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Written by: Classii Toronto Classifieds on December 23, 2017

Over the last four centuries, Canada’s entrepreneurs have helped to drive our economy forward, but how many of us can actually name who these individuals are or what they did?

In a new book, Canada’s Entrepreneurs: From the Fur Trade to the 1929 Stock Market Crash, editors J. Andrew Ross and Andrew D. Smith, provide a stimulating overview on the history of Canadian entrepreneurship. We talk to postdoctoral fellow at the University of Guelph, J. Andrew Ross, about some of the characters that have shaped Canadian business.

What inspired you to produce a book about Canadian entrepreneurs?
Canada’s Entrepreneurs was born from a desire by my co-editor (Andrew D. Smith) and I to highlight the stories of individual entrepreneurs that are contained in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. After much debate, we eventually decided to include 61 entrepreneurs in the book. Their stories highlight the immense risks taken, the importance of networks among entrepreneurs, and also the international connections that have allowed Canadians (and their predecessor peoples) to create and innovate.  We hope that readers will appreciate that while entrepreneurs have experienced historically-specific challenges in doing business in North America, many of the challenges remain the same: overcoming distance, lack of capital and communication hurdles, to name just a few.

What sparked the rise of entrepreneurialism in Canada?
Entrepreneurs have been important in Canada long before there was a Canada in the modern sense. First Nations, the French and British traded and pursued new markets and began exploiting natural resources like furs and fish, and developed transportation and communication networks that eventually laid the groundwork for Canada to become a world-leading industrial economy.

How well does Toronto produce successful entrepreneurs? Can you give us examples of some noteworthy entrepreneurs to come out of Toronto?
Many of the entrepreneurs featured in the book are from Toronto, particularly from the last half of the nineteenth century, when the city began to challenge Montreal’s dominance over the Canadian economy. In this era, we see the creation of businesses that would dominate the Canadian business landscape, like Timothy Eaton’s department stores, Peter Larkin’s Salada Tea Company and George Cox’ Canada Life Insurance, to name only a few. The Dictionarycarries many more articles on Toronto entrepreneurs, and if we had moved beyond 1929 we could have included others like George Gooderham, whose legacy stretches into the 21stcentury — through his mansion at Bloor and St George that houses the York Club, and through his business, which is gone but is the foundation for the 21st century revitalization of the Distillery District.

In the book, you mention the conspicuous role that the government played in Canadian entrepreneurial activity. Can you expand on this point and perhaps provide an example?
Government and the state have always been important to Canadian business. Under the French regime, individual entrepreneurs were actually discouraged in favour of state-sponsored monopolies. The English followed the same model, giving the Hudson Bay Company exclusive rights to trade furs in Rupert’s Land (much of what became northern and western Canada). This became a point of friction with those individuals who tried to operate independently. As the British North American colonies became more independent, their governments saw the importance of spurring economic development to compete with the United States, they rewarded entrepreneurial endeavor with subsidies and state support, especially to build transportation infrastructure like railways and canals.

Canadian governments were also in the forefront of using arm’s length agencies like crown corporations to achieve social and economic goals. One of the best examples was Ontario Hydro, which we see as a wonderful example of so-called “public” entrepreneurship by Sir Adam Beck, who promoted a public ownership business model for wider social gain, and not just personal or corporate profit.

Do you think the story of Canadian entrepreneurship is a story of success, particularly when compared to other countries?
Yes, we do. Canadians evince the insecurities of the small nation and feel that we are not innovative enough, but there has been no shortage of entrepreneurial spirit. And we are of course small in comparison to the largest economy the world has ever seen, right next door. Creating a global top-ten economy required a lot of enterprise, and is nothing to feel insecure about! That said, there have been persistent issues that Canadians have been right to pay attention to, including our dependence on natural resources, the extensive international ownership of our businesses and our lack of national champions. These are issues we have to keep foremost in mind in continuing innovation into the 21st century.

Which Canadian entrepreneur do you admire most and why?
It’s hard to pick any one person, of course, and there is much to admire (and also to dislike!) about many entrepreneurs, but the kind of person we were keen to include was not just the household names, like the Labatts or Eatons, but also some of the smaller entrepreneurs and those who had special challenges: men like Chang Toy, a Chinese immigrant who started as a contract labourer but eventually ran a successful wholesale business in Vancouver in an era in which anti-Chinese sentiment was rampant; or women like Ellen Cashman (“Irish Nellie”), who had a serious case of mining fever and traveled the continent from Tombstone, Arizona, to the Klondike setting up all manner of businesses — boarding houses, restaurants, a grocery, a boot and shoe store — to give her the resources to pan for gold. Her energy extended beyond business, and she helped establish hospitals, churches and schools in every town she did business in. Aside from their enterprise, this concern for community and country was quite typical of Canadian entrepreneurs and shows how Canadian entrepreneurship was not just about profits, but also about people.

Join J. Andrew Ross in a discussion about his book “Canada’s Entrepreneurs: From the Fur Trade to the 1929 Stock Market Crash” on Thursday, 26th January from 5 -7p.m. at the Rotman School of Management on 105 St. George Street.

Síle Cleary writes about architecture for the Toronto Standard.