25 ways National Post shaped Canada (whether Canada liked it or not)

In the purest tradition of constitutional monarchy, we have rained constant, steely criticism upon the appointed vice-regent in Rideau Hall

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It’s been 25 years since the National Post published its first edition, and the decades since have been filled with ambitious journalism, peculiar obsessions and ridiculous crusades. Here’s a look back on just some of the ways we made an impact on this country.

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Governors general hate us

National Post loves the Canadian monarchy. In 2012 we celebrated Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee by publishing a life-sized portrait of her that only the most diehard NP fans still have hanging in their rumpus room. But in the purest tradition of constitutional monarchy, we have rained constant, steely criticism upon the appointed vice-regent in Rideau Hall, particularly when they spend obscene amounts of money. The National Post was one of the first to shine a light on the dysfunction that reigned under Governor General Julie Payette – dysfunction that would ultimately lead to her resignation. And we’ve kept up a regular series on the somewhat baffling expenses being posted under the incumbent, Mary Simon. Last October, when Canada was still trying to figure out how she had somehow spent $100,000 on in-flight catering on a trip to Dubai, Simon complained that all this scrutiny was “unfair.”

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We warned you all of this would happen

Beijing attempting to get its own way in Ottawa by subverting the very mechanics of Canadian democracy. Assisted suicide going off the rails so thoroughly that we’re now talking about euthanizing the mentally ill. Public school teachers secretly arranging the gender transitions of minors without informing their parents. Hundreds of Canadian teens being given mastectomies as part of “gender affirming” care. “Safer supply” policies making the overdose crisis worse by flooding the market with bottomless free opioids. There’s been an awful lot of social trends reaching somewhat unbelievable new heights lately, and on each the National Post has been among the first mainstream news publications to note that it’s happening at all.

We make a point of getting all religious-y on Christmas

The word on the street is that the War on Christmas is officially over. After two decades of hand-wringing over the likes of “happy holidays” and “season’s greetings,” even the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh is now greeting Dec. 25 each year with a lengthy statement about Jesus Christ. The National Post can’t claim the entire credit for this, but we can note that the Christmas Day edition of the paper has always made a point of featuring an example of a religious-themed Canadian stained-glass church window. Turns out there’s some great Canadian stained glass! Our 2015 edition featured a window from St. Mary’s Church in Banff, Alta., that set the nativity scene in Canada, complete with moose and a deer.

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We predicted (in the year 2000!) that Canada would elect another Trudeau

When the National Post was still only a few months old, we published a joke poster imagining what the front page of the paper might look like in 100 years. Since this was in the middle of the iron-fisted rule of prime-minister-for-life Jean Chrétien, we riffed on a theme of the entire 21st century being a landscape of unchallenged Liberal rule. “Liberals win election – power streak at 105 years” reads the front page of the 2098 National Post. And among the “pantheon” of Liberal prime ministers was a son of Pierre Trudeau. Specifically; Sacha, the communist one. It was a joke about how literally anyone could get elected as a Liberal (other PMs included Bigfoot and Jean Charest), but how were we to know that Canada would see it as a road map to their political future.

We keep tabs on organized crime so you don’t have to

While the dynamism and prestige of Canadian government has certainly been better, it’s an entirely different story when it comes to our criminal underworld. National Post “Day One-er” Adrian Humphreys is Canada’s leading authority on the Montreal Mafia, which has often occupied a position of power slightly above the famous “five families” of New York City. Most recently, Humphreys solved the great Toronto airport heist of 1952 (it turned out to be a cargo handler with racketeering connections).

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We actually read our history

Recent years have seen a wave of statue-topplings and street renaming, often for crimes no greater than the fact that a particular historical figure failed to somehow have the precise moral code of a University of Toronto assistant professor. But the National Post has stood athwart this new movement of historical revisionism, and each time Canadians feel like deleting another chapter of their history books, it’s here that you can get a nuanced take on what really happened. The purportedly pro-slavery namesake of Toronto’s Dundas Street was actually an abolitionist. Egerton Ryerson, the supposed architect of residential schools, was dead long before any such school was opened. And Sir John A. Macdonald’s many documented outrages against Indigenous people occurred against the context of an opposition wanting him to be even more brutal.

