Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Mel Hurtig

Mel Hurtig, Edmonton, January 1993

I PHOTOGRAPHED MEL HURTIG IN HIS LOG CABIN HOME, overlooking the Edmonton River valley. It was really more a log mansion, with a spectacular view that was covered in snow on the overcast day I made these portraits. He had just formed a new political party and was running in that year's election in his hometown.

I'd been sent out by NOW magazine for the shoot - to this day the furthest west I've ever been in Canada. The sky was clear when I flew over the prairies and I had an almost endless view of the snow-covered fields, a white sheet broken up only by grid-like roads and the odd town or farm. Gradually, off in the distance, the foothills of the Rockies came into view, breaking up the endless flatness, and further behind that, in a blue haze, the jagged peaks of the mountains loomed.

It was like flying over a topographical map, and it was one of the most Canadian moments of my life - appropriate for my subject, a bookseller turned publisher and politician who was probably one of the fiercest nationalists the country has ever known.

I knew Hurtig as the man who'd spent a then-unprecedented $12 million on The Canadian Encyclopedia, an earnest and worthy project that was probably one of the last echoes of the explosion of patriotism that burst over the country in the centennial year of 1967. I don't know if it ever made any money but it was a passion project for Hurtig, who ardently believed that Canada was selling off its resources cheaply while being culturally swamped by our neighbour to the south.

Mel Hurtig, Edmonton, January 1993

To prepare for the shoot I read his latest book, A New And Better Canada, which was basically the platform of his National Party. It was a slim book but passionately argued, and when I landed in Edmonton I was mostly convinced, so we talked eagerly while I worked. Inspired by the view, I set up a light to the side and tried to take something between a portrait and a landscape shot, evoking Georgian portraits of the newly rich with their estates behind them in a cloudy haze of glazed paint.

We exchanged numbers when I left, and his campaign office contacted me not long after the story ran. They wanted to use one of my shots for publicity, which was fine by me, but they also didn't want to pay, which wasn't. I might not have known much about politics at the time, but I knew that there was some money involved, and that at least a couple hundred bucks of it could be used to compensate a struggling photographer.

It's probably a good thing that the National Party didn't do well in that election - they failed to win a seat, and while Hurtig did the best of all the party candidates, he only won barely 13% of the votes in his Edmonton Northwest riding, a distant third to the Liberal candidate, Anne McLellan. I'm not sure that economic protectionism would do Canada much good, and I'm positive that our efforts at cultural protectionism have been either pointless or harmful.

I'm a lousy patriot, though I can't help but admire it in our southern neighbours that Hurtig regarded so warily, or in someone like Mel Hurtig, whose passion and conviction I didn't doubt - which might explain why his career as a politician was so short and unsuccessful. (With rich 21st century irony, his economic policies aren't a million miles away from those currently being promoted by Donald Trump.) He was a nice man, and my brief encounter with him did a lot to help form whatever political opinions I have today.

Mel Hurtig died of pneumonia in Vancouver, British Columbia on Aug. 3, 2016.


  1. He'd never visited the maritimes when I chatted with him online a while back ... wonder if he ever did ...

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