Not long after Michael Byers arrived at the University of British Columbia for a new academic posting, he decided he wanted to meet one of his long-time heroes. He invited Mel Hurtig to lunch at UBC's faculty club.
It was in either 2004 or 2005 and Mr. Byers, a Nova Scotia native, had come home to Canada after more than a decade abroad, most recently at Duke University in North Carolina where he was an international law professor. He had heard that Mr. Hurtig, whom he admired for his articulate patriotism and activism on issues such as Arctic sovereignty, had recently moved from Edmonton to settle in Vancouver. When the lunch date occurred, Mr. Hurtig showed up in memorable style. "He came to the faculty club, impeccably dressed, in a very nice suit that put all the professors to shame, and we had a great conversation," Mr. Byers recalled.
But Mr. Byers, who now holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC, said one of the most remarkable qualities of that encounter, a measure of Mr. Hurtig that he remembers to this day, came when Mr. Hurtig wrote out a list of people he thought Mr. Byers should meet.
"Mel was always seeking to connect people, people whom he thought should know each other and he wasn't passive about this, either," Mr. Byers said. "The people on that list started to phone me because Mel wasn't content with giving me a list of names. He wanted to make sure I met them so he actually called them and said, 'You need to meet Michael Byers. Here's his phone number.'" Two or three days later, Mr. Byers linked up with a Canadian publisher for the non-fiction books he would write in later years.
Mel Hurtig, a bookseller, publisher, author, creator of the landmark Canadian Encyclopedia and a fervent Canadian nationalist, spent his life seeking to connect Canadians over issues vital to them. He authored more than a half-dozen books, including The Betrayal of Canada, The Vanishing Country, Rushing to Armageddon and The Truth About Canada. His final book, self-published last year, was The Arrogant Autocrat: Stephen Harper's Takeover of Canada.
Mr. Hurtig, engaged and interested in the affairs of his beloved Canada to the end, died in hospital in Vancouver on Aug. 3 from complications of pneumonia, at the age of 84. He had moved to the city from Edmonton 11 years ago to be closer to his four daughters and their families.
"People knowing him – and knowing his roots and where he came from and what he cared about – will always be reminded of somebody who just said, 'We can make the best place in the world, the best society in the world and if we don't shame on us,'" Maude Barlow, current national chairwoman of the Council of Canadians, of which Mr. Hurtig was the founding chair in 1985, said in an interview.
"What he said to Canadians is, 'This is up to us. We have everything we need here. We have beauty, resources and an educated population. We have everything we need to make it and to be a beacon to the world,'" she said.
Former publisher Douglas Gibson, a longtime friend of Mr. Hurtig, said there is no doubt that The Canadian Encylopedia was his key professional accomplishment, pulled together despite incredible challenges. In an interview, Mr. Gibson said that if he had he been in the room when Mr. Hurtig said Canada needed a national encyclopedia and that he – Mr. Hurtig – was the man to produce it, he would have raised some objections. "It would make any sane publisher say, 'But, but, but …"
The scale would have been daunting, Mr. Gibson said. "It's realizing that everything in Canada is now a subject that you have to write authoritatively about – or find someone who can write the authoritative version."
How did Mr. Hurtig pull it off? "This was a man of immense enthusiasms, a man who would not be discouraged by the looming mountain that he had to climb. He would simply go up that mountain," Mr. Gibson said. "He didn't allow himself to be discouraged. He thought big. And then he found the right people to take the journey with him."
Although Mr. Hurtig ran for the federal Liberals in an Edmonton riding in 1972, and launched his own National Party of Canada, he never won a seat, but he found ways outside of elected office to make a difference.
"He was about action as well as words. He didn't just tell people what he thought should be done – he pushed hard and took bold action," Mr. Byers said. He recalled how Mr. Hurtig engineered the hiring of a private plane to drop protest material on a U.S. icebreaker in 1985 when Mr. Hurtig thought the Canadian government should do more to stop the vessel from sailing through the Northwest Passage. "That's what the Canadian government should have done in his view, and when they didn't do it, he did it himself."`
Mel Hurtig was born in Edmonton on June 24, 1932, one of four children born to Julius Hurtig, a native of Romania, and Jennie Kerschner, of Odessa, Ukraine. "My mother and father did not meet in Europe; rather they met halfway around the world in Winnipeg," he wrote in his 1996 memoir At Twilight In The Country: Memoirs of a Canadian Nationalist.
The family settled in Edmonton, where Julius worked as a tailor, riding the rails throughout the province to measure miners for suits he would make back at his shop in the city, then travel to deliver them to the waiting customers. Young Mel was an indifferent student. "He hated school – hated it," his daughter, Leslie Hurtig, said. "He used to take every opportunity he could to leave high school, and the teachers would, occasionally, ask him to please go because he was really bored and always daydreaming."
