Mel Hurtig — Edmonton bookseller, publisher and activist — dead at 84

Mel Hurtig — Edmonton publisher, bookseller, activist and publisher of The Canadian Encyclopedia — died Wednesday at the age of 84.

Remembered as a fierce nationalist and devoted father who published The Canadian Encyclopedia

Mel Hurtig died after a short bout of pneumonia in a Vancouver hospital on Wednesday.

Mel Hurtig — Edmonton publisher, bookseller, activist and publisher of The Canadian Encyclopedia — died Wednesday at the age of 84.

Hurtig died surrounded by his daughters after a short bout of pneumonia in a Vancouver hospital.

Born in Edmonton in 1932, Hurtig opened an independent bookstore with just $500 in 1956. By 1972, he operated three highly successful stores in the city. Patrons were welcome to socialize, sip coffee and play chess in his establishments, where he also held theatrical performances and readings.

Hurtig's Edmonton book empire expanded from book selling to publishing. His publishing company, Hurtig Publishing, produced several significant titles, including The Canadian Encyclopedia.

It was a "mammoth" of a project that, according to Hurtig's friend, Calgary Herald political columnist Don Braid, was an almost impossible for a small Edmonton publishing house.

"It took the work of hundreds and hundreds of people across the country writing about little articles about their fields of expertise to bring this thing together," Braid said. 

"There were times, by Mel's own telling, where it looked like it might not even be possible to publish it. Yet, he did it. He did it by sheer force of will from his little publishing house in Edmonton. And it was, and remains, the single greatest publishing feat in the history of Canadian publishing."

Edmonton bookseller, publisher and Canadian nationalist Mel Hurtig sees a bright future for Canada. 22:44

An ardent Canadian nationalist

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

He ran for the federal Liberal Party in 1972. He remained involved in political activism throughout the '70s through the '90s. An economic nationalist, he was a founding member of the Committee for an Independent Canada, the Council of Canadians and led the National Party of Canada. 

Describing him as a "Canadian nationalist of a rare ... kind," Braid said Hurtig was "absolutely convinced" Canada had to go in a different direction.

He was ferocious in his convictions and beliefs.- Don Braid, Calgary Herald columnist

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

He had many allies, but remained one of the leaders of the movement, Braid added.

"He was ferocious in his convictions and beliefs," Braid said. "His loathing for [former prime minister] Stephen Harper is almost Olympian."

According to his Facebook page, Hurtig 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.

A family man devoted to his daughters

Hurtig's daughters describe him as a fiercely intelligent man who was devoted to his career, but always made time for his family.

"Still to this day one of my favourite memories of Dad is he used to come into the kitchen when we were growing up and he would take three oranges and say, 'Watch this, girls,' and start juggling the oranges, and we'd all be excited," Barb Hurtig said.

"Then he'd grab three glasses and pretend that he was going to juggle the glasses and we would all scream, 'No, Dad, no!' For some reason, that's something that just really sticks in my mind. He'd always like to try to entertain us with juggling and funny things that he couldn't really do that well but he liked to think that he could do."

He believed in the people of Alberta and he believed it could be a place where all people could prosper and all people could live good lives.- Leslie Hurtig

"He was very funny, he loved to tell jokes and he loved to make people laugh."

Hurtig was an avid golfer and reader, and his hunger for knowledge had an impact on his daughters, Leslie Hurtig said. 

He read "voraciously" every day of his life, she said. Whether it was novels, or one of four different newspapers he subscribed to every day, seeing him buried in ink and paper was a standard sight. 

The Hurtig family has not yet set a date for a memorial service. Although Hurtig spent the last 11 years of his life in Vancouver to be closer to his daughters, Alberta retained a special place in his heart.

"He believed in the people of Alberta and he believed it could be a place where all people could prosper and all people could live good lives," Leslie said.

And he never forgot the log house where he lived much of his life, just two blocks away from where he grew up in the river valley.

"Edmonton, that was his blood," Leslie said. "Edmonton was in his blood."

With files from The Canadian Press