In her controversial book, The Handover: How Bigwigs and Bureaucrats Transferred Canada’s Best Publisher and the Best Part of Our Literary Heritage to a Foreign Multinational (Biblioasis), author and journalist Elaine Dewar explains the shocking true story of how “The Canadian Publisher” was sold to Random House, a division of German media giant Bertelsmann, and outlines the threats this poses to Canadian culture. Dewar, dubbed “one of Canada’s best muckrakers” and “Canada’s Rachel Carson” is the author of two previous books and the recipient of nine National Magazine Awards.
Brad de Roo: I was shocked about the how little I knew about the story behind the M&S transfer. More generally, I was shocked by the shrinking and fragmented, yet consolidated – nearly monopolized state (your use the term monopsony) of the Canadian book industry. Do you think the average Canadian reader has any idea about where things currently stand? Is their sense of the book world just bounced back to them via well-placed status quo cultural reflections?
Elaine Dewar: I don’t think most readers know or care about the state of the book business in this country. I think, however, that over time they will find it strange that a certain kind of publishing has disappeared, and that the bestseller lists record the offerings of foreign originated books written by foreign authors who focus on subjects or tell stories that do not reflect Canadian experience. They may wonder why they don’t find major investigations of Canadian political practices, Canadian history, Canadian science on the bookshelves, or stories that derive from local conditions. But there is no reason why they should understand how or why this situation developed. And really, aside from the fact that this is the inevitable result of poor and secretive decisions made by bureaucrats and political leaders whose salaries are paid from Canadian tax dollars, why should they know? Close knowledge of the business of the book business is the responsibility of those who are involved in it, not those who consume its offerings.
BdR: Initially, you were just going to cover some of the elements of the M&S transfer in your blog. When did you know your coverage needed to be a book? What does a book facilitate that a – perhaps more widely read – blog entry or article does not? How much is the medium the message here?
ED: I realized that it should be at minimum a magazine article and possibly a book after I was told by two people with intimate knowledge of M&S that it had been controlled by Random House of Canada since at least 2005, yet continued to apply for and receive grants and tax credits that are only available to Canadian-owned and controlled publishers. I reported on my blog statements made by Avie Bennett, the chairman of the M&S board at the time in question, and Douglas Gibson, formerly the M&S president until he was moved aside at that time. Since M&S had been the premier publisher of Canadian literature for more than 100 years only to end up in the hands of Bertelsmann, based in Germany, I thought a more careful examination was required. Maclean’s was unwilling to assign the story, so I continued writing about it on my blog until, after making a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy application for the contracts involved in the original gift/sale of M&S to University of Toronto and Random House in 2000, and getting back contracts and memos that had been kept secret for 15 years, I decided that a blog version would be too slapdash to explore a very important Canadian cultural event. A non-fiction book on a controversial subject is a collaborative affair between author, editor, publisher, and a serious communications lawyer. In the process of writing, rewriting, responding to editors and lawyers, the author is challenged to defend her interpretations of facts and to prove her claims in ways that no blog writer ever will be. So the decision had nothing to do with the number of readers available on a blog versus a book: it had everything to do with getting and presenting for the record exactly what happened to the longest lived and most important Canadian publisher and how it was handed over to a foreign owner in spite of laws and policies supposedly forbidding same.
BdR: Citing your professional involvement with some of the players in your investigation, you ask whether or not readers can you “trust” you to tell me this story “fairly.” Why should we?
ED: No one can be objective about their colleagues and their business. Yet no reporter had gone after this story in sixteen years because most people who write about the book business regularly become entangled with it. The beat reporters, like the beat reporters in any field, worry about offending those in charge and losing their access to those people. Yet this story needed to be told. I am old, my career is what it is, so I have less to lose if I offend than a reporter who needs access. But I tell it in the first person so that readers can make their own judgments about the quality of my thinking and reporting, can make their own decisions about whether I have pulled punches in order not to bother friends in the business, and therefore hidden or obscured important facts. I explain all my entanglements at the beginning so that the reader is under no illusion that I have come to this story as if to a blank page. The reader is warned that the reader should be careful.
BdR: How surprised were you that some of main players (Avie Bennett, Douglas Gibson, Robert Prichard etc) in the M&S transfer to the U of T would speak—even meet—with you? Did any of the individuals’ relative willingness to be questioned ever strike you as a reflection of a perceived sense of personal immunity from journalistic or legal censure?
ED: I was surprised that Avie Bennett agreed to meet with me so quickly because he was elderly, and had no reason to be so helpful. I didn’t think Doug Gibson would say no because we have been friendly colleagues for many years. I was shocked that Robert Prichard responded immediately to my phone call, would not grant a face-to-face interview, yet spoke with me at some length and then guided me in the right direction to get what I needed in the way of documentation. None of these people have, or had, a sense of personal immunity: if anything, the opposite. They wanted to know what it was I was inquiring into. And they were all smart enough to let me tell them.
