Before there was Briarpatch Magazine there was “Notes from the Briarpatch,” a four-page newsletter first produced by a welfare rights group in 1971. The first four issues were run off on a photocopier after hours at the Saskatoon Family Service Bureau, where one of the group’s members was employed. The group later determined that using this state-of-the-art technology was too expensive and switched to a Gestetner. No copies of those first issues remain — the photocopy paper disintegrated within a couple of years.
Originally based in Saskatoon, the newsletter was named after the city’s regional administrator for social services, Larry Brierley, who, due to his refusal to engage with advocacy groups, became a symbol among welfare rights activists of everything that was wrong with his department.
In 1973, the welfare rights group disbanded and Briarpatch evolved into a ten-page, stapled-in-the-corner publication that continued to provide a forum for low-income earners, welfare recipients and the unemployed. Back then, a subscription only cost $2 a year.
Briarpatch soon added extra pages and began covering a broader range of issues, becoming a magazine with a two-colour cover and two staples in 1976. When Briarpatch‘s publisher, the Saskatchewan Council of Anti-Poverty Organizations (SCAPO), disbanded, the Briarpatch Society was founded to publish the magazine. The Society continued to receive funding from the Saskatchewan Social Services Department originally obtained by SCAPO back in 1973.
Through the 1970s the magazine became increasingly involved in covering issues relevant to women, trade unionists, and farmers. As anti-uranium activism increased throughout Saskatchewan, Briarpatch devoted increasing coverage to the issue. This shift in emphasis began to annoy Allan Blakeney’s nominally progressive NDP government, which supported uranium development. In 1979, the provincial government cancelled Briarpatch‘s $54,000-a-year funding because they claimed the magazine no longer reflected its low-income origins. Many Briarpatch supporters felt the real reason was Briarpatch‘s vocal criticism of the province’s embrace of uranium mining.
But our supporters refused to let Briarpatch roll over and die. Donations began to flood in and a number of innovative fundraising events were developed that, over the years, have managed to keep the magazine publishing. These fundraising efforts include benefit dances and concerts, fundraiser dinners, kitchen parties, garage sales, bottle drives, art raffles, and swim-a-thons.
Our bottom line took another hit on September 27, 1996, when Briarpatch received a registered letter from Revenue Canada informing us that Briarpatch had “ceased to be a registered charity.” Briarpatch had achieved charitable status in 1975, but in 1987, in the midst of the magazine’s fierce criticisms of the provincial Tory government of Grant Devine, Revenue Canada audited us and determined we no longer fit their criteria.
A Toronto lawyer worked on our behalf for free, keeping the suits from our door for the next eight years, but the case was finally lost in the Federal Court of Appeal, and as a result, we can no longer issue tax receipts to our donors. (Meanwhile, Canada’s richest people and most powerful corporations receive tax write-offs for their donations to the Fraser Institute.)
In spite of the hardship these set-backs have caused the magazine, we’ve worn our loss of provincial funding and loss of charitable status like badges of honour: we are truly beholden to no one but our readers, who trust us to pull no punches and tell it like it is.
Since the mid-1990′s, Briarpatch has gradually expanded its focus and its readership, increasingly reaching out to subscribers and newsstands across the country as politically-minded and progressive Canadians seek out an alternative to the increasingly concentrated corporate press. The magazine now stands as one of Canada’s leading independent voices on issues of social justice and the environment.
In 2009, following the election of conservative Brad Wall as Premier of Saskatchewan after 16 years of NDP leadership in the province, Briarpatch Incorporated sought to fill the void of progressive media in the province by launching a provincial newspaper that might help hold the majority conservative government to account. The Sasquatch was published every six weeks and included hard-hitting investigative reporting on relevant current events in the province, as well as critical analysis and political commentary from a grassroots, public-interest perspective.
Unfortunately, by the end of The Sasquatch‘s first year, Briarpatch was suffering financially due to cuts to government funding, rising costs of production and the extra weight that the second publication placed on an already over-stretched staff. In early 2010, the Briarpatch board and staff made the difficult decision to indefinitely suspend publication of The Sasquatch.
It was the second year running that Briarpatch had been denied its long-standing project funding through Canada’s Department of Canadian Heritage. Faced with spine-chilling financial projections for the coming year, staff and board members decided to turn the looming financial crisis into an opportunity to revamp Briarpatch’s funding model. Thus was launched the Sustaining Subscriber campaign in March 2010 — an ambitious drive to double Briarpatch’s number of monthly donors within the year. The campaign was met with an outpouring of characteristic enthusiasm from Briarpatch readers who collectively contributed an additional $16,000 in annual revenue through the campaign. The monthly injections of reliable revenue have been enough to keep Briarpatch churning out top-notch journalism, and to continue its legacy of fiercely independent, reader-supported journalism.