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We helped unite the right

The headline was right there on Issue No. 1: “Klein backs unite-the-right movement.” The National Post was born into troubled times. Canadian conservatism had shattered into two factions and in the chaos Jean Chrétien reigned unopposed as Canada’s prime minister for life. Did we try to fix this by advocating for a proportional representation voting system like some people? We most certainly did not — instead these pages were used to urge warring members of Canadian conservatism to patch up their differences and unite into a party that was just presentable enough to get elected. For a time in the pre-social media era, the National Post was one of the rare patches of common ground between the likes of Peter MacKay and Stockwell Day. You’d think this would have bought us enough goodwill to get Stephen Harper to return our calls on occasion, but you’d be wrong.

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We published Stephen Harper’s “Firewall Letter”

In 2000, Stephen Harper was the 41-year-old head of a conservative think-tank, the National Citizens’ Coalition, when Jean Chrétien marched to another commanding electoral victory. In a fit of righteous rage, Harper led the drafting of what would come to be known as the “Firewall Letter.” Published in the National Post on Jan. 24, 2011, the letter called on Alberta Premier Ralph Klein to sever as many federal ties as was constitutionally possible: Withdraw from the Canada Pension Plan in favour of an Alberta Pension Plan, dismiss the RCMP in favour of an Alberta provincial police force and even take over the collection of income tax. The letter won the hearts of Alberta patriots and jump-started Harper’s rise to national prominence, but ultimately didn’t help him with later accusations that he was a froth-mouthed Ottawa-hating Westerner.

We broke Shawinigate

With Chrétien under scrutiny in 2001 for his role in securing a government-backed loan for the owner of a hotel in his Quebec riding of Shawinigan, the Post received an envelope purporting to show that he was owed money by the hotel’s owner. (Chrétien and his partners had sold the hotel before he became prime minister.) The ensuing stories from reporter Andrew McIntosh led to allegations of a forgery and an RCMP investigation that demanded McIntosh reveal his confidential source. Eight years of litigation followed, in a case that eventually led to the Supreme Court of Canada, and a ruling that in most instances protected the right of news organizations to keep their sources to themselves. McIntosh’s source has never been revealed publicly.

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Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien feels the heat.
Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien feels the heat. Photo by Rod MacIvor/Postmedia/File

We taught Canadians to shoot for the moon

When the totally legit-sounding Moon Land Registry began selling Canadian deeds to the lunar surface, the National Post was one of the first buyers. Thus, in 2000 we became the first Canadian news organization with a lunar presence — specifically, an acre of moon dust near the Apollo 16 landing site that we purchased for $10. One hitch: The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, of which Canada is a signatory, forbids sovereignty claims on “the moon and other celestial bodies.” Thus, the true ownership of the National Post’s acre of moon will remain in dispute until it can be claimed by the usual means: Settlement, guns and an arbor or two.

We fought to free Hans Island from the clutches of the Danes

A featureless rock located midway between Nunavut and Greenland, Hans Island was a geographic footnote known only to the most devoted students of the Canadian Arctic archipelago. That is, until a March 2004 story by Adrian Humphreys in the National Post broke the explosive news that Danish warships had been visiting the island to hoist their abominable Scandinavian cross on land over which the maple leaf should rightfully fly. Not to be hyperbolic, but it was the greatest challenge to Canadian territorial sovereignty since the Fenian Raids. Humphreys’ continuing coverage of Hans Island caused blowback in the cabinet rooms of both Ottawa and Copenhagen, and set in motion a knife-edge dispute that finally ended in 2022.

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Canada’s dispute with Denmark over Hans Island captured international attention as much for its absurdity as its potential seriousness.
Canada’s dispute with Denmark over Hans Island captured international attention as much for its absurdity as its potential seriousness.

