Harold Innis and the North: Appraisals and Contestations
As the Great Powers, and the not so great, scramble for a piece of the thawing Arctic resource pie—with the Harper government pretending we own the North Pole, the home of Santa Claus, no less, though its record for gift-giving is solely to corporations—it is timely to have a book that examines the role of the esteemed scholar Harold Innis in his research and writing on the Canadian North.
The young Innis made three trips to the North in the 1920s, doing research for his most famous book, The Fur Trade in Canada (published in 1930), and for his 1936 book, Settlement and the Mining Frontier, which has not received the attention it deserves and, let us hope, will now from readers of this book.
The main narrative in Innis’s writing on Canada was about what his friend and colleague, the historian Donald Creighton, called “empire of the St. Lawrence,” in combination with Innis’s particular and lasting contribution on the impact of the great staple trades, notably fur and fish. William Buxton, an established Innis scholar who has edited this book of essays, argues for a micro-narrative that pulls our eyes to the north, up the Mackenzie Valley, left to the Yukon, right to Hudson Bay, northern Québec and Newfoundland-Labrador, and focuses less on staples and more on the northward march of industrialization. He lets himself get a bit carried away at times, imagining that this technological theme of “industrialism” associated with the writings of the American economist Thorstein Veblen—which did influence Innis—could have been, or ought to have been, Innis’s main narrative, but he does not persuade.
There are a number of papers by younger scholars —an excellent one by Matthew Evenden of UBC, “The Northern Vision of Harold Innis,” serves as an addendum to A. John Watson’s magisterial biography of Innis, Marginal Man, which strangely neglected the North — which is good sign of the continuing vitality of Innisian studies. They portray an Innis before he became an iconic intellectual, and it is not always a pretty picture. In his travels Innis talked mostly with government and company officials and rarely with indigenous people. He was conscious of their lot, but he tended to see their salvation as coming with “civilization” from the south. In the south, in his dealings with the government and the media and the public, he was a persistent booster for northern development. He seems at times to have regarded the North as a frontier for Canada to create a more balanced economy and strengthen its national unity.
This wise man was, when it came to the North, imbued with the conventional wisdom of his time. This tells us how deep are the roots of the colonial mentality, down to today with Harper denying that there is any history of colonialism in Canada, betraying an ignorance and insensitivity which is remarkable even for him.
The book closes with a delightful postmodernist piece, “Innis and I on the Highway of the Atom,” by Peter C. van Wyck, taking off from the operation of the uranium mine on Great Bear Lake during the Second World War. He writes of “unstable staples,” of “leakages” (not linkages) “in the form of cancers, stories, addictions, and depressions” that radioactivity wrought upon the Dene in their innocence, who nevertheless went to Japan after the war to apologize for their contribution to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—something, incidentally, that the owners and managers of the mine, the Canadian government, and the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, did not see fit to do. A genuine story of redemption from the North in a book that has too little about people and their goodness.