Joe Martin, Ed., Relentless Change: A Casebook for the Study of Canadian Business History

By Krats, Peter V. | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview
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Joe Martin, Ed., Relentless Change: A Casebook for the Study of Canadian Business History


Krats, Peter V., Labour/Le Travail


Joe Martin, ed., Relentless Change: A Casebook for the Study of Canadian Business History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 2010)

THE STUDY OF Canada's business development can teach valuable lessons. Improved decision-making processes can contribute to better outcomes and continue the progress that has made Canada the wealthy society it is today. (xii) Joe Martins work emerges from this view: it celebrates business success, trying to show where entrepreneurs "got it right"; entrepreneurial failures appear, but "progress" prevails. That progress, writes Martin, occurs when politicians or administrators either stayed out of the way or helped business. Regulatory governments show up as villains. That this is pro-business history is also clear as one searches in vain for labour in the bibliography and index. One might ask who worked at reshaping the Hudson's Bay Company, making machines for Massey-Harris, mining for International Nickel, or developing the oil sands. Global economies, too, are praised in discussion of the National Energy Policy (237), limits to the Free Trade Agreement, or the consequent commitment to deliver the United States oil. (322) After all, Martin notes, integration with the States "made economic sense." (226)

The point here is not to dismiss the book, but to point out its goal is not balanced economic history--it emphasizes how elite entrepreneurs built their firms. Or, less often, what they failed to do on the way to corporate chaos. Readers interested in broader visions of business including environmental impacts, human consequences of business, and "mixed" results for "economic progress" need look elsewhere. These case studies, interspersed with useful if very sweeping and succinct introductions, celebrate "relentless progressif not just Relentless Change. Readers not using the "case" method may find the cases limiting. This restriction is natural: one person's crucial case is another's lesser issue. One could certainly challenge the choices, which range from the 1850s to the last decade. First, one could critique the omission of early staples. Why almost nothing from electricity or agriculture (the Massey-Harris case is on manufacturing)? How about "public" business--Polymer Corporation comes to mind?

The answers lie partly in the book's background: Martin developed the cases to serve his own course, which focuses "upon Canadian business as it evolved beyond the initial staples phase." (xiii) Martin co-authored several cases, with others provided by contributors ranging from academics to young scholars to businessmen. (viii) Besides Martin, the most influential contributor was Stewart Melanson, then a PhD student at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. A teaching assistant in Martins course, Melanson wrote four of the thirteen case studies and aided in formulating the text. (viii)

Martin and company worked within the Stern Diamond Model which contends that sustainable economies grow through the interaction of enabling political systems, effective financial systems, quality entrepreneurship, and sophisticated management. (xii) Thus all the gases have four elements: discussions of public policy, financial systems and circumstances, the role of entrepreneurs, and the manner in which corporations were managed once they achieved substantial size. (xiii) Sometimes that tactic requires rather weakly linked addendums of material--in the case of Eaton's, a two-page addendum bringing us decades ahead to Wal-Mart. (156-157) The chronology itself is open to debate: although it reflects the case studies, one might wonder about 1905 as an end point to the National Policy era, or 1905 to 1955 as another era. Besides this shared framework, the cases, and four, era-based introductions provide useful data through appendices and charts, not least a series of "Top 30" firm listings.

More questions might be raised about the introductions to each "Part," as outlining half a century in twenty pages or so results in sweeping generalities.

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