The Perfect Christmas Gift: Canada’s Entrepreneurs : From the Fur Trade to the 1929 Stock Market Crash

21 11 2011

 

Last Thursday, 17 November 2011, saw the formal launch of a new book related to Canadian business history. The book is a collection of short biographies of historical Canadian entrepreneurs who lived before the 1929 stock market crash. The book, which I edited with J. Andrew Ross of the University of Guelph, is designed to bring historical scholarship on the history of entrepreneurship in Canada to a wider audience. In other words, it is for non-academics who have an interest in Canadian business history.

The French version of the book has just been published by les Presses de l’Université Laval as Les entrepreneurs canadiens du commerce des fourrures au krach de 1929. The English version of the book, Canada’s Entrepreneurs : From the Fur Trade to the 1929 Stock Market Crash, will be published by University of Toronto Press in December. (The idea is that it will be available for shipment to consumers in time for Christmas Eve deliveries).

You can read the table of contents of the French version of the book here. You can order the French version here.

The launch event was at Université Laval in Quebec City. Since I couldn’t make it over to Canada for the launch, I asked by co-editor, Andrew Ross, to read out some remarks I had prepared. Here is the text, in English, that I sent to him. (Dr Ross may have taken a few minor liberties in the translation/delivery):

Today we take it for granted that there are many academics in business schools who study entrepreneurship and its history. However, this is a recent phenomenon.

Modern entrepreneurship studies really began with the seminal writings of an economist named Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950). Schumpeter came from a  business family and thus knew business first hand. He came to Harvard University from Germany after the rise of Hitler.

Schumpeter and his new colleagues at Harvard, who included Toronto-born business historian Norman Gras (1884-1956), wanted to understand Big Business, the huge corporations that had come to dominate the American economy after 1870.

Schumpeter was convinced that something was missing from traditional economic analysis, namely the role of entrepreneurs, in driving economic growth and technological innovation. Schumpeter was an economist, but he was disturbed that the biographical element was missing from existing studies of the economy—it was all equations and theory and no reference to actual named business people.

The criticism of economics that Schumpeter made in the 1940s is even more true today for both economists and most economic historians.

Perhaps some of our recent financial problems could have been avoided had business education included more business history and business biography alongside financial economics.

Schumpeter argued that entrepreneurs were incredibly important in economic history.

Schumpeter regarded the average person as the ultimate beneficiary of the entrepreneurs with “fiery souls” who establish  new industries by taking ivory-tower inventions and mass-producing them. Schumpeter’s argue that the modern world was essentially made by a long list of entrepreneurs that began centuries ago and continues to this day. Just think of the impact entrepreneurs such as Thomas Edison have had on our lives.

In his 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, Schumpeter celebrated the achievements of entrepreneurs:

Electric lighting is no great boon to anyone who has money enough to buy a sufficient number of candles and to pay servants to attend them. It is the cheap cloth, the cheap cotton and rayon fabric, boots, motorcars and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production, and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to a rich man. Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing  more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.[1]

Schumpeter’s words remind us of why entrepreneurship deserves to be central to the historical narrative taught in elementary schools, high schools, and universities: everyone who uses electric lights, let alone the many products that weren’t even invented in 1942 but which are today part of everyday life, should care deeply about the history of entrepreneurship.

So should environmentalists and those who are worried about the many environmental and social problems caused by the excesses of capitalism.

Entrepreneurs have transformed life in every society, although the fruits of their efforts are more accessible to the citizens of rich countries than to people in other parts of the world.

But what is the specific importance of entrepreneurs in Canadian history, as opposed to the history of the Western World or North America? Can Schumpeterian ideas be applied to any of the classic themes in Canadian political history, such as French-English relations and Confederation ? And what relevance does the study of entrepreneurship have for our understanding of gender and the place of the First Nations, two of the themes that have been explored by Canadian social historians?

In the 1990s, there was a major debate in the field of Canadian history between proponents of traditional political history, such as J.L. Granatstein, and social historians who wanted to shift the focus away from Prime Ministers and towards race, class, and gender.  Today, there is a consensus that both forms of historical inquiry are equally legitimate.

We share this belief. But we would also criticize Canadian political and Canadian social historians for ignoring the role of businesspeople, particularly entrepreneurs , in Canadian history.