BdR: Much of the information you tried to access was shoutingly off-limits or difficult to acquire. How do you muster the patience to enter the labyrinth of Canadian governmental bureaucracy? What has your persistent circling towards the truth taught you about the acquisition of facts and knowledge in this fake-news-filled era of the Information Age?
ED: I muster the patience because I have no other choice. We do not live in the United States, where the citizen is assumed to have a right to information gathered by governments and where a federal freedom of information act has been around for a long time. In addition, the American system of government with its checks and balances means any reporter can get access to material that matters from someone. The first time I reported out of the United States was like going to journalistic heaven. Everybody wanted to talk to me and show me things. By contrast, Canada, like the UK, is a parliamentary system in which the prime minister of a majority government is essentially in control of all the executive branches of government with the exception of the courts. This is why no one, especially backbenchers of the prime minister’s party, wants to mess with the prime minister of a majority government. So though we have a federal Access to Information Act, our civil servants have interpreted it with single-minded devotion to restricting access to things every citizen should be entitled to see but which might bring a tiny blush to prime ministerial cheeks. It’s not that I am patient: I am furious about this. So I work hard to find ways around it. Anger is useful in that regard. And besides, the bad behaviour of bureaucrats is always grist for the writer’s mill, isn’t it? I warned them I would have to write about it when they withheld things that they should have handed over. Thus chapter 18 of The Handover.
BdR: You suggest that “group identity” is a pacifier, and that “we use our shared stories to hang on to each other even as we are being torn apart.” Recent controversies in CanLit (Galloway, Boyden, the Appropriation Prize) have shown that, even within such a small world, a sense of group identity is proving difficult to hold together. How do these controversies fit into the larger cultural world that The Handover describes? More broadly, how do we tell common, national stories, if we struggle to talk to each other from individual and regional stories of gender, race, colonialism, generation, and class?
ED: We all have multiple identities. The larger cultural world of The Handover is just one of them. We don’t need to tell common, national stories in order to know ourselves as a nation: we need to tell stories from all our identities, and by reading them, we learn about who we are as a nation in all our wonderful variety.
BdR: Following a chapter outlining your attendance at a superficial-seeming event in Toronto organized by the Department of Canadian Heritage, you ask:
Does anyone in government still hold that there is a Canadian identity greater than the sum of us all which must be reflected in print in order to keep Canada becoming itself?
Do you think the cultural plan recently launched by Minister of Heritage Mélanie Joly answers your question? What do you make of the increasing focus on content, instead of art? Does an unwillingness to tax a company like Netflix put too much on the table culturally?
ED: The Minister of Canadian Heritage produced with her civil servants something called a cultural framework rather than an actual cultural policy. It is mainly a laughable document which includes only one brief paragraph on books. That paragraph tells me that the revenues earned by the Canadian book industry have plummeted since the last numbers put out by Statistics Canada in 2014 at which point revenues were $1.7 billion a year. That was down from $2.1 billion in 2006. Now they are down to $1 billion. In other words, the industry is in a death spiral and the Minister gave it one paragraph, which mainly cheerleads about the Frankfurt Book Fair honouring Canada in a few years time. The focus on “content”, meaning providing money to creators, is a way to cut down on spending on the much larger requirements of the producers and entrepreneurs of “content.” The unwillingness to tax Netflix, Google, and Facebook, which have only the most tenuous existence in this country but make billions from it, is just plain bizarre. Everybody else taxes them: they compete with Canadian corporations that must pay tax. There has never been an explanation as to why they remain untaxed other than the Prime Minister saying he is unwilling to add to the tax burdens of middle class Canadians. Apparently no one told the Minister of Finance about that.
BdR: You were nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction for The Handover. Some of people you are most critical of in your book have had prestigious governmental awards heaped upon them. Would you have felt any reluctance accepting the award in light of such questionable heapings?
ED: First, I knew within the week of the nomination that I did not win the award. The Canada Council manages the awards. They are decided on by peer-assessment committees that the Council puts together. After these peers figure out which projects they like, the Council sends a note to all finalists congratulating them and informing them that the winner will get a phone call by the next week. In other words, any finalist who does not get a phone call didn’t win. Guess who didn’t get a phone call? The letter also informs finalists that the losers are not invited to the party—the award ceremony—in Ottawa. With other awards, finalists are expected to attend and to support and cheer on the winner. In the case of the Giller, there’s a big show. Apparently, the Canada Council doesn’t believe that finalists are worthy of dinner.
As to reluctance to accept an award, those awards I refer to in The Handover are the many Memberships in the Order of Canada given to Canadian publishers, editors, and authors as if to underline how difficult it is to be in the book trade in this country, and how vital it is to national sovereignty. (With a globalist prime minister who has said that Canada is the first post-national state, it is no longer clear that the government believes in that vitality.) The Order of Canada is awarded based on nominations from other members, as well as by citizens at large. Decisions as to who will be honoured and at what level are decided by a committee presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. It is a different system altogether from the Governor General’s Awards which are managed by the Canada Council and awarded by a jury of peers.
In short, I felt no reluctance but was honoured to be a finalist.
—A CNQ Web Exclusive, November 2017