Andreas Schroeder: Photo Credit Laurie Sawchuck Heading: Andreas Schroeder



 by Andreas Schroeder



Canada's PLR: The Untold Story


I should begin this talk with a caveat. I am, of course, going to do my best to stay reasonably objective in my reminiscences. At the same time, I want to make it clear that I’m not speaking in any formal way on behalf of the PLR Commission -- the opinions expressed will be mine alone, even if I occasionally slip into the first-person-plural out of old habit. (After 35 years in the PLR trenches, it’s sometimes hard to stop using that inclusive “we”.) Last but not least, it’s always good to remember the general proviso that the long and  impressive list of accomplishments racked up by the Writers’ Union during our first couple of decades – of which PLR was merely one – all tended to involve a substantial intake of alcohol.

Now before I get into what will necessarily be my rather more subjective view of Canada’s PLR history, I just want to emphasize that it took the participation and dedication of a significant number of Union members to achieve PLR. So I’ve ransacked both my memory and my archives and have assembled a list of people whose assistance and support I very much wish to acknowledge before I do anything else. Regrettably, given that we’re going all the way back to 1973 here, a fair number of these writers are unfortunately no longer with us, or no longer engaged in active service. (In fact, when I showed her the list, my wife Sharon did a quick calculation and said: My god, were you still in diapers when you joined the Union? Which, I have to admit, was at least metaphorically true.)

Anyway, I’ve grouped these names in roughly chronological order, not by age but by when they were involved, and I’d ask you to please hold your applause until I’ve read them all:

Marian Engel, Margaret Laurence, Graeme Gibson, Charlotte Fielden, Charles Taylor, June Callwood, Lynn Harrington, Sylvia Fraser, Janet Lunn, Robin Skelton, Rudy Wiebe, Eugene Benson, Audrey Thomas, Margaret Atwood, Pierre Berton, Matt Cohen, Susan Crean, Betty Jane Wylie, Greg Cook, Terry Heath, Michael Gilbert, Keith Maillard, Cathy Wismer, David Homel, Fred Kerner, Nancy-Gay Rotstein, Ann Szumigalski, Bonnie Burnard, Karleen Bradford, Joan Clark, Ken McGoogan, Andreas Schroeder.

Now – the history. As some of you may know, PLR in Canada was actually first proposed by the Canadian Authors’ Association way back in 1949, long before the Writers’ Union was founded, but for me it all began in the fall of 1972, a year before the Union’s birth. I was then a member of the League of Canadian Poets, and on this particular day, the League was holding its 6th annual general meeting in Regina’s Hotel Saskatchewan.   

For reasons already implied, what little I remember of that meeting was that it was an unmitigated disaster. It had been scheduled right into the middle of the Canada-Russia Summit Hockey Series, and even though the hotel was swarming with over a hundred of Canada’s finest poets, nobody was showing up for the meetings. Our executive director ran up and down the corridors, pleading for at least enough turnout to manage a quorum, but she wasn’t having much luck. And when Canada gave up the final goal that lost us Game #5, and poets all over the hotel hurled their beer & pretzels into the air in despair (and John Newlove, who was watching the game in Al Purdy’s room, hurled his beer bottle straight at the television set, which promptly exploded), the hotel’s management informed the League that it was no longer welcome to hold its AGMs in that hotel ever again.

The next morning everyone was feeling pretty crappy, and this seemed to include Margaret Atwood, though I wasn’t aware that she was much of a hockey fan. When I asked her why, she said that the weekend’s shenanigans had made her seriously doubt that the League had the motivation to really take on the politicians and bureaucrats in Ottawa, and she was concerned about that. There were big problems looming for Canada’s literary industry: the Americans were taking over our publishing houses, dumping American editions of Canadian books into Canada in direct competition with our own editions, Canadian universities were ignoring Canadian literature in favour of British and American books, and suchlike and so on. What we really needed was a hard-nosed, politically astute and strategically savvy writers’ organization -- a writers’ UNION is what we really needed, she said -- with enough clout to cause some serious shit-disturbing in Ottawa. In fact, she said, a small group of Toronto writers had lately been getting together on Marian Engel’s front porch to kick this idea around, with plans to start up such a Union. Was I interested in getting involved?

 I was, and I did. And one of the first discussions I attended on Marian’s porch was about PLR. Canadian writers needed a new source of income; we were averaging less than $5000 per annum in those days, not enough for even a single person to live on. And while we all supported Canada’s public library system, we couldn’t see why writers should be the only people giving up part of their income to finance it. Librarians weren’t being dinged a percentage of their salaries; neither were the janitors or the administrators. Where was the logic in that?

