Straight Beginnings: The Rise and Fall of the Underground Press
September 04th, 2012
The Georgia Straight has been hugely influential in the B.C. literary scene. The list of writers who have found their way into print via its ages since 1967 is staggering.
New Star Press, shop for example, evolved directly from the Georgia Straight Writing Supplements. Publisher Alan Twigg and designer David Lester met while working for Dan McLeod’s Georgia Straight prior to starting BC BookWorld in 1987-1988.
Pierre Coupey’s essay on the origins of The Georgia Straight first appeared in The Grape weekly newspaper, an offshoot of The Georgia Straight, in March of 1972 (Issue #8, March 8, pages 12 and 13). Retyped by long-time Straight staffer Korky Day on September 6, 2006 and proofread by Day and Coupey on September 11, 2006, it first reappeared in print at http://www.rickmcgrath.com/georgia_straight/staffers.html
Coupey’s historical summary opened with a preface. “NOTE: In writing this, my purpose is not to malign Dan McLeod. My essential purpose is to describe the beginnings of the Straight, and as best I can the circumstances that led to our decision (Tony Grinkus', Milton Acorn's, Peter Hlookoff's, Rick Kitaeff's, and mine) to leave the Straight in November 1967.”
All the formatting and capitalization are as in the published original. The many spelling typos and one hyphen, though, were corrected by Korky Day.
In February and March 1967 the Vancouver Sun/Province mounted a campaign against the youth culture, "hippies," and "drug use." It was designed to misinform and frighten the public, and to twist the "drug" issue into a cover for police suppression of the developing social and political energies of the Vancouver young. Remember The Advance Mattress? 4th Avenue? The Sound Gallery? Vietnam? I felt strongly that we needed a voice in order to expose and resist this harassment and misinformation: the idea of starting a radical free press flashed to me one night in March. I spoke first to Rick Kitaeff about starting a paper, and he liked the idea. We called up Milton Acorn, and the three of us met at Rick's to discuss the idea further. We agreed it should be a community paper, and that to arouse community interest and participation, we should call an open meeting at Rick's house. We also agreed I should write a statement announcing the need for a free press in Vancouver, the aims of the paper, and an invitation to an open meeting. I wrote the statement, dated 30 March 1967 (see copy reproduced), showed it to Rick and Milton, got their approval, had it run off (as I recall) on Bill Bissett's press, and set out to distribute it in Vancouver. The statement invited all those interested in discussing "the aims of a free press, its name, the means to set it up, its floating editorial board, its stance and scope," to come to 883 Hamilton, Sunday 2 April 1967, at 7:30.
Although I don't remember exactly when I met Dan McLeod, it was certainly after the statement was written, and probably just before the meeting was held, or perhaps at the meeting itself. There was a large group at the first meeting, too many for me to recall everyone. Those I remember as the most active in the discussion were Milton Acorn, Rick Kitaeff, Peter Hlookoff, Tony Grinkus, Kim Foikus, Claude Jordan, Gerry Gilbert, John York, Peter Auxier, Stan Persky, John Mills, Barry Cramer, and Dan McLeod. The consensus of the group was that a free press was needed, that it should be supported by and responsible to the community at large, and that it should be co-operatively produced by as many interested people as possible. At no time was the paper conceived to be a private enterprise, owned by anyone or any one group. On the contrary: it was to be against private ownership and for community involvement. We discussed many names for the paper ("Gastown Press," "Terminal City News," etc.), and finally arrived at the name Georgia Straight, proposed (as I recall) by Dan McLeod, though it may have been Glenn Lewis' or Glenn Toppings' idea. The group at large undertook to contribute and raise money to get the paper going, again with the understanding that the community should support its own paper. Eventually we raised enough to print the first issue, the major contribution coming from Milton Acorn, some $200. The consensus of the group agreed on having an editorial board and 2 co-ordinating editors who would oversee the production of not more than 2 consecutive issues. We felt this principle necessary to prevent the paper from being controlled even editorially by any one individual, so that the paper would remain truly a co-operative. Since Dan McLeod and I were most concerned to get the paper going, we were authorized to act as the first 2 co-ordinating editors, to activate an editorial board and staff, and to get the first Georgia Straight out.
