I only met Mel Hurtig once — he invited me to breakfast at a golf club in his native Edmonton and interrogated me in knowledgeable detail about Conrad Black’s role in the Calgary Herald strike. There didn’t seem to be very much he’d missed.
Brief though our acquaintance was, he certainly left a memorable impression and I think of him pretty well every time I drive past the Royal Mayfair Golf Club on my way to or from the University of Alberta.
The man struck me then — as he seems to have struck many people who knew him much better than I did — as being full of beans, as we used to say, and which was always meant as a compliment.
That said, after due consideration and mindful of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s dictum that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” I declined Hurtig’s offer that morning of payment for some research in the form of a mention on the acknowledgements page of one of his forthcoming books.
On the topic of what we nowadays call “the conservative movement,” its doctrines and routine dishonesties, its domination of mainstream media, its deceptive think-tankery, and the ultimate destination of any country that takes its advice, Hurtig pretty well nailed it. All the better, if you ask me, that in addition to being a political activist, Canadian nationalist and author he was a successful businessman, so the right’s usual cheap shot about its opponents glanced off him without leaving a mark.
On the political front, he had all the right answers — and, like many of us who agreed with him, didn’t know how to make his eminently sensible ideas become reality.
He ran for the federal Liberals in Edmonton West in 1972 and was defeated by a Conservative. A year later he joined up with the Committee for an Independent Canada to oppose the foreign ownership of everything that plagues us still, a situation, indeed, now rooted so deeply that no one’s even bothered to write a stub for the Wikipedia about the CIC! Well, if Hurtig were still publishing the Canadian Encyclopedia — without which, once upon a time, no respectable Canadian home was considered complete — you can be sure it would have something to say about it.
In 1985, he set up the Council of Canadians to oppose the original Canada-U.S. “free trade” deal, a corporate-rights agreement, along with such Canadians as Margaret Atwood, David Suzuki, Margaret Laurence, Pierre Burton and Farley Mowat. The Council lives energetically on, led by Maude Barlow and feared and hated by the neoliberal false prophets of market fundamentalism and globalization that Hurtig spent his life battling.
In 1992, he founded that National Party of Canada — which advocated exactly what most Canadians think and therefore, I suppose, was doomed to flop miserably.
Hurtig’s version of the National Party (like the Alberta Party, the name had experienced a previous life) opposed all the terrible policies of Brian Mulroney’s unprogressive Conservative government — so-called free trade, continentalism, and the privatization of everything — and supported such laudable ideas as public health care and strict limits on election spending.
Alas, shut out by the mainstream media, “the Mels” didn’t win a single seat in the 1993 federal election, and things fell apart for the party soon thereafter. That vote, though, which was won by the Liberals under Jean Chretien, saw the Conservatives reduced to just two seats — which suggests to me, at least, that Hurtig’s efforts were not completely unrewarded.
Hurtig died yesterday in Vancouver. He was 84. He was a great Canadian. He will be missed.
NOTE: I am grateful to Mel Hurtig for one thing not mentioned in the short commentary above, and that is my accidental introduction to Alex Waterhouse-Hayward’s constantly engaging blog on photography and many other topics, A Thousand Words. Mr. Waterhouse-Hayward gave me permission in 2010, when I had no idea who he was, to use his brilliant portrait of Mr. Hurtig on this blog. I am assuming that permission still stands for this sad occasion. It is just the way I remember Mr. Hurtig from my brief encounter with him. This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.