Harold Adams Innis

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Innis, Harold Adams



Harold Innis (1894-1952) was a Canadian economic historian whose study of history became the basis for new insights into the nature of economic society and of the social process. Writing a sketch of Canadian economic history as an introductory chapter to his doctoral thesis, A History of the Canadian Pacific Railway (1923), Innis became aware of the paucity of the materials for such a history and the poverty of the concepts so far employed. With vast industry he devoted himself to the accumulation of the materials. Not content with books and documents, he traveled all over Canada to get the feel of the economic life about which he wrote. (Typical of such activity was his toilsome and dangerous journey down the Mackenzie River in 1924.)

Innis’ industry was matched by his imagination; his contribution to the materials was less important than his development of a new concept, a new approach. The key was the “staple product,” together with the recognition that Canadian economic development had to be seen as an extension of European economic history, or, in this century, an extension of the economic history of the United States. C. R. Fay in his article “The Toronto School of Economic History” said of Innis’ focus on the character of the staple product that “the emphasis is on the commodity itself: its significance for policy; the tying in of one activity with another; the way in which a basic commodity sets the general pace, creates new activities and is itself strengthened and perhaps dethroned by its own creation” (1934, p. 171). Pursuing the staple product approach, Innis published The Fur Trade in Canada (1930), Settlement and the Mining Frontier (1936), The Cod Fisheries (1940).

Newsprint was to have been the next staple to be studied; but he became more interested in the newspaper than in newsprint, and more interested in the communication of ideas than in the trade in commodities. Empire and Communications (1950), the substance of his Beit Lectures delivered at Oxford in 1948, was the first full-dress presentation of his work on communication. There followed two volumes of essays, The Bias of Communication (1951) and Changing Concepts of Time (1952), but his magnum opus was incomplete when he died. His interest in communication was stimulated by reading the works of Arnold Toynbee, Oswald Spengler, and A. L. Kroeber and by discussions with his colleague Charles Cochrane, author of Christianity and Classical Culture, published in 1940. Further stimulation came through the contemplation of the similarity of the problems of government, communication, and maintenance of individual initiative in the Northwest Company and the Roman Empire.

Education. Innis was born on a farm near Woodstock, Ontario, and received his schooling in a one-room public school near Norwich, then at Otterville High School, Woodstock Collegiate Institute, McMaster University, and, after a period of active service in France in the course of which he was severely wounded, at the University of Chicago. At Chicago he was a pupil of John Bates Clark, Frank H. Knight, Harry A. Millis, Harold G. Moulton, and Jacob Viner; his thesis was written under the direction of Chester Wright; and he was heavily influenced by the writings of Thorstein Veblen.

Professional career. In 1920 he joined the staff of the department of political economy in the University of Toronto, where he served until his death; in 1937 he had become head of the department and in 1947, dean of the school of graduate studies. His influence in the Canadian world of scholarship was very great. He gave encouragement and support to his colleagues across the country, and he knew them all through his travels. Recognizing the importance of organization, he played a key role in reactivating the Canadian Political Science Association in 1929 and in founding its journal, The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, in 1935. He assisted in planning the “Canadian Frontiers of Settlement” series edited by W. A. Mackintosh, to which he contributed the volume on mining; and he played a major role as Canadian editor of the series on Relations of Canada and the United States, edited by J. T. Shotwell. He was one of three who took the lead in establishing the Canadian Social Science Research Council in 1940, and he helped his colleagues in the humanities to establish a similar council in 1944. Colleagues who had come under his influence and pupils who had worked under him as undergraduates or as graduate students came to permeate Canadian universities. Recognition of his leadership is evidenced by his election as president of the Canadian Political Science Association in 1937 and president of the Royal Society of Canada in 1946. That his influence was felt beyond the bounds of Canada is indicated by his election as president of the Economic History Association in 1942 and president of the American Economic Association in 1951.

Government service. Innis distrusted governments but served on three royal commissions: the Nova Scotia Royal Commission of Economic Inquiry, 1934; the Manitoba Royal Commission on Adult Education, 1946; and the Dominion Royal Commission on Transportation, 1948-1950. While his direct participation in the making of public policy was limited, he was deeply concerned and not without influence. But he was suspicious of scholars who play too large a part in public affairs; he was worried lest they lose their independence and their habit of continued questioning. He was worried by their undue concern with the present, for his own concern was not with months and years but generations; and he was worried by their readiness to grasp at solutions, for he believed that an economist who is certain of the solution of any problem is certain to be wrong. Finally, he found their solutions generally involved planning and regimentation. Perhaps it was his Baptist upbringing that left the agnostic Innis with a residue of tough individualism and a strong distrust of the state. Or was it perhaps the austere life of the farm?

V. W. Bladen


1923 A History of the Canadian Pacific Railway. London: King.

(1930) 1956 The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History. Rev. ed. Univ. of Toronto Press.

1936 Settlement and the Mining Frontier. Canadian Frontiers of Settlement, Vol. 9. Toronto: Macmillan.

(1940) 1954 The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy. 2d rev. ed. The Relations of Canada and the United States Series. Univ. of Toronto Press.