We founded the Union a year later, on November 3, 1973, about a hundred of us, with Marian Engel elected as Chair. Marian promptly chose PLR as her main focus, and then she let fly as only Marian could. Over the next two years she arranged a string of meetings with librarians all over Ontario, trying to explain and discuss the concept. She even became a Board trustee right here at the Toronto Public Library in hopes of getting a more productive conversation going. (In fact, some people suspected that her decision to make the main character in her famous novella BEAR a librarian wasn’t entirely free of tactical intent. Marian could be pretty imaginative in her tactics when she needed to be.)

But the concept of a so-called “free” library system is, and remains, a deeply entrenched ideology in Canada’s library world, and most librarians didn’t want to come within a hundred yards of that topic. Marian hit a lot of brick walls, and over time this really got her dander up. I was on her committee right from the start, and she used to call me, when she’d had an unproductive day, to bitch about how it was our books that were making libraries possible, and yet no one who ran these libraries seemed to give a crap about the people whose books paid their salaries. Finally, at a meeting of provincial librarians held, once again, in this very building, Marian blew a gasket and publicly accused Canada’s librarians of “ripping off Canada’s writers” by lending out their books for free, thereby undermining their book sales. 

Well, let me tell you – think a dumptruck load of TNT, and Marian waving a match. The resulting ruckus proved so explosive that (as she told me later) Marian wasn’t entirely sure that she’d make it out of that room alive. Even the Globe & Mail reporter who’d been dozing in the back row woke up, and the next day’s headlines finally made PLR part of Canada’s national conversation. I don’t think that’s how Marian had planned it, but sometimes you’ve just got to grab your opportunities where you find them.

Tragically, Marian wasn’t able to follow up on this success. What a lot of people didn’t know was that she’d been struggling with a slow-growing form of leukemia, and at this worst possible moment, it started flaring up again. I got another one of her late-night calls in which she told me she’d need all her available energy to fight this off, and then she asked me – well, to be honest she basically ordered me – to take over and keep the momentum going. That was another thing about Marian; she was pretty hard to turn down when she had her mind made up. 

So I agreed, though I really didn’t have much of a sense of what I was getting into at the time. If I’d known PLR was going to take another decade to achieve, and then another one to get it entrenched, would I have agreed to it? God knows. But by then the Union had adopted the tradition that anyone standing for the position of Union Chair had to commit to at least one long-term project that would extend past their chairing term, and I’d been elected Vice-Chair earlier that year, so I needed a project of this kind anyway, for the following year when I became Chair. So I signed on.

 But now we had a country-ful of pretty cheesed-off librarians to deal with, and I’ll tell you, it wasn’t long before I could readily understand Marian’s frustrations. It was by now 1975, there were PLR programs popping up all over Europe, but not a spark in North America. Everybody was dug in so deep you could barely see the tops of their heads. In fact, feelings about PLR were running so high that it was actually causing fist fights in the hallways of the UBC School of Library Science, where the students of one of Canada’s few pro-PLR librarians at the time – name of Basil Stuart Stubbs -- were caught duking it out on several occasions with the students of one of Canada’s most virulently anti-PLR librarians, Samuel Rothstein, whose office was right across the hall from Basil’s. It struck me at the time as a touch uncivilized, though in retrospect, considering the apathy that cultural issues seem to engender today, I’ve come to view it with a certain nostalgia. And I just want to say, parenthetically, that if the history of Canada’s PLR is ever written & published, Basil Stuart Stubbs should be awarded some truly serious credit. He promoted PLR for Canada’s writers at a time when all he could realistically hope to gain was a lot of abuse, both in the press and from his colleagues, and he certainly got that in spades. 

Now you might be wondering why we were even bothering to tangle with Canada’s librarians over PLR. Why didn’t we just do an end-run around them? Well, the reason was simple: Ottawa. Every time we went there to raise the issue, we were told: don’t even think about it until the whole industry’s onboard – writers, librarians, publishers, translators, illustrators -- and make sure it’s for both language groups. Get an agreement from everybody first, and then come talk to us.

Of course we knew this was just an easy way to get rid of us, but we were young and naïve and full of piss & vinegar, so we headed straight over to the Canadian Library Association and we said, okay guys, we’re here to deal: what’s it going to take? And they said well, as long as you don’t call it PLR, or claim we’re causing you lost sales, or ask us to pay for it, or expect us to do any unpaid work for it, or use the information you gather for any other purpose – we won’t exactly support it, but I guess we’ll put up with it – sort of.

