Forty-five years of reading between the lines
On October 26, 1977, a group of leftist activists from Toronto and an anarchist printing collective from Kitchener-Waterloo came together to found Between the Lines. Filled with the independent spirit of 1960s New Left radicalism, the collective formed BTL with the mission of inspiring social change through the powers of bookdom. With an intense commitment to horizontal decision-making, these first volunteer workers of BTL founded the publishing house as a collective: with no managers, no owners, no bosses. And we’ve been making ‘books without bosses’ ever since!
BTL’s original mandate, according to its first report on publishing back in 1977, was to publish “popular critical works on Canadian issues, social history, and labour studies; on development and underdevelopment (obviously in the international context); on political theory (provided it is penetrable); on the politics of everyday life; or translations of such works that otherwise meet our criteria.”
We’ve taken that mandate to heart, and over the past 45 years BTL has published books about labour history and union struggles across Canada, colonialism and the Canadian state’s role abroad, food politics and environmentalism, racism, gender, sexuality, Indigenous struggles, and the changing face of capitalism in an era of new technologies. We’ve put out books in collaboration with unions, activists, and social movements, and we’ve co-published works by some of the world’s major left thinkers, such as bell hooks, Noam Chomsky, Vandana Shiva, Cornel West, Ward Churchill, Silvia Federici, and Winona LaDuke. The point has never been to promote books that will make a profit, but rather to publish non-fiction work that supports and archives social justice struggles in Canada and around the world.
To commemorate these past four and a half decades of publishing radical left non-fiction, we’ve taken a look back at some of our earliest publications and paired them with recent books.
BTL’s first book was The Big Nickel: Inco at home and abroad by Jamie Swift and the Development Education Centre – a detailed exposé of Inco, a Canadian mining company based in Sudbury and the world's leading producer of nickel for much of the 20th century. The book’s foreword was written by Dave Patterson, the President of Steelworkers Local 6500 at Inco, and the book was launched before 200 workers at the Steelworkers Union Centre in Sudbury.
Last year, BTL published Testimonio: Canadian Mining in the Aftermath of Genocides in Guatemala edited by Catherine Nolin and Grahame Russell, which investigates practices by Inco and other Canadian mining companies in Guatemala. This collaborative edited collection includes testimonies from Indigenous community leaders in Guatemala and calls on readers to hold the Canadian government accountable for Canada’s role in enabling and profiting from mining violence.
One of BTL’s earliest publications was Getting Doctored: Critical reflections on becoming a physician, which the CBC called “a sometimes angry, sometimes funny book.” The book was a critical memoir by Martin Shapiro, a doctor who delved into the processes of alienation and professionalization that young medical students underwent in their medical training. The book was dedicated to Chilean healthcare workers who died during the 1973 coup.
BTL has continued this tradition of examining the working conditions of healthcare workers in Code White: Sounding the Alarm on Violence against Health Care Workers. Authors Margaret M. Keith and James T. Brophy lay bare the stories of over one hundred nurses, personal support workers, aides, porters, clerical workers, and cleaners to expose the shocking epidemic of workplace violence in the Canadian healthcare system.
In the 1980s, BTL began to publish more titles about the politics of culture and art, including Jump Cut: Hollywood Politics and Counter-Cinema in 1985. Edited by Peter Steven, the book collected articles from Jump Cut magazine, exploring the politics of film and media. The book was an accessible introduction to socialist and feminist analysis of cinema and film criticism, drawing attention to gay and lesbian cinema, feminist art practice, and film and documentary approaches from the Global South.
Thinking While Black
Translating the Politics and Popular Culture of a Rebel Generation
Our latest book to be published, Thinking While Black: Translating the Politics and Popular Culture of a Rebel Generation, delves into film theory, pop culture, and art criticism. Author Daniel McNeil studies the lives and careers of Black cultural critics Armond White and Paul Gilroy, taking us on a transatlantic journey through the radical movements that used art critique to rock against racism in 1970s Detroit and Birmingham, including a discussion on the hype and hostility generated by Oscar-winning films like 12 Years a Slave.
In the early 1990s, BTL published Bittersweet Passage: Redress and the Japanese Canadian Experience by Maryka Omatsu. The book tells the story of Omatsu’s family members, who were among those Japanese Canadians who had their properties confiscated and were detained by the Canadian government during World War II. A moving memoir about the racist and harsh policies of the Canadian state towards Japanese communities in Canada, the book details Omatsu’s advocacy efforts in the movement to win redress from the government.
Enemy Alien: A True Story of Life Behind Barbed Wire by Kassandra Luciuk and illustrated by nicole marie burton is a recent book of graphic non-fiction about Canada’s first national internment operations. A memoir based on the experiences of Ukrainian immigrant John Boychuk during the First World War, the book follows Boychuk from his arrest in Toronto to his internment in Kapuskasing, a labour internment camp where he spent just over three years. This graphic history is a powerful reminder that internment has historically been not an isolated incident, but rather part and parcel of Canadian nation building and Canada’s settler-colonial project.
Just over twenty years ago, BTL published Race, Space, and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society. Edited by Sherene Razack, the book went on to become a core textbook in university courses in geography and critical race theory, analyzing the role of law in shaping spaces and the ways in which spaces uphold racial hierarchies and political projects. The writers take readers through parks, slums, drinking establishments, classrooms, and the main streets of cities to examine the ways in which “place becomes race.”
For a recent look at the intersections of law and racism, readers can check out Disarm, Defund, Dismantle: Police Abolition in Canada, edited by Shiri Pasternak, Kevin Walby, and Abby Stadnyk. Published this past spring, the edited collection challenges assumptions about Canadian laws, showing how the country’s legal systems are rooted in settler-colonial logic and white supremacy. Bringing together writing from activists and scholars, the authors offer a rallying call for police abolition and imagine a world in which our community spaces are not shaped and surveilled by racist law enforcement systems.
You can read more about the history of Between the Lines here or check out the graphic novel about BTL's history, Books without Bosses, published for BTL's fortieth anniversary.