Historians interested in the history of economic nationalism in Canada should pay more attention to businessmen. Without practical men capable of implementing it, Sir John A. Macdonald (1815-1891)’s vision of a transcontinental railway would have been impossible to realise. The achievements of these businessmen, whose ranks included William Van Horne and Lord Strathcona, are discussed in our book.

Six of the sixty-one biographies in this volume are of women.  Women have always been active in Canadian business, even in periods when the law was loaded against female entrepreneurs. Readers of our volume will be reminded that women were active in business even in the time of New France. These women succeeded in the face of long odds. Before the Quiet Revolution, married women couldn’t even open bank accounts in this province.  So maybe the female entrepreneurs in a book, which covers the period up to 1929, should be regarded as heroes.

The disproportionate number of entrepreneurs from certain ethnic and religious minorities. This is true in Canada and true in other countries.  In our book, we have included the biographies of German-speaking, Hakka Chinese, and Jewish entrepreneurs in this collection. Many of the other entrepreneurs discussed here were migrants from France, Britain, and the United States.  Immigrants have always been a big part of the reason for Canada’s economic success. For the sake of the economy, one hopes that Canada will remain open to immigrants. Perhaps reading this book will remind a few people of the importance of welcoming immigrant entrepreneurs.

Francophone entrepreneurs are discussed in our book. Their biographies speak to French-English relations, a classic and still important theme in Canadian historiography.

Limitations of the Biographical Approach

The biographical approach to history has many strengths.  But I’m certain that everyone here will agree that it also has weaknesses.

However, one of the problems with the biographical approach is that it requires copious primary sources, ideally archival ones. If there are few primary sources about an individual, it is basically impossible to write their life story.

Unfortunately, the biography of just one First Nations entrepreneur appears in this book.  Maquinna, a Native leader  on the West Coast who participated in the fur trade, will have to represent the large number of undocumented Native entrepreneurs who played such an important role in Canada’s economic history, particularly the early parts.

After Confederation, the reserve system and residential schools imposed on First Nations after Confederation severely limited the entrepreneurial opportunities of First Nations individuals. Until the 1960s, natives were treated like wards of the state and weren’t even allowed to sign commercial contracts.  The rampant sexual and physical abuse of Native kids likely destroyed their self-confidence – and we know that self-confidence is necessary for an entrepreneurial attitude.

Historian Sarah Carter has shown that after 1867 white bureaucrats who micromanaged reserve life consciously decided to destroy entrepreneurial ventures by First Nations people, for instance by denying Indian farmers on reserves permission to sell their crops in nearby towns. The period before Confederation, however, was one of intensely entrepreneurial activity amongst First Nations people. The myth that Natives were gullible fools who traded valuable furs for worthless beads was demolished in the 1970s by scholars who demonstrated that First Nations people were shrewd bargainers.

Trade goods in graves and other archaeological evidence also show that extensive long-distance trade occurred in North America well before Columbus. Commerce was obviously taking place, but we do not know the names of the traders. For historians seeking to reconstruct the activities of individual First Nations entrepreneurs, there is a frustrating lack of primary sources.

In the future, the DCB will publish volumes on Canadian who died in the 1930s, 1940s, and so on. We really hope that these volumes include as many good biographies of businesspeople as the earlier volumes did. Perhaps in a few decades, when we are close to retirement, Andrew Smith and myself will collaborate to edit another edited collection, this one about entrepreneurs of the 20th century.  Such a volume would doubtless contain the biographies of many female, Native, and visible minority businessmen, since the Canadian business class is now far more diverse than it was a few decades ago.

I think that we can all agree that tapping into the entrepreneurial talents of Canadians from all backgrounds and both genders is a damn good thing.

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2 responses

21 11 2011
J Liedl

Congratulations! I’ll send this information to my father-in-law who likely fits right into your target audience. Maybe he’ll want a copy as a Christmas gift! (I’ll also ask Rose-May to order these for the library if we still have money in this year’s book budget. If not, first thing in the new financial year!)

22 11 2011
andrewdsmith

That’s great! As I recall, your father-in-law is from Montreal, which means he could probably read both versions of the book.

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