Stamp honours Bruce MacKinnon, editorial cartoonist known for wit and empathy

October 8, 2021
4 minute read
His pen is sharp and deft – and his poignant images touch hearts the world over

More than 35 years ago, Bruce MacKinnon was a student living with his new bride, Peggy, in a cramped bachelor apartment in Halifax when power rates suddenly skyrocketed. They couldn’t afford the increase. The province was in an uproar. He drew some cartoons and walked them over to The Chronicle Herald.

“A political issue was affecting our lives, so I vented my anger,” he recalls. “And that helped me get on with the Herald.”

MacKinnon’s first cartoon was published by the local weekly, The Casket, in his hometown of Antigonish, N.S., when he was 14. He studied fine arts at Mount Allison University and graphic design at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design – paying his way by drawing portraits in a Halifax mall. He’s a talented painter, too – large, bold caricatures of iconic Canadians, including Martin Short, Sidney Crosby and Céline Dion, hang in his home studio.

Some 8,000 cartoons into his career with the Herald, MacKinnon strides boldly into controversies and, true to his calling, is unapologetic about it. Almost any cartoon can be controversial by its nature, he points out. In what he calls “just my little square,” he’s sharing his point of view.

“I’m entitled to my opinion just as everyone else is to theirs,” he says, “and I’m going to state it.”

The subjects of hard-hitting cartoons are often those who wield power over other people’s lives. Satire is one way to keep them honest or in check – but it starts with a clever thrust to the heart of the issue.

“You’re really trying to cut through the talking points and get to the truth,” he says. “If you can do that in a funny way, that’s ideal. If you can do it with a lot of impact, a lot of power, that’s even better. And if you can do both, that’s fantastic.”

“…He’s going to the anti-parachute rally…”. Image courtesy of The Chronicle Herald and Bruce MacKinnon

MacKinnon’s sustained brilliance has won him six National Newspaper Awards for editorial cartooning (and a seventh, the inaugural Journalist of the Year award), 21 Atlantic Journalism Awards and the 2014 World Press Freedom International Editorial Cartoon Competition. Several galleries have added his work to their collections, and museums have shown his work. His graphic Lady Justice cartoon – inspired by allegations raised against then U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 – was added to the Library of Congress in Washington.

In the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting, the deadliest in modern U.S. history, the perpetrator had 24 firearms with him in his hotel room, many of them legally modified to fire like automatic weapons. MacKinnon’s cartoon made a scathing comment on the culpability of U.S. gun lobby politics.

“Everything’s okay… You’re safe”. Published October 4, 2017 following the Las Vegas shooting. Image courtesy of The Chronicle Herald and Bruce MacKinnon

The NRA cartoon was widely shared on social media after that and subsequent mass shootings.

Readers can digest a cartoon’s meaning in seconds. It isn’t always possible, but MacKinnon strives to draw cartoons without words. When he does, “I can speak without opening my mouth.”

Wordless or not, MacKinnon’s work is “the combination of talented art and intelligent journalism,” former CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge once wrote.

MacKinnon has received honorary degrees and been appointed to the Order of Nova Scotia. He was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 2016 “for his contributions as one of Canada’s most skilled, empathetic and provocative editorial cartoonists.”

His cartoon after the death of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial was published and praised around the world. MacKinnon gave the original drawing to the Cirillo family.

National War Memorial tribute to Cpl. Nathan Cirillo. Image courtesy of The Chronicle Herald and Bruce MacKinnon

When an entire country is shocked, upset or grieving, cartoonists shoulder a different kind of responsibility.

“You have to make a statement that somehow gets to the heart of that issue in a subtle, nuanced way,” MacKinnon says. His cartoon after the Humboldt Broncos bus crash expressed the support of a grieving nation – and was selected for the stamp.

MacKinnon describes editorial cartooning as the best job in the world – but at times, the pressure of daily deadlines and the fact that it’s “harder all the time to come up with something fresh” can make his work very challenging.

“That is the tough side of the profession, but I love it.”

New stamp issue celebrates Canada’s wealth of talent in editorial cartooning

Available now