We were principled advocates for penal reform — once our founder landed in the hoosegow

Conrad Black, the Post’s founder, was imprisoned in the United States for 37 months on charges of fraud and obstruction of justice that were mostly overturned on appeal. But during his time, as he called it, as a “guest of the U.S. federal government,” Black became a certified history teacher — and a weekly columnist in the paper that he had once owned. He also became an unlikely advocate for prison reform, blasting the tough-on-crime policies of the Harper government as “regressive and repulsive.” The calls for changes to the justice system have been less successful than, for example, those to unite the right.

We raised awareness about the plight of cats stuck in trees

In the spring of 2001, the Twin Towers still stood, Mark Zuckerberg was a harmless teenager and the National Post was providing breathless coverage of an Orillia, Ont., cat stuck in a tree. The cat, whose name was never learned, was spotted by Orillia resident Audrey Penicud, who phoned the tip in to the Post’s newsroom. After the Post made its plight public with a front-page story (headline: Cat Stuck in Tree), the Orillia Fire Department and the local Humane Society received calls from across the country imploring them to take action. After seven days, however, the cat simply wandered off.

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We crusaded to reunite lost mittens with their owners

In 2005 the Post created the National Mitten Registry, an effort to reunite Canada’s lost mittens with their proper owners. Over two winters we received close to a thousand of the things, but tragically, not a single pair was ever made whole again. The Mitten Registry did become of the focus of a documentary that aired on the CBC, though, and it was mentioned on The Simpsons. (Admittedly, what hasn’t been mentioned on The Simpsons by now?) The whole enterprise, which involved people actually mailing the mittens to the newspaper, would have been a lot easier in the smartphone world. A noble idea, ahead of its time.

Just one of many lost mittens that the National Post managed to not reunite with its owner.
Just one of many lost mittens that the National Post managed to not reunite with its owner. Photo by File

We basically taught your kid to like vegetables

It ranks as one of the most-read National Post stories of all time, and it’s about chicken fingers. To wit, the “tyranny” of how bland kids’ menu food like chicken strips and mac and cheese was creating a generation of picky, unsophisticated (and overweight) eaters. The solution? Feed adult food to kids, just like in the old days. To prove his point, Post correspondent Adam McDowell even enlisted a delegation of children to eat a meal of anchovies, porcini mushrooms, terrine and the like. The 2015 article became a rallying point for parents and foodies around the world. So if you meet a nine-year-old whose mouth waters at the thought of braised asparagus, you might have us to thank.

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We did Fake News before it was a thing

In the spring of 2006, the Post had an opinion piece that suggested the Iranian government of notorious Holocaust denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was considering a law that would have forced non-Muslims to wear identifiable insignia on their clothing. Subsequent reporting, which included a refusal to comment from the Iranian embassy, led to a front-page story that proved to be completely wrong. But in the “fake news” era, when many believe that mainstream media organizations knowingly and breezily publish lies, let’s note that as spectacular a mistake as that piece proved to be, the Post then ran a front-page story about the doubts that were raised about the piece and then a 960-word explanation and apology from the then-editor about how we got it wrong.

We established once and for all who is the best Muppet

Plenty of lesser publications have attempted to answer the immortal question of who is the greatest Muppet. But only the National Post thought to settle the issue with a heated week-long Tournament of Muppets. Eighteen Muppets entered and one emerged victorious as Canadians spent a chunk of 2011 fiercely arguing the merits of the Swedish Chef and Fozzie Bear; #muppetbattle became the country’s No. 1 trending hashtag. The winner? With 12,794 votes, Gonzo the Great. Obviously.

We turned Jason Kenney into a fantasy hero

Alberta is the heartland of modern Canadian conservatism, but by the 2010s the province’s right wing was at war with itself, a schism between the entrenched PCs and upstart Wildrose allowing for the actual election of an actual NDP government in actual Alberta. A former star of Harper’s cabinet, Jason Kenney heard the call from his home province, returning to unite the parties and ready them for a bid to retake power. Wherever there is a right in need of uniting, the Post will be there — so our Brice Hall brought readers into the action with Kenney’s Quest, likely the only 8-bit fantasy adventure video game about Canadian conservatism. So far.

