Father of Canada’s natural health movement
• Across Canada and beyond, people associated with natural health are sharing the sad news of the loss of Siegfried Gursche, who passed away on October 2. They are also exchanging personal stories of being inspired, mentored and educated by a true pioneer and visionary. And while celebrating the remarkable accomplishments and legacy of the “father of the natural health movement in Canada,” people are learning more about the myriad successes in his life. While extending deepest condolences, the Canadian Health Food Association (CHFA) referred to Gursche as a great man, a committed friend of natural products and a true pioneer, who will be missed and always remembered as a stalwart supporter.
“Siegfried… spent a lifetime enriching the lives of Canadians colleagues and friends through his dedication to furthering our industry. Founder and publisher of alive magazine, president of the Canadian Health Food Association (1983-84) and Pioneer inductee of the CHFA Hall of Fame are only a few of his many accolades,” noted Canada’s largest trade association dedicated to natural health and organic products.
At a celebration of Gursche’s life on October 15 in Richmond, BC, his son Chris gave a chronology of his father’s life while speaking on behalf of Siegfried’s beloved wife and partner Christel and their family of five children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Born in 1933 in Germany, the second of four children, the backdrop of Siegfried’s early life was World War II. Siegfried became intrigued by three fields that shaped his life: natural health, photography and business. At age 10, he was fascinated by medicinal herbs, collecting and drying them while practising organic farming. Seven years later, he apprenticed in Health Food Retailing, specializing in biological medicine, herbs and natural cosmetics, but also incorporating training in business and commerce, all skills he would later draw upon.
Emigrating with his family to Canada, 19-year-old Siegfried pursued his passion for photography, working in studio/print shops in Winnipeg, then in Vancouver where he got involved in the local Christian community, becoming a founding member of Immanuel Baptist Church in 1956. Active in youth leadership, he spoke fondly of excursions around BC’s trails and lakes. His deep commitment to Immanuel was life-long, serving as a board member from 1957 to 1964 and from 1996 until his death.
His entrepreneurial spirit was also evident early, when at age 20, he purchased a retail bookstore, the Fraser Book Nook. Because of Siegfried’s young age his father had to sign official papers, touching off a series of business ventures focused around a central principle: seeing a need and offering a solution, despite any obstacles.
The store quickly grew into a centre for German culture and products and at the request of customers, he began providing herbal remedies that were unavailable elsewhere. At the Book Nook he also met his future wife and proposed on their first date.
While remaining owner of the store (until 1972), he began importing herbs in 1956, packaging “Flora” brand herbal teas in colourfully printed boxes. Success of these teas and other herbal remedies would lead to the introduction of many more firsts in the Canadian natural health industry, including devil’s claw root, silica and evening primrose oil.
Increasing demand for photographs resulted in the creation of Teldon, a leading publisher and supplier of gift calendars. Along with his other ventures, it was a hands-on operation, taking scenic shots of landscapes and animals coast to coast – and making business connections – to produce the popular “Canada In Colour” calendar. By 1980, the Teldon line was the most significant of its kind in Canada, with 65 successful titles.
Well aware of the need for Canadians to become educated about natural health alternatives, he began alive Magazine: Canadian Journal of Health and Nutrition. It became – and still is – a landmark national natural health publication. Through alive and subsequent “Alive Tours and Healthy Vacations,” Siegfried shared his own and others’ expert knowledge on a large scale. His next bold step was book distribution through Alive Books, authoring, publishing and distributing natural health titles.
“I had the luck of working with Siegfried as a writer and editor on various projects for more than a decade and can honestly say that no other person has influenced and positively impacted my life as much as he has,” writes Sandra Tonn in “Our Founder/In Memoriam” (posted at www.alphahealth.ca). “Siegfried’s life and work were one in the same. Meetings were held in his office, the staff lunchroom, his living room and his kitchen. He didn’t just tell me what I should eat for breakfast; he invited me over for breakfast. He’d put a plant on my desk and if I didn’t know what it was, he’d tell me all about it and its healing abilities.”
When Siegfried came to Canada, Canadians didn’t have the choices or awareness regarding natural health alternatives that they do today. Tonn shared the legendary story of a 1975 CHFA meeting that changed the course of the natural health industry in Canada. Siegfried arrived, excited to hear an update about a long-anticipated newsletter. Instead, he quickly learned that was “not possible.” His response was to fold his paper placemat and begin planning a magazine on the spot. Passing it around the table, he sold enough advertising for a 16-page publication. Just two weeks later, another need was filled when 30,000 copies of alive were printed and distributed, the first natural health magazine in the country. Canada’s education in natural health had begun.
From day one, it was alive’s philosophy to help readers take responsibility for their own health and to show them how to get the most benefit from whole food as well as the herbs and food supplements sold in health food stores. The highly trusted and widely read magazine has a circulation of 235,000 nation-wide.
Through the alive book department, Siegfried published and distributed dozens of practical health and nutrition guides offering the latest expert advice, authoring many himself, inducing Alive Health Guides. He worked with Udo Erasmus to publish editions of Fats and Oils. And in 1993 Gursche earned the Benjamin Franklin Award for publishing his gorgeous and comprehensive Encyclopedia of Natural Healing (60,000 copies in print). It was the first time the prestigious award was given to a health publisher. Remarkably, in 1992, he also created the Alive Academy of Nutrition.
‘Retiring’ from decades of intense, meaningful activity and alive publishing in 2005, he started yet another company to fill a perceived need and to act on his latest passion – coconut oil. Founding Alpha Health, he began educating people about what he called “the healthiest oil in the world.”
Tonn reports, “I never heard Siegfried more excited than when he returned from the South Pacific with Christel and shared the story of visiting the DME Extra Virgin Coconut Oil pressing station, one of 19 locations. He happily described a journey by four-wheel drive and canoe to their destination, receiving an enormously enthusiastic welcome. They were the village’s first visitors from North America, the first white people their hosts had ever seen, and they were proudly shown around the production facilities to see first-hand how the best grade of raw virgin coconut oil is produced.
“I asked him once what he found most rewarding about his career in natural health and he said, with a sincere smile and that ever-present brightness in his eyes, ‘The many stories I hear back from people about how they’ve healed or improved their lives, knowing that I’ve helped people; that is my reward.’”
At the ceremony, his son concluded: “He died after complications arising from heart surgery, required to offset a heart condition he was born with. This was a biological issue. No one would say there was anything wrong with Siegfried’s heart. It was consistently focused on the worship of God and the care of his creatures and for that, he can rightly claim – along with the apostle Paul, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.’”