I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History

Harold A. Innis

  • Harold A. InnisThe Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1930). 

Harold A. Innis was a professor at the University of Toronto who specialized in the study of Canadian economics and communication. In The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History, as the title denotes, Innis traces the parallel development of the fur trade and the Canadian state. He begins his story at the very beginning of French involvement on the North American continent in the early sixteenth century. In the earlier years, fish reigned as the chief commodity. However, as French and English tradesmen gradually moved westward, the fur trade, specifically the coat of the beaver, took over the colony’s economy. Spurred by fashion trends in Europe, the need to procure more and more beaver pelts necessitated the constant movement of fur traders into the interior. Innis consistently traces the patterns of development and fickleness of supply and demand, particularly regarding the need for more efficient transportation routes and the off-setting of overhead costs, which seem to effect each generation of the fur trade. Competition is also a key factor in the narrative. In the early years, merchants began to lose profits to competition, prompting the initial drive for centralization and monopolization of the trade. The latter part of the narrative is dedicated largely to analyzing the economic factors leading to the feuds, reconciliations, and unifications of the Hudson Bay Company and the North West Company.

The weightiest and most renowned assertion of The Fur Trade in Canada is that Canada’s entire political and economic character has been shaped and continues to be shaped by their association with the fur trade and other staple productions. This contention is known as the Staple Thesis and is considered to be the Canadian equivalent to Turner’s Frontier Thesis. Unlike the United States to the South, much of the land, especially that settled by the fur trade, is, or at least was, unfit for industry and agriculture. Instead of being able to develop their own industrial and agricultural economies, which allowed the United States to assert its independence from England and the rest of Europe, Canada was forced to rely on the staple fur trade, and thus remained subordinate to the United States and leashed to the whims of the Old World. The massive overhead costs of transportation and development of the interior also encouraged centralized control and influenced Canada to develop an economic system, which is partially government ownership and partially private enterprise. Innis argues that the more recent trends in the Canadian economy have been the adjustment of the machine age to the pattern of fur trade, exemplified by the lumber industry. Although he focuses very little on any aspects of Canadian history outside of an economic interpretation, Innis also contends that the history of Canada has been the story of the contact between two civilizations: Native American and European. Canadians, at the time Innis was writing around 1930, he argues were the product of the combination of Native American culture and wisdom assimilated into a European culture that had been adapted to the new continent’s environment.

Throughout The Fur Trade in Canada, Innis emphasizes the centrality of Native Americans to the entire process. They served as middlemen within the fur trade and helped traders survive in an alien environment by providing food and protection. Innis argues that Canadians did not have any serious problems with their aboriginal population, like the United States experienced, because the Native Americans were essential to the fur trade process, and thus the fur traders could not afford to jeopardize their loyalty. However, Innis points out that this friendship of convenience did not shield the natives from the negative side-effects of contact, as their numbers were greatly decimated by disease and warfare between tribes of different fur trade alliances. Innis’ conception of the Native Americans is certainly not nuanced in comparison to today’s standards, however. He still emphasizes that their culture was “limited,” and subsequently led to their unquenchable thirst for European goods. Yet, his description of the Native Americans does not stoop to the level of Francis Parkman’s depiction of Native American simplicity and gluttonous leanings in Oregon Trail. Nor does he demonstrate a racial superiority complex akin to that shown by Theodore Roosevelt in The Winning of the West. Although Innis’ depiction of Native Americans may seem offensive to the contemporary reader, the stereotypes to which he subscribes are more a sign of the time in which he was writing. His inclusion of any material that was sympathetic to the Native American is commendable in its own right. On a another note, it is interesting that Innis demonstrates that the agricultural frontier settlement movement, as described by Doug Owram in Promise of Eden, was actually frowned upon by the fur business, as their livelihood depended on the continuance of the wilderness, where its product, the beaver, thrived.

Feature Photo: Leo Manning, manager at the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, lists the items exchanged for. Coppermine, N.W.T., [Kugluktuk (formerly Coppermine), Nunavut], 1949. Credit: Richard Harrington / Canada. Dept. of Indian and Northern Affairs / Library and Archives Canada / PA-143236

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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