Remembering Harold Adams Innis: November 8: Snapshots in History

November 9, 2018 | John P.

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On November 8 and beyond, take a moment to remember one of Canada’s preeminent economic historians, Harold Adams Innis (Born: November 21, 1894 at Otterville, Ontario [according to his military attestation papers]; Died: November 8, 1952 at Toronto, Ontario). In the November 8, 1952 issue of the Toronto Daily Star newspaper, an article entitled “DR. HAROLD A. INNIS, 58, DIES FAMOUS ECONOMIC HISTORIAN” was published on page 2. Here is an excerpt from that article:

“Dr. Harold Adams Innis, 58, head of the department of political science and economics at the University of Toronto since 1937, dean of the School of Graduate Studies, and world-renowned economic historian, died at his Dunvegan Rd. home today after a prolonged illness…He has been described as the father of Canada’s economic history and his studies on the effects of the fur trade and the cod fisheries on this country’s whole development have long been a standard text for university students…Professor Innis was the bearer of many academic honors from many countries. He also acted on royal commissions investigating economic conditions in Canada, the most prominent being that appointed in 1948 to delve into Canada’s transportation problems…”

To view this article in full, please access the Toronto Star Historical Newspaper Archive database with a valid Toronto Public Library card

The Globe and Mail newspaper published an editorial under the banner of “Harold A. Innis” in its November 10, 1952 issue on page 6. Here is an excerpt from that editorial:

“…It was as an economic historian that Professor Innis will be best remembered. But his exceptional talents were not reserved exclusively to academic pursuits, and he gave freely of his time to the study of many problems, such as in Royal Commissions studying such diverse questions as the economic life of Nova Scotia, adult education in Manitoba, and transportation in Canada. Writing, editing, directing research and guiding policy in his executive responsibilities, he was seldom idle…His intellectual outlook was highly objective, but he was by no means without strong views. He stood strongly for individual freedom, especially in matters of the mind and conscience. He protested against the harassing of professors and students both inside and outside the university by individuals and interests whose preconceptions were disturbed by the truth…”

The same issue of the Globe and Mail newspaper also published an obituary on page 10 entitled “Prof. H.A. Innis Noted As Historian, Author”. Here is an excerpt from that article:

“…Professor Innis had served as dean of graduate studies for the last five years. Last January he achieved the distinction of being the only non-resident of the United States to be named President of the American Economics Association…His lectures and his books were regarded as a tremendous contribution to the development of knowledge concerning his native Canada… Prof. Innis wrote a history of the Canadian Pacific Railway. He possessed an unrivalled knowledge, gained first hand, of the fur trade of Canada, the settlement and mining frontiers and the cod fisheries…In 1947 Prof. Innis was appointed to the board of the Guggenheim Foundation, New York. He was a member of the American Philosophical Society. In 1945 he visited Moscow to attend an international science convention. Three years ago, he visited England and his lectures at Oxford created tremendous interest…”

To view these articles in full, please access the Globe and Mail Historical Newspaper Archive database with a valid Toronto Public Library card.

Following his elementary and secondary education in Oxford County’s Otterville and further secondary education at a Baptist college in Woodstock, Ontario, Harold Innis attended McMaster University (then located in Toronto) for his undergraduate degree. Upon graduation in 1916, Harold Innis enlisted to fight with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) overseas during the First World War. Innis served with 69th Overseas Battery, Canadian Field Artillery, beginning on May 17, 1916, was wounded by shrapnel in the right thigh at Vimy Ridge on July 7, 1917, and returned to Canada on March 16, 1918 as a result of this injury. Like other war veterans, Harold Innis suffered from the now-recognized Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Harold Innis graduated from McMaster University with a Master of Arts degree in April 1918. His thesis (“The Returned Soldier”) outlined needed public policy proposals to help war veterans deal with effects from the war as well as on policies geared towards national reconstruction. Innis then went to the University of Chicago and earned a Ph.D degree in August 1920 with his dissertation on the history of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) (that was the basis for Innis’ published book on the same subject in 1923). The development of the CPR led to an expansion of Western civilization that included industrialization, further mining and transportation of mineral resources, and shipping of building materials to industrial factories. Unfortunately, this came at the expense of Indigenous peoples and their way of life.

For Canadian students of economics and history, Harold Innis is well-known for the development of the “Staple Thesis” (sometimes referred to as the Staples Thesis) in conjunction with fellow economic historian William Archibald Mackintosh (1895-1970). Natural resources or “staples” (including fur, fish, timber, grain, and oil) were exported from Canada to countries with more advanced and industrialized economies. This state of affairs greatly affected the Canadian economy with upticks and downturns in commodity pricing, in addition to influencing the social and political fabric of Canada (i.e. settlement rates, federal-provincial relations etc.). However, Mackintosh saw the economic activity of staples leading to a mature and industrialized economy in Canada, while Innis saw the economic overreliance on staples as a hindrance to further economic development. (Some scholars continue to debate Canada’s economic well-being through the staples lens to this day.) Harold Innis was not in favour of an economic approach based on continentalism with strong ties to the United States of America.

Harold Innis also developed some theoretical thinking around the subject of communications which influenced other academics such as Marshall McLuhan. Innis separated media into space-biased and time-biased categories. The latter category includes items that carry information or messages over a long time span but to a limited audience of interest (i.e. stone tablets, hand-written manuscripts on parchment or vellum). The former category includes modern media sources such as radio, television, newspapers that transmit information to people over great distances but for a short exposure period.

Innis College at the University of Toronto’s St. George Campus and Innis Library at McMaster University are both named for Harold Innis.


Consider the following titles for borrowing by/about Harold A. Innis from Toronto Public Library collections:




The fur trade in Canada an introduction to Canadian economic history   Essays in Canadian economic history   Changing concepts of time  

A history of the Canadian Pacific Railway

The Idea File of Harold Adams Innis   Marginal man the dark vision of Harold Innis



The fur trade in Canada an introduction to Canadian economic history Ebook


Harold Innis and the north appraisals and contestations