BORN: Otterville, Ontario • 5 November 1894
DIED: Toronto, Ontario • 8 November 1952
Growing up on his parents’ small dairy farm near Woodstock, Ontario, Harold Innis trapped muskrats each winter. Checking his steel traps every morning before he made his way to school in town, he skinned the animals, stretched out their hides on special frames, and eventually sold each pelt for, at best, twenty-five cents. The genesis of his great work, The Fur Trade in Canada, lay in his own experience.
The farm boy grew into the able student who went to McMaster University, then in Toronto, and graduated into the midst of the Great War. Patriotic, he enlisted in the artillery and served in France. Wounded severely in the leg at Vimy Ridge in 1917, he had a year-long recuperation, but used his time to secure an MA degree from McMaster.
He went to Chicago for doctoral work and although he was not happy with the way Americans bragged they had won the war, he married Mary Quayle, an Ohio-born student. In 1920, PhD fresh in hand, Innis returned to Canada and the political economy department at the University of Toronto, where he spent his entire academic career.
His book on the fur trade, published when he was only thirty-six, advanced a new hypothesis and revolutionized the study of Canadian economic history, hitherto a neglected field. The book, full of detail on beaver, otter, and muskrat, traced the development of the fur trade, Canada’s first staple industry, from its origins, and considered the huge impact of that staple on Canada.
To Innis, Canada had not been created in defiance of geography. Indeed, the water system formed by the St Lawrence River and the Great Lakes provided a natural highway to the fur country of the interior, and this water route had been used by French and English alike to exploit the interior and to carry the furs back to the metro¬ politan centres of Europe, where the profits were realized.
Thus Canada was no artificial creation; it sprang full blown from geography and trade, a natural community,geographically distinct, and linked to Europe from its beginnings. “The present Dominion of Canada,” he said, “emerged not in spite of geography but because of it.” In effect, Innis was arguing a nationalist case.
As important, he demonstrated that the export of staples—furs, fish, lumber, wheat—had a huge impact on the economic, social, and political systems of Canada, one that locked the country into dependency on the metropolises that exploited it for its resources. Innis’ Staple Thesis became the foundation of the Canadian school of political economy and the first major Canadian contribution to international scholarship.
Innis moved on to the study of communications.His early works, including his PhD dissertation on the Canadian Pacific Railway and a book on the cod fishery, had been concerned with the trade routes that were also the instruments ofcommu¬ nication; his later studies looked at theoretical questions.
Empire and Communications ranged far beyond Canada, far beyond political economy in an attempt to comprehend the impact that methods of communication had and have on civilization.Yet he always wrote in unusually impenetrable prose—Innis, said historian Charles Stacey, was an expert on communications “who was quite unable to communicate.”
His scholarly achievements were immense, justifying the suggestion that Innis was simultaneously Canada’s first intel¬ lectual and the first Canadian scholar to have a global reach. His influence was also profound on the university, which he believed was and had to remain a place of free inquiry.
Although he served on a few royal commissions himself, he tended to be scornful of those academics who were eager to serve governments at every opportunity. Scholars should teach and research, not be policy-makers, Innis believed.
He jeered at his CCF colleagues who propounded socialism without knowing much about the problems they proposed to treat. Yet when Frank Underhill of Toronto’s history department was about to be fired for some comments he had made early in the Second World War, Innis rallied to his defence.
Academic freedom, the university as a forum of ideas—those were real concepts to Innis. As his friend and disciple Donald Creighton wrote, while Innis “believed that a university could best discharge its high functions by a careful maintenance of its separateness and its autonomy,” he could be fierce in his defence of academe against the ignorant attacks of outsiders.
Rumpled, tall, dishevelled, his hands stained with nicotine, Innis loved to talk, to jibe and gossip, to help his students and colleagues. He was Canada’s pre-eminent social scientist, one of those rare men of original insight. If his work on Canada’s natural east-west links has largely been brushed aside by continentalist economics and free trade, it is despite Innis’ dour warnings.