Our initial discussions with the publishers weren’t a whole lot more promising, but after half a dozen more talks, one of the more productive of which ended up with our intrepid executive director Alma Lee cavorting naked in Jack McClelland’s swimming pool – yeah well, in those days being executive director of a writers’ organization sometimes involved requirements that have more recently come to be frowned on -- and after Sylvia Fraser moved things even more productively forward by waltzing down the middle of Yonge Street in a rather translucent toga, on the arm of a publisher who…(but you know, maybe that’s information that should remain embargoed for another few decades). Suffice it to say that Canada’s publishers did eventually acknowledge that they were already getting way more financial support from Ottawa than the writers, so for the moment, at least, they expressed themselves willing to zero-rate their claim to any PLR funding we might be able to scare up. Meanwhile UNEQ, the Quebec writers’ union, was working the francophone side of the street toward the same end, and they managed that with pretty much the same results.  

While all this was going on, we also contacted the provincial culture ministries in the hopes that the provinces might cough up a few dollars for PLR – because, technically, you see, libraries actually fall under the jurisdiction of the provinces, not the feds. But that proved a complete waste of time. Pay writers for the library use of their books?? What kind of weird hippie idea was that? Not interested. Close the door on your way out. About the closest we got to any sort of paydirt was Saskatchewan, which said they might be willing to make a contribution toward PLR – but only for Saskatchewan authors. But even then they said they’d really have to think about it. So they really thought about it for another ten minutes and then turned us down too.

So it was the feds or nothing, and that’s where we put our entire emphasis. For the next two years I must have met with every politician and bureaucrat in Ottawa who was willing to even just talk about PLR. We sent out a truckload of letters, made hundreds of phone calls, and put the topic on the agenda of every academic, literary, business, and political conference we could convince to listen to us. We made school visits, addressed teachers’ conventions, made presentations at book fairs and festivals, and got journalists who were TWUC members to write pro-PLR articles in every major newspaper in the country. By now some librarians had become more sympathetic and willing to distribute PLR-promoting bookmarks to their library users, so that was great. We got the CBC to host phone-in shows, got me several interviews with Peter Gzowski on the topic, had our MLA’s raise the issue in the house, had our most prominent writers visit everyone from the Secretary of State John Roberts right up to Pierre Trudeau himself. In short, we did every damn thing you’re supposed to do in this kind of political campaign, and we did it three times over – and with the hindsight of 25 years, and much as I hate to admit it, most of it was probably a total waste of time. When we finally did get PLR, what made it happen really had little if anything to do with all that work we’d done.  

Why? Because it eventually dawned on us that taking an issue to the public only works if enough of the public is actually affected by it. Our recent campaign to fix Bill C-32, for example; that was a perfect fit because the outcome will actually make a difference to literally millions of people, either pro or con. Every Canadian writer, every publisher, every employee in the publishing industry, every student in the country, every teacher,  educational bureaucrat and staff member, librarian, library user, every Canadian parent  -- those sorts of  numbers actually attract political attention. PLR never had that kind of pull. Most people we contacted really couldn’t have cared less about the issue. They might have had an opinion about it, but their own lives really wouldn’t have been affected by it.  

But that didn’t become clear until later. What happened now -- and this will take us through to the early 1980’s – will probably always remain one of the most perplexing stages of our PLR campaign. We’d gone to the Canada Council to ask for financial help to keep the campaign rolling, because all this campaigning was costing us money we didn’t have. And the Council agreed, but to everyone’s surprise it agreed on one condition. They’d fund the campaign, but only if they could also run it.

I don’t know to this day what the Council’s motives were. Was it a personal initiative by Naim Kattan, the head of the Writing & Publishing section at that time, or was it the Council’s Board of Directors, who wanted to expand their own program base? Did they think that, with most of the gruntwork done, it would be an easy score to pick up the ball in the final stages and run with it?

We discussed this at considerable length at National Council, which was pretty leery of the whole business, but I said look, let’s just not worry about what their motives are, we need to get this job done and they’ve got the resources – if we don’t like how they’re handling it, we can always just take it back. So that’s the basis on which the Union eventually agreed to the deal, and we gave the Canada Council the go-ahead.

It took the Council quite a while to get their PLR Committee up and running (which, in deference to Canada’s librarians they didn’t call PLR but rather the PAYMENT FOR PUBLIC USE COMMITTEE, with the somewhat unfortunate acronym PPU) but by early 1977 it was operational and its 6 members (two writers, two publishers, and two librarians) set to work. The two writers on the committee were Lynn Harrington and myself, with Lynn representing the CAA and I representing TWUC. Our job was straightforward but huge: to research, design, build and road-test a PLR program, adapted specifically for Canada’s unique circumstances.  

