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Happy Birthday, Observer

As The Observer begins its 180th anniversary, we look back at the narratives that tell us who we are and where we come from

By David Wilson

If you thumb through to the back page of this issue, you will note that the Rites of Passage department, which is our usual sign-off, has been replaced by something new.

You could say that the new department itself represents a rite of passage.

We have begun our 180th anniversary year. From now until December, our sign-off page, Looking Back, will highlight stories and personalities that have enlivened the magazine over the years. Think of these brief items as artifacts that help us understand who we are and where we come from.

We wouldn’t be marking this anniversary if we weren’t proud of the part The Observer and its antecedents have played in the story of our church and our country — and of the fact that The Observer is the oldest continuously published magazine in North America. At the same time, we recognize that history is rarely clean, that organizations that have been around for a long time almost always have to live with contradictions.

Our own founder is a case in point. We celebrate the faithful courage and vision of Egerton Ryerson, who in 1829 saw the need for a publication that would link members of the Methodist Church in Upper Canada, while carrying a torch for religious and civil liberty. We also celebrate Ryerson’s crucial role in establishing the public school system in the young and growing country.

At the same time, we know that Ryerson helped lay the foundation for a dark chapter in Canadian history: the Indian Residential School system. And we also acknowledge that the cultural, racial and religious chauvinism that informed Ryerson’s views on educating Natives often seeped into this magazine’s stories about residential schools while The United Church of Canada was still in the business of running them.

The Observer’s narrative contains other contradictions, other shortcomings. Some of them are my own doing. But coming to grips with contradictions is partly what makes milestones such as anniversaries so important. We need these occasions to hold up a mirror to ourselves, to see ourselves as we really are. Perhaps in doing so we can become something better. It’s true for individuals, and it’s true for organizations.

It’s one thing to gaze into the mirror and come away feeling smug. It’s another to look at yourself honestly and come away feeling good. This magazine set out to be the voice of enlightened Christianity in Canada — nothing more, nothing less. Outwardly, it has changed many times over. Yet the calling at our core remains the same today as it was in 1829. It has been the source of some remarkable journalism over the years. Do I feel good about celebrating 180 years? Absolutely. And I feel good about inviting you to celebrate with us.

• Our formal research and our informal interaction with readers suggest that our subscribers also feel good about The Observer — so much so that many of you are shocked to learn that only one in five United Church households receives the magazine. So we are asking you to act as ambassadors. Throughout this 180th anniversary year, you’ll find a card in your copy of the magazine that makes it easy to obtain a one-year subscription for just $18. You could fill it out as a gift for a friend or family member, or bring it to the attention of someone who might want to fill it out themselves. Each new subscription you arrange makes a big difference. Consider it an investment in the next 180 years. 
Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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