Business History

Business History, defined as the written record of the activities of individuals and enterprises seeking private profit through the production of goods and services, has deep roots in Canadian history, although it has matured only recently.
J.W. Flavelle, businessman
Flavelle rose from humble origins to become one of Canada's most able and influential businessmen (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-23692).

Business History

Business History, defined as the written record of the activities of individuals and enterprises seeking private profit through the production of goods and services, has deep roots in Canadian history, although it has matured only recently. The evolution of Canada's business structure - encompassing enterprises, businessmen and business practices - dates from the earliest European contact with the continent. The Atlantic FISHERIES and the FUR TRADE were developed by French and English merchants exercising their metropolitan influence through such companies as the COMPAGNIE DES CENT-ASSOCIÉS (fd 1627) and the HUDSON'S BAY COMPANY (fd 1670).

The progressive development of fur, timber and wheat staples provided the backbone of early Canadian business development, eg, large fur trading companies (the NORTH WEST COMPANY, c 1780-1821), timber companies (Mossom Boyd and Company fd c1848) and wheat traders (the Richardson family of Kingston). From these central enterprises, ancillary activities developed. Diversification stimulated the emergence of BANKING (BANK OF MONTREAL, 1817), early manufacturing (Montreal Nail and Spike Works, 1839) and service industries (John Molson's Montréal brewing, banking and steamboat enterprises, c 1810).

Early Canadian entrepreneurs did not function in an environment of unbridled free enterprise. The state exercised a formative role from the beginning. Mercantilist legislation (the English NAVIGATION ACTS), commercial policy (Galt's 1859 tariff) and financial guarantees (GUARANTEE ACT, 1849) all influenced the businessman's risk-taking. In this light, Confederation may be viewed as the equipping of the federal government with powers to create a transcontinental commercial nation.

Tariff increases arising from the NATIONAL POLICY of 1879 stimulated Canadian manufacturing, both Canadian-owned (Massey, fd 1847) and foreign-owned (Canadian Rand Drill Company, fd 1889). The combination of turn-of-the-century prosperity, new staples such as western wheat and pulp and paper, and the impact of urbanization fostered the creation of new enterprises. HYDROELECTRICITY, for instance, prompted the establishment of Canadian Westinghouse in 1903. The period saw the creation of new companies through mergers (STELCO, 1910).

The 20th century has seen the elaboration of the established pattern of staples exploitation (nickel, iron ore) together with the introduction of new technologies (automobiles, aviation, electronics). Manufacturing has generally remained the preserve of central Canada, where indigenous industry has been overshadowed by FOREIGN INVESTMENT.

The state continued to influence business through competition, taxation and labour policies as well as by entering the marketplace itself through crown corporations (TRANS-CANADA AIRLINES, est 1937). Canadian companies have prospered as conglomerates (Power Corporation, GEORGE WESTON LIMITED) or as purveyors of unique technology (BOMBARDIER INC, est 1942) or in specified precincts such as broadcasting and banking.

Historians have interpreted these developments in a variety of ways. The central role of staple trades attracted early attention. D.G. CREIGHTON's The Commercial Empire of the St. Lawrence (1937) and H.A. INNIS's 1930 study, The Fur Trade in Canada, followed in 1940 by The Cod Fisheries, placed businessmen and their aspirations and activities in a broad national framework. Although akin to ECONOMIC HISTORY in their macroeconomic reach, these works contained much detail on Canada's earliest large enterprises.

Such thematic treatments have been perpetuated by journalists (Peter NEWMAN, The Canadian Establishment, 2 vols, 1975 and 1981), sociologists (Wallace Clement, The Canadian Corporate Elite, 1975) and economists (R.T. Naylor, History of Canadian Business, 1975), all of whom seek to portray the business community as the tightly knit, all-powerful upper stratum of Canadian society (see BUSINESS ELITES).

On a microeconomic level, Canadian business historians have produced a varied collection of company histories and biographies which range from hagiography to credible scholarship. Such company-sponsored histories as William Kilbourn's The Elements Combined (1960) on Stelco, E.P. Neufeld's study of MASSEY-FERGUSON (A Global Corporation, 1969) and Shirley E. Woods's, The Molson Saga (1983) set a high standard.

Journalistic company histories, such as those of Merrill Denison (The People's Power, 1960) frequently verge on uncritical exercises in public relations. Others appearing at times of corporate crisis (Peter Cook, Massey at the Brink, 1981; Peter Foster, Other People's Money: The Banks, The Government and Dome, 1983), display competence but often treat historical research as a backdrop to examining present business problems. Few industry studies exist, an exception being O.W. Main's 1955 study, The Canadian Nickel Industry.

Biographies of Sir Joseph FLAVELLE (Michael Bliss, A Canadian Millionaire, 1978) and C.D. HOWE, a businessman in politics (William Kilbourn and Robert Bothwell, C.D. Howe, 1980), serve to reverse the past tradition of business biography as puffery. Royal commissions reports (CORPORATE CONCENTRATION, 1978) frequently contain useful sections on business history.

Research in business history has generally been impeded by business suspicion, academic condescension and archival neglect. Furthermore, the writing of business history in Canada has tended to focus too exclusively on the forward and backward linkages of the staple trades, ignoring other areas of economic growth (eg, the spread of Canadian banking and electric utilities abroad).

Despite the contributions of expatriate Canadians such as N.S.B. Gras (1884-1956) and H.G.J. Aitken (1922- ) to the study of business enterprise abroad, Canadian business history lags behind its British and American counterparts. Many gaps exist; studies of business failure, individual companies, business-government relations, the role of foreign investment, the evolution of corporate law and management and labour relations all merit attention.

Innovative work has nonetheless been produced. H.V. Nelles's 1974 study, The Politics of Development, on the Ontario hydroelectric industry, and Tom Traves's 1979 examination, The State and Enterprise, of the interaction of business and the state after WWI, both break new ground (eg, in analysing the businessman's dynamic role in FEDERAL-PROVINCIAL RELATIONS). Popular business histories such as Philip Smith's The Treasure-Seekers (Home Oil, 1978), Donald MacKay's Empire of Wood (MacMillan Bloedel, 1982) and Peter C. Newman's Company of Adventurers, 1985, and Caesars of the Wilderness, 1987 (Hudson's Bay Co) have broadened business history readership.

Labour historians frequently touch on business concerns, such as the fractious labour-management relations of the Cape Breton steel industry. Québec business historians have tended to focus on broad themes such as the province's "economic inferiority" (Yves Roby, Les Québécois et les investissements américains, 1976, and René Durocher and Paul-André Linteau, Le "Retard" du Québec et l'infériorité economique des Canadiens français, 1971). The Montreal Business History Project (est 1976) is the first collective attempt to chronicle the evolution of business in one of Canada's leading commercial centres.

Despite these advances, no journal of business history or dictionary of business biography exists in Canada. Future development will depend on greater interest and co-operation from the business community, the pursuit of academic excellence in the field and, possibly, the growth of business history as "public history" (eg, corporate archives, use of business history as a facet of business administration programs).

Further Reading

  • Michael Bliss, Northern Enterprise: Five Centuries of Canadian Business (1987); D.S. Macmillan, ed, Canadian Business History: Selected Studies, 1497-1971 (1972); G. Porter and R. Cuff, eds, Enterprise and National Development (1973).