Harold Innis: From Staples Thesis to Communication Studies


Harold Innis (1894-1952)canoeing on the Peace River, 1924

Harold Innis’s fur trade research in the summer of 1924 launched a celebrated academic career

By Susan Pedwell

When Harold Innis set off to explore the history of the fur trade in Alberta’s Peace River basin, he was limping from a shrapnel wound that had ripped open his leg at Vimy Ridge. But by the time the junior assistant professor returned to U of T, he was able to throw away his cane.

A summer in the northern hinterland did more than restore Innis’s health. It prompted the political economist to give Canadians a new vision of their country. Then, our jagged landscape was seen as an obstacle to overcome. Innis countered that Canada developed because of its geography, not in spite of it.

In his “staples thesis,” he argued that Canada’s exports of fur, timber, fish, fossil fuels and other commodities shaped its cultural and political development. Innis was the first to point out that Canada’s economic reliance on producing raw materials made it vulnerable to the whims of Britain, the U.S. and other manufacturing nations.

In his long career, Innis also wrote seminal books on communication, inspiring Marshall McLuhan to the point that McLuhan became his intellectual disciple.

This year [2014], Innis College, U of T’s only college to be named after a scholar, is celebrating its 50th anniversary by honouring its namesake. One event planned for November will feature communication theorists who, as Innis did, have a vision to share. Janet Paterson, the college’s principal, points out that many of Innis’s programs continue to further the scholar’s legacy. “The college reflects some of Harold Innis’s far-reaching ideas on communication with its vibrant programs in film, writing and rhetoric, and urban studies.” (Source: http://tinyurl.com/lz56ybk )

On January 23, 1964, the University of Toronto’s Board of Governors (now known as Governing Council) approved the creation of a new college to be named after the distinguished Canadian scholar Harold Adams Innis. Innis College opened its doors to its first undergraduate class of about 250 students in September 1964.

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