- The Handover: How Bigwigs and Bureaucrats Transferred Canada's Best Publisher and the Best Part of Our Literary Heritage to a Foreign Multinational by Elaine Dewar
The loss of McClelland & Stewart (M&S), Canada's flagship book publisher, to Random House and its multinational parent company, Bertelsmann, may be the biggest event in Canadian literature since the report of the Massey Commission. If the 1951 report signalled the public intention to invest in the arts and so build up cultural institutions such as specialist book publishers to a degree never before achieved in this country, the demise of M&S as an independent Canadian-owned entity represents an equivalent divestiture and tearing down. The problem is not merely the buying up of one Toronto company, however storied and pre-eminent, and certainly the publisher of Margaret Laurence's Manawaka sequence was this. The problem is that the transaction appears to have smashed the logic and the law of Canada's investment in book publishing.
The Handover is a stunning exposé of this deal. Most of us were perplexed when, in late June 2000, Avie Bennett, the owner of M&S, announced with great fanfare that he was giving 75 percent of the company to the University of Toronto while selling the other 25 percent to Random House. The governing board of a university, overseeing the management of M&S by a foreign competitor – what would this unprecedented arrangement mean for Canadian publishing? By pestering the people most involved, Elaine Dewar has dispelled the perplexity, revealing the deal as a masterful exit strategy that cashiered the public interest.
As Dewar tells it, this is what happened. Bennett, a wealthy real estate developer, came to Jack McClelland's aid and purchased M&S in 1985. This act of generosity won him an appointment as a member and then officer of the Order of Canada – later, he would rise to the highest rank, companion – but when the time came to cash in his chips, he was sure to get his money back. The Investment Canada Act, born in the era of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, prevented the sale of a Canadian publishing company to foreigners, who can always afford to pay more. Bennett got around this obstacle by enlisting the help of his friend, Robert Prichard, president of the University of Toronto. Prichard agreed to accept the gift of 75 percent of M&S and to issue Bennett [End Page 112] a charitable tax receipt worth $15.9 million in return, while Bennett sold the remaining 25 percent, and day-to-day control of the company, to Random House for $5.3 million. Together, Bennett and Prichard travelled to Ottawa, where they received the blessing of the Liberal government in the form of a letter of opinion from Sheila Copps, minister of Canadian heritage, declaring that this new M&S would be deemed "Canadian." Copps's opinion not only permitted the gift/sale but also ensured, outrageously, that the new M&S would remain eligible for government funding. From 2000 to 2011, during which time Stephen Harper's Conservatives came to power and further eroded barriers to all manner of trade, Random House cut down the M&S editorial team, slashed the number of books published annually, drove M&S into a crippling debt, and accepted millions of dollars in grants from the Canada Council, Canadian Heritage, and the Ontario Arts Council. In December 2011, the University of Toronto sold its 7,500 shares in M&S to Random House, glad to be rid of what it never had any idea how to manage; the price of this latter sale transaction was a whopping $1 total.
Throughout this remarkable book, essential reading for every author, editor, teacher, and reader of Canadian literature, Dewar foregrounds her own questions, confusion, anger, and loyalties, so that one experiences with her the struggle in the dark for plausible motives and accurate information. The Handover is a grim portrait of university administrators and government officials...