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Convocation 2013: the legacy of Harold Innis

Bruce Cates, grandson of Harold Innis, Innis College Principal Janet Paterson, Ellan Cates Smith, granddaughter of Harold Innis, Chancellor Michael Wilson, Mary Innis Cates, daughter of Harold Innis, graduand Ken Cates, President David Naylor, Kazuko Cat

It’s not every day that a student graduates from a college named after his great grandfather at the University of Toronto. 

On June 18, Innis College enjoyed a memorable visit from the family of the late Harold Innis, the influential scholar for whom the college is named, when Ken Cates entered Convocation Hall to receive his Bachelor of Arts degree.

The family travelled from far and wide to attend the College’s convocation, meeting with President David Naylor, Chancellor Emeritus David Peterson and Chancellor Michael Wilson before the ceremony.

Harold Innis’ legacy is deeply rooted in the University of Toronto, where he burnished his reputation as an influential professor of political economy and an internationally-renowned communications scholar. Considered to be one of Canada’s most original thinkers, his novel ideas formed the basis of many of the works he authored on media, communication theory and Canadian economic history. Innis’ writings on communication explore the role of media in shaping the culture and development of civilizations – predating and influencing the work of his colleague, Marshall McLuhan.

One of Innis’ greatest admirers was his daughter, Mary Innis Cates, who followed in her father’s footsteps by studying political science and economics and graduating from UofT in 1949. In fact, all four of the Innis children would go on to graduate from the University between 1943 and 1956. 

Mary’s connection to Innis College, and the wider U of T community, reaches far beyond the shared name and this visit was an occasion to reconnect with the College and its students, faculty and staff.

“One comment my father often made was ‘The pursuit of truth is the persistence of doubt’,” said Cates. “For me, seeing the vibrant young people and the huge success of Innis College was overwhelming. 

“Knowing his beginnings as a farm boy living with no electricity, no running water, no indoor plumbing, and the culmination of his life and work embodied in the College is truly inspiring and gratifying for the family. “

The College also welcomed her four children who had travelled from as far as Tottori, Japan to be in attendance. With Innis College preparing to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of its founding next year, Principal Janet Paterson reflected on the historic visit and its meaning.

“It was a unique and truly special honour to welcome the Harold Innis family to the College,” said Paterson. “It was a very proud moment for us, as few Colleges can claim such a distinctive personal link to their history and their identity, particularly one that bridges past and present so fittingly.”

Ennis Blentic is a writer with Innis College at the University of Toronto