Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Remembering Mel

August 9, 2016

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.

Other appreciations of Mel’s career are herehere and here.

August 5, 2016


August 10 (next Wednesday) is the District of North Vancouver's 125th birthday. Celebrations will occur, among them a talk by yours truly at the District Hall at 2 p.m. I'll be showing slides from my new book, Where Mountains Meet the Sea: An Illustrated History of the District of North Vancouver.

There will be cake!

July 28, 2016


The summer issue of Geist magazine is on the newsstands, containing my regular books column.

This time I am contemplating a new study of Samuel Hearne, his journal, the Bloody Falls Massacre and the always-tricky question of who gets to tell history. Despite having been discredited many times, Hearne's account of Bloody Falls seems...

July 19, 2016


The author was no sooner home from hospital following knee surgery than he was called upon to rise up from his bed of pain and sign a few copies of the new book. Anything for the reading public.

Where Mountains Meet the Sea: an Illustrated History of the District of North Vancouver. Available at bookstores in the Lower Mainland and from your favourite ...

June 27, 2016

To quote the immortal words of cartoonist Aislin, "OK, everyone take a valium."

In the welter of reaction to last week's Brexit vote, what has struck me is the appalling tone-deafness of the losing side, aka "the elites." It is typical of losers to blame their defeat on the ignorance of the winners. If only "they" had known better -- if they hadn't been misled, or frightened, or just too damn stupid to see the truth -- "they" wouldn't have made the egregious mistake of voting against...

June 22, 2016

Should coastal British Columbia ever need an anthem, I'd suggest setting my pal Howard White's marvelous poem "Oolachon Grease" to music. It appears in his 1993 collection Ghost in the Gears.

I found it finally

in Bella Bella price $120/gal.

and it smelled like the cracks

between the deck planks of an old fish barge

if you can imagine spreading that

 on your bread -- quite enough to hurl...