John W. Warnock


 Canadian Political Economy


John W. Warnock is a Canadian academic, author, columnist and political activist who is based in Saskatchewan. He writes on Canadian political economy, Canadian politics, Canada-US relations, agriculture and food, natural resources, Green politics, social democracy, and Saskatchewan politics and political economy. 


Canadian political economy is an interdisciplinary social science approach to addressing all the important issues of the day. There is a strong history to this discipline in Canada, which was modelled on the classic British tradition. Thus prior to the 1960s all Canadian universities had departments of political economy, many of which included specific courses on economics, politics, sociology, anthropology and even history. With the growing and dominating influence of the United States, Canadian universities and academics shifted to the American system of separating the social sciences into individual disciplines with their own departments. Today in Canada courses in political economy are most likely to be found in sociology departments.


Political economy in Canada has always been historical in its orientation. It examined the development of Canada as a white settler society within the broad British empire. Economic development followed the trade routes, first through the St. Lawrence River and to Great Britain and Europe followed by a major shift towards continental integration with the much more powerful United States. In Saskatchewan, where I have been based, the dominant focus was on the removal of the indigenous population and the seizure of their land, the European settler invasion and the creation of the agricultural economy, and the concentration of power in Central Canada.

John W. Warnock and Canadian Political Economy

Those who glance through this web site will see that over the years my own focus within political economy has shifted around, reflecting the major issues of the day and my involvement in political life. I have never been an ivory tower academic. I have always been involved in practical political and social justice movements. They have influenced my own views as they have evolved over the years.


My interest in international affairs, which began while an undergraduate, took me to graduate school in Washington, D.C. first at Georgetown University and then American University. I was able to continue my academic work in interdisciplinary social science. This was the time when my research and writing centred on the Cold War, U. S. political and military alliances, and the relationship between the advanced capitalist states and the less developed “Third World.”


My move to Saskatchewan coincided with the expansion of the U. S. war in Vietnam, from 1961-1975. As the war came to an end, the world experienced the first Great Recession since the end of World War II. This contributed to the rise of the New Right, the neoliberal politics and economics of the governments of Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States. The political economy of neoliberalism was pushed by the organizations representing big business.


For the large corporations who operated on a world wide basis, the free market and free trade were most important objectives. This arrived with the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and then the North American Free Trade Agreement. Canada would become deeply integrated in the U. S. Economy and an economic partner with Mexico.


I was always interest in agriculture and the food industry. Key members of our department at the University of Saskatchewan had studied the wheat economy and the impact of agriculture on our economic development. A key factor was the power of agribusiness, which in a market economy put the squeeze on farmers and was crucial to the accumulation of capital. With the free trade agreements, agribusiness moved into the world economy developing industrial food chains from less developed to industrialized countries.


Once the First Nations were removed from their land, the wheat economy could develop. Across North America the farmer-labour revolt soon arrived and with it more radical political movements. Saskatchewan is known as the North American birthplace of social democracy. After World War II the social democrats became the dominant political force in the province and the focus of much academic research. I was drawn to this movement both as a political activist and a political economist.


For a hinterland province like Saskatchewan, there were few chances for industrialization. The other major economic activity was in the extraction and export of non-renewable natural resources. How to develop these resources has always involved a major political struggle over who should do the development and who should reap the resource rents, the people of the province or the large transnational private corporations. I became one of the few in Saskatchewan to seriously look at this development.


In the 1990s the environmental movement expanded along with concerns about climate change. Saskatchewan has the highest per-capita greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, and this issue led to the development of Green politics. The general shift to neoliberalism came to Saskatchewan politics in the 1980s and with it cuts to social programs and the rise of poverty. in the 1990s Saskatchewan's social democracy adopted the neoliberal model and proved unable to deal with even the basic issue of providing food and housing for the poor.
The Origins of Political Economy

The term “economics” has a Greek origin, where it was defined as “household management.” In more modern times, James Steuart wrote in 1761 that economics was the act of “providing all the wants of the family.” He went on to add that “what economy is in a family, political economy is in a state.” Adam Smith argued that “political economy is a branch of the science of a statesman or legislator.” It was the study of “the nature and causes of the wealth of nations.”


The British tradition of political economy followed Adam Smith. David Ricardo published On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation in 1817. John Stuart Mill published The Principles of Political Economy in 1848.


Then came Marxism, very much in the tradition of political economy. There was a reaction within the discipline. William Stanley Jevon, Karl Menger, Leon Walras and others led a shift away from political economy to a focus on the individual and the corporation. Alfred Marshall, at Cambridge University, fought for a discipline to be known as “economics,” which would be separate from political economy, history and sociology. The new discipline of economics would put aside the issues of social class, gender, race, imperialism, ideology, history, and the role of state power. These issues would be left to political economy.

