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Mel Hurtig, Tough Love Patriot

The author of 'The Truth about Canada' on damning stats, deluded pride, foreign control, and more.

By Michael LaPointe 14 May 2008 |

Michael LaPointe is editing Tyee Books.

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Hurtig: 'No longer the people we think we are.'
  • The Truth about Canada
  • Mel Hurtig
  • Random House Inc. (2008)

Mel Hurtig might be the angriest man in Canada. He's angry at our "myopic" politicians, he's angry at our "selfish" big business, he's angry at our "continentalist" media -- and if you aren't angry at them, too, then he's probably angry at you. Hurtig has just released The Truth About Canada, which he claims is "one of the most anti-establishment books published in my lifetime" -- no small feat for a man of 75.

But don't call him pessimistic, he'd prefer patriotic. While The Truth About Canada may be the angriest book released this year, Hurtig's aim is didactic. "Canadians are incredibly proud of their country, with justification," he says. "Just look at the space we have, the resources, the people. The main point of my book is to show people that we're losing it."

We met in Hurtig's Vancouver home, where he was relaxing on the eve of an extensive book tour. His lifetime of Canadian pride was written on the wall: honorary degrees from six universities, the Lester B. Pearson Man of the Year Award, and the Order of Canada -- an award he remembers best for the reception, where he watched his four daughters dance with Mounties.

A native of Edmonton, Hurtig operated one of the largest book retailers in the country, then his own publishing house. From 1980 to 1985, he oversaw the creation of The Canadian Encyclopedia -- now a staple of the Canadian classroom. Then in 1991, Hurtig hit the bestseller lists with an indictment of the Mulroney era, titled The Betrayal of Canada. Hurtig's titles since then reveal his increasing apprehension: At Twilight in the Country, The Vanishing Country, Rushing to Armageddon.

The Truth About Canada is the culmination of his fears. With a flair for the dramatic and an eye for the harrowing detail, Hurtig fiercely argues that "we are no longer the country we think we are, and no longer the people we think we are." After years of intensive research, Hurtig's brain is crammed with damning statistics casting a bleak light on such subjects such as health care, immigration, and the status of Canadian women.

Rather than simply comparing Canada to the United States, Hurtig pits Canada against the other 30 nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation Development (OECD). Suffice it to say, we don't fare very well in most categories. Hurtig is happy to ruffle a few feathers, but even he admits that this is his most controversial work.

Yet Hurtig thinks his anger will set Canada free. Only once the ugly truth is revealed will effective change commence. Does he fear retaliation for bursting Canadians' self-satisfied bubble? The angriest man shrugs and seems downright cheerful. "I told a friend that if my body is found on Bay Street, he'll know what happened."

As we conversed, here's what else Hurtig had to say...

Mel's appalling fact #1:

"The poorest 94 per cent of Canadians own three per cent of the wealth in Canada."

On the embarrassment of Canadian child poverty:

"In 1989, the House of Commons passed a unanimous resolution, claiming that they would end child poverty by the year 2000. This was considered a major breakthrough. Nineteen years on, and where are we? Child poverty today is exactly the same as when they passed the resolution. So what happened? The GDP has more than doubled since that resolution. That's about $900 billion.

"With child poverty still a problem, you would think our social spending would be at least on par with other European countries, but no. Of the 30 OECD countries, we're 25th in social spending. There are developed countries that have a quarter of the child poverty that we do, and they're still more competitive in business than us. Their taxes are higher, and they're still ahead of us. Where did all of our money go?

"Beginning with the Mulroney government, there's been a huge downgrading in the role government plays in combating poverty. Right now, the level of welfare in Canada is far below the level it was back in 1980. Meanwhile our largest corporations have charted all-time record profits for four consecutive years. Of the 30 OECD countries, we rank 21st in citizen taxes, while we're 27th in corporate taxes. So it's the people who bear the high cost of poverty and taxation. That's no way to run a country."

On the illusion of Canadian peacekeeping:

"Canadians are incredibly proud of their peacekeeping, but the truth is that we're now a war-fighting nation. Our military actions abroad are not peacekeeping efforts, they are aggressive efforts. Canada ranks 33rd among the world's peacekeeping nations. There isn't a single Canadian officer in the UN peacekeeping headquarters in New York. No wonder people ask us, 'What's happened? Where have you gone?' We used to be on the forefront, but the truth is we've changed what we think we're best known for."

On protecting Canada's Arctic:

"If Stephen Harper announced tomorrow that he's really going to build those two armed icebreakers, and he's really going to establish decent bases in the north, I think Canadians would be in favour. Canadians have always looked at their maps, and at the top of the world they see a big mass of pink. We've always felt that's a part of our country. But the Americans say, "We can sail through there any time we want, it's international waters." Now I'm not anti-American, but there's nothing wrong with defending your own territory from people who are aggressive."

