When I, in my youthful innocence, defended his publishing policy in a review of one of his books, it earned me a warm thank you from Mel Hurtig himself.
It wasn’t all that long ago, the early ’70s to be precise, that the so-called ‘Canadiana’ section of most Canadian book stores was pretty small. How small? Would you believe, at a max, two feet of shelf space?
I’m not making this up, that’s precisely the amount of space (I measured it) in a leading Victoria book store in 1972. I was writing exclusively for newspapers and magazines at that time but I wanted to break into self publishing, hence my forensical approach to the city’s book stores. And this particular outlet was supportive of Canadian writers, all half dozen or so of them. (By which I mean — and I’m going on memory here — the leading, published authors such as Mordecai Richler, Margaret Lawrence, Thomas B. Costain, W.O. Mitchell and those pioneering champions of true Canadiana, Pierre Berton and Grant McEwan.)
Making their efforts possible were established publishing houses such as Toronto’s McClelland & Stewart and, on a considerably smaller scale and closer to home, Gray Campbell’s Gray’s Publishing in Sidney.
It was somewhere about then that an upstart Edmonton firm began publishing. Not, at least initially, works by Canadian authors but reprints of long out-of-print books on and by the Arctic and western explorers. I’d never heard of Mel Hurtig until the editor of the Colonist’s Sunday magazine, The Islander, asked me to review some of these books.
They were facsimiles of the originals — fat, some of them two inches or more thick. But the type was large so they didn’t really take any longer to read than a conventional, thinner book with smaller print. And they were meant to be affordable because Hurtig’s Publishing wanted people to read about Canada’s great explorers, Canada’s history, in their own words.
He achieved this by having the books printed offshore, this at a time when outsourcing (i.e. Made in China or, as was more likely in those days, Made in Hong Kong) was considered to be little short of treason and brought howls of outrage down upon publisher Mel Hurtig’s head.
When I, in my youthful innocence, defended his publishing policy in a review of one of his books as being the only way such books could be reprinted, it brought me not criticism from those who flailed his having books printed cheaper and thus more affordable, but a warm thank you from Mel Hurtig himself.
Mel embarked upon publishing after establishing Hurtig Books in Edmonton as one of the largest retail book operations in the country. It was the sale of that booming firm that allowed him to begin publishing and Hurtig Books became Hurtig Publishers with the sole purpose of producing and promoting Canadian books by Canadian authors and poets.
So strongly did he believe in the Canadian identity that, not content with promoting it through his publishing efforts, he entered politics, running, unsuccessfully, as a Liberal in 1972. Shortly thereafter, opposed to the party’s stand on foreign ownership, he formed the Committee for an Independent Canada and was a co-founder of the Committee for an Independent Canada and the pro-sovereignist Council of Canadians. He fought vigorously against NAFTA and was a driving force behind a new political organization, the National Party. Ever the nationalist, his political stands often were offside mainstream Canada but he stood by his beliefs to the very end, writing and publishing six books with subjects and titles such as The Betrayal of Canada, Pay the Rent or Feed the Kids, and The Truth About Canada.
As was pointed out by The Canadian Press last week, Mel Hurtig was far more successful as a publisher than as a politician but both forums enabled him to promote the country he loved. And his efforts didn’t go unrecognized, gaining for him six honourary degrees, the Royal Society of Canada’s Centenary Medal, the Lester B. Pearson Man of the Year Peace Award, and appointment as an Officer of the Order of Canada. After one of his first titles (An Idiot Joy by Eli Mandel) won the Governor General’s Award for poetry, he embarked upon his most ambitious publishing program in the mid-’80s, the one for which he’s best known. Incredibly, The Canadian Encyclopedia sold 155,000 sets in the first three months of publication!
Never, to my knowledge — not even Berton’s bestselling The National Dream — had a Canadian title — let alone a five-volume set of encyclopedias! — sold so well. Hurtig grossed $3 million which, he told friends, allowed him to be debt-free for the first time in his life. Only, alas, to take a bath with his next venture, the Junior Encyclopedia of Canada. Not even sales of 35,000 sets — another incredible bestseller in a country which still thinks 5,000 copies is a hit — allowed him to break even and, some time later, he sold his publishing firm to McClelland & Stewart. He devoted much of the rest of his life to writing and agitating for a better, more Canadian way of doing things in an ever more global world.
Mel Hurtig, OC, publisher, political activist, author and ardent Canadian died two weeks ago, aged 84.