Canadian Political Economy Today


The Canadian approach to political economy staged a major recovery in the 1960s and 1970s.  The focus was first on the effects of Canadian integration into the sphere of influence of  U. S. political and economic power. Ownership and control of the economy had clearly shifted from Great Britain to the United States. Was it possible for Canada to move beyond this structure and become a modern industrial economy? An independent country? The new Canadian political economy addresses the structure of Canadian society and which social groups hold political and economic power.


The Political Economy Tradition at the University of Saskatchewan

 I arrived at the University of Saskatchewan in the summer of 1963. I had been hired to join the faculty in the Department of Economics and Political Science. It was not as pure a political economy department as at other Canadian universities. But the scholarly work of its faculty was clearly in the British tradition of political economy, it had political economy courses, and there was a honours course in political economy and history.


When I went to the department in August 1963, the first person I met was Cy Gonick. He was in the process of moving to the Department of Economics at the University of Manitoba. We discussed his plan to create Canadian Dimension Magazine, and he invited me to contribute to it and be on the original board of directors.     The second  person I met was Ed Safarian, who had replaced George Britnell as chairman of the department. Safarian, who had a doctorate from the University of California, would begin the shift in the department away from political economy and towards an eventual split between economics and political science. 


Shirley Spafford has documented the early history of this department and its political economy tradition in her book, No Ordinary Academics (University of Toronto Press, 2000). There was an conflict between William Walker Swanson, the first chairman, and those who followed. Swanson, born in Scotland, had a doctorate from the University of Chicago, and while he did important research on the wheat economy, he was a staunch free market liberal and was hostile to the Saskatchewan tradition of populist politics and the social democratic Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF).   


The department changed under its next chairman, George Britnell. A local boy from Moosomin, he studied under Harold Innis at the University of Toronto. Vernon Fowke had been born at Parry Sound, Ontario, but his family had moved to Melville, Saskatchewan and he attended the University of Saskatchewan. Ken Buckley, another leading figure in the department, was from Aberdeen, Saskatchewan, and he had also studied under Innis at the University of Toronto.


Women as Political Economists


The most amazing person in the department, however, was Mable Frances Timlin. Born in Wisconsin, she graduated from Milwaukee state Normal School and in 1916 moved to Saskatchewan to teach school, first in Bounty and Wilkie, and then in Saskatoon. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Saskatchewan while reading economics and political science. In 1935 she was appointed Instructor in Economics, and  she became  the only real theorist in the department. She completed a doctorate in economics at the University of Washington at the age of 40 and authored widely acclaimed works on Keynesian economics.


She was the first woman social scientist admitted to the Royal Society of Canada, and she was the first woman elected to the executive committee of the American Economics Association. While she retired in 1959, “Timmie” regularly came around the department to engage in wide ranging discussions. I well remember a conversation with her when she strongly criticized neoclassical model building as contributing nothing to the understanding of the Canadian economy. It was far removed, she argued, from the reality of our integration with the United States, dependence on resource extraction industries, and enormous size and pronounced regionalism.A Commitment to Saskatchewan and its Farmer-Labour Tradition  


It was under these four academics that the department earned its reputation as a Saskatchewan department devoted to the farm movement in western Canada and the Canadian model of social democracy. The province was their home. They had lived here during the depression, and they well knew the problems of the farmer. They also believed that academics had an obligation to serve the people who paid their salaries. They gave lectures all around the province, worked for royal commissions, and advised governments. When Tommy Douglas’ CCF government was formed in 1944, George Britnell, Vernon Fowke, and Dean F. C. Cronkite of the College of Law served as the members of the Economic Advisory Committee. Britnell became an adviser to the leftist government of Guatemala under Jacobo Arbenz (1950-4), overthrown by a U.S. government-sponsored military coup.

     Unfortunately, Fowke died prematurely, and I only had the benefit of his kindness and knowledge for several short years. He introduced me to Innis and the Canadian metropolitan hinterland thesis. He had insisted that John A. Macdonald’s National Policy was a capital accumulation project.     Ken Buckley’s office was across from mine, and we had long discussions about the nature of capitalism and Canadian economic development. He was an adviser to a number of trade unions and the Saskatchewan Farmers Union. Norman Ward, the senior political scientist was one of Canada’s best known political scientists at that time. George Britnell taught more political science courses than economics or political economy. Britnell insisted that “anyone can teach political science.” 


The other major influence on my development as a political economist came from Irene M. Spry, who only taught in the department for one year, 1967-8, before moving on to the University of Ottawa. She was a delightful woman, and as her office was adjacent to mine, I spent many hours there. She was still working on the Palliser experience, but along with Helen Buckley, who was in the Centre for Community Studies, she was one of the very few academics who had any intellectual and political interest in the impact of the National Policy on the Aboriginal people in Western Canada.   


