It was a dramatic moment in the intellectual history of Canada. On the cool evening of 6 September 1985, a crowd of over 1,000 people gathered in Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre for the eagerly anticipated launch of The Canadian Encyclopedia. On stage, a large replica of the three-volume set opened up and revealed a podium. When Edmonton publisher Mel Hurtig climbed into the mock-up and prepared to speak, the packed house roared its approval.


Politics were set aside that evening. When the liberal-minded, nationalist critic Hurtig was followed to the podium by Conservative premier Peter Lougheed, famous for his defence of Alberta’s interests during the furor over the National Energy Program, the crowd was left to wonder at the strange partnership that had led to this day. The speakers reflected on the amazing community that had come together to produce this encyclopedia — a staff of nearly 40 people and countless advisors, consultants, photographers, typesetters, artists, designers and contributors from across Canada. Amidst the music provided by the Tommy Banks Band (see Tommy Banks) and the clinking of champagne glasses, Edmontonians felt that for one heady moment they were at the epicentre of Canadian culture.

At that very moment, 154,000 sets of the three-volume encyclopedia were being unpacked in bookstores across Canada. The set carried close to 3 million words, featured more than 2,500 contributors — the likes of David Suzuki, Margaret Atwood, Marc Laurendeau and the late Pierre Berton — and included more than 9,000 articles. It was such an immediate success that the print run was increased to 463,500 copies to meet demand.

Hurtig had worked hard over his career to forge good relations with independent booksellers and he dreaded that they would be caught in crossfire between the chain stores. Fortunately, demand for the encyclopedia was so great that there was very little time for price-cutting. The entire print run was almost sold out by Christmas.

The publication of the encyclopedia unleashed an outpouring of nationalist fervour. Reviewers were not shy in talking about how Canada finally had defined itself and had settled those questions of identity. One reviewer called the encyclopedia “the intellectual equivalent of the building of the CPR.” Hurtig called it “the biggest publishing project in Canadian history.”

Hurtig’s dream of producing an affordable Canadian encyclopedia took shape when he contemplated the results of one of those perennial surveys that show how little Canadian students know about Canada. He tried for years to spring money for the project, but came up short.

When Hurtig approached Lougheed for half of the funding, he got a surprising reply. The Premier would fund the encyclopedia on one condition — the Province of Alberta would fund the entire project. Lougheed was always concerned that the time he spent battling Ottawa over energy politics and constitutional matters left him little time to deal with issues of education and culture. Lougheed saw not only the educational value of the encyclopedia but a worthy project for the 75th anniversary of Alberta's entry into Confederation. The encyclopedia would be Alberta’s gift to Canada, and a copy would be donated to every school and library across Canada.

Both Hurtig and Lougheed were drawn to the marvellous symbolism of an encyclopedia. For the editors, it was a practical problem of monumental proportions: there were no blueprints for how to make an encyclopedia and the industry is notoriously secretive. They were determined from the start that the work would be as diverse as the community it would represent, that the contributors would be drawn from every region.

The principals could only reflect on the enthusiasm with which Canadians received The Canadian Encyclopedia. Over the years, editor emeritus James Marsh received thousands of letters from those who care enough to tell him that he got this or that wrong, or that he really should consider adding a topic that he was either negligent or mad to have omitted. As a result, the encyclopedia has continued to grow and to reflect the great country it tries to represent.

(See also A New Chapter in The Canadian Encyclopedia.)