BOOKS

Loot and illusion

NORTHERN ENTERPRISE: FIVE CENTURIES OF CANADIAN BUSINESS By Michael Bliss

PATRICIA BEST May 25 1987
BOOKS

Loot and illusion

NORTHERN ENTERPRISE: FIVE CENTURIES OF CANADIAN BUSINESS By Michael Bliss

PATRICIA BEST May 25 1987

Loot and illusion

NORTHERN ENTERPRISE: FIVE CENTURIES OF CANADIAN BUSINESS By Michael Bliss

(McClelland and Stewart, 640 pages, $39.95)

Books about Canadian economic history are usually eye-glazers, burdened by endless debate over tariff walls, Keynesian formulas and drab Scottish Presbyterian autocrats. But with Northern Enterprise, Michael Bliss has crafted an entertaining account of the past five centuries viewed through a business prism. The book is a fast-paced collage of facts, anecdotes and parallels that may be all a reader ever needs to know about the evolution of Canadian business.

Bliss, a University of Toronto history professor and a business writer, combines an academic’s rigor with a journalist’s eye for controversy. Drawing almost exclusively from previously published material, including his own books, he presents little original research. His strong suits are an accessible writing style—and unorthodox conclusions.

“Canadians,” he writes, “have a teni dency to assume that the fur trade and its companies were of vast economic importance. They were not.” Indeed, Bliss argues that if the Hudson’s Bay Co. had not survived, “England would not have missed it.” The fur trade myth is only one of several widely accepted notions to which he lays waste. Of another Canadian sacred cow, the Canadian Pacific Railway, Bliss contends, “If the CPR had gone bankrupt during construction or if it had not been built until the mid or late 1890s, the broad history of western Canadian development would not have been greatly different.”

The main premise of Bliss’s work is equally provocative —that Canada has consistently overestimated the value and extent of its natural wealth. As a result, he says, the nation will never be the economic powerhouse its citizens imagine it will be. He also challenges the view that Canadians would be much wealthier if only the businessmen among them had been more enterprising. Instead, Bliss declares that Canada has been handicapped by the difficulty of “making the wilderness bloom” and by the great expectations of Canadians and their governments.

Throughout its history, the country’s industrial expansion has outrun its markets, leaving a litter of failed plants and overbuilt empires. Attempts to force the pace of Canadian development, he says, have “tended to burden Canadian business and Canadians generally with very high costs.”

To reach his conclusions, Bliss barrels through 500 years of economic life, beginning with fishermen working the Atlantic coasts during the 1490s. He draws a detailed portrait of an emerging nation coping with the pace of change and the competitive scramble. And he notes the profusion of coddled businessmen who schemed to rid themselves of what he calls the “the ugly heart of competition” through price-fixing, monopolies and protectionism.

The book contains colorful profiles of the nation’s business giants—including Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook, who even on his honeymoon could not resist buying an electric company, 417 acres of land and a railway franchise. But if Bliss portrays the builders, promoters and scoundrels of Canadian business in a generally admiring way, his assessment of government economic policies is harsh. The tendency to overestimate the potential of the country’s natural resources, he says, has produced fatally wrongheaded decisions. Politicans who thought they knew more about business than businessmen were responsible for a series of blunders, from the National Policy of 1879, which Bliss says fostered “distorted, hothouse growth in manufacturing that had often harmful consequences,” to the National Energy Program of 1980, which “stimulated Canadian buyouts of foreign oil interests at the highest prices of the century.”

As for the future, Bliss makes a forceful argument for free trade, saying that Canadian business will have “less place to hide” from the world. In the mid-1980s, he writes, “The country had to stop believing it could become a second United States and realize that its best hope was to emulate the Scandinavian countries in their relationship to Europe. Specialize, exploit comparative advantage, choose quality instead of quantity, let culture grow in the fresh air of economic freedom.” A resurgence of protectionism would cause Canada’s comparative living standard to fall—making it the “one sure prescription for the eventual failure of the Canadian experiment in nationality.” Bliss makes a compelling argument, but it may be one of those hard lessons that only history can teach.

PATRICIA BEST