Mel Hurtig, who died last week at the age of 84, was my publisher for a few years during the 1980s. I had been working as a fur-trade historian and thought that the time was right for a popular history of the trade incorporating some of the new ideas which were transforming the academic approach to the subject, chiefly a re-assessment of the role played by the First Nations. Mel was encouraging and Battle for the West appeared under the Hurtig imprint in 1982. Next he suggested that I write a history of Arctic exploration; Discovery of the North followed in 1986. Both titles were chosen by Mel who, as a former bookseller, was a firm believer in the power of the punchy title to move sales.
After the Arctic book, Mel suggested that I write a history of the oil industry in Western Canada. It is a great story but after agreeing to take it on I could not seem to sink my teeth into the subject, especially since I was chasing another idea which interested me more. With some embarrassment – a contract had been signed -- I wrote to Mel to beg off the project. He was very generous. I still have his letter. “I understand,” he wrote. “Do the thing you think is best (always).”
I contributed to all three of Mel’s Canadian encyclopedias but we did not do another book together before he sold his company in 1991. The encyclopedias are the books for which he is rightly remembered – and it must be said they would not have been so successful without the work of editor-in-chief James Marsh – but it shouldn’t be forgotten that before the Canadian Encyclopedia was a gleam in his eye, Hurtig Publishing produced many worthwhile books, especially about the history and culture of western Canada.