The Fur Trade in Canada, Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan & the Toronto School


The Hudson’s Bay Company crest includes four beavers and the Latin Pro Pelle Cutem, which translates to “skin for leather.”

By Virginia Heffernan  a WIRED contributor

HAVING GNAWED THEIR way across the Bering Land Bridge with their iron-glazed teeth, beavers by the tens of millions straight-up built North America. They worked like rodent Romans, subjugating the deciduous forests with formidable infrastructure: canals, lodges, dams that can last centuries, and deep still-water pools used to float building materials. By clear-cutting trees and blocking streams, the nocturnal, semiaquatic creatures also damaged the environment in some of the same ways humans do. Much later, beavers unexpectedly became the toast of a rarefied academic circle at the University of Toronto, where they inspired, of all things, media theory.

In The Fur Trade in Canada, Harold Innis, a political economist known for originality and intellectual derring-do, chronicled a fierce four-way battle for domination of Canada from the 17th to the 20th centuries. The combatants were beavers, indigenous trappers, European colonizers, and the merciless environment. These observations led to Innis’ later books, Empire and Communications and The Bias of Communications, both about how certain media (paper, radio, television) contain implicit jingoistic values.

The beavers inspired a media theory that oral, print, and digital media are always biased.

Innis discovered a dynamic tension between enduring media (artifacts like inscribed stone meant to memorialize traditions) and imperial media (artifacts like pamphlets meant to monopolize trade). He identified a bias, toward time or space, implicit in the materials a group used. Hard, heavy stuff could be passed down through generations, where light, ephemeral stuff was best used for far and wide proselytizing.

Because the parties to the fur trade mimicked, and pushed, one another forward—beavers imitated the damming styles of humans, humans dressed as beavers, animal and human cultures fought and fused—their ways of communicating evolved rapidly.

Innis’ germinal work inspired the so-called Toronto School, which helped shape the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology, named for Innis’ most famous protégé, Marshall McLuhan. The school then developed a media theory with these tenets: 1. Oral, print, and digital media are always biased. (“The medium is the message.”) 2. Psychological and social states are created primarily by media. 3. New media technologies thoroughly change societies and institutions.

As once they bent the waterways of Canada to their will and left humans scrambling to keep up, now the rodents have a fresh ambition: to establish dominion over still colder latitudes…  (Read the rest of this article here:

2 Responses to “The Fur Trade in Canada, Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan & the Toronto School”

  1. 1 Michael Edmunds

    An abomination



  2. ???? Michael, you need to be more explanatory for me to understand your comment.


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