Farewell to the man who literally wrote the book on Canadian business

I will never forget when Northern Enterprise was published in 1987. I was a businessman, the partner in charge of what was then the Canadian practice of Touche Ross Management Consultants (now Deloitte Consulting). We were rapidly approaching our 30th anniversary as a consulting practice and planned a big celebratory meeting. To impress our partners, principals and international guests, I ordered 100 copies of Northern Enterprise, historian Michael Bliss’s monumental book on the history of business in Canada.

In return for my purchase, Bliss autographed my copy “To Joe — who tells the northern entrepreneurs how to do it. With best wishes, Michael.” Underneath his autograph I wrote “Outstanding! Simply Outstanding! Especially the last chapter.”

The University of Toronto, where Bliss was professor of history, announced last week that he had died. For the most part, reports on his unexpected death rightly highlight his medical work. The Canadian Medical Hall of Fame described Bliss as “the pre-eminent medical historian of our era.”

And so he was. But he was also, it must be said, the pre-eminent historian of Canadian business. Northern Enterprise: Five Centuries of Canadian Business was sponsored by Manufacturer’s Life on the occasion of its centennial of incorporation. Too bad more Canadian corporations don’t undertake such worthwhile projects. When the book was published, Ontario History magazine asked Professor Ken McNaught to write a review. McNaught, in spite of having a grandfather who had been president of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association, was a supporter of the NDP. Bliss was decidedly not a supporter of the NDP.

Thirty years after its publication, Michael Bliss’s classic is well worth reading

McNaught began the review: “This path-breaking volume is the first overview of the subject. It is a formidable success (the italics are McNaught’s). Written with verve and a sophisticated style that is … in some respects, a tract for the times and thus, inevitably contentious.” It is, he added, “an outstanding pioneer work” (again the italics are McNaught’s).

Not all members of the academy shared McNaught’s generous views. “Business” historian Viv Nelles, then teaching at York, seemed to take particular umbrage in Business History Review, published by the Harvard Business School. He found the book did “not offer much insight into the more narrowly economic, organizational, and technological influences shaping the evolution of businesses and business forms in Canada.” And he added “It is something of a surprise to read so much about business, so bristling with judgment, and yet to learn relatively little about how business was conducted in the past.”

The Canadian business community agreed far more with McNaught than Nelles. When I approached some prominent businessmen early in the 21st century about contributing to a chair for business history at the Rotman School, they agreed and strongly suggested that Bliss should be the first chair. They had all read and remembered Northern Enterprise. When I asked Bliss if he was interested he said “don’t they know that I have been out of business history and into medical history for the past 15 years?” He declined.

The business community didn’t care that he had been away from the subject. He was the person they considered the outstanding Canadian business historian.

Recently the Canadian Business History Association, dedicated to the preservation and presentation of Canadian business history, invited Bliss to be a keynote speaker at a conference on 150 years of Canadian Business History in Canada’s sesquicentennial year. He agreed and added in his ironic way, “I’ll be happy … to give a keynote at your conference. My ideas are so old and forgotten that they’ll seem new again.”

Then, in late April, he wrote explaining he had health problems. He went on to add in that delightful fashion of his “I hope this is clear, albeit obviously provisional. We’re both in the provisional years Joe — though perhaps not as provisional as a lot of people who have spectacular sinking feelings this week as Home Capital collapses. Home Capital? Home Bank?” For those not familiar with Home Bank, it was one of the biggest bank failures in Canadian history back in 1923. As Bliss wrote in Northern Enterprise, “The liquidator found that the Home Bank was hopelessly insolvent and had been misstating its position for years.” (This is not to say Home Capital has done anything of the sort).

Thirty years after its publication, Northern Enterprise is a classic well worth reading. The book did not shy from skewering Canadian business. Of the tariff protectionism of the late 1870s, he wrote: “The ascendant manufacturers … had persuaded the state to rig the business environment in favour of their industries and their incomes,” wrote Bliss. “The Canadian consumer would foot the bill.”

In spite of President Trump, the economy is more globalized than when Bliss wrote the title of his final chapter, “Less Place to Hide.” In that chapter he pointed out that the lessons of the bank failures of 100 years ago had not been learned. He advocated for the free trade agreement with the United States and bemoaned interprovincial barriers to trade, which still exist 30 years later.

Northern Enterprise stands the test of time and should be required reading for all those interested in the business future of Canada.

Joe Martin is director of Canadian business and financial history at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.