Ardent nationalist, author and publisher Mel Hurtig dies at age of 84

Publisher Mel Hurtig poses with his three-volume The Canadian Encyclopedia on Oct. 10, 1984. A published report says Mel Hurtig, the ardent nationalist behind "The Canadian Encyclopedia", has died.

VANCOUVER - Mel Hurtig, the ardent nationalist behind "The Canadian Encyclopedia," died of pneumonia Wednesday in a Vancouver hospital.

He was 84.

His death was confirmed by Barbara Hurtig, the oldest of his four daughters, who said he was surrounded by his family at the end.

"He was a good dad and a great Canadian," she said, adding he was a brave man who wasn't afraid to face people who disagreed with him. "He was never afraid to stand up to opponents and to try and engage people. And I admired him for that."

She said his political pluck lasted to the end, noting that when her youngest sister read him a headline on Wednesday about the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, he remarked: "Bravo, it's about time."

Hurtig was perhaps best known as publisher of the encyclopedia and co-founder of the Council of Canadians, a group dedicated to preserving the country's sovereignty.

"Let's never, never, give in to those who are selling out Canada," Hurtig urged in his 2002 book "The Vanishing Country."

"We mourn our friend and mentor," Maude Barlow, national chairwoman of the council, posted to Twitter on Wednesday night.

"He was a legend in Canadian publishing and a pioneer of progressive causes," said Ontario poet Paul Vermeersch. "A true Canadian hero."

According to his Facebook page, he was an Officer of the Order of Canada, had honorary Doctor of Laws degrees from six Canadian universities and was the recipient of the Lester B. Pearson "Man of the Year Peace Award."

Hurtig was born June 4, 1932, in Edmonton to Jewish parents. His father was Romanian, his mother Russian.

He worked in his father's fur store in Edmonton after he graduated from high school. When a 300-pound woman complained that the muskrat coat she was trying on made her look heavy, Hurtig decided it was time to get out of the business.

"It was one of the most boring things I have ever done in my life," Hurtig recalled. "You spend half of your waking time at work, so you might as well enjoy what you are doing."

He started a bookstore with just $500 and eventually became head of what he described as the largest Canadian publishing house outside Toronto.

"He took the amazing leap of deciding Canada needed a new publisher based in Edmonton," recalled Douglas Gibson, former president and publisher with Toronto's McClelland & Stewart. "This was such a strange, confident idea that nobody really believed he was going to be able to make a go of it."

But with a string of best-sellers, including "Peter Gzowski's Book About This Country in the Morning," Hurtig was off and running.

In 1985, he convinced former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed to back the development of a national encyclopedia, which Gibson called his "greatest triumph."

"It's hard for people who have grown up used to Wikipedia just what a gap 'The Canadian Encyclopedia' filled," said Gibson, adding he still uses it every week. "It changed the country."

Hurtig also dabbled in federal politics as leader of the National Party of Canada, formed in 1992 to battle foreign ownership of Canadian business and industry.

The party fielded more than 170 candidates in the 1993 election, but failed to win any seats. It disintegrated a year later after Hurtig stepped down.

"It seemed to me that we were lucky to live in this country," he once said. "And the more I travelled abroad, the more that was reinforced."

An articulate, fine-featured man with a shock of white hair, the dapper Hurtig seemed a natural for politics but never held elected office.

He ran in 1972 as a Liberal without success. He broke with the party the next year over foreign ownership and formed the Committee for an Independent Canada.

Hurtig eventually sold his publishing firm — and the encyclopedia — to McClelland & Stewart and turned to writing.

"The Betrayal of Canada" slammed the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and other moves he described as sellouts of Canada. Then came "Pay the Rent or Feed the Kids," a book on poverty in Canada. He also wrote a memoir, "At Twilight in the Country," published in 1996.

Another call to sovereignty, "The Vanishing Country: Is It Too Late to Save Canada?" was released in November 2002. Last year he self-published a small book called "The Arrogant Autocrat: Stephen Harper’s Takeover of Canada."

Hurtig said his information often came in the form of provincial or federal envelopes stamped "Confidential."

"They are from anonymous civil servants sympathetic to my ideas who have photocopied documents," he once told a reporter.

It was Hurtig who claimed the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency compiled embarrassing reports on former British Columbia premier Dave Barrett. In "The Vanishing Country" he also suggested the CIA was promoting the Americanization of Canada.

Hurtig caused a furor in 1975 when he alleged a former member of an American strategic services office was an adviser to Lougheed and was "helping to plan the giveaway"' of the province's oilsands.

Gibson, who was also Hurtig's friend, described him as a man of unrestrained energy who once boasted that on a scale of one-to-10, the response to a book reading he had given was a 12.

Away from work, Hurtig loved to read Albert Camus, John Updike and Margaret Laurence. He once had a golf handicap of six and described the sport as his major vice, but later spent more time playing racquetball.

Hurtig divorced from his first wife in 1976 after 20 years of marriage. He married Kay Studer in 1981.

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