This turned out to be a lot harder than we expected – largely because it proved to be so frustratingly counter-intuitive. It should have been a cakewalk because by that time there were already a dozen PLR programs in operation around the world, some based on straight circulation (in which authors are paid every time their books are borrowed), some on holdings (in which authors are paid a lump sum for the availability of their books on library shelves), and some on a mix of both. But there were major problems with each approach. A circulation-based system seemed on the face of it the most fair, directly addressing the issue of lost royalties from borrowed books, but the librarians didn’t want a system based on that premise, and anyway, a circulation-based system simply mirrored the marketplace, which, after all, was the cause of the problem we were trying to fix. What would have been the point of going to all this trouble if most of the program’s benefit was going to go directly to the 10% of Canada’s writers who didn’t need it? And finally, this system, especially in the early days of computers, would have been extremely expensive to run. In Britain and Germany, where it was already being used, over a third of the annual PLR budget went directly into the pockets of clerks, not writers. That didn’t seem to bother anyone else around the table, but we writers raised enough objections to that notion to eventually put the kibosh on it.

So it was a holdings system more or less by default, but even in a holdings-based system the really successful writers can easily run away with most of the pot. So we kicked around the idea of putting a limit on how much PLR income you could earn. Most of the committee thought our successful writers would never put up with that, but I contacted about two dozen of them  – both anglophone and francophone -- and I don’t know if this will surprise you, but with the exception of only two writers – one of whom told me to stick it where the sun don’t shine -- every other writer not only went along with the idea, but some even offered to contribute their entire share to the common good – and did. So we built a $4,000 earnings ceiling into our formula, which had the effect of redistributing well over half a million dollars of the money that would have been earned by our most successful writers, back into our general pot -- and in all the years I chaired or served on the board of the PLR Commission, we never received a single complaint from a maxed-out author about that. (I don’t know about you, but that still strikes me as pretty darn impressive.)

There was still one last big decision we had to make, and that was whether to operate PLR inside or outside of the Copyright Act. Most existing PLR programs operated inside it, but the downsides for Canada were pretty major. Back in the 70’s, CanLit was only a fraction of the size it’s become today, and our public libraries were full of mostly American and British books. A PLR system run within copyright law would have forced us to include all British and American writers in our scheme, meaning we’d be sending anywhere from half to two-thirds of our PLR budget offshore. So that decision was a no-brainer. However, it wasn’t without serious implications. A PLR scheme operated outside of the Copyright Act meant a scheme unprotected by law, operated and financed at the pleasure of the government – an ominous-sounding description that some people worry just might come back to bite us in the butt someday. Given the Harper government’s fiscal priorities these days, it’s a concern that’s not hard to understand. 

Speaking of butt-biting, it didn’t take long before this began to happen to the Canada Council’s  PPU Committee. During its first few years, while we were up to our eyeballs in research and program design, we had meetings every couple of months and there was a wonderful sense of surging progress. But once we started grinding our way through the really contentious stuff, like which authors and which books would be eligible, how the management of the program would be structured, who would be on the Board and how the votes would be distributed, it wasn’t long before people at the Council seemed to lose interest. The intervals between meetings increased, and by 1982 we were down to meeting about twice a year.

We writers on the committee first complained, and then raised hell, and that worked for a while, but only because another unexpected PLR supporter came out of the woodwork -- Katherine Benzekri, the Asst. Head of the Writing & Publication Section. She repeatedly put her job on the line to keep the momentum going (and actually did eventually lose her job over it), and that bought us another year or so of further development work, but finally even Benzekri couldn’t budge the Council anymore. So I got together with Robin Skelton, our Union chair at the time, and it was decided that the Union would take back control of the PLR campaign as per our agreed-upon fall-back position, and that’s exactly what we did.

So now we had the campaign’s controls back in our hands, which was great, but now we needed some serious leverage to get this train back on its tracks. One idea we spent a fair number of brain cells on was a plan for a huge demonstration in front of this very library, scheduled to coincide with the Union’s 1983 AGM, at which hundreds of us would show up, check out our books, and pile them up in huge stacks on the sidewalk outside, to demonstrate just how significant our contribution to our country’s library system actually was. We didn’t end up doing that for some reason, but we did organize a Canada-wide PLR Day in the fall of that year, when Eugene Benson was our chair, with Union members conducting PLR demonstrations of one kind or another all across the country. I don’t remember many details, but I do recall some deathless poetry contributed by Margaret Atwood and read by the actor Gordon Pinsent at the Toronto demonstration. It went something like this:

There are strange things done ‘neath the Ottawa sun,
By the men who moil for (whatever they moil for),
But PLR, is a thing they’ve not, been noted to specially toil for.

(For some reason, we’ve never been able to find that amazing poem in any of her subsequent collections.)

We also, the following year, staged a Great PLR March on Parliament Hill, chanting and waving placards, over a hundred of us, the sight so terrifying that we soon acquired an escort of two whole police cruisers. Unfortunately it was pissing with rain, which made us look rather more forlorn than militant, and our subsequent meeting with the current Minister of Communications, Francis Fox, was no less sodden. Our only revenge came when Audrey Thomas managed to pin a button on the minister’s lapel that read: “He’s pretty, but can he type?”      

