The Staple Theory @ 50: Marjorie Griffin Cohen

The latest entry in our continuing series of commentaries marking the 50th anniversary of the publication of Mel Watkins’ classic article, “A Staple Theory of Economic Growth,” we present the following contribution by Mel’s long-time collaborator, Marjorie Griffin Cohen.  Marjorie considers the gender dimensions of staple analysis.

Staples Theory: Its Gendered Nature

Marjorie Griffin Cohen

Feminism was the unlikely route for my contact with the staples theory. I say ‘unlikely’ because staples development analysis has a structural amnesia to gendered issues. Still, understanding the distinct ways that Canada developed had significant implications for the atypical way labour and gender were configured in the historical development process.

Interest in women’s role in economic development had been in abeyance for a long time after the British feminists early in the 20th century became focused on women’s past – specifically women’s contributions to the 18th century industrial revolution. In the early analysis of industrialization, women’s work was understood (both by feminists and others) to be integral to industrial development in Europe, primarily because women were so very central to the proto-industrial stage of family manufacturing(1), but also because of their dominance in the early factory systems.(2)

Until the beginning of development literature (dealing with underdevelopment in poor countries) the British understanding of capitalist development was more or less the general understanding of industrial revolutions. So too were the labour and family configurations associated with them. As feminism was gaining a tiny toehold in universities in Canada in the 1970s and 80s, those of us exploring how to teach the Canadian economic past from a gendered perspective had almost no material to use. The research in Canada and the US simply had not yet been done, so the only written scholarly work available related to an earlier literature of what had happened in England and Europe. This clearly did not explain women’s role in development in Canada – in any way whatsoever. At that time the push to have Canadian subjects taught in Canadian universities (spearheaded by Robin Matthews and Mel Watkins) made me realize I could not focus on European women, but absolutely had to find out how women figured in the shaping of Canada.(3)

This is where Mel Watkin’s work on staples development comes in. I was new to Canada and since I came from the US, knew absolutely nothing about Canadian history, much less its economic development. Someone directed me to Mel’s work on the staples theory. It immediately made sense that such an enormous country with a tiny population that was focused on exporting mostly primary products should have a distinct economic growth pattern. I read everyone Mel referred to in the piece, including Innis and Mackintosh. Mackintosh’s cheerful approach, that staples export would be the positive path to more diversified development, contrasted starkly with that of Innis whose darker analysis of the significance of the characteristics of the commodity itself and the tendency toward wildly fluctuating economic activity seemed a much more realistic version of what actually occurred. Mel’s theorizing applied the concept of linkages (backward, forward, final demand linkages) to the Canadian case. What became obvious through Mel’s analysis is that what mattered most was whether these linkages were reaped within Canada or elsewhere, and how public policy could make the difference in taming the volatility of a staples economy: to the extent that public policy submits to the ‘boom and bust psychology’ of staples export development, the more unstable the economy was likely to be. Mel was clear that growth and economic instability would be less at the mercy of destiny if planning is accomplished to strengthen linkages.

At first I was interested in seeing how women ‘fit into’ Canadian economic development by examining the nature of women’s labour in both staples production and the agricultural/subsistence sector. The first two excellent and serious studies dealing with women in staple development were focused on aboriginal women in the fur trade. These were Sylvia Van Kirk’s book, Many Tender Ties, and Jennifer Brown’s book, Strangers in the Blood. Both were published in 1980 and showed how central aboriginal women were to the success of the fur trade, regarding both market-oriented production and re-production of the fur trade labour force (or maintaining ‘social reproduction,’ as it is now termed). Around this time H. Clare Pentland’s book on Capital and Labour in Canada 1650 – 1860 came out, and it was the first to focus on the significance of labour organization in a staples economy, where finding an adequate labour supply was a monumentally difficult issue. Pentland referred to early labour productive relations as ‘patriarchal’ because of the need for the employer to assume the reproductive overhead of the workers, even when there was relatively little work, just in order to keep people alive.

But understanding how the population grew and maintained itself during periods of violent economic fluctuations and how the economy grew despite these wild swings meant not just seeing how women ‘fit in’ to an already understood growth pattern. Rather, I found, including an analysis of what most people were doing changed ideas about how capital accumulation occurred in the early periods.

There were clues all over the place about how to understand labour and women’s role in early development, particularly if one examined early records with the intent of specifically looking for these issues. Ideas from other scholars also provided other methods of examining the staple’s relationship to the wider economy. These included Vernon Fowke, who was interested in disputing the sense that pre-industrial agriculturalists were primarily self-sufficient, but instead were initially and continuously reliant on an exchange and monetary economy. In Quebec Louise Dechene and Jean Hamelin pointed out that even in the earliest periods only a small proportion of labour was directly involved in the staple-exporting sector, which meant that other forms of economic activity had been dominant. And there were the accounts of women themselves that could be read, both to understand what types of work they did and how they and the men in their families understood the significance of their work.(4)

By looking at what most people were doing and including women’s labour in the mix, their significance in the whole project of capital accumulation became more apparent. The extraordinary volatility of the staple economy was a starting point for understanding the nature of productive relations, both those in the market and those within the family. It became obvious, as I learned more, that patriarchal productive relations were just as significant in capital accumulation as were capitalist productive relations. Ultimately I wrote a book on this issue, using the staple thesis as my starting point, with the intent of showing how non-market productive relations could be crucial to economic growth and development.(5) Also, understanding the gendered nature of economic growth in Canada could add a different take on the shape of staples development and how its volatility was managed within households.

