CanLit Canon Review #6: Harold Innis’s The Fur Trade in Canada

In an attempt to make himself a better Canadian, Craig MacBride is reading and reviewing the books that shaped this country.

Harold Innis’s The Fur Trade in Canada, published in 1930, is an indispensable record of the fur trade and early European-Aboriginal relations, but it is also a brutal and exhausting test of endurance.

You will learn a lot by reading this book, and you will likely be a better Canadian after reading this book, but, by god, what a slog it is to get through.

In many parts, it reads as if Innis compiled his notes and then forgot to organize them or make them readable; it is a book of facts begging to be made into a story. These two sentences are representative of many of the sentences in this 402-page tome: “A letter to Hon. W. Grant, Chairman of the Committee of Inland Commerce and Navigation, from Phyn, Ellice & Co., Forsyth, Richardson & Co., McTavish, Frobisher & Co., John & Andrew McGill, William Robertson, Dobie & Badgeley, and A. Auldjo dated October 26, 1790, asked for every freedom in inland navigation to enable them to compete with the Americans and the Spaniards. Regulations of April 30, 1788, May 4, 1789, and July 5, 1790, and tightening of the provisions of 28 Geo. III, c. 6., permitting free construction and navigation of merchants vessels, obviated all difficulty.”

The only whisper of a storyteller’s touch arrives when, at the end of each long, plodding chapter, Innis deigns to spend the last three paragraphs summarizing what he spent the previous 30 pages discussing in obsessive detail.

If you’re crazy enough to read this book, you’d be smart to keep an internet-connected device nearby. Innis is not the type of writer who will take time away from the primary topic to explain to you the Treaty of Utrecht or the War of Austrian Succession; he simply mentions them, as though their details are in every mind and easily retrievable, and explains how, in a peripheral way, they influenced the fur trade.

Despite the fact it’s practically unreadable, The Fur Trade in Canada is truly beautiful in its comprehensiveness. It rewards its readers with a deeper understanding of how Canada was created. It examines the lives of the European traders who traveled deeper and deeper inland from the St. Lawrence River and Hudson Bay on a constant conquest for more furs, and it explores the radical changes to the lives of the Aboriginal men and women whose desire for more European goods turned them into fur sellers and middlemen. It shows, in minute and sometimes bewildering detail, how the disparate pieces of the soon-to-be nation became sewn together by waterways and canoes and how Aboriginal societies were disrupted and destroyed by European technology and disease.

There is an enormous amount to be said about this book, but, after four longs weeks struggling to get through it, all I have left to say is this: “Thank God it’s over.”