Today being Robbie Burns Day, my Scottish neighbour phoned to wish me the best of the day, and to ask if the celebration of Scotland's most famous poet did not elicit pride in my heritage. Well, I said, it saddens me that, while my ancestors fought and died for Scotland on the battlefield, their aristocracy sold it out from under them for a few bags of British gold. So today is a gloomy day for me, I said, especially as Canadians don't appear to be noticing our aristocracy selling Canada out from under our noses.v
In spite of its title, At Twilight in the Country is not a lament. Mel Hurtig's memoir of his various incarnations as bookseller, publisher, politician, and writer is positively buoyant. From the moment he struck out to make his fortune, to his rise as chief defender of Canadian sovereignty, Mel's stories are exuberant, passionate, and crisp. So much energy is stuffed into the pages, one wonders if the man is capable of sleep.
But oh, what a time he's had. When Hurtig walked out the door of his father's store on Jasper Avenue to start his own business, the only place to purchase books in Edmonton was in stationers' and department stores. Nobody thought he could pull it off, but Hurtig Books became one of the finest bookstores in the country. One senses a theme emerging when Hurtig Publishers grew-against all odds-into the most important publishing house west of Toronto. Mel Hurtig is primarily known as a political activist; but the production of The Canadian Encyclopedia and The Junior Encyclopedia is a grand drama of entrepreneurial vision and genius.
This book would be an exciting read if only as a rags-to-riches chronicle of one of Canada's most determined businessmen. But beneath the astonishing success of his businesses runs another heroic, if tragic, drama-the gradual dismantling of Canada-that eventually dominates the plot. A voracious reader, Hurtig immersed himself in Canadian history and politics. And his experience in running two upstart companies illuminated the institutionalized barriers crippling small- and medium-sized businesses in Canada. Especially if they are owned by Canadians.
It was Trudeaumania that first inspired Mel Hurtig's passion for politics. Like many Canadians, he initially believed that Trudeau's vision of a just society might be realized. But after a short-lived honeymoon as an active member of the Liberal party, he began to recognize serious systemic flaws in Canadian democracy. He came to believe that Trudeau's Liberal government was no more interested in preserving Canadian's self-determination than any other.
Over the years, Hurtig ran for office, launched citizens' action groups, "bombed" a U.S. icebreaker passing through the Canadian Arctic with Canadian flags and nationalist leaflets, fought the free trade agreement, and helped found a new political party. And now, retired from public life, he feels that the Canada he knew, and the Canada he envisioned, have slipped away.
Hurtig's loss of political innocence, subsequent call to arms, and eventual disillusionment are told with the same drama as a rejected lover might relate a tale of a lost grand passion. Ever eager, ever hopeful, ever vigilant-well, we know how the story ends, don't we? The tale is still compelling.
But it is in his rare ability to synthesize information that Hurtig really shines. I think most Canadians are so baffled by most political and economic analysis that we have abandoned the dialogue to experts. For instance, a television pundit announced the other day that our economic prospects are holding steady for the next year, with mild improvements. Oh, hurrah! But my momentary enthusiasm was shattered when the same newscast announced that unemployment will hover at just under 10 percent. I dunno, but it seems clear that economic prospects for 10 percent of the country are downright crappy. And trying to sift the truth out of the murk of televised political and economic expertise seems a pointless exercise.
Hurtig's two previous bestselling books, The Betrayal of Canada and A New & Better Canada, both push his unapologetically nationalist views. But because At Twilight in the Country is a chronological analysis-detailed in events and letters and newspaper articles written by some of the best thinkers of the day-the dismantling of Canadian politics, economics, and sovereignty evolves like the meticulous construction of a good mystery novel. It is a testament to Hurtig's gift as a story-teller that, even though we know how the story ends, the thickening of the plot is a glorious, if disturbing, romp.
Of course, the power of story-telling is such that it is easy to get caught up in the current, disregarding details that might qualify the certainty of Hurtig's conclusions. But his views are supported by the facts he presents and his inarguable integrity as a patriot. His language is as clear as his political agenda, in sharp contrast with the nearly indecipherable language favoured by the new class of pundit (whose political affiliations are often anything but transparent).
And the central theme of At Twilight in the Country is a call to action. Hurtig has long proclaimed the need for Canadians to take power back from experts, politicians, and big business. He points out that most Canadians are not members of a political party, do not contribute to political campaigns, do not demand accountability from their politicians. We have, in effect, abandoned the governing of Canada to political parties controlled by large contributions by big business and foreigners. And we are, as a result, rapidly becoming a branch-plant nation.
I read At Twilight in the Country shortly after seeing Braveheart, Mel Gibson's epic tale of Scotland's defeat, and the parallel seemed obvious. But my Scottish neighbour roared at me when I postulated that Scots and Canadians are alike. "Nora!" she bellowed, "When Scots stood up for the country, they got thrown off castles and stuck with swords! Canadians won't even read the bloody newspaper!" Well, since every newspaper in the country is owned by our aristocracy, it's hardly a wonder, but I got the point.
The classic Robbie Burns grace translates into English thus:
Some have meat, and cannot eat
And some can eat but have no meat
But we have meat, and we can eat
So say the Lord be thanked.
A startlingly humble grace for a proud people. But almost a mantra for Canadians: fill our bellies, and we open the door and thank our masters kindly for being our guest. And we don't ask for anything more.
Today being Robbie Burns Day, I have no doubt that many Scots spent the last few hours cursing the English. Most, by now, have settled into their beds, guts crammed with haggis and scotch, heads reeling with plans for renewed independence. I would venture that, a hundred years hence, our grandchildren will wrap themselves in the Maple Leaf and celebrate Canada Day. And, if they know their history, they will curse us.
Well. In honour of Robbie Burns Day, I have a modest glass of very good scotch sitting next to my keyboard. When I finish writing this paragraph, I'll raise it to toast my proud, defeated ancestors. But I'll drain the glass in honour of Mel Hurtig.
Nora Abercrombie lives in Lindbrook, Alberta. Those of her relatives remaining in Scotland were employed as servants of English monarchs at Balmoral, and were thankful for the job.