Harold Innis’s case for Canadian Senate reform in the 1940s

Apr 10th, 2015 | By | Category: Key Current Issues

“In May 2010, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Senator Mike Duffy speak to young people attending the G8/G20 National Youth Caucus on Parliament Hill. In naming Duffy to the Senate in 2008, Harper found a valuable asset for the Conservative Party, until things came crashing down. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press).” And our thanks to the nowadays at least half-tax-supported CBC News site, from which we stole both the image and the excellent caption.

The ongoing trial of suspended Canadian Senator Mike Duffy has reminded some of us that back in the late spring of 2013 Randall White posted a note on this site about Harold Innis’s “more or less random observations on the Senate, and the related issue of Canadian regionalism”  – which, taken together, “add up to a quite sophisticated case for major Senate reform” in Canada.

Time and history being what they are too often thought to be nowadays, we decided re-posting the main thrust of Dr. White’s earlier note made some sense in the early spring of 2015.

Harold Innis from Otterville, Ontario with the Fourth Battery of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Western Europe during the First World War, 1916.

As he wrote back not quite two years ago, by way of introduction : “Born on a family farm in Southwestern Ontario in 1894 (and dead in Toronto all too early in 1952), Harold Innis was the intellectual godfather of Alberta-born Marshall McLuhan. He was also the first Canadian-born chairman of the Department of Political Economy at the University of Toronto (1937—1952), the first Canadian President of the American Economic Association, and the author of what still strikes me as the single most interesting book on Canadian history extant (The Fur Trade in Canada : An Introduction to Canadian Economic History, first published in 1930 and still in print).”

Randall White went on to offer eight quotations from Harold Innis’s often jagged writing that, taken together (Dr. White thinks at any rate) “add up to a quite sophisticated case for major Senate reform”in Canada. They are from two of Innis’s later essays, “Decentralization and Democracy” (1943) and “Great Britain, the United States and Canada” (1948) :

Harold Innis in the 1920s. (According to Wikipedia at any rate : it is Innis, but is 1920s a little too early? We certainly don't know.)

(1) “Our constitution has proved inadequate in the face of the demands made upon it. The Senate, that unique institution, has lent itself to political manipulation … ”

(2) “The Senate … provides … a support to party organizations throughout Canada. A federal party organizer can be appointed to the Senate and the cost for secretarial services charged to services to the country…”

(3) “A senatorship is also a reward for journalists who have been active in the party’s interest and who will presumably continue active after their appointment …”

(4) “A senator stands as a guard over the party’s interest and is expected to be continually alert to the improvement of the party’s position in the region from which he is appointed …”

(5) “Provincialism has paralleled the new industrialism … Confederation as an instrument of steam power has been compelled to face the implications of hydro-electric power and petroleum …  Strains on the political structure have been evident on all sides as problems of adjustment have become more acute …”

Harold Innis (l), Hans Seyle (c), and Alf Erling Porsild (r) on a visit to the Soviet Union, just after the end of the Second World War in 1945. And our thanks to Per Porsild from Hamar, Norway for a correction in the earlier spelling of Alf Erling Porsild’s middle name.

(6) “The Senate … was created in a period with limited political capacity and little effort has been made to adjust its membership to the increase in talent available. Necessities of party organization have made it a pasture for old party war horses … ”

(7) “The complex problems of regionalization in the recent development of Canada render the political structure obsolete and necessitate concentration on the problem of machinery by which interests can become more vocal and their demands be met more efficiently … serious attention should be given to the problem of revising political machinery so that democracy can work out solutions to modern problems …”

(8) “The dangers of an obsolescent political structure cannot be avoided by patchwork solutions … Each region has its conditions of equilibrium in relation to the rest of Canada and to the rest of the world …”

Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s.

Mr. Duffy will have done us all a favour if his trial finally urges us, in all 10 present-day Canadian provinces, to take up Senate reform seriously at last – as Harold Innis quietly hinted we almost desperately ought to do, some 70 years ago.

Meanwhile, the term “global village” was coined (or at least popularized?) by Innis’s more elegant disciple, Marshall McLuhan, about a decade after Innis’s death.  And all this has also reminded us that it is time for yet another installment of Randall White’s Children of the Global Village book project – on our Long Journey to a Canadian Republic page.

If you go to the page, on the bar at the top above (or just CLICK HERE), you will find a brief account of the project, along with the “Prologue : too much geography” – followed by links to Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, and Chapter 4 of PART I : THE DEEP CANADIAN PAST, 1497—1763.

Woody Allen consults Marshall McLuhan to settle an argument in Annie Hall (1977).

You will now find as well a link to Chapter 5 of PART I : “English-speaking Canada before 1763.” This includes such subjects as Early English-speaking Canada on the Atlantic coast, the Hudson’s Bay Company in Early Central and Western Canada,  Prince Rupert as first Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company,  Henry Kelsey’s two journeys beyond Hudson’s and James Bays in the late 1680s and early 1690s, the Orkneymen after 1710 and Anthony Henday’s Western Canada journey in 1754.

In an interview at the new Tim Horton’s on Queen Street East, across from Kew Gardens (the Toronto one, not the one in London, England) Dr. White told us that “some people think English-speaking Canada began with the coming of the United Empire Loyalists after the American War of Independence. But there are beginnings of English-speaking culture in what we now call Atlantic Canada, Ontario, and Western Canada well before the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759. And that’s what this chapter tries to make clear, in a more or less short space!”

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