LAUGHING ON THE WAY TO THE BANK
To do that, we solicited material, assumed functions, searched for a printer. I made a poster announcing the paper, its contributors, the deadline for new material and ads, and when the first issue would be out (see copy of poster attached). At this point the paper was functioning co-operatively: Dan, Rick, Peter, Tony, Eric Freeman and I were all working closely together, not to mention Milton and many others. We also had to open a bank account, and here's where I made one of my biggest mistakes. As I recall it, Dan and I went to the Toronto-Dominion Bank, corner of 4th and Burrard, to open an account in the name Gastown Press. I didn't think this action important at the time. I suggested to Dan that he handle the money, since I neither liked nor understood money matters. I didn't think of having a joint account, with both of us responsible for signing cheques, and Dan didn't suggest it or resist my own suggestion. As a result, through my antipathy to money, my ignorance, and my naive idealism, Dan had sole signing privileges on the account, and, as I later found out, a legal claim to the paper's assets. It never occurred to me that Dan might later capitalize on the trust of all those whose money we were putting into the bank. Perhaps Dan didn't understand the implications of the moment either.
Although I worked for almost 8 months full time on the Straight (without drawing a salary) from the time we started it to the time I left, I, and most of the other founding editors, had made it clear from the beginning that we did not intend to work all our lives on the paper. We intended to maintain the principle of rotating co-ordinating editors, and accordingly I passed on my own position to Peter Hlookoff for the second issue. We idealistically expected everyone, including Dan, to follow this principle, and also expected a continuous infusion of new talent into the paper. All of that was too much to expect. Dan's willingness to assume responsibility for many of the daily demands of the paper suited, at the time, my own desire to gradually disengage from major activity and to return to my own work, even though I was disturbed at his reluctance to step down as an editor in favour of someone else, and at his unwillingness to encourage others to participate in the paper's production as editors. In short, we allowed Dan to assume a more primary role partly because we wanted to pursue our other activities, partly because we wanted to maintain the co-operative principle and allow others beside ourselves to play important roles in putting the paper out. As we can see now (and as I suspected by the time of the 3rd and 4th issues), these two purposes were mutually contradictory, and aided Dan in gradually assuming more and more editorial power within the paper, and minimizing the co-operative nature of the paper.
THE NOVEMBER 67 SPLIT
Between the appearance of the 1st issue and the 7th, a vortex of events surrounded the Straight, too many to recount here. The license suspension brought down by Milt Harrell and Tom Campbell was, however, the most important event, for two reasons. First, instead of crushing the Straight, it virtually established, by itself, the Straight as a permanent fixture in Vancouver. In becoming a major censorship issue, the suspension vaulted the Straight into national prominence, and the media in its eagerness to exploit the issue did what it usually does: simple-mindedly identified the Straight with one personality, Dan McLeod. Dan, of course, must have been pleased with the national publicity he was getting as the courageous editor of a cruelly suppressed radical paper. So the second reason the event was important was this: as so often happens, as the national media established a clear identification of the Straight with Dan McLeod, so Dan himself began to believe the publicity and identified himself as the only person responsible for the Straight.