She said he would skip school to play golf, which he loved, partly because there was a golf course in his childhood neighbourhood. For his bar mitzvah, his parents gave him a set of golf clubs. The 13-year-old was left-handed, but the clubs were right handed, so he learned to play right-handed. His affection for golf continued throughout his life, until his old age made it too difficult to get around a course.
While he did not linger in school, Mr. Hurtig did seek out education. He pursued his studies in the first bookstore, Hurtig Books, he opened on Edmonton's Jasper Avenue with his wife, Eileen, and money borrowed from the bank and his father. It was 1956.
"His postsecondary education was his bookstore," Leslie Hurtig said. "He dove head first into philosophy, sociology, religion, the arts and culture by reading the books that he had on the shelves of his store. That was his education."
Ms. Hurtig believes her father's affection for Canada grew out of his passion for hiking, combined with what he was seeing in the Canadian book market. "It blossomed in the Rocky Mountains. He spent a lot of time hiking and pondering on the tops of mountains."
In 1972, Mr. Hurtig sold his book-retailing interests to focus on publishing Canadian books through the Hurtig Publishers imprint, leading to one of his most notable expressions of his love for Canada – The Canadian Encyclopedia.
In his memoir, he wrote of being in Regina in either 1971 or 1972 to address a teachers' convention, and examining the contents of a school library before making his speech. He found only American reference books and encyclopedias with "hopelessly inadequate" Canadian content and "egregious errors" in whatever content was available.
"I was disgusted," Mr. Hurtig wrote. "That day, before I climbed the steps to the auditorium stage, I resolved to publish a Canadian encyclopedia."
Leslie Hurtig underlined her father's concerns: "It drove him mad that his children were reading from textbooks that were American-made and had American slants to everything. Canadian history was slanted toward the U.S. That's where The Canadian Encyclopedia came out of."
Despite his laudable intentions, it was a challenging enterprise, described in one Globe and Mail report as "a kind of modern-day building of the railway." But Mr. Hurtig prevailed, drawing together a team that included 20 editors and researchers and 2,500 contributors and finding the necessary funding – $4 million in seed money from the Alberta government, which deemed the project as Alberta's 75th anniversary gift to Canada. Alberta's funding included $600,000 to buy 20,000 copies of the three-million word book to be donated to schools, libraries and diplomatic posts abroad. The encyclopedia was published in 1985.
Former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed, who signed off on the provincial contribution, told a 2010 forum in Ottawa held to mark the 25th anniversary of the project, that Mr. Hurtig had come to his office two days after Mr. Lougheed spoke to his staff about doing something to mark the province's 75th anniversary. Mr. Lougheed joked that his "ulterior motive" was that presentation of the volumes allowed him to talk to all of his provincial colleagues and push some of his policy issues. "It's a happy Canadian story," Mr. Lougheed said (now deceased).
Mr. Hurtig published two editions of the encyclopedia, followed by the Junior Encyclopedia of Canada in 1989.
Beyond publishing, there was politics. In 1992, Mr. Hurtig spearheaded the creation of the National Party to fight for parliamentary reform and against free trade. However, the party secured only 2 per cent of the popular vote in the 1993 election and won no seats. In 1994, he quit the party, two months after being re-elected leader at a party convention with an 80-per-cent majority, saying he was unable to get answers about the party's finances.
"After that, he lost a taste for partisan politics. I think he realized that coming back to the work he did trying to influence the broad culture was probably a more important place for him," Ms. Barlow said.
Leslie Hurtig agrees. "He would have loved to be an MP. He would have enjoyed that," she said. However, he came to a new realization. "He was a bit jaded. He realized he could get more done writing books than being a member of Parliament."
In 1980, Mr. Hurtig was named an officer of the Order of Canada, honouring his "spirited defence of Canadian interests and national unity."
Ms. Hurtig recalled how her father's work often kept him away from his family. "He worked very hard, so he wasn't home a lot, but when we were together, it was great quality time. He insisted we see the country with him. He took us all over the country," she said. In Vancouver, he doted on his four grandsons and made new friends. "He was just a real kind soul and truly interested in other people's lives," Ms. Hurtig said.
Mr. Hurtig's first marriage ended in divorce, as did his second, to Kay Studer. He leaves his four daughters from his first marriage: Barbara, Gillian, Jane and Leslie; and extended family.
Leslie Hurtig said her father was feeling "cautiously optimistic" about the election of a federal Liberal government last fall. In May, The Globe published a one-sentence letter to the editor about the fires in Fort McMurray, Alta. It read, "Justin Trudeau would do a lot for himself, his Liberal Party and our country, if he dumped the idea of spending billions on fighter bombers and instead spend the money as quickly as possible on desperately needed water bombers."
On the last morning of his life, Ms. Hurtig read a newspaper headline to her father about the federal government launching an inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women. "Bravo," he said. He died that afternoon, with his daughters at his side.
The family is planning a private memorial, and may hold a celebration of his life next year. They plan to sprinkle his ashes around Lake O'Hara in B.C.'s Yoho National Park. "That is the place he wanted to be," Ms. Hurtig said, "up in the Rocky Mountains."