The editor-in-chief of The Walrus resigned late Saturday after mounting criticism, including from some of the magazine's own contributors, for his role within a swirling controversy over the toxic subject of cultural appropriation.
Jonathan Kay, who took over the editor's chair in December, 2014, left after days of expressing dismay over the fate of Hal Niedzviecki, who had stepped down from his position as editor of the Writers' Union of Canada's (TWUC) Write magazine earlier in the week amid criticism for an essay he had written for that publication's spring issue, which was dedicated to Indigenous writers.
In the essay, titled "Winning the Appropriation Prize," Mr. Niedzviecki had declared: "I don't believe in cultural appropriation."
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After Mr. Niedzviecki's departure, the Writers' Union Equity Task Force issued a statement declaring they were "angry and appalled" by the essay, arguing it "contradicts and dismisses the racist systemic barriers faced by Indigenous writers and other racialized writers." The task force also issued a list of 10 demands, including "anti-racist education for all [Writers' Union] staff, National Council, editorial committee members."
On Twitter, Mr. Kay wrote: "The mobbing of Hal Niedzviecki is what we get when we let Identity-politics fundamentalists run riot." He added that he did not object to Mr. Niedzviecki's firing: "Editors get fired all the time. What I object to is the shaming, the manifestos, the creepy confession rituals."
Late on Thursday night, a number of high-profile people in Canadian media had seized on Mr. Kay's tweet as inspiration for the creation of a real Appropriation Prize, a move which inflamed many who were already upset by Mr. Niedzviecki's essay.
Mr. Kay criticized the move to create an actual prize – tweeting it "went too far" – but held firm on his position that "the idea of turning cultural appropriation into a sort of thoughtcrime that demands shaming and censorship" is, "problematic."
On Saturday afternoon, Mr. Kay debated the issue on CBC News Network with the pop-culture critic Jesse Wente, who told host Carole MacNeil: "We have to acknowledge there is a history of appropriation, that appropriation is institutionalized in Canada. Not just cultural appropriation, but appropriation of land, of our lives, that this is the very foundation of what Canada is based on, including laws that were written specifically to enforce cultural appropriation." He added that "this manifests itself now in a media that is woefully lacking in inclusion, that is ill-prepared to have these debates, that doesn't have [Indigenous] representatives, especially at the highest levels."
While Mr. Kay agreed with many of Mr. Wente's points, he argued, "There is a legitimate debate to be had about where the rights of artists to imagine other cultures end, and the rights of those other cultures to avoid appropriation begin. That's a real live debate and it doesn't help the debate when you take one side and cast them all as a bunch of racists, which I argued was essentially the tone and meaning of the TWUC Equity Task Force tweet."
Hours later, Mr. Kay resigned.
In a statement e-mailed to The Globe and Mail on Sunday afternoon, Mr. Kay said of his Walrus job: "It was a great opportunity. But I was getting tired of being taken to task on Monday morning for stuff that I said on the CBC or tweeted. I noticed that I was starting to censor myself. And that's the sign when any writer has to move on. Amazing people at that place, and I wish them every success."
He added: "I was free to run the actual Walrus editorial product as I pleased. The one or two times that my boss stepped in to suggest changes to an editorial lineup, including for a forthcoming issue, were completely appropriate and correct. That's not what this is about. I had editorial freedom within The Walrus website and The Walrus print product."
As the controversy had mounted, a number of writers who had contributed to The Walrus asked for their work to be removed from the magazine's site, including poets Leanne Simpson, Stevie Howell and Paul Vermeersch. Late Friday night, poet Gregory Scofield tweeted at Mr. Kay: "My poem She Is Spitting A Mouthful Of Stars, & the spirit in which it was given to Walrus, is no longer in a place of ceremony. Pls remove."
On Saturday, poet Moez Surani e-mailed the magazine with a similar request, writing that Mr. Kay "may treat this as good-natured agitation or even cast it as freedom that he's fighting for, but if so, it's a freedom to do harm and humiliate the best efforts people are making to live as best they can in an unequal country. I don't wish to be associated with that freedom."
On Sunday afternoon, in the wake of Mr. Kay's departure, Mr. Vermeersch said he would not yet retract his request for his work to be removed. "I gather I'm not alone," he said in an e-mail to The Globe. "I hope the weight, the solidarity of these retractions will influence the thinking process around finding Kay's successor."
In an e-mail, Ms. Simpson said: "The Walrus has a long way to go to develop a respectful relationship with Indigenous writers and Indigenous peoples. We are our own experts."
Shelley Ambrose, publisher of The Walrus and executive director of The Walrus Foundation, the magazine's not-for-profit parent, did not respond to requests for comment.