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On The Barricades and Between The Lines : Steve Izma & Anarchy in the UW (and beyond)

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

[Author's note: Mr. Izma's efforts helped get my foot in the door at Lorimer, the publisher of Blackberry Town]

Class Struggle: Engineering vs Social Psychology

In the late 1960s Steve Izma enrolled in the engineering program at the University of Waterloo with a vague idea of designing automobiles. Racing slot cars around miniature electric tracks fascinated him as a child, and he enjoyed pulling them apart and figuring out how they worked. Math came easily to him at St. Jerome’s High School in Kitchener. His skill at electronics and facility with numbers seemed tailor-made for engineering.

But, as T.S. Eliot wrote “Our beginnings never know our ends.” And just as Friedrich Engels (Karl Marx’s wingman) turned his back on his capitalist dad’s textile empire to pursue the communist cause, Izma ended up spending more than 40 years in the publishing business, promulgating left-wing books on politics, history and the environment as well as academic volumes written by professors. What happened to his engineering career? As Marx might say, having quaffed one stout too many, young Izma was seized and diverted by one of the ineluctable currents of history: He ran smack-dab into the radical student movement at UW in the 1960s. It changed him in a dramatic way.

It’s a narrative you don’t often read in the history books written about the university. Computer science, engineering and math dominate the conversation when one talks about Waterloo’s legacy. “Make the rich pay” and “workers of the world unite”—the old socialist slogans don’t gibe with the university’s tradition of entrepreneurship and tech innovation. At one time, however, UW hosted one of the strongest left-wing student movements in the country, ranking with that of the University of Toronto and UBC in Vancouver, considered the leaders in that category. “Waterloo was one of the main centres for the merging of the counter-culture and the left,” says Izma. How did it happen? How did a university that didn’t even exist a decade earlier become a hotbed of socialist thought? Izma attributes it to several factors. Fuelled by the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and other global crises, student radicalism took root in many developed countries. Waterloo was no exception. Led by influential students and a handful of leftist faculty members, the movement caught fire at Waterloo.

Ground zero for the rad-student movement on campus was the Chevron, the university’s student newspaper. Not only did it publish articles by activists on campus, it ran stories on uprisings across the country, supplied by the Canadian University Press, a thriving news co-operative of that era. Izma started reading the Chevron and soon he was writing stories and taking pictures for the paper. Engineering started to seem “like a dead end,” he said. Izma left engineering and enrolled in integrated studies, a new program that allowed him to design his own curriculum and focus on his own research project. “It was the first student-run program in Canada. We got the right to hire our own faculty,” including a professor who was once a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Izma’s research project was on social psychology, a merging of the personal and the political. He immersed himself in books by Karl Marx, Herbert Marcuse and R.D. Laing. All the while he kept working for the Chevron, churning out articles on a range of topics, including his old favourite the automobile, but now poking fun at the industry’s obsession with the look and style of cars.

Seizing the Means of Production : Dumont Press’ Comrades in Print

At some point his engineering instincts kicked in again. Typesetting at the Chevron was contracted out to weekly papers owned by the Kitchener-Waterloo Record. Type was set on hot-metal machines, a process that was time-consuming and expensive. At the same time, new computers and software were being developed that could set type digitally on a screen. If the Chevron could tap into this new technology, it could save a lot of time and money. Izma and others at the Chevron learned how to set type on computers then secured a loan from the Federal Business Development Bank to buy their own equipment. Soon they were typesetting all three campus newspapers in the area—the Chevron at UW, the Cord at Wilfrid Laurier University and the Spoke at Conestoga College. The group moved their equipment off campus to an office on Victoria Street in Kitchener, named their company Dumont Press after Gabriel Dumont, the 19th century Metis leader, and began typesetting pamphlets and booklets as well as college newspapers.

Eventually, Izma and the others at Dumont grew tired of typesetting students’ work. “We were itching to write and publish our own material.” Around this time they were approached by a Toronto women’s collective looking for someone to typeset books. A collaboration ensued and they learned a great deal about the book industry. “We realized that book-publishing was what we needed to do,” said Izma. This led to the creation of Between the Lines, a publisher of left-leaning and social-justice books still active today and based in Toronto.

In addition to the typesetting work, what attracted Izma to Dumont was its democratic structure. “We had no bosses.” Decisions were made by the 15 to 20 employees collaboratively. It dovetailed with the lessons he had learned from the radical student movement in the 1960s. Another lesson was communal living. According to Izma, leftist students in Waterloo took things one step further than groups elsewhere. They applied their radical philosophy to lifestyles as well. “Many communal houses sprang up. I moved into my first in February 1970 and continued to live in such houses until the late 1980s, as did the vast majority of my colleagues, especially those at Dumont Press.” The Chevron, meanwhile, eventually went too far left for UW and its students and was replaced in the mid-70s by The Imprint.

“This is a Highly Contradictory Experience for an Anarchist.”

In the early 1980s, Izma took time off from Dumont to return to integrated studies at UW. He wanted to study computer science to learn more about how to use computers to upgrade the typesetting process. Around this time he was approached by Randall Howard, another UW grad who was thinking of starting a company to develop typesetting software and kindred programs. With two other colleagues they formed Mortice Kern Systems, the name coming from terms used in the printing process. Later renamed MKS, their work soon evolved into writing software utilities to provide clients with better tools for programming. The new company had no trouble getting contracts from large clients such as Imperial Oil. MKS’s algorithms were “very robust,” said Izma, and “it was easy to convince large corporations to give us work.”

Eventually Izma balked at the corporate culture of that era. He didn’t enjoy calling up customers and trying to convince them to buy MKS products. “This is a highly contradictory experience for an anarchist.” In 1988, he left MKS and moved to Wilfrid Laurier University Press, where he was already working part-time. He found the atmosphere there much more to his liking. Staff got along well and worked easily with other departments at the university. Editing and typesetting books on anthropology, sociology and theology stimulated him, and he was given freedom to solve computer problems. He eventually moved into the job of computer systems administrator, a position he stayed in until retiring in 2015. A publisher of academic and trade books, WLU Press is one of the top six university presses in Canada and publishes books by scholars from all over the world, said Izma. Nonetheless, publishing books in Canada is difficult, he admits. Our vast geography and thinly distributed population make selling books a challenge, and the technical side of the business is dominated by computer science grads who aren’t avid readers, he says.

Married with two children in their 20s, Izma’s wife Barbara plays clarinet in the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony. He keeps busy these days doing work on projects for Between The Lines. Recently, it rushed out an e-book on the Covid-19 pandemic. Publishing books during a pandemic ratchets up the difficulty level, he admits. “It’s a real mess, not productive.” Even so, he still enjoys working in the publishing industry. It marries his two loves—typography and a great reading experience. The typography should not be so fancy that it overshadows the words on the page, Izma says. “I find it hard not to take up projects that allow me to practise these things.”

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