It’s not every day that a book from a scholarly press inspires a song and gets its own music video, but that’s what the first book released by the University of Regina Press in Saskatchewan, Canada, has done this fall. James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation and the Loss of Aboriginal Life caught Canadian Member of Parliament Charlie Angus’s attention as soon as it arrived in his office. Angus said he prides himself on his knowledge of Canadian history, but that the book “shook my world.”
Daschuk’s work shines a light on the use of famine by the government of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, as a means of “ethnic cleansing,” aimed at clearing a vast region of the plains for settlement. The book has attracted a lot of media attention since its release in June, and about 30 newspapers and radio programs have interviewed Daschuk. In an article from the Globe and Mail newspaper, Daschuk explained that “for years, government officials withheld food from aboriginal people until they moved to their appointed reserves, forcing them to trade freedom for rations.” But even then, rations were withheld while thousands died of malnutrition and disease.
Canadians don’t know this history, Angus said. His immediate response, upon reading the book, was to write a song about it—in addition to being an MP, Angus is a singer-songwriter in a band called the Grievous Angels. Angus sent the track to Daschuk, who shared it with University of Regina Press publisher Bruce Walsh. The press had just launched in June, and Walsh was thrilled by Angus’s response to its first title. The publisher quickly set the wheels in motion to produce a music video for the song, which is now featured prominently on the press’s Web site (www.uofrpress.ca). The title recently went to press for a third printing (2,000 copies) and has been long-listed for one of Canada’s biggest nonfiction prizes, the C$40,000 ($37,000) B.C. National Award for Canadian Nonfiction.
The music video, which has had 10,000 hits since it was released last month, came together quickly, because Walsh had already hired Saskatchewan filmmaker Don List to produce a “reality publishing” video series for URP, and List agreed to make the video with the Grievous Angels as well.
Walsh said he decided to produce the behind-the-scenes videos as a way to attract some attention for the new press. The University of Regina had previously been home to the Canadian Plains Research Centre Press. The research center closed in 2012, but its backlist of about 200 titles, including many aborigine-related titles, now belong to URP. There’s real support for the aboriginal publishing program in the university, said Walsh. “It’s great, when you think about what kind of contribution you could make.” The press’s motto is, “For many peoples, a voice.”
The reality publishing video series has followed the production of Fists Upon a Star: A Memoir of Love, Theatre and Escape from McCarthyism by Florence Bean James and Jean Freeman, showing the process of transforming a manuscript into a finished book. The series has been getting some good feedback from students in publishing programs, Walsh said. And the window on the aims of the press and its publishing team has also attracted the attention of authors who might not otherwise have considered the press, he added.
Walsh, a veteran of both academic and trade publishing in Canada, said the focus of the press is making scholarly books that can translate into the trade market. “We want our books to be relevant,” he said. Outlining his view in a publisher’s letter, he wrote, “Over the last generation, the academy has turned inward, producing far too many works that focuses on minutia and using language that excludes nonspecialists,” leading to perceptions that the humanities are irrelevant. The mission of URP, he concludes, is not only to publish great books, but also to save the humanities from themselves, by publishing books that will break out and become part of broader public debates in Canada. “You can launch a house and sort of be quiet forever, but that’s not my style,” Walsh said.