The Fur Trade and Social Finance

The fur trade in Canada provides a distant mirror for Social Finance advocates and practitioners on the complex effects of any new technology.  It makes us mindful that every intervention has side effects, both positive and negative.

Harold Innis was English Canada's first economic historian. He wrote in an era when our history was defined more by the imperial powers of England and the US than by articulating our own experiences.  Innis changed that and paved the way for a line of English Canadian intellectuals who, while developing our authentic voice, thoughtfully critiqued imported social constructs. These include George Grant, Ursula Franklin, Marshall McLuhan, Janice Gross Stein, Mark Kingwell, Margaret Atwood, and John Ralston Saul. (See Note below)

Innis' first book, The Fur Trade in Canada, chronicled the benefit of the fur trade to European capitalists whose industries and economies were developed and strengthened by beaver pelts and access to other staple products while devastating Canada's first nations and aboriginal peoples. 

Innis placed First Nations people at the centre of the growth and success of the fur trade. Further he departed from contemporary thinking by observing,  "We have not realized that the Indian and
his culture were fundamental to the growth of Canadian institutions."
  John Ralston Saul was to significantly develop this theme in his latest book, A Fair Country where he observed our version of federalism, our approach to inclusion and our belief in dialogue owe much to First Nation influence.

Ironically in the process of getting rich, Europeans destroyed the very culture and way of life that made their wealth possible.  European-made guns led to the rapid extermination of the beaver. European diseases like smallpox decimated whole aboriginal communities; European alcohol introduced centuries of addiction.  All these were introduced in a short period of time rapidly destabilizing, in just a few decades, a natural balance that had evolved over centuries.

The inference of Innis' critique is that all new techniques and technologies have radical and disruptive effects on social organizations and culture.  In later years he specialized in less tangible commodities like media, communications, cultural industries and other knowledge 'products'.  His writings on media and communications and their accompanying influence and erosion of critical thinking went on to influence his disciple and colleague Marshall McLuhan.

The fur trade can be seen as a metaphor for all new techniques, technologies, interventions, practices, methodologies, communication and knowledge distribution systems. 

What does this mean for our exploration of social finance? 

They suggest there are inevitable and likely unforeseen consequences of the growth of social finance. They encourage a healthy respect for change – to research, study, observe and understand and mitigate where possible, the side effects. They lead to the following questions. 

  1. What core aspects of the culture of volunteerism must we preserve as social finance evolves?
  2. What are the key tangible and intangible elements of charities and non profit organizations that should be maintained?
  3. How do we maintain social mission by adopting the techniques of business financing?
  4. What are the deleterious aspects of the culture of business we must guard against?
  5. What are the psychic and social
    consequences of our social finance innovations?
  6. What radical, unintended side effects might be associated with the growth of social finance?

My favourite Innis quote is: "… an obsession with
'present-mindedness' wipes out concerns about past or future.
"   In our rush, excitement, enthusiasm, focus and concentration to explore the potential of social finance let's also
stand back, observe and assess.  Standing still and rushing forward may be paradoxical but not impossible.  That's the nature of
complex change.  And the mystery! 

As present day explorers let's not repeat the mistakes of the early fur traders and explorers.


There is a robust Quebec
intellectual tradition of impressive insight which I am fortunate to
gain glimpses of through my friendship with the honoured Quebec intellectual Jacques Dufresne. Jacques, revered as the Socrates of Quebec, presides over one of the most popular French language websites in the world – L'Agora encyclopedia.  Sadly, this rich intellectual tradition is lost to those
of us who cannot read French.

For an exceptional book on the  clarity, insight and wisdom of one aboriginal leader's fight against the loss of his culture, I highly recommend the extraordinary Chief Big Bear by Rudy Wiebe. It's part of the Penguin series on Extraordinary Canadians edited by John Ralston Saul.

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One Comment

  1. Geraldine

    It’s interesting to look at social finance in this way Al. Thank you for reminding us that although we may be well-intentioned, our actions may have consequences we did not foresee. I also appreciate the quote you cite; too often we don’t take the time learn from history and consider the future. While experimentation is necessary, it shouldn’t be blind.

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