Spry was an impressive scholar, with degrees in political economy from London School of Economics and Cambridge University, where she studied under John Maynard Keynes and the Marxist scholar, Maurice Dobb. She also had a masters degree in Social Research and Social Work from Bryn Mawr College. At the University of Toronto, she worked with Harold Innis. She and her husband, Graham Spry, had co-founded Saskatchewan House in London. Graham Spry was the Agent-General for the province in London between 1946 and 1967. Like her husband, Irene Spry was a long time social democrat and member of the League for Social Reconstruction in the 1930s. Unfortunately, when she died at age 91, she had not completed From the Hunt to the Homestead, a political economy history of the prairies. She was an active supporter of the Associated Country Women of the World.


Others Who Taught in the Department    


Over the years many well known Canadian scholars taught for a short time in this department. These including Frank Underhill, James A. Corry, Robert MacGregor Dawson, Bernard  Crick, Hugh Thorburn, and Gordon Thiessen. While I was there Bruce Wilkinson, Ken Rae, Elias Tuma, John Cartwright, Don Rowlatt, and Robin Neill moved on to major careers elsewhere. Jack McLeod, who moved on to the University of Toronto, wrote Zinger and Me on academic life in Saskatoon.    


The University of Saskatchewan’s tradition in Canadian political economy was a combination of Harold Innis and John Maynard Keynes. It was liberal but materialist. In the 1960s a new political economy was emerging in Canada which looked to the traditions of continental Europe. The older academic  tradition identified with Harold Innis was almost completely devoid of human content. There was absolutely no discussion of social class in Canada, nothing on the development of the trade union movement or the Communist Party, and precious little on the nature of the capitalist class. There was virtually nothing on the relationship between the capitalist class in Canada and the many dominant foreign owned corporations. There was little on the relationship between the European settlers and the Aboriginal population nor on the role of women in the economy and society. All of those subjects are now very well covered by the new political economy. 


The 1960s and 1970s were exciting times to teach in university.  A large number of students were not only active in politics they were interested in reading, learning and trying to find the answers to the larger questions. They were not satisfied with being spoon fed the usual liberal dogma. They wanted to read Marxist theory and study imperialism. It now seems most students focus on getting good grades, hoping that this will help get them a good job after they graduate. There are no active student course unions any more. Very few students in English Canada become political activists.  


The department in Saskatoon changed under the direction of Ed Safarian and Bob Kautz. More Americans were hired as well as more Canadians who had received their advanced degrees in the United States. A crisis developed in 1971 when John Richards, a very popular professor who was in the Canadian political economy tradition,  was not rehired. Richards was born and raised in Saskatchewan, had gone to the University of Saskatchewan, and was completing a doctorate at the University of Washington in St. Louis. It was widely believed that he was “fired” because he was a promoter of the Canadian tradition of political economy while the majority in the department wanted to move to the American tradition of completely separate disciplines of economics and political science. Others believed that he was not rehired because he was active in the Waffle group, the left wing organization within the New Democratic Party. Indeed, in the 1971 provincial election he was elected to the legislature from Saskatoon-Sutherland.   


In any case, hundreds of students protested by occupying the department for weeks on end. Professors were blocked from getting to their offices. Student course unions demanded that Richards be re-hired. The department was deeply split, never really recovered from this conflict, chose to follow the American road, and formally split in two. The political economy tradition shifted to the Department of Sociology.   


In l973 I resigned from the department and we moved to British Columbia to become fruit grower in the Okanagan. But I also carried on as  a researcher and writer, specializing in the political economy of agriculture and the food industry. I also became involved in the environmental movement.  But I never lost touch with my friends in Saskatchewan. In 1986 John Conway and Joe Roberts asked me to return to the University of Regina as a special lecturer. It was natural that when I returned it would be to the University of Regina. Academics at this university had been major participants in the development of the new Canadian political economy. I found my home in the Department of Sociology which had developed a reputation in political economy, rural sociology, and continental integration, my major fields of interest.




Britnell, George E. The Wheat Economy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1939.

Britnell, George E. And Vernon C. Fowke, Canadian Agriculture in War and Peace. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962.

Buckley, Helen. From Wooden Ploughs to Welfare; Why Indian Policy Failed in the Prairie Provinces. Montreal: McGill- Queens University Press, 1993.

Buckley, Kenneth A. H. Capital Formation in Canada, 1896 - 1930. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1957.

Buckley, Kenneth A. H. And M. C. Urquart. Canadian Historical Statistics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965.

Fowke, Vernon C. Canadian Agriculture Policy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1946.

Fowke, Vernon C. The National Policy and the Wheat Economy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957.

Spry, Irene M. The Palliser Expedition: The Dramatic Story of Western Canadian Exploration, 1857 - 1860. Toronto: Macmillan, 1963.

Spry, Irene M. And Phillippe Crabbe, eds. The Natural Resource Development of Canada. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1973.

Timlin, Mabel F. Keynesian Economics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1942.

Ward, Norman M. The Government of Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1947.

Ward, Norman M. The Canadian House of Commons. Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1950.

Ward, Norman M. The Public Purse: a Study of Canadian Democracy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962.


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