Innis Info

Innis History

Established in 1964, Innis College was named after renowned University of Toronto professor, the late Harold Adams Innis.

Despite being one of U of T’s youngest colleges, Innis has a rich and vibrant history. Enjoy this annotated — and sometimes irreverent — timeline of “Innis throughout the years.”

You can also learn more about the Harold Innis Foundation, established to continue our namesake’s dynamic legacy, including student scholarships, and an annual lecture series. 

Harold Innis Foundation

Harold Innis was one of Canada’s most influential thinkers, the chair of the Department of Political Economy at the University of Toronto, and author of seminal works on economic history, media, and communications theory. He is perhaps best known for his work on the “Staples Thesis,” which examines the development of Canada’s economy through the export of raw materials such as fur, fish, and lumber.

An important part of the legacy of Innis College, the Harold Innis Foundation, was established as a registered charity on February 12, 1969, to advance academic inquiry and to honour the life and work of the late Harold Adams Innis.

Harold Innis Foundation scholarships

Each year, the Foundation awards scholarships to Innis College students based upon academic merit, financial need, and leadership involvement.

Harold Innis Foundation Annual Lecture Series

The Foundation also hosts an annual lecture series featuring acclaimed thinkers whose discourse echoes that of Harold Innis himself.

Past lecturers have included John Ralston Saul, Linda McQuaig, Mark Kingwell, the late Jack Layton, George Elliott Clarke, Andrew Coyne, Charlotte Gray, Dionne Brand, and Jesse Wente, the first speaker who is also an alumnus of Innis College.

Harold Innis Foundation Board of Directors - 2020-21

Ex Officio Directors (5)

  • Principal, Innis College – Dr. Charlie Keil
  • Student Representative, Innis College Council – Andrew Zhao
  • Staff Representative, Innis College Council – Ben Weststrate, secretary
  • Representative, Innis College Student Society – Nancy Zhao
  • Representative, Innis College Alumni Network – Joanne Uyede

Elected Directors (10)

  • Dr. Kay Armatage
  • Ennis Blentic
  • James Chapman
  • Joel Colby, Vice-President
  • Dr. Anne Innis Dagg
  • Jaren Kerr
  • Joanne Mackay-Bennett
  • Ceta Ramkhalawansingh, President
  • Dr. David Roberts
  • Joyce Hahn, Treasurer

Innis through the years

1962

The proposal to create two new multi-faculty colleges is approved by the University’s Board of Governors, and the first one, New College, opens its doors to undergraduates in September 1962.

1963

U of T president Claude Bissell appoints a committee “to begin the planning for a second `new’ college.” To serve as chairman of the committee on “Newer” College, President Bissell calls upon Robin S. Harris, a professor of English, who was then acting principal of University College.

January 1964

U of T’s  Board of Governors approves the establishment of a second new college. Robin Harris is appointed the College’s first principal. And in a somewhat surprise move, the college is named after the late Harold Adams Innis, a renowned U of T political economist and a pioneer of communication studies. making it the first and only college at the University to be named after a scholar.

July 1964

Principal Harris appoints Professor Geoffrey S. Payzant to serve as Innis registrar, and essentially, vice-principal. The two “founders” assume their administrative offices in a prefabricated, one-storey building constructed in the late 1940s as a temporary bookstore. Eric Arthur of the School of Architecture complained that the structure was “butchering” the lawn beside the old observatory in Hart House Circle. Innis students nicknamed it “the biscuit box.”

This was our first home – a 465 sq. metre pre-fabricated one-storey building constructed in the late 1940s as a temporary bookstore. Inside there were two administration offices, the writing lab, the common room, two washrooms, and a cleaning supplies storage closet. From the outside it was referred to as the ‘biscuit box,’ but from inside, as we looked out to passersby through floor-to-ceiling windows, we called it the ‘fishbowl.’ The common room quickly became our base because all of our lectures were located in other buildings throughout the campus. But, because of our location and openness, we also became home to many non-Innis students, who frequently dropped in to relax or to chat with us. Our warm and welcoming reputation grew and in the second and third years of our existence, numerous students transferred into Innis College. The small but bright common room was instrumental in forming an energetic nucleus of students who, in short order, formed sports teams, created a newspaper, established the College colours, wrote a constitution, and pressed for student-staff parity on the College Council. -Robert Patrick (BA ’67 Innis, BEd ’72, MEd ’79)

September 1964

With its architectural failure of an academic building, no residence, no academic program, and only three admission scholarships of $350.00, Innis College is not initially a magnet for students. Admission to the College in its inaugural year is restricted to first-year students, of which 278 come through its doors. As Principal Harris explains, “Innis College is a new venture, and it is perhaps as well that we should all start from scratch.”

