With mixed success, Edmonton’s brash, beetle-browed Mel Hurtig has trumpeted the cause of Canadian nationalism for more than 20 years. In 1970, he was among those who formed the Committee for an Independent Canada, which lobbied successfully against foreign control of the nation’s culture and economy. But a successor group he helped to create in 1985, the Council of Canadians, lost its campaign against the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, which came into force four years later. In the 1972 federal election, Hurtig tried politics, running for the Liberals in Edmonton West, but was defeated. He had better luck in 1985, when Edmonton-based Hurtig Publishers Ltd. released the three-volume Canadian Encyclopedia, which sold 155,400 sets at $125 each in three months. The company’s fivevolume Junior Encyclopedia of Canada, however, which came out last September, drove Hurtig to the wall. Last week, the man who published best-selling books by authors such as Peter Gzowski announced the sale of his beleaguered firm to Toronto-based McClelland & Stewart Inc. for an undisclosed sum. But Hurtig vowed to pursue “my top priority, which is the survival of my country.”
Hurtig, 58, blamed his company’s ills in part on the policies of the federal government, which he has been warring against since Prime
Minister Brian Mulroney’s Tories came to power in 1984. That view was shared by several book publishers across the country. Karl Siegler, president of Vancouver’s Talon Books Ltd., said that the recession, together with the GST, were the biggest problems confronting the country’s book publishers. Jacqueline Hushion, executive director of the Toronto-based Canadian Book Publishers’ Council, noted that countrywide book sales had declined by up to 30 per cent from last vear. And Jack Stoddart, chairman of Toronto’s\Stoddart Publishing Co. Ltd., predicted that 110 or 12 of the more than 300 Canadian-owned book publishing companies would likely go out of business by year’s end unless Ottawa introduced programs to help the industry compete with its wealthier foreign counterparts.
Hurtig noted that his troubles with the Junior Encyclopedia were compounded by his timing, although he said that it would have been impossible to defer last fall’s launch after devoting three years to researching, writing and printing 100,000 copies. He borrowed $8 million of the project’s estimated $12.5-million cost from the Bank of Montreal, and contributed $2.25 million of his own money. Federal and private contributions made up the balance. But the recession was well under way at the time of the unveiling, and only 35,000 sets were sold. Hurtig said that he knew he was in serious
trouble well before Christmas. “It was crisis after crisis,” he recalled.
While Hurtig’s company will disappear, its last major venture will survive. At a news conference last week, McClelland & Stewart president Avie Bennett said that his company, which publishes Margaret Atwood’s and Pierre Berton’s books, will offer the 65,000 unsold sets of the Junior Encyclopedia next fall at a price lower than the original $189.95. Bennett praised Hurtig for having made “an indelible mark” on the nation by providing a reference work for young Canadians. But he added that unless the federal and provincial governments weighed in with substantial support for publishers, Hurtig would not be the last casualty.
As for Hurtig, the son of Eastern European immigrants, nationalism appears to have lost none of its appeal. At the news conference with g Bennett, he told reporters that he hoped to I “play some part in making sure we get rid of g the awful political leaders we have.” He attacks § the Tories in his first book, The Betrayal of £ Canada, which will be published by Stoddart s this fall. Last week, Hurtig told Maclean’s “If there’s one single problem with the enormous downturn of publishing in this country, it can be defined in five words: Brian Mulroney and Michael Wilson. In terms of the economy, never in my life have I seen such mismanagement combined with mismanagement of the national political scene. That is a very deadly combination.” And for Mel Hurtig, the passionate nationalist, it is a very big target.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.