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The Fur Trade

Honourable senators,

The history of Canada has been the profoundly influenced by the habits of an animal that fittingly occupies a prominent place on her coat of arms. The beaver . . .

So begins Harold Innis's book The Fur Trade in Canada, completed 81 years ago this month.

The Fur Trade in Canada: a title does not get more ambitious than that, and would certainly not be found on a typical best sellers list. At first glance, Innis's work appears to be a prosaic study of a long-forgotten and unimportant form of trade.

But as we dig deeper, we find that he reveals the truth about the founding of our country.

In his landmark work of Canadian scholarship, Innis contends that trade in beaver pelts largely determined Canada's early physical and political development. Explorers, adventurers and traders used the vast, intricate system of lakes and interconnecting rivers along the edge of the Canadian Shield to tap into the rich fur lands of the continent's interior. Over time, merchants of the two great fur trading companies created a constellation of forts, trading posts, portage points, and eventually small communities from the St. Lawrence up to the Mackenzie River and then onward to the Columbia River and the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

The border these traders carved into the land roughly coincides with the current boundaries of Canada. In laying out this thesis, Innis turns conventional historical wisdom on its head. The country's natural trading patterns did not run north to south but east to west. As a result, the country we have today emerged not in spite of its geography, but because of it.

"The lords of the lakes and forest may have passed away," Innis writes, "but their work endures in the boundaries of the Dominion of Canada and in Canadian institutional life."

Innis's book laid the foundation for what we have come to know as the "staples theory" of Canadian development.

According to this school of thought, the relationship between Canada and Great Britain grew stronger primarily because our country continued to export basic commodities to an increasingly industrialized mother country.

Furs were replaced by fish, which were replaced by wood, which was replaced by pulp and paper, wheat and minerals like gold and nickel.

Today, the economic ties we had with Great Britain have dissolved, but Canada's natural resources remain an engine of political, social and economic development.

For proof, we need only look at the rapidly expanding gold mines in the north. However, Innis was wrong about one thing: the lords of the lakes and forests have not passed away; they are still with us.