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We upgraded the esthetics of coffee tables and breakfast nooks across Canada

From the beginning the Post had a distinct look, and its editors took seriously the notion that a newspaper was a visual medium. Striking design has always been a big part of the Post, and for many of its early years it carried a two-page spread called Avenue that was light on words and heavy on art, such as the time almost the entirety of both pages was filled by a photograph of Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe’s giant feet. The “world’s best-designed newspaper,” a title the International Society of News Design awarded it many years in a row, kept on innovating, including tilting its masthead 90 degrees to fully embrace its vertical look.

We made the Globe and Mail suck a little less

Before the Post came along, the Globe and Mail was unabashedly serious and proud of it. If you wanted a whole lot of economic and political news presented in a staid, entirely grey package, the Globe was your thing. It was the Alex P. Keaton of newspapers. But the changes that began in response to competition from another national paper, which began before the Post even arrived, have included everything from colour to more lifestyle content to even more colour. It’s even glossy now, like that time Alex P. Keaton was into amphetamines. Oh, it’s still serious — who can forget the multi-part series on salt? — but we think that even the Globe would admit Canadian media was made better by our presence.

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We made everybody want to be a boldface name

From its inception, the Post has given space to a wide assortment of voices that did not come from the traditional news media. Shinan Govani, a celebrity gossip hound in his early 30s who hustled his way into the Post’s pages, turned his network of sources into a popular regular column about which fancy worthies were doing what and where. In a style that bucked the normal conventions of sentence construction, Govani was a Canadian throwback to the gossip-mongers of Hollywood noir, and had a seemingly unlimited supply of ways to describe someone eating at a restaurant.

We were dissing Justin Trudeau before it was cool

When Pierre Elliott Trudeau died 18 years ago, many Canadians were touched by the eulogy delivered by his eldest son, Justin. Many papers, including this one, published columns that touted Justin, then many years from entering politics, as the inheritor of his father’s legacy. But only this one published a column just days later that called the eulogy an embarrassment. Part of that review, authored by Peter Scowen: “He squinted his eyes for emphasis, he raised and lowered his voice for dramatic effect, he gesticulated like a third-rate modern dancer. It felt not so much like being in the presence of a new generation of Trudeau greatness as like being on Romper Room listening to a story about a magic bean.” It turns out a lot of people ended up thinking that was exactly what they wanted in a prime minister.

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Actually, maybe we made dissing Justin Trudeau cool?

“Better is always possible.” Justin Trudeau chose to conclude his victory speech on election night in 2015 with that line, so we’re sure he doesn’t mind that our coverage of his government has taken him at his word. Along with our coverage of carbon taxes and procurement messes, summer jobs funding controversies and apologies for the sins of our fathers, in 2017 the Post’s David Akin and Chris Selley broke the news that Trudeau and his family had vacationed on the Aga Khan’s private Bahamian island. After the Post’s reporting triggered an investigation by the ethics commissioner, Trudeau was found to have broken Canada’s ethics law — a first for a sitting prime minister. Nothing puts wind in the Post’s sails like a Liberal government in Ottawa to hold to account.

We broke the glass ceiling for editors-in-chief of national newspapers

Anne Marie Owens was a Day One employee of the National Post, one of those hired long before it ever published a thing. She was a reporter and feature writer for several years, later joining the paper’s news-editing team, where she became known for long workdays, a loud laugh and a determination to make every story better. After foolishly leaving the Post for a few years, taking a cushy job at some newsmagazine that only published, like, once a week, Owens returned in 2014 as the Post’s editor-in-chief. In so doing she became the first female EIC of a Canadian national paper, despite the Post having spotted the Globe and Mail a 150-year head start.

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We survived

Predictions of the Post’s demise began even before it launched and have continued unabated ever since. There have been ownership changes, staff changes, changes to the parent company and changes to the entire media business model, and yet the Post is still her. Twenty-five years ago, the Post arrived to change journalism in Canada. That it has become an accepted part of the media landscape now, wherever that goes, might be its biggest accomplishment.

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Originally posted 2023-10-26 12:11:02.