Easterbrook, William Thomas James

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Chair, Department of Political Economy 1961-1970

BA (1933) University of Manitoba

MA, PhD (1938) University of Toronto (first doctoral graduate of the Department of Political Economy)

Dean, School of Graduate Studies


(with Hugh G.J. Aitkin). Canadian Economic History. University of Toronto Press, 1956.




Personal Reflections

Mel Watkins (2012)

W.T.(Tom) Easterbrook (1907-1985) was my teacher, my colleague, my departmental chair, my friend. In each of these roles, I remember him most fondly.

After undergraduate study at the University of Manitoba – at the same time as Marshall McLuhan who became his life long friend – Easterbrook got his doctorate at the University of Toronto. It was the first one given by the Department of Political Economy where he studied economic history under the famous Harold Innis. He taught at Brandon College (now Brandon University) before joining the faculty of the University of Toronto in l947.

As he published, his gathering fame in economic history circles was such that he was invited to give the prestigious Marshall Lectures at Cambridge University in 1955-56.

There was no satisfactory text in Easterbrook’s specialty, the economic history of Canada until, as senior author, he wrote, jointly with Hugh Aitken, Canadian Economic History in 1956. The book was skillfully organized around Innisian themes of staples, modes of transport, and the old and new industrialism as well as separate chapters on labour, banking, and the North Pacific, the latter having become one of Easterbrook’s specialties.

In his graduate seminar at the University of Toronto, he liked to classify economic historians as architects and craftsmen, and encouraged his students to try to excel at both, though one sensed that he favoured the former. His textbook was craftsmanship of the highest order, with the Innisian architecture implicit. More than fifty years later, it is still in print.

In 1967 the by then widely used and influential text was supplemented by a book of readings, Approaches to Canadian Economic History, edited by Easterbrook and myself. Easterbrook was at heart a pluralist who respected different approaches and the reader represented that best of biases.

In those early years, Easterbrook as architect wrote two seminal articles: on the role of uncertainty that had to be dealt with by business and government, and on long-term patterns of growth and development. At a time when entrepreneurial studies were burgeoning in economic history in the U.S., Easterbrook was concerned with what he called “the security environment” in which entrepreneurs operated. With security for enterprise, there could be the “aggressive commercialism” of New England, to use a phrase of Innis. In the face of insecurity and uncertainty, however, there would be monopoly and bureaucratic structures and defensive strategies, which Easterbrook thought to be more in evidence in Canada. There were the risks associated with a transcontinental economy, the intense regionalism, and the uncertainties consequent on colonial or neo-colonial status within empires, first the French, then the British and finally the American.
By the 1960s, when the freshly radical air was full of talk of Canadian dependence on the United States, with that thought of as a bad thing which should be corrected, Easterbrook saw the relationship more as an understandable, rational, even proper, response by Canadian business and government, at the margin, to the business and government of the (imperial) centre with its capacity to compel compliance.
Easterbrook’s focus on institutions was part of a broader development within economics and economic history, but his special contribution was to insist that what was at issue was not only how institutions behaved but how they were formed and (maybe) reformed.
Indeed, Easterbrook was struck in his historical readings, particularly of North American economic history, with another set of contrasting patterns, between a “pattern of persistence” and a “pattern of transformation”. It was similar to what some writers in the newly emerging field of economic development described as a contrast between “growth” (within existing structures) and more revolutionary and transformative “development”.
The notion of path dependency was in the air. (Why has the keyboard of the first typewriter survived every morphing of the machine?) Put all these things together and you got a Canada which started with staple exports and never got out of that pattern. Easterbrook, in fact, was one of the first to use the term “staple trap” to describe the Canadian condition.
(And so, arguably, we remain: since Easterbrook died oil and gas have truly entrapped us, much as the fur trade did New France. Likewise, the financial crisis of 2008 where American banks had to be bailed out while no Canadian bank failed would not have surprised Easterbrook who liked to contrast the sound and cautious Canadian banking system with the wilder American variety and trace its origins back at least to the 1830’s.)
Easterbrook was chairman of the then Department of Political Economy from 1961 to 1970, including economics – with a strong core of economic historians – political science and commerce. It was a decade of great expansion of the university, and of the unrest of the sixties. Through it all he was a popular, respected – dare I say loved – chair.
He cared about his own sub-discipline and hired yet more economic historians. He could not stay the evolution toward disciplinary autonomy and the department was to split in early 80s and, within economics, to increasingly narrow specializations and the marginalization of economic history.
Easterbrook studied under Innis, and was both a friend of McLuhan and an admirer of his work. He was the first to bring the two together and himself came to share their differing scholarly interest in communication.
Which did not, as the cliché goes, prevent his being himself a problematic communicator. He liked to handwrite cryptic notes to faculty members telling them what their rank and salary would be in the next year, and if you couldn’t decipher what he’d written and asked him what it said, he’d mumble – all of it taking place within a cloud of smoke from cigarettes, pipes and cigars, which he smoked in constant succession with interruptions to cough.
There’s the story, perhaps apocryphal or at least embellished in the telling, of the visiting academic who had spent a year in the department. He went to say goodbye to Easterbrook and thank him. Easterbrook, apparently thinking he was one of the staff, said “you mustn’t leave” and offered him a promotion and a pay increase on the spot. Perhaps he was having trouble keeping track of a rapidly increasing staff, which he had just increased by one more.
For a number of years, including when he was chair, Easterbrook taught a fourth year course, North American Economic History, around themes already mentioned. This culminated in his book titled North American Patterns of Growth and Development. The American North “developed” and “transformed”. Both the American South and Canada, with all their differences, “grew” and “persisted.”
In an important innovation, Easterbrook included Mexico in his book. With great prescience, he saw Mexico as part of North America, ahead of its inclusion in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the increasing popularity, including within the world of scholarship, of that definition of North America.
He completed the manuscript just before his death. It was edited, with an Introduction, with manifest affection by Ian Parker, a student of Easterbrook’s whom he had appointed to the staff. In this final book we see Easterbrook as architect, as theorist of economic history, as economic historian applying broad and unifying themes.
The book is a major and innovative contribution. Regrettably, it has not received the attention it deserved. Easterbrook paid a price for ten lost years of scholarship which he could not fully recover.
The university gains greatly, and is a better place, from those like Tom Easterbrook who put keeping the university running over personal goals.
He was throughout a modest, even humble, person. When he stepped down as chair, when he retired from teaching and finally, when he turned seventy-five, colleagues repeatedly urged him to let them organize a celebratory event. Each time he refused. He did not enjoy the limelight, or having a fuss made about him.
Easterbrook was, in some respects, the last of his kind: more economic historian and political economist than economist, as much interdisciplinary as disciplinary. Which is perhaps to say that he was a worthy representative of his time and, as the wheel turns, may well become so again in the future.