Politics were set aside that evening. When the liberal-minded, nationalist critic Hurtig was followed to the podium by the Conservative premier Peter Lougheed, famous for his defence of Alberta's interests during the furor over the National Energy crisis, 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 every part of Canada. Amidst the music provided by the Tommy Banks Band and the clinking of champagne glasses, Edmontonians felt that for one heady moment they were at the epicenter of Canadian culture.
At that very moment, 154,000 sets of the three-volume encyclopedia were being unpacked in bookstores across Canada. Hurtig had worked hard over his career to forge good relations with the independent booksellers and he dreaded that they would be caught in crossfire from the chains. 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 vexatious questions of identity. One reviewer called the encyclopedia "the intellectual equivalent of the building of the CPR!"
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 disturbingly ignorant Canadian students are about Canada. He tried for years to spring money from the Canada Council to support the production of an encyclopedia, but the project fell afoul of granting politics.
When Hurtig approached Lougheed for half of the funding, he got a surprising reply. The premier would fund the encyclopedia on one condition — that he would fund it all. 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. Now he saw not only the educational value of the encyclopedia project but a worthy project for the 75th anniversary of Alberta's provincehood. 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 marvelous symbolism of an encyclopedia. The idea of summing up a great circle of knowledge in a single work is as old as ancient China and as recent as the encyclopedia salesman at every door. 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 can only reflect on the enthusiasm with which Canadians received The Canadian Encyclopedia in 1985. Over the years editor in chief James Marsh has 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.
James H. Marsh has been editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia since its inception in 1980. For a more detailed memoir see the History of the Canadian Encyclopedia.