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Innis developed the staples theory, and his method of intellectual inquiry, through major contributions to economic history during the 1920s and 1930s. At that time, Canada was primarily exporting raw commodities to Europe. Innis argued that the search for and exploitation of specific raw commodities (or "staples") like fish, fur, lumber, agricultural products and minerals, created a regional economy in Canada. He depicted the relationship between regions of Canada as one of "heartland" to "hinterland." According to Innis, a specific kind of economic and political relationship grew from the dominance of the Toronto-Montreal urban corridor over the eastern, northern and western peripheries. The periphery, or hinterland, was dominated by the core, or heartland. Because the heartland was dependent upon the search for and accumulation of staples (which were located in the hinterland) to perpetuate the economy, it sought to gain economic and political power by exploiting the hinterland. For example, Innis claimed that the fur trade largely determined Canadian boundaries. The importance of fur as a staple product resulted, notably, in the northern half of the continent remaining British. Even though Canada had declared its independence from the colonial power, it remained dependent on Britain for trade.
While Canada was aggressively farming wheat, cutting logs, fishing and trapping for fur, it was not producing anything from these raw materials and was therefore forced to import finished products. As Innis saw it, this situation prohibited economic growth. The endless search for and exploitation of staples also led to the creation of institutions and formed the political culture of the nation and its regions.
Canada's greatest challenge was to unite the country across a vast and varied geography. The railroad was a deliberate political and economic attempt to unite Canada's regions and link heartland with hinterland. Supporting this effort to hold Canada together with an east-west railroad was a faith in technology to overcome physical obstacles. The technology and the technological expertise so essential for building railroads in North America came from outside the country -- namely from Britain and the United States. As the technology was adapted to suit Canadian needs, it bolstered the national rhetoric that railroads were an integral part of nation building. The technological nationalism that fuelled the construction of the railroad also laid down the tracks for the future of electronic communication in Canada. The railroad served as a model for the development of broadcasting in the country and thus further served in the development of a national identity.
Cod drying on flakes, Newfoundland, circa 1886
Beaver Hunting in Canada, by Chiedel, 1777-1778
Map of Canadian Pacific Railway lines, with Harold Innis's annotations from his doctoral research on the railway
Map of telegraph lines in Quebec and the Maritime provinces, Atlas of Canada, 1906