Mel Hurtig, “a great Canadian”
Earlier this month, we lost a great Canadian. Mel Hurtig died August 3 in Vancouver, aged 84. “A great Canadian” is an over-used term, especially during an Olympics year, but if anyone set the bar for that honour, it was Hurtig. Hurtig translated his sympathies into action, well beyond talk.
Second, he, of all people, deserves the honour because he did more than make a name for himself, than pursue his personal ambitions – his life was one effort after the next to create a better, more robust and independent Canada. That merits the term “great Canadian” more than, say, an Olympian setting her own personal best or, say, a world-class IT designer, or, say, one more politician talking his way to the top of the political heap. If anyone – anyone! – walked the walk, it was Hurtig.
We easily confuse those who meet great challenges as somehow doing this for Canada. I would argue they do these things for themselves, even if we are made proud. Here’s how this child of Romanian immigrants defined it:
“We can make the best place in the world, the best society in the world and if we don’t, shame on us.” 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,” according to Maud Barlow, current chair of the Council of Canadians, which Hurtig was instrumental in founding in the 1980s. His accomplishments were not about himself, they were and still are about Canada and our nation’s future – and that makes the label, “great Canadian”.
Hurtig’s accomplishments include a very successful entrepreneurial career as a bookseller, creating the largest private bookstore in Canada, and founding several influential organizations – the Council of Canadians, the main grass-roots opposition to Steven Harper’s re-engineering of our nation, plus the National Party of Canada. He wrote a multitude of books, and injected a rational patriotism into Canada’s political life. One example, in the mid-80s the Americans sent an ice-breaker through Canada’s northwest passage; they asked no permission, claiming the Canadian Arctic was not Canadian. This outraged much of the country, even woke up the national media temporarily, and moved our political class . . . to complain. Hurtig and the National Party acted: they hired a private aircraft to blanket the ice-breaker in leaflets stating Canada’s ownership of the Arctic. This reached the UN, while our government’s actionless protestations led nowhere.
Hurtig’s fame also rests on his creation of the Canadian Encyclopedia, with innumerable supporters. He wanted a Canadian source of information, especially about Canada’s history and accomplishments.
Mel Hurtig showed us patriotism is not merely “them vs us”, but can be a positive force, growing from a confidence in our country. He was a model for our generation, and such people do not come along every day. What an example for us and for our children!