who knows about The Walrus magazine?" Hands flew up. "That is excellent. Who subscribes?" Fewer hands in the air. "Pretty good; we can get that number up."

Ambrose, publisher of The Walrus and executive director of The Walrus Foundation, is on a special Canada 150 national tour with The Walrus Talks – events during which a series of interesting people deliver seven-minute lectures. Monday night, with the cover of the program declaring in bold type "We Desire a Better Country," the air seemed particularly charged, thanks to the previous weekend's events. The magazine's high-profile editor-in-chief, Jonathan Kay – under social-media fire after coming to the defence of another magazine editor who had lost his job over an editorial advocating cultural appropriation – resigned on Saturday.

Onstage in her sealskin jacket, Ambrose said nothing about the behind-the-scenes drama. But one of her speakers did.

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"No one can appropriate my stories," said Aaron Mills, a member of the Bear Clan Anishinaabe from Couchiching First Nation. "Not because I'm an Indigenous man; because of Indigenous law. You have no relationship with my stories."

With The Walrus Talks tour wrapping up in Toronto on May 31, Ambrose has a big new project that Canadian media are already taking about: finding Kay's replacement.

The last time The Walrus needed to hire a new editor-in-chief, in 2014, it pulled out all the stops. Generally considered to be Canada's most esteemed English-language magazine, it enlisted the headhunting services of Searchlight Recruitment to help find a replacement for John Macfarlane, who had served as editor since 2008. The firm cast a wide net, putting together what Ambrose this week called "a giant list," with candidates from academic, publishing, political and media circles. At the time, it was widely considered the most sought-after job in Canadian journalism, a once-in-a-decade opportunity for an ambitious editor to leave their mark on Canadian culture.

Less than three years later, the publication finds itself right back at square one, albeit in much different circumstances. As he went out the door, Kay told The Globe and Mail and others that he had frequently butted heads with Ambrose. His tenure was marked by frequent staff turnover as well as allegations of idea theft, workplace bullying and censorship of fiction.

The media industry is already in the midst of extraordinary structural change that would be a challenge for anyone to navigate.

But with Kay's departure taking place amidst the roiling conversation about cultural appropriation, The Walrus Foundation – an educational not-for-profit funded in part by the federal and Ontario governments – will be under uncommon pressure to ensure its choice recognizes that the demographics of those in Canadian media are not nearly as diverse as the country itself.

This week, The Globe and Mail surveyed more than two dozen current and former Walrus employees, contributors and veterans of Canada's magazine industry, asking them who should take charge.

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"What I would tell Shelley is she's out of her mind if she doesn't hire a woman or person of colour after all this," said one regular contributor who asked their name not be used. Especially, they added, "given that reconciliation is a theme the magazine has to explore."

The argument that the magazine must branch out and hire its first non-male, non-white editor (following David Berlin, Paul Wilson, Ken Alexander, Macfarlane and Kay) was a common refrain. That may be in part why the two candidates mentioned most often were Rachel Giese and Sarmishta Subramanian.

Giese, currently an editor-at-large with Chatelaine, is also a former editor at The Walrus and enjoys a fairly high public profile thanks to regular appearances on CBC. That might help, especially considering the increased importance of The Walrus Talks series of public events as both a brand-burnisher and a money-maker.

"She is, in my opinion, the best possible candidate for the job in the country, bar none," said Richard Poplak, a frequent contributor who wrote the magazine's cover story on a Papua New Guinea mine last November. "These people have to … give her what she wants in order to elevate the product and reach out to a more interesting writer pool." She was apparently an in-house favourite during the last search: "She was so obviously the right candidate last time," one former editor said.

Last Saturday afternoon, shortly before Kay resigned, Giese posted a long message on her Facebook page that could be read as a manifesto for how she'd want to run a magazine. When asked if she has any interest in the role, Giese declined to comment.

Subramanian, who took over as editor of the Literary Review of Canada last year and immediately infused it with a renewed energy, has enjoyed a long career in journalism, with stints at Maclean's, The Walrus and Saturday Night. One magazine industry veteran said she "would be a breath of fresh air at The Walrus." Subramanian also declined to comment.