By 1985 we’d been banging away at this PLR thing for over a dozen years, and I have to admit, there were mornings when I got up and thought: man, this is the biggest waste of time since Sisyphus started rolling rocks. What the hell’s the point? This is never going to happen. We keep going to Ottawa every few months for yet another round of talks, and every bureaucrat or politician we talk with is being paid 100 grand a year just to give us the illusion that something’s being accomplished when nothing actually is. They can keep doing this forever, while we’re wasting our lives for sweet f-all. 

And then, god help me, it happened. It happened so abruptly, so out of the clear blue sky, there are still days when it feels so much like a fairytale I’m almost embarrassed to tell it.

Let me set this up for you. In September of 1984 Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives had clobbered John Turner’s Liberals after only two and a half months in power, and Marcel Masse became Minister of Communications. Masse was a red Tory and a thoroughly cultivated guy – he actually read Canadian literature, attended Canadian theatre productions and films, and supported Canadian culture generally. (This I regret to say, seems to have become something of a rare thing in a Canadian culture minister.) So when Mulroney started negotiating his Free Trade deal with the United States, Masse wanted to keep Canadian culture off the table, and when this didn’t happen, he protested. He became so outspoken on this subject that rumours started circulating that Mulroney might actually pull him off his portfolio for the length of the negotiations.

Masse obviously knew about this, but he kept up the pressure. He alarmed the PMO by promoting an increase in Canada’s Canadian-Content airplay requirements, talking up the notion of a similar system for Canadian films, and promoting the expansion of a Canadian-controlled movie industry. He also stood his ground when the Americans pressured him to back off on ideas of that sort, as did the PMO.

 By the spring of 1985, when Matt Cohen and I met him (Matt was the tenth Union chair with whom I worked on PLR), Masse seemed to have considered his own ouster inevitable, but he couldn’t resist at least a couple more last-minute acts of cultural subversion -- and PLR just happened to be in the right place at the right time to become one of them.

We met him in a small restaurant off Bloor Street, where he was having a bite after some film opening he’d just attended. He was accompanied by two or three assistants, and he seemed in very good spirits – both literally and figuratively. He was familiar with our proposal and had even, by this time, spent some time trying to get the provinces to buy into it, but with no more success than we’d had some years earlier. He didn’t need to have our latest version of it explained because Matt had already done that for him at an earlier meeting. What he wanted to know now, and in much greater detail, was exactly how we proposed to run such a system on a purely federal basis in Canada.

We described that for him point for point, and he asked a lot of thoughtful questions. He wanted to know how the publishers and the librarians would be involved in this. And what about the francophone/anglophone issue? What was the latest on that? Fortunately we were able to assure him that we had everyone on side. He asked how much the different versions of the scheme would cost, and what sort of options we considered to be critical.

Now Matt and I had discussed this earlier, and had agreed on the following tactic. According to my calculations, we could do a bare-bones, stripped-down version for about 2 million. (That’d be about 6 million dollars today). For a plan paying a slightly higher fee per book, but restricted to just literary works, including fiction, nonfiction, poetry and drama, we’d need about 3 million (about 9 million in today’s dollars). For total coverage of every book published in Canada, no exceptions, we’d need at least 4.25 million (just under 13 million dollars today).

Our plan had been to give Masse the largest number we figured he wouldn’t choke on -- but by the time we got to this question, we’d both formed the impression that Masse wasn’t playing games with us. So we didn’t play games with him. We gave him all three numbers.

He frowned; you could almost see him running through column after column of figures. Finally he looked around at his assistants, who’d been looking increasingly alarmed at all these numbers. “Well gentlemen,” he said. “I think we can manage 3 million, don’t you?”

Now here’s what I remember most vividly about this meeting – although it was so weird, I had to check with Matt afterwards to make sure I hadn’t just imagined it. Because after asking his assistants this question, Masse turned to us – not to them – and carried right on as if they’d all agreed. But the thing was: they hadn’t. In fact, after initial looks of shock, they’d all shaken their headsvigorously. They protested that Treasury Board would have a fit over an amount that big, and, anyway, given the feelings about him at the PMO, was there going to be enough political support for this plan? 

But Masse waved all their objections away; it was clear he’d made up his mind about this, and that was that. He asked us to come to see him in Ottawa the following week to work out the details, and over the next month or so, Matt, as Union chair, carried on the negotiations, while I parked my carcass near a phone on the west coast in case they needed more details.

