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One of Canada's Great Scholars: Harold Adams Innis

For the week of Monday November 1, 2010

On November 5, 1894, Harold Adams Innis was born near Otterville, Ontario. He was an academic pioneer whose research revolutionized the fields of history, economics and communication theory.

Harold Adams Innis in military uniform
© University of Toronto Archives and Record Management Services, B1972-0003/034(07)
Innis grew up in a devoutly Baptist household and was influenced by his mother who encouraged her son to excel in school. In 1913, Innis continued his education at McMaster University where he majored in political economy and philosophy until 1916. He then enlisted and fought overseas in the trenches during the First World War. Upon his return, he received his master’s degree before beginning doctoral studies in political economy at the University of Chicago.

In 1920, Innis began a lifelong career at the University of Toronto’s Department of Political Economy. Innis soon concluded that British and American professors, who dominated the teaching of economics at Canadian universities, misunderstood the structure of the Canadian economy. In response, Innis wrote The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History (1930) in which he outlined his own economic model, the Staples Theory. Using the history of the fur trade, he illustrated the dependency of the Canadian economy on trade with Europe, especially Britain. He argued that from the 16th century onwards Canadian politics and society were influenced by an economy based upon dominant export commodities or staples, such as fur, fish, wood and wheat. Due to its truly Canadian perspective and its insights into economics and history, The Fur Trade in Canada and the Staples Theory influenced generations of economists and historians both in Canada and abroad.

Harold Adams Innis in the late 1920s
© University of Toronto Archives and Record Management Services, B1972-0003/034(57)
In the 1940s, Innis switched the focus of his research to communications systems. In his book The Bias of Communications (1951), Innis attempted to use communications systems to explain four thousand years of social and political change. He argued that the ability of the powerful to use media to shape public opinion had played an important role in the rise and fall of politicians, governments and empires. It was not until after his death in 1952 that these communication theories were popularized, mainly through the works of Marshall McLuhan, who credited Innis as the source of many of his ideas. A new generation of scholars soon realized that Innis had been a visionary. Today, his media theories continue to be read and debated internationally.

For his excellent work as a historian and economist, as well as his groundbreaking work in communication theory, Harold Adams Innis was designated a National Historic Person in 1972. Marshall McLuhan was designated a National Historic Person in 2007. For more information on Marshall McLuhan, please see Marshall McLuhan – A Media Guru.

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