Image: Wikimedia Commons

The great Canadian scholar Harold Innis fought and was wounded in the trenches in the First World War. The experience changed his life forever. So argues A. John Watson in his brilliant biography, Marginal Man: The Dark Vision of Harold Innis, on which this blog draws.

The title and the sub-title tell it all. Fighting under British command, Innis, coming from the margin — albeit privileged — of the British Empire, was compelled to encounter Canada’s colonial status. The experience was the genesis of Innis’s resolve to create Indigenous scholarship from his hinterland status. These are the roots of today’s Canadian Political Economy and Canadian Studies, and later of the Toronto School of Communications and the study of media. The war was also to make Innis suspicious of authority and give his scholarship a sharpness that was rare at the time.

Fighting in the trenches also subverted Innis’s Christian faith. When he went to war he had been seriously considering entering the Baptist ministry. In Europe, however, he saw the barbarism, and how each antagonist claimed God’s backing, and how the Germans looked no different from him close up. Rather than the clergy, he returned to do graduate work in economics at the University of Chicago and then to teaching at the University of Toronto, and the rest is history. 

It has become a key part of the official narrative of the war that from it emerged Canadian nationalism — though not in Quebec — and the demand, not for independence (that would be so unCanadian) but for increased autonomy within the Empire.

As Noah Richler tells us in his excellent book, What Do We Talk About When We Talk About War (2012), what should be remembered but generally receives scant attention on November 11, was that this was a barbaric war in which brave men died with little by way of point or purpose, blown to a Kingdom Come which most of us no longer believe in. Whenever war is mooted, the message should be that it is the last resort.

With an office at the University of Toronto a few minutes walk from a memorial tower on the campus where armistice day was commemorated, Innis went only once and, as Watson tells us, it was in the 1930s to speak about the Great Depression.

Innis himself made a powerful point about the unreality of the notion of Canada as a “warrior nation.” The guts of his generation were torn out in the trenches. There may have been more nationalism but there were fewer to engage in nation-building, and to protect a Canada with more autonomy within the British Empire from the steady encroachments of the American Empire. Where then was the advantage from the bloodletting?

Innis felt sufficiently strongly about the dark side of the war that when, in the 1930s, his colleague, the historian Frank Underhill, who had also fought in the trenches in the war, and who had faced firing by the university’s Board of Governors for what were seen as anti-British pro-American remarks, Innis, by then one of the university’s most eminent scholars, came to his rescue, threatening his own resignation. In his defense of Underhill, who had once dismissed Innis and his fellow economists as “the garage mechanics of capitalism,” Innis nowhere said he agreed with him and had some abstract right to state his views, but rather that anyone who had been in the trenches should be forgiven anything. 

During the Korean War where Canada sent troops, Innis thought the war was an example of America’s military imperialism in the Pacific. While such a view became widespread during the Vietnam War, Innis’s position was unusual, particularly given his prominent position in the Canadian establishment.

It would seem that the First World War still haunted Innis, that for him war was a hell imposed by the powerful, that scholars with their tenure had an obligation to speak the truth.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Mel Watkins

Mel Watkins

Mel Watkins is Professor Emeritus of Economics and Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is Editor Emeritus of This Magazine and a frequent contributor to Peace magazine. He is a member...