1950Empire and Communications. Oxford: Clarendon.

1951The Bias of Communication. Univ. of Toronto Press.

1952Changing Concepts of Time. Univ. of Toronto Press. 1956 Essays in Canadian Economic History. Edited by Mary Q. Innis. Univ. of Toronto Press.


Bladen, V. W. 1953 H. A. Innis. American Economic Review 43:1-15. → Tributes paid to Innis by V. W. Bladen, W. T. Easterbrook, and J. H. Willits at the 65th annual meeting of the American Economic Association.

Brady, Alexander 1953 Harold Adams Innis, 1894-1952 (obituary). Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 19:87-96.

Creighton, Donald 1957 Harold Adams Innis: Portrait of a Scholar. Univ. of Toronto Press.

Fay, Charles R. 1934 The Toronto School of Economic History. Economic History: A Supplement to the Economic Journal 3:168-171.

Ward, Jane (compiler) 1953 The Published Works of H. A. Innis. Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 19:233-244.

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Harold Adams Innis

The political economist Harold Adams Innis (1894-1952) developed the "staple theory" of Canadian development.

Harold Adams Innis was born in 1894 in Oxford County in southwestern Ontario. His parents, who were strict Baptists, owned a moderately prosperous farm. Harold Innis started his schooling in Sunday school and the local one-room public school, moving on to the nearby Otterville High School and then to Woodstock Collegiate Institute.

In 1913 Innis entered McMaster University, at that time a Baptist college located in Toronto. He took his degree in the spring of 1916 and then, 21 years old, like so many of his friends whose lives were to be turned around by the maelstrom of World War I, he enlisted in the army. The appalling experience of the trenches and the mass slaughter of battles such as Vimy Ridge, where he was wounded, had a profound effect on Innis. As a private at the front he learned to distrust the official view of the war which was sent out from Ottawa and London, and as a Canadian, like many others of his generation, he learned that Canadians would have to interpret their own experiences and that their contribution to the war had given them a right to a new level of independence from Britain.

Returning to Canada, Innis quickly completed an M.A. degree at McMaster and then enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago where he studied with C. W. Wright, F. H. Knight, and J. M. Clark. Innis read and was much influenced by the work of Thorstein Veblen. It was in Chicago that Innis met and fell in love with Mary Quayle, whom he married in 1921.

In 1920 Innis completed his Ph.D. thesis and began teaching in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Toronto. His thesis subject, responding to his resolution to analyze the nature of Canadian society, had been a history of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Working on the subject as an economist with a keen historical perspective, Innis had come to a fundamentally important conclusion about Canada. The standard view was that the Confederation of 1867, the acquisition and opening up of the west, and the building of the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway had created Canada as an act of political will in defiance of geography. But Innis had seen that the railway had re-established an older unity that had been based on water routes. The fur trade had created the first Canadian economy as the Montreal merchants had established trade routes that spread right across the continental hinterland.

Innis' book The Fur Trade in Canada, published in 1930, was a landmark in Canadian scholarship. In the conclusion Innis set out the main themes of what became known as the "staple theory" of Canada's development. The Canadian economy, and by extension society and politics, had been formed by the exploitation of a series of resources, the staple products, for export to the countries which had colonized Canada. Canada had developed at the margin of the world economy, exporting raw materials at prices set in an economic system dominated by a succession of center countries. Each staple product—whether cod, fur, wheat, newsprint, or minerals—had its own rhythm of development and brought with it its own pattern of immigration, capital movements, and institutions. Innis went on to explore this perspective in a series of studies and seminal essays—Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy (1940) and Essays in Canadian Economic History, edited by Mary Quayle Innis (1954).

Innis had also seen that ideas flow along trade routes from the center to the margins. He turned his attention increasingly to the study of communications, a subject that was to lead him far from the modern empires to the Greeks, Egyptians, and Babylonians. But Innis also focussed his attention on a contemporary problem in the economics and communications of empire: the process by which Canada had distanced itself from Britain only to be embraced by the United States. This later work was reflected in Empire and Communications (1950) and Changing Concepts of Time (1952).

In addition to his writing, Innis was active in the creation of institutions to support Canadian scholarship. He remained at the University of Toronto, becoming chairman of the Department of Political Economy and dean of the graduate school. His work was honored by appointment to a fellowship of the Royal Society of Canada and honorary degrees from several universities. He became, as his colleague Donald Creighton said, "Canada's senior academic statesman" in the decade before his death from cancer in 1952.

Further Reading

Additional material can be found in Donald Creighton, Harold Adams Innis: Portrait of a Scholar (Toronto, 1957); Journal of Canadian Studies (Winter 1977); and William H. Melody, Liora Salter, and Paul Heyer, editors, Culture, Communication and Dependency (1981).

Additional Sources

Creighton, Donald Grant, Harold Adams Innis: portrait of a scholar, Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1978.

Havelock, Eric Alfred, Harold A. Innis: a memoir, Toronto, Ont.: Harold Innis Foundation, Innis College, University of Toronto, 1982. □