That fall, on September 24, 1985, in Halifax, Marcel Masse publically announced the federal government’s intention to pay for a PLR program. Naturally, writers all over the country went nuts. But what totally threw us for a loop the very next day, on September 25, was Masse’s abrupt resignation of his cabinet post. Turned out he was being investigated by the RCMP for alleged campaign overspending by his election team.

Had he known about this for a while already, and had he been working frantically to get our PLR program in under the wire before he was bucked off his horse? It sure looked that way. God bless the guy for that, if it was true! At the same time, the more urgent question was whether his stand-in, a back-bencher named Benoit Bouchard, would honor Masse’s commitments.

To our enormous relief, Bouchard did. He kept the file moving, and when Masse returned to his post 2 months later (exonerated), Masse immediately resumed control of the project. By the following spring he’d secured provisional Treasury Board agreement for it, and by that fall, 3 million dollars had been promised for the program.

So Masse was proving as good as his word – though there were some complications. The haste with which everything had to get done forced us into a number of shortcuts that have dogged the PLR program ever since. The normal way to set up this kind of program would have been through an act of parliament, but with no time for that, it had to be piggy-backed onto an institution that already had the necessary accounting arrangements with the government to both receive the PLR funds and to account for them at the end of every budget year. Therefore: did we want to be put (purely for accounting purposes) under the aegis of the National Library, the National Archives, or the Canada Council?

We chose the CC, since it already had a similar arrangement with UNESCO (also an independent program) – so we figured the Council’s management would be more familiar and comfortable with such a deal. Twenty-five years later, I’m not so sure that “familiar” and “comfortable” have always turned out to be quite the right adjectives for the Commission’s relationship with the Canada Council. Depending on the attitude or business philosophy of the Council’s various directors over the years, our relationship has varied from remarkably generous to downright carnivorous. But that’s a story for another time.  

Another issue that almost ended the party before it had really started was the sudden demand, by UNEQ, for 50% of the total PLR budget, even though the French-speaking proportion of Canada’s population was less than 25%. Their logic was that Canada had 2 official languages, so each should get half the money. Debate on this issue quickly became heated, because Masse was absolutely categorical: if anything about PLR was going to cause him trouble in Quebec, he wanted nothing to do with it. It was to Matt Cohen’s enormous credit that he managed to convince UNEQ to abandon that position, and thus keep the negotiations from going off the rails at the last minute.

But the biggest challenge had to do with timing. It was now September 1986, less than 4 months before Christmas, and Masse had made it very clear that he could only guarantee this money until the end of the year. If we didn’t have a full-fledged, totally operational PLR program in place by the end of the calendar year (December ‘86), and the cheques mailed out by the end of the fiscal year (March ’87), that $3 million – and not impossibly, the whole program -- was toast. It was a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

Here’s what that meant in practical terms. We had to assemble a full PLR Commission, elect an Executive, thrash out a constitution and a voting structure, rent and furnish office space, hire and train a complete staff, finalize our choice of a PLR program and design the software to run it; contact and register over 5,000 Canadian authors, create a 17,000-title database of their books, hire and train 10 groups of library students from across the country to match up this database to the holdings of Canada’s 10 largest libraries, process the results and calculate the PLR payments owed to the authors; print, collate and mail out the resulting cheques – and do it all in less than 6 months, or 13 years of Union efforts would be down the tubes.

Graeme Gibson, when I told him about it, called it a classic “hang-noose” deal – we’d been given just enough rope to hang ourselves. Then he flashed his trademark roguish grin and pointed out that, on the other hand, if we flubbed the job and lost the money, we’d have 5,000 seriously pissed-off Canadian writers on our tail, which, all things considered, was going to be a damned effective motivator. As usual, he had that pretty much right.

So we hit the deck running, and it’s amazing how effectively people can work together when there’s simply no room to screw around. It took us less than two weeks to pull together a full-fledged PLR Commission (of which I became founding chair), with both francophone and anglophone writers, translators, publishers, librarians, and government representatives drawn from right across the country. We moved into the Canada Council’s office building mere days later, and despite some of my rather grumpy remarks about the Council in later years, I’d be a turd if I didn’t acknowledge how invaluable their help and generosity was at this point. We used their Human Resources dept. to hire our staff; we rented office space from them, we furnished those offices with the Council’s castoff furniture, we utilized their meeting rooms, computer facilities, accounting services, nation-wide phone system and their mailroom. We paid for everything we used, but what they charged us in those days was more than reasonable.

Since the research had largely been done, we were able to use most of the PLR plan we’d designed at the Council’s PPU Committee. To contact the writers, we combined the results of a test registration drive that our PPU Committee had conducted 3 years earlier, with the address lists of our Commission’s own writers’ groups plus those of the Council, and everyone spread the word. Once registrations started pouring in, we were able to use the Ottawa Public Library across the street to verify much of the cataloguing data, and what we couldn’t verify there, we sorted out at the National Library just a few blocks farther away.