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Another name with strong support is Jeet Heer, currently a senior editor at the New Republic. He enjoys a large following on Twitter, where he is best known for posting long "essays" on everything from politics to comic books. (This itself might pose a problem: "How would he wrest himself away from Twitter?" one Walrus contributor asked.) Encyclopedic in his knowledge and unafraid to share his (progressive) politics, "Jeet would bring Kay-esque attention to the magazine, but from the other side of the fence," said another long-time contributor to the magazine.

While Heer would not discuss his interest in the role, he did offer both Giese and Subramanian as candidates, though he also said that "I might pick someone from inside the magazine to assure greater stability, since The Walrus has had a very chaotic history lately."

"In terms of content, I think Jon and his colleagues put the magazine on a good path," Heer said. "It's livelier now and engaged with contemporary controversies in a thoughtful way."

Other possible candidates ranged from Jeremy Keehn, a former Walrus editor who is currently features editor at Bloomberg Businessweek; Andrew Potter, the former editor of the Ottawa Citizen who recently stepped down from his position as director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada; and Lianne George, the current editor-in-chief of Chatelaine who is, as another editor put it, "someone who really understands what it takes to run a magazine and has a progressive, intelligent sensibility but doesn't herself need to be the centre of public attention."

Another name floated was Jesse Wente, a Toronto International Film Festival programmer and regular contributor to CBC's Metro Morning, who captivated Toronto radio audiences this week with his account of how cultural appropriation has affected him and his community.

"It's an important job and I do hope it goes to someone who has a different view of the world than Mr. Kay. I don't know if I'm that person," Wente said when asked by The Globe if he would be interested. "I need to reconsider a lot of things, to be honest, around the work I've done, the work I'm doing. I have a lot of thinking to do around what's next for me. And I don't know if that is the best place and the best outlet for me to do the work."

In a column published in the National Post this week, Kay framed the question of his successor in terms of class distinctions drawn from H.G. Wells's The Time Machine. He wrote that, "the perfect candidate would be a man or woman with Eloi-grade literary street cred, but also a lived appreciation for the concerns and rhythms of suburban, working-parent Morlock life. Ideally, he should also be bilingual, have a strong personal connection to Canada's status as a land of immigration and stand apart from the (increasingly self-loathing) WASP firmament that traditionally has controlled English Canada's commanding cultural heights."

In the meantime, The Walrus will be run by deputy editor Carmine Starnino – who was also repeatedly suggested as a candidate to take over from Kay – and a small editorial team: senior editor Jessica Johnson (who joined in June, 2016); editor Harley Rustad (hired in April, 2014);  Daniel Viola (who joined in November, 2016); acting editor Alex Tesar (January, 2016); and managing editor Samia Madwar, who has been with the magazine since August, 2016.

In his Post article, Kay praised the editorial staff, saying it "has turned a somewhat sleepy, bien-pensant Annex-centric journal of arts and letters into a general-interest magazine and website that Canadians actually enjoy reading."

Macfarlane responded to that slap in an e-mail to The Globe: "I have no wish to get into a public pissing match with Jonathan, but I think the circulation data – the only accurate measure of reader enjoyment – was significantly higher then than now. I find it curious that he speaks so harshly. And, oh by the way, it was a magazine (not "journal," a word he uses deliberately and with condescension) of arts, letters and politics. What else could it be?"

Ambrose said in an e-mail that The Walrus had, under Kay, greatly expanded from a 10-issue-a-year print magazine to find new readers online with daily and weekly content. "The audience is far, far bigger than it was two years ago – and thewalrus.ca is cooking."

On Monday in Surrey, Ambrose told The Globe: "I don't know what we're looking for yet; it's way too soon to think about that. We have an amazingly strong team. As you know, The Walrus is way bigger than one person. The team is strong, they're doing their work and we will be taking our time."

Would she be looking for a person of colour, a woman?

"I have no idea. In fact, haven't even thought about it yet," she replied.

Did she have a timeline in mind?

"Don't know. Don't know. Need to get back to the office."

Editor’s Note An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Harley Rustad joined the magazine in January, 2016. In fact, it was April, 2014. This version has been corrected.
Video: Opinion: What is cultural appropriation? (The Globe and Mail)
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