As I said initially, Mel’s article on the staples theory was immensely influential to my thinking about the gender order in Canada in its earlier periods. But some assertions seem worth questioning now (in hindsight). Two points that Mel mentions as being important for development are worthy of note. First is the idea that Canada had a favourable ‘land/man’ ratio; second is the notion that because Canada was largely a settler society, it did not have inhibiting traditions of the sort that restricted development elsewhere. With labour issues always so very significant because of the low population, it would seem to me that this ‘land/man ratio’ was actually a negative factor. So much land, with so few people, meant that domestic markets were very slow to development. Also, while the gender order was in many ways shaped by the special circumstances of Canada’s geography and staple exports, importing labour was necessary to solve the labour problem. Each wave of European immigrants brought a reinforcement of very traditional gendered relationships. And these tended to retard the various ways that women had been integrated into the staples exporting economy. The effect of English’s women’s immigration on aboriginal women in the fur trade was most obvious, but so too were the traditions from other waves of immigrations from elsewhere in Britain and Europe.

The significance of export staples to understanding what is most important for the economy in Canada has had resurgence with new developments in the energy industry. I live in BC, and here the reliance on staples exports is well entrenched as part of the collective unconscious of policy makers. For example, I recently attended a high-level one-day conference assessing future economic directions in BC. The general sense was that the priority was to generate wealth through gas development and exports (in the form of liquefied natural gas), assumed by most to be a precondition for allocating funds to the things people need. It seems odd, but there exists an embedded idea that wealth is only created through resources – and everything else derives from that. At no point is there recognition of the huge risks of relying on one export staple for future economic success.

Mel Watkins’ “A Staple Theory of Economic Growth” was an inspiration to many of us who used it as a basis for further research into Canada’s economic nature. It inspired subsequent researchers and students, and is a great article to use in teaching. It thoroughly engages students in a way that nothing else on Canadian economic history can do: they appreciate its clarity and immediately see its relevance to the economy today. The staples theory is as alive and relevant in Canada now, as it was when Mel wrote it fifty years ago. If only those in charge of the economy would heed the analysis that Mel and others gave us, they would be much more conscious of the risks inherent in a staples-dependent approach to growth. Those who design economic policy for governments should have a wider perspective than relying on the deepening exploitation of resources. Attention needs to shift to economic activity that meets the needs of people within this country.


Brown, Jennifer. Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980

Cohen, Marjorie Griffin. Women’s Work, Markets and Economic Development in Nineteenth-Century Ontario (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988).

Collier, Frances. The Family Economy of the Working Class in the Cotton Industry 1874-1833 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1964).

Dechêne, Louise. Habitants et marchands de Montréal au XVIIe siècle (Montreal: Plon, 1974).

Dunlop, E.P., ed. Our Forest Home: Being Extracts from the Correspondence of the Late Frances Stewart (Toronto, 1889)

Engels, Fredrich. The Condition of the Working-Class in England [1845] (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1973).

Fowke, Vernon C. Canadian Agricultural Policy: The Historical Pattern [1946] (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978).

Hamelin, Jean. Economie et société en Nouvelle-France Quebec (Laval: Presses de l’universite Laval, 1961).

Innis, Harold. The Fur Trade in Canada : An Introduction to Canadian Economic History rev. Ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970).

Jameson, Anna Brownwell. Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada [1838] (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1965).

Mackintosh, W.A. Economic Background of Dominion-Provincial Relations [1939] (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1964.

Martineau, Harriet. Retrospective of Western Travel (London: Saunders and Otlers, 1838).

Medick, Hans. ‘The Proto-Industrial Family Economy: The Structural Function of Household and Family during the Transition from Peasant Society to Industrial Capitalism,’ Social History 3, October 1976, pp. 291-315.

Moodie, Susannah. Life in the Clearings vs. The Bush (New York: DeWitt and Davenport, 1855).

Pentland, H. Clare. Labour and Capital in Canada 1650-1860. Ed. by Paul Phillips (Toronto: James Lorimer, 1981).

Pinchbeck, Ivy. Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution 1750-1850 [1930] (London: Virago 1981).

Rose, Laura. Farm Dairying (London: T. Werner Laurie, 1911).

Smelser, Neil J. Social Change in the Industrial Revolution : An application of Theory to the British Cotton Industry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959).

Traill, Catharine Parr. The Canadian Settler’s Guide [1855] (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1969).

Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties:Women in Fur-Trade Society 1670-1870 (Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer, 1980).


1. This is also referred to as the ‘putting-out’ system where family manufactured clothing and other items from material provided by an industrialist. See, for example, Hans Medick 1976)

2. See, for example Pinchbeck 1930, Smelser 1959, Collier 1964, Engels 1845.

3. The dominance of English and American academics in the social sciences in particular had hindered the development of a vigorous research of Canadian issues. This was corrected, as universities were required to offer jobs to qualified Canadians first. Unfortunately, this law, which was so hard-won, was changed early in the 21st century.

4. See for example Dunlop 1889, Jameson 1838, Moodie 1855, Rose 1911, Traill 1855.

5. This book is Women’s Work, Markets, and Economic Development in Nineteenth-Century Ontario . It was primarily the work I had done for my Ph.D. thesis.

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