Harold Innis and The Fur Trade - Assessment


Historian Carl Berger notes that it took 15 years to sell the first thousand copies of The Fur Trade in Canada. Yet, he writes, the book is one of the few in Canadian historical literature that deserves to be described as seminal. According to Berger, Innis showed that Canada was far from "a fragile political creation and that its existence represented the triumph of human will and determination." He replaced this "old and familiar truism" with the idea that river systems and the Canadian Shield imposed a geographic unity and that "Confederation was, in a sense, a political reflection of the natural coherence of northern America." Berger adds that, in exploring the links between economic changes and political developments, "Innis's insights pointed to a general reinterpretation of Canadian history." Innis also "placed Indian culture at the centre of his study of the fur trade and was the first to explain adequately the disintegration of native society under the thrust of European capitalism." Unlike other historians, Innis emphasized the contributions of First Nations peoples. "We have not yet realized," he writes, "that the Indian and his culture were fundamental to the growth of Canadian institutions."

Berger refers to the "sense of fatalism and determinism in Innis's economic history" adding that for Innis, material realities determined history, not language, religion or social beliefs. "His history, as history, was dehumanized," Berger adds.

Biographer John Watson argues however, that The Fur Trade in Canada is "more complex, more universal, and less rigidly deterministic than commonly accepted." Watson points for example, to Innis's central concern with the role of culture in economic history and his awareness of cultural disintegration under the impact of advanced technologies. "Innis never uses the staple as anything more than a focusing point around which to examine the interplay of cultures and empires," he writes.

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