At the same time as this was developing, dissension within the Straight was growing, a situation that was only aggravated by Dan's media encouraged personality-cult. I, and others, were becoming more concerned that Dan was not respecting the original principles of the Straight, and that he was assuming dictatorial control over a paper that was meant to be co-operative. This understanding emerged in 3 areas: in the editorial policy of the paper, in the finances of the paper, and in the total control of the paper. The last, the issue of control, is the same issue that has come to life again in the last months, almost 5 years later. Between the 5th and 7th issues, we began to suspect that Dan was taking legal steps to put the Georgia Straight in his private possession, steps that would rationalize his growing psychological belief, encouraged by the national media, that he was in fact the Georgia Straight. One of the surface rationales Dan always raised whenever doubts were expressed was that he had done "all" the work, a rationale that is not very gracious when one considers how many people contributed their time and energy to the paper up to that time. No one can deny that he did a large amount of work on the paper, or that he fought hard for the paper's continuance. But to say that is not to say that he did all the work, that the paper depended solely on his presence for its continuance, or even that there would have been a paper at all had he, in fact, been alone in putting the paper out. Nonetheless, his attitude had become one of "L'etat c'est moi," an arrogance Dan had no right to assume, the arrogance of an aristocrat or a capitalist boss who sees the efforts of others as nothing more than extensions of his will. This attitude on Dan's part showed itself more and more, to the point where one saw him treat with contempt everyone working at the Straight, especially those who fawned on him. In short, it had become clear that Dan had so far abandoned the co-operative spirit, that he was already considering all those who worked on the paper as his employees (unpaid), and not as equal co-workers in a community paper: the Georgia Straight was becoming a private enterprise, both psychologically and factually. We wanted this to stop.
As to finances, there was a further aggravating doubt: by the 5th issue, the Straight's circulation had risen to over 60,000 per issue. Even before then none of us knew what was happening to the money the Straight earned, for Dan had complete control over the back account and the finances, and he never shared information on the paper's finances. But when the Straight was selling 60,000 copies an issue, its gross earnings, at ten cents a copy (the Straight sold for 15 cents a copy then, the vendor keeping 5 cents), was $6,000 per issue, or $12,000 a month. And remember, no one a the Straight was earning a salary at that time. Now, $12,000 is an ideal figure, so let's do some subtraction. subtract the value of 20,000 papers a month as lost, stolen, or seized. That's minus $2,000; only $10,000 left now. Next, subtract the generous figure of $7,500 a month to allow for printing costs, office equipment, office rental, legal costs, and incidental expenses. That still leaves $2,500 a month profit, even at the above generous figures. Unfortunately, I was never able to find out what happened, and when we tried to get Dan to give us some idea, he was evasive in the extreme, and never gave a satisfactory response. Obviously we suspected a measure of financial mismanagement.
We also began to question Dan's editorial direction of the paper. He would arbitrarily reject articles for the paper after they had been accepted by other editors. He discouraged talented new people who wanted to work on the Straight, especially if they were local and independent. He relied too heavily on UPS American reprints, discouraging in the process the development of accurate reporting on local and national politics. Politically, the paper was becoming so tepid, a kind of hippy liberal/NDP mix, as to fail to offer any real alternative to the politics of the Vancouver Sun/Province complex. All of these dissatisfactions: Dan's editorial policies, his financial vagueness, his arrogance toward Straight editors and workers (he even had a private office!), and his assumption that he now "owned" the Straight, built up to the point where Milton and I especially, and Peter Hlookoff in a more detached way, wanted to confront Dan and air the issues. But Dan became elusive, even more uncommunicative than he usually was, and did his best to avoid committing himself to a meeting.