Once it was clear our money wasn’t coming out of their budgets, Canada’s librarians became increasingly helpful, even giving us the names of their part-time staff so we could hire them to do the library sampling. That turned into a total win-win, since they got the extra work, we didn’t have to train anyone, and access to their library catalogues effectively became an inside job. (And I just want to throw in, parenthetically, that our relationship with Canada’s librarians over PLR has been really quite excellent ever since – something I really hope can be maintained as we all struggle with the issue of digitizing library books and the lending of ebooks.)  

By mid-November we were belting along in high gear, with people often working late into the night and all through the weekends. When winter kicked in, some of the staff who lived in the suburbs stashed sleeping bags under their desks, so they could overnight in their offices if a blizzard hit and the buses stopped running. (I had some complaints from the building’s security staff about this, but once I’d explained the situation, they actually got into the spirit too and sometimes brought us coffee and doughnuts after-hours while we worked.) I eventually gave up risking the wintery commute from the west coast and just moved into a friend’s Ottawa townhouse for the duration; since he and his girlfriend were planning to spend several years sailing around the world and were outfitting a boat for this purpose, they’d already sold off all their furniture except their own mattress, so I slept for almost three months in their empty dining room, curled up in their boat’s inflatable life raft. I always thought there was something appropriately symbolic about that.

The scariest part of the operation was that we were doing a lot of stuff simultaneously that really should have been done sequentially. It was a huge gamble, but we really had no choice. So author registration was going on full bore while the software that would process that information was still being written; similarly, we were already assembling lists of eligible titles well before the library protocols to process those lists had been finalized and tested. Any serious error in synchronizing any of these operations could have collapsed the whole thing in on itself, but by some miracle that never happened. In fact, the whole system came together so effectively that it’s still being used in essentially the same format today, 25 years later.

By early December, even the naysayers were grudgingly admitting there was a chance we might pull this off, and by late December there was no question that the program was indeed “up and running” as per the first part of Masse’s requirements. Anyone that could, worked right through the Christmas holidays, and when our executive secretary came running in with the first library sampling results in late January, I knew we had it in the bag. By the end of February we had all the numbers matched up, and by mid-March, two weeks before D-Day, we were ready to print the first cheques.

By that time, just as he’d suspected, Masse’s inconvenient defense of Canadian culture during the free trade negotiations had resulted in his ouster from the Communications portfolio (he was moved to Energy), but happily for us, his replacement, Flora MacDonald, proved every bit as supportive and helpful. When I phoned her to tell her we were ready to print the cheques, she suggested we make a celebration out of it and that’s what we did. We gussied up our digs at the Canada Council and called the press, she joined us with her entire entourage, and on March 17, 1987, with cameras clicking and flashbulbs popping, Flora MacDonald turned on our cheque-printing machine and triumphantly held up a lengthening scroll of the first of 4,432 cheques destined for the bank accounts of Canada’s writers.

Our plan had been to have the entire crew stuffing envelopes for the final 3 days of the fiscal year, so we’d be done by midnight on March 31, after which the whole project would explode into the loudest, craziest, most raucous party ever unleashed in the Canada Council’s normally decorous halls. And we did make it – at least as close as darn is to damn. By 3 o’clock in the morning half of us were still stuffing envelopes, but the rest were already making paper chains and using paper shredders to create impromptu confetti, some of which, I understand, actually got into some of the final envelopes. So if you were one of the small contingent of authors who got their first PLR cheques inexplicably garnished with short curlicues of red paper, now you finally have your explanation.

So that’s the story of Canada’s PLR saga, or at least the 13 years it took us to achieve it. And you know, it’s worked fairly well since then, all things considered. I think we can all be quite pleased with what was achieved. But it’s not just the creation of PLR that we can legitimately be pleased about. Something else was achieved here too, and perhaps I’ll be stepping on a few toes to make this point, but I think the point needs to be made.

I’m old enough now to have seen the following phenomenon too often. Writers – in fact artists generally – produce the highest level of cultural expression, yet tend to get paid at the lowest level of the cultural food chain. That’s why we created the Union, and that’s why we created PLR. But what really troubles me is what so often happens when artists of whatever stripe finally get it together to do something about this. Hundreds, even thousands of volunteer hours get poured into the crusade; dozens, sometimes hundreds of artists take time away from their art to put their shoulders to the wheel -- and sometimes, if they’re lucky, they actually manage to make their point and win the day. Resources are made available, a program is established, staff is hired, and the artists can finally go back to creating their art, relieved that the goal has been accomplished.

