Who’d a thunk it? Fifty years.
Right out of the gate, the Georgia Straight faced a series of existential crises, including a vindictive mayor, overzealous police, reluctant printers, and an endless struggle to keep the lights on and the creditors at bay.
It was not a recipe for success, especially considering that the paper’s founders were not titans of industry. They were poets, activists, and artists—freethinkers who wanted a free press and an alternative to the monolithic worldview of the era’s daily newspapers. Sure, it was a noble experiment, but not one that really had any built-in longevity. At the beginning, just lasting out the year sometimes seemed like a stretch.
But, somehow, things clicked. Soon joined by hippies, Yippies, small-l liberals, Diggers, Whole Earthers, freaks, nudists, radicals, revolutionaries, and the rest of the left’s 57 varieties—well, not all of them—the Straight carried on and began to not only prosper but matter. With incisive news, withering commentary, and social-justice issues that were absent from other papers, the Straight soon found itself at the tip of Vancouver’s counterculture spear.
It’s humbling, on this golden anniversary, to look back and take stock of everything that’s happened since the Straight first hit the streets five decades ago. There was Vietnam, Trudeaumania (twice), Stonewall, and humanity’s first steps on the moon. There was the grassroots struggle against nuclear power and arms, the War in the Woods over the future of Clayoquot Sound, and a growing awareness of climate change. There was Watergate, Meech Lake, leaky condos, hockey riots, 9/11, the war on drugs, and a protracted war on terror.
Over the course of its life, the Straight took heat for publishing the FLQ manifesto and a photo of Jimi Hendrix’s penis cast in plaster, and for comparing a local magistrate to Pontius Pilate. It sent correspondents to Wounded Knee, to a London recording studio to talk to the Beatles, to South Africa during the apartheid era, to Sweden to interview progressive prime minister Olof Palme, and it profiled notable feminists like Germaine Greer and Naomi Wolf.
Straight writer Irving Stowe was a founding member of Vancouver’s Don’t Make a Wave Committee, and he provided detailed reports on its meetings and eventual transformation into Greenpeace. The Straight also conducted serious investigations into numerous governmental boondoggles, like the downtown-freeway plan of the 1970s and excesses related to Expo 86 and the 2010 Olympics. The Straight, it is clear, never feared to take on municipal, provincial, and federal governments.
In its 50 years, the Straight has outlived both adversaries and friends, boom times and recessions, and—like that one lone palm tree that somehow survives a hurricane—it is, miraculously, still here.
A big reason is that the paper has always had a keen eye for the hot-button stories (and emotions) of the day. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, it was a journal of raw, emotional protest. Early issues had a sharp focus on police harassment—a common problem for members of the counterculture at the time—and citizens’ rights. From there, the breadth of topics quickly widened to include the environment, health, and the rights of women, gays, and aboriginal peoples, as well as many other themes. Of course, there was also a generous helping of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll—a powerhouse trio that would go on to provide good copy for five decades.
As the ’70s progressed and protest movements cooled, there were some lean years. The Straight turned its emphasis more and more toward entertainment, and by the mid-’80s the paper was almost completely dedicated to movies, music, and the arts.
By the ’90s, the Straight had more readers than ever, thanks to free distribution. A new generation of activists came of age, and the now middle-aged flower children found themselves reinvigorated after 10 years of Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan. Both groups were ready for hard-hitting editorial, and long-form journalism returned to the Straight with a vengeance, covering such meaty subjects as race, sex workers, the environment, education, and whaling. And, naturally, politics—lots and lots of politics.
With the dawn of the new millennium and the advent of the Internet, the Straight expanded its presence into cyberspace, with a wide-ranging website providing more stories, information, and services than ever before. This allowed the print edition to ramp up coverage of Vancouver’s vibrant arts community, providing, between the two platforms, a comprehensive mix of news, commentary, entertainment, and culture.
In this special issue, a number of Straight regulars look back at the paper’s last 50 years: Charlie Smith examines the paper’s environmental coverage; Craig Takeuchi recaps LGBT stories; Amanda Siebert explores marijuana then and now; Gail Johnson charts the evolution of the city’s food scene through the eyes of the Straight; and Janet Smith cites the most significant events in the arts. Finally, the top 50 local albums of the past 50 years are determined by Mike Usinger, John Lucas, Alex Varty, Steve Newton, and Adrian Mack—something sure to provoke a spirited debate.
It promises to be a hell of a party, so fix yourself a drink, find a comfortable chair, grab some cake if you have it, and settle in for 50 years of the Georgia Straight.
Happy birthday to us!