Mel's appalling fact #2:

"Aboriginal people constitute about three per cent of the Canadian population, but they make up about 20 per cent of all prison inmates."

On the danger of foreign takeovers:

"Since Brian Mulroney abolished the Foreign Investment Review Agency and replaced it with this Mickey Mouse, incompetent, do-nothing organization called Investment Canada, there have been 10,924 takeovers of Canadian companies. The total value of those takeovers is $847 billion. Now here's a question: what percentage of that money was for takeovers, and what per cent for new business investment? 2.4 per cent was for new business investment, the rest for takeovers. As a result, our levels of productivity have plummeted, and we're now the 13th most competitive country in the world.

"You would think big business would take their all-time record profits and invest in new machinery, especially since the dollar has strengthened, and so the cost of equipment would be significantly lower. But what are they doing? They're sending their money out to tax havens. No other developed country in the world would allow this to happen.

"How is Canada going to be a competitive country if we sell ourselves off like this? I've got grandchildren. I have no intention of letting my grandchildren grow up in a world where they're tenants in their own country."

Mel's appalling fact #3:

"In 2005, over $22.3 billion of foreign-controlled corporate profits left Canada."

On the day of the 'bag man':

"I was a member of the Liberal Party from 1967-1973, and we used to have a guy we called the 'bag man.' He'd go east once or twice a year with a big, black satchel. When he'd come back, I'd ask, 'How much have you got this time?' and he'd say something like, '$650,000.' Then I'd ask, 'How do we know you didn't collect $750,000?' He'd look me square in the eye and say, 'You'll never know.' That was the 'bag man' attitude, back when there were no receipts for donations to political parties. I blame those days for a lot of the problems we have now. Covert funding of political parties has had a profound effect on Canadian policy.

"Thank God we've made that change, at least. That's one of our only hopes: no corporate or trade union donations to political parties."

On the failure of a Canadian education:

"The educational establishment has not done a proper job of teaching young people what this country is all about. We've developed a caring society, a tolerant society, and a compassionate society, but students have never been taught why it's important to know our history and values. As a result, young people don't know why it's important to participate in Canada. It's not that they're afraid to be patriotic -- people love their country instinctively -- but why it's important to participate has never been properly explained to them. This is an unacceptable situation. I really do fault our educators for not teaching Canadian history and Canadian values. But then again, what can they do without the necessary funds? Canada, for public spending on education as a percentage of all government spending, ranks 91st of the world's countries. Ninety-first, for Christ's sake!"

Mel's appalling fact #4:

"For social spending as a percentage of Canada's GDP, Canada ranks 25th of the 30 OECD countries."

On the vanishing Canadian identity:

"Canadian performing arts have more revenue than all of our sports put together. This boggles most people's minds. All you have to do is open up the daily newspaper and see how many pages are devoted to sports, and how many to performing arts. Yet there are more jobs in Canadian cultural industries than in agriculture, mining, and forestry combined. Despite this, we're still not doing a good job of protecting Canada's cultural industry. Would you live next door to the world's most powerful culture-exporting country in the world, and then agree to sell-off major components of your cultural industry? Eighty-nine per cent of Canadians say the CBC helps distinguish Canada from the United States, but we decide to cut the CBC's budget by $400 million. This is no way to maintain the Canadian identity."

Mel's five steps to fix Canada:

"Step 1: Reform the way we elect members of government. This is absolutely the top priority. The system we have now does not reflect the true will of the people, and it exacerbates regional tensions. Many other countries have better results in their elections than us, and all of them have a mixed-member proportional representation system. These countries have a very high proportion of votes that count. Canada's system, on the other hand, has a low amount of votes that count, so people feel powerless.

"Step 2: Increase taxes on large corporations. Right now corporations are not bearing enough taxation, so they have no incentive to do anything meaningful for Canada. Only 3.8 per cent of Canadian industrial revenue is spent on research and development. Let's make them work a bit. I would give them a tax incentive to do meaningful research.

"Step 3: Curtail the foreign takeover of Canadian corporations. I would do this tomorrow if I could. Canada does not need any more foreign ownership or foreign control. The Canadian Council of Chief Executives might say, "Foreign investment is the foundation of the Canadian economy!" but they don't present any evidence, they have no facts. Here's a fact: I once went to a Canadian Gulf Oil refinery, and before they could let us in the gate, they had to phone Chicago to get permission.

"Step 4: Increase social spending. It's absolutely essential to increase spending on education and health care. Thirty-three per cent of university students can't remember the third line of the national anthem, and we rank 54th in the world for number of doctors per 100,000 citizens. One piece of good news is that public-opinion polls, time after time, show that most Canadians think a top priority in this country is the support of social programs. If only our CEOs thought the same way.

"Step 5: Eradicate child poverty. We have to do something meaningful about this. It is unconscionable for us to have the levels of child poverty that we have in this country. There is terrible human misery in Canada, and it is a huge injustice."