And maybe it has, but flash forward a couple of years and here’s what we see far too often: the program is still operating, but a shiny new office building has been acquired, the staff has quadrupled or worse, the administrative costs have gone through the roof, and the artists, for whom the whole undertaking was created in the first place, are now getting a mere fraction of the money. Does that sound familiar? Why does that keep happening? Well the answer is obvious: the artists have left the building. There’s nobody left to adequately represent their interests – or the people on the board won’t or can’t do the job anymore. We looked at half a dozen such programs when we were designing ours, and I want to tell you: that was one outcome we were determined to avoid.

And we have. Canada’s PLR program is arguably the leanest, most economically run program of its kind in Canada (and actually, in the world) with over 92% of its budget paid out to Canada’s writers each year. That’s an administrative rate of less than 8%; compare that with similar collective programs costing as much as 30% of their total budget, and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about. There are collectives in Canada serving only half as many writers or artists as PLR, with staffs that have ballooned to  over 50 employees; compare that with the PLR program, which started out in 1986 with 4 employees serving 5000 writers, and today, despite now serving over 18,000 writers, still operates with exactly that same size of staff: 4 employees. 

Now people will say: that’s not a fair comparison; you don’t have the legal costs, or a lot of the travel costs, or jury costs, or whatever. And we’ll say that’s right, we don’t, but do you know why? Because we specifically designed the program not to need those things. It can be done. You just take a good hard look at all your cost benefit ratios. Travelling all over the world to set up reciprocal arrangements with foreign countries that will never return more than a few dollars annually may look enterprising, but it won’t do your clients much good. Neither will using your program’s budget to fund cultural events and festivals all over the country, all of which comes right out of your clients’ pockets too. And then the artists or writers wonder why their cheques are so small at the end of the year. There are a number of European PLR programs that do that sort of thing too, and we became convinced that if they actually let their affiliated writers vote on such initiatives, they’d never get them passed. Over at PLR, aside from two extremely modest PLR birthday celebrations over the years, and attendance at the international PLR conference every two years by its chair and its executive secretary (and even that’s been recently cancelled), Canada’s PLR program has never spent a nickel of its clients’ money on anything but the express purpose for which the program was designed in the first place. I think that’s a model to which all collective-type programs in this country should aspire.

So that’s another achievement we can all be legitimately be proud of.

But despite such success, PLR in Canada still faces serious ongoing challenges. One important challenge is maintaining its independence. I don’t think there’s any doubt that both the program’s creation and its thrift are the direct result of its governing structure, which is writer-controlled and writer-operated. If that ever gets lost, if the PLR Commission ever gets absorbed by some government body, either directly or indirectly – and believe me, we’ve had to beat back plenty of attempts to do that over the years – then I can almost guarantee you that it’ll quickly become exactly the kind of bureaucratic operation we’ve been doing our darndest to avoid. This very phenomenon is happening in Britain as we speak, where their huge post-2008 austerity program has pulled their PLR program up by its roots and absorbed it into a large umbrella organization completely controlled and operated by government bureaucrats. May we never see the same thing happen to our PLR program here.

The other challenge, as everyone knows, is program growth. Canada’s PLR program now serves over 18,000 authors, and that number keeps growing by between 600 - 700 new authors every year. Canadian literature is drowning in its own success, and we’d be the first to give that a standing ovation, but it does come at a price. The Commission has tried to address this with a graduated payment system in which PLR payments per eligible book taper off over time, and that’s reducing some of the pressure at least temporarily, but that’s a kind of hold-your-nose solution the PLR Commission doesn’t like any more than its writers. More funds is the real solution, and the Commission is doing its best to lobby for them,  but let’s face it, the times aren’t exactly promising.

But, you know, we’ve been here before. Not just once, but many times. I remember once saying to someone, in a reckless, overly-optimistic moment, that if PLR ever ran totally smoothly for just two years in a row --- if it ever managed to go for that long without yet another unexpected salvo from the government, or the Council, or the book industry, or even from our own members, if we ever got just two years of stability and peace, I’d be out of there in a flash. But when I finally resigned in 2008, two decades later, it wasn’t because we’d ever had that kind of break. It had more to do with the sign that my wife pinned up above my desk one morning, that read: JUST BECAUSE IT’S A GOOD IDEA, SCHROEDER, DOESN’T MEAN YOU’VE GOTTA DO IT FOREVER!

So yes: we’ve been there, we’ve done that, and we’ve held our ground. For 25 years our PLR program has out-performed the odds, out-flanked its adversaries, out-done itself, and will, I’m sure, outlast its doomsayers. As long as our Union keeps backing it, and Canada’s writers keep supporting it, and it keeps its faith with Canada’s writing community, it will survive. Long may it prevail!