Finally, we were able to force a meeting of the editors just before the 7th issue (Nov. 10, 1967) came out. Present at that meeting were Milton Acorn, Peter Hlookoff, John Laxton, Dan and myself. A few others may have been present, but they were not essential to the discussion. John Laxton was supposed to act as an unbiased mediator, but as it turned out, Dan was at times so incapable of speaking for himself, that Laxton did much of his arguing for him, and seemed to be acting on Dan's behalf. The three basic issues were raised: editorial policy, control of finances, and control of the paper, but the last was obviously the most important. We began by discussing Dan's attitudes, the fact that he now acted openly as a dictator, and that he assumed he "owned" the paper (because he had done "all" the work, and had the bank account in his name). Laxton supported Dan's assertions that he had done "all" the work, and that on that basis, he did "own" the paper. We reminded Dan that the paper had started as a co-operative and was never meant to be anyone's private possession. We proposed that we form a co-operative non-profit society under the B.C. Societies Act, as we should have done right at the beginning, and, better late than never, legalize the co-operative nature of the paper, and thereby eliminate capitalism at the Georgia Straight. Dan refused the proposal, which was supported by Milton, Peter, and myself, and asserted that he did not have to consider the paper a co-operative since he now "owned" the paper. In refusing, however, Dan and Laxton offered what they considered a "just" and generous compromise: they had the nerve to propose that ownership of the Straight be shared between Dan, Peter, and myself – Dan to have 50%, Peter and I to have 25% each. We, of course, refused such a deal. The Straight was formed as a community co-operative, and did not belong to Dan, nor could it belong to Peter or me. We refused to have anything to do with private ownership, a corporation, or anything less than a true co-operative. In the process of this discussion we had demanded a public audit of the Georgia Straight books (if there were any) in order to discover what had been happening to Straight money, and to discover where the paper was financially. Dan refused to consider an audit, and denied that he had to. In short, Dan was totally intractable, and Laxton supported him so strongly in his mediation, it became apparent it was futile to try and achieve a workable arrangement with Dan, and that it was equally futile to try and work with the Straight under his control. There was no point, given that most of the Straight staff at that time was composed of McLeod lackeys who had no vision of the paper, who had not been around at the time the Straight started, and had been chosen by Dan precisely because of their subservience to him, in trying to form a staff revolt. There was no point, in view of Dan's insistence, and Laxton's support of that insistence, that he "owned" the paper "legally" in trying to force him out of the Straight without going to court, and we simply did not have the resources to take such action. And, in spite of everything, we did not want to have to make such an either/or choice. We had hoped Dan would be open enough to recognize he had violated the fundamental spirit and principles of the Straight's founding group and of the community the Straight was responsible to. We had hoped he would cease his arrogant assumption of ownership, and recognize he was part of a community larger and more important than himself alone. But, given his refusal to recognize the Straight's origins as a co-operative free press, given his obstinate and arrogant assumption of ownership, given our powerlessness at the time to force him out, we chose to break with him and the Straight rather than to continue in the sham of presenting the Straight as a free press when it was being subsumed and run by one who apparently did not believe in a free press at all.
In the 7th issue (on which I had already done much of the layout, and which carried a collage of mine on the back cover), Dan announced that "Four editors – Pierre Coupey, Peter Hlookoff, Milton Acorn, and Tony Grinkus – have resigned from the paper. They are going to form a new (and different) paper, and we have agreed to lend them our support. The growth of the fifth estate media is necessary in order to keep all communication lines open and honest." The announcement was dishonest for several reasons: 1) it implies that we asked for Dan's "support" to help us set up The Western Gate, something we never did ask for; 2) it neglected to mention that we resigned in protest of Dan's refusal to maintain the paper as the co-operative it was originally intended to be; 3) the last statement is especially suspect in view of the fact that Dan's communication lines with us at the time of our meeting and before were certainly less than "open and honest." Dan McLeod's co-opting of the Straight culminated in his forming, without the staff's knowledge, Georgia Straight Publishing Limited, at the end of November 1967, with himself as owner.
It is interesting to note that Dan has once again graciously offered assistance to a "new and different paper," this time The GRAPE. Slick, but empty PR work.
WHY I SUPPORT THE COOPERATIVE AND THE GRAPE
I supported the co-operative's efforts to reclaim the Georgia Straight, because the paper was founded on the principle of co-operative ownership, tried to return to that principle in November 1967, and needs to return to that principle now. Since leaving the Straight in November 67, I recognize I have no personal claims on the paper at all, and don't wish to make any. In this account of my own involvement with the Straight, however, I meant to reaffirm that at the time the Georgia Straight started, the spirit of the group founding the paper militated absolutely against its private ownership by any person or group. At no time did the group that founded the Georgia Straight, or the community from which it derived its resources, authorize the private ownership of the Georgia Straight, or give consent to its being anything but a co-operative.
Essay Date: 2007