Marginal Man: The Dark Vision of Harold Innis.


525 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 978-0-8020-3916-2
DDC 302.23'092




Reviewed by Graeme S. Mount

Graeme S. Mount is a history professor at Laurentian University and
author of Canada’s Enemies: Spies and Spying in the Peaceable Kingdom.


Harold A. Innis has a well-deserved reputation as one of Canada’s most influential historians. Members of the historical profession can appreciate a biography that explains what shaped such an important personality.


Watson begins with Innis’s origins in Otterville, Ontario, where he was born in 1894 and lived until the eve of World War I. His Canadian roots were deep. Innis’s great-great-grandfather, James Innis, was a Scot who had fought for the British cause during the U.S. War of Independence and received a land grant upon demobilization. Unlike historians who spent their childhoods in cities, Harold Innis became aware of the importance of staples—including, of course, furs. He regarded staple-based settler states, such as Argentina, Australia, Canada, Israel, South Africa, and the United States, as part of European civilization. His Baptist convictions played a determining role until his undergraduate days but diminished on the battlefields of Europe.


Military service during the First World War disillusioned Innis, who noted a huge gap between image and reality. A veteran of Vimy, Innis became a Canadian nationalist—distrustful of authority, resentful of British authority figures. He was convinced that a university would be the best place to avoid such people. As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, he wrote a thesis on the history of the Canadian Pacific Railway. In the process, he decided that, to a major extent, Canada’s river systems determined the direction of Canadian trade and, by extension, the location of Canada’s boundaries. Contrary to contemporary conventional wisdom, Canada did not defy nature; it was a product of nature. The Fur Trade in Canada resulted.


Watson is a sensitive writer, aware of the pressures and sentiments of soldiers at the front; aware of the impact of organized religion—especially as fundamentalist Baptists challenged McMaster University’s Biblical scholars; aware of university politics at the University of Toronto, where Innis taught. Watson’s sources include published materials, innumerable interviews, as well as documents from various archives, including the Canadian Baptist Archives, the National Archives of Canada, the University of Toronto Archives, and even Innis’s diary from the front lines.


Watson, Alexander John., “Marginal Man: The Dark Vision of Harold Innis.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 14, 2024,