Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"Dirt" research

In 1920, [Harold] Innis joined the department of political economy at the University of Toronto. He was assigned to teach courses in commerce, economic history and economic theory. He decided to focus his scholarly research on Canadian economic history, a hugely neglected subject, and he settled on the fur trade as his first area of study. Furs had brought French and English traders to Canada, motivating them to travel west along the continent's interlocking lake and river systems to the Pacific coast. Innis realized that he would not only need to search out archival documents to understand the history of the fur trade, but would also have to travel the country himself gathering masses of firsthand information and accumulating what he called "dirt" experience.

Thus, Innis travelled extensively beginning in the summer of 1924 when he and a friend paddled an 18-foot (5.5 m) canvas-covered canoe hundreds of miles down the Peace River to Lake Athabasca; then down the Slave River to Great Slave Lake. They completed their journey down the Mackenzie, Canada's longest river, to the Arctic Ocean on a small Hudson's Bay Company tug. During his travels, Innis supplemented his fur research by gathering information on other staple products such as lumber, pulp and paper, minerals, grain and fish. He travelled so extensively that by the early 1940s, he had visited every part of Canada except for the Western Arctic and the east side of Hudson Bay.

Everywhere Innis went his methods were the same: he interviewed people connected with the production of staple products and listened to their stories.

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