But the first-years show a fledgling scrappy Innis spirit, as Principal Harris notes in his first annual report: “The freshmen themselves were forced to organize themselves; to decide how their society should be governed; to work with a freshman principal, a freshman registrar and a freshman council on the problem of what kind of college Innis should be.”

Starting from scratch also prompts Principal Harris to introduce an innovation known as the Writing Laboratory (later the Writing Centre), which has the distinction of being not only the first academic offering of Innis College but also the first academic support service of its kind not just at U of T but at any Canadian university. David King is hired to provide direction for the Writing Laboratory, and in 1967 succeeds Professor Payzant to become the College’s second registrar.

November 1964

The first Innis Council Student Society (ICSS) election is held. Initially, the ICSS did not have a direct voice in the governance of Innis College. At the time, student participation or representation in university governance was little more than a pipe dream associated with the student radicalism happening at the University of California at Berkeley, yet spreading quickly.

Looking back on those early years, I recognize that we were all risk-takers: Robin Harris for pursuing his vision for this new student-centred college; Geoffrey Payzant for keeping us focused on the business of making this Innis experiment work within the rubric of the university regulations; me for finding the balance between student life and professional responsibilities; and those students who took a chance on this unknown undergraduate centre within U of T. Those years were life-defining for me…–Mary Pat Oliker (neé McMahon), former Innis College administrator

1965

Innis begins to show its tendency to be unlike other colleges or divisions with respect to the role of students in college governance. In January 1965, by mutual agreement with the ICSS, the Innis College Council (ICC) establishes the staff-student committee to serve as a liaison between the ICC and the ICSS.

It soon becomes the norm for the student president of the ICSS to remain at the ICC meetings if other matters directly relating to student affairs are being discussed. Indirectly, then, the seeds of student-staff “parity” are sown early in the life of Innis College.

Student enrolment increases to 400.

1966

Student enrolment reaches 685.

Recognizing that the College desperately needs a new building, Innis is given its own building site – the north side of Sussex Avenue between St. George and Huron streets. Hart Massey, son of Vincent and one of Canada’s leading architects, is commissioned to design the new structure — but those plans are never brought to life.

However, in developing the user plans for its new state-of-the-art building, the Innis administration once again courts outrageous behaviour by insisting that students serve on the building committee.

1967

The valuable contributions of Innis students sitting on the new building committee paves the way for giving them a voice in the College’s governance. In April 1967, Innis College Council (ICC) drafts and approves its first constitution.

The new constitution, which includes a provision for five students and three administrative representatives on the 25-member ICC, is implemented in September 1967.

This is the first time that U of T students become full members of a governing council. The unique brand of Innis College democracy culminates three years later in the implementation of the first – and still the only – parity governance structure at U of T.

The College’s first graduating class of 89 students crosses the stage at Convocation Hall.

. . . A few of us at Innis became involved in political issues of the day. I joined with a group of several hundred university students who camped out in front of the U.S. Consulate on University Avenue to protest the brutal police beatings of Black marchers protesting segregation in Selma, Alabama. . . . For me, it brought to life a sense of social justice that I had previously never thought too much about. I was just a brush-cut kid from Scarborough when I started at Innis. I was very different when I left. That experience was a critical part of my growth.

–Bill Barclay

1968

Bursting at the seams with an enrolment of over 700, the College moves into the larger quarters of McDonald-Mowat House at 63 St. George Street. This is supposed to be temporary, while plans progress for the new building.

How could you not love the building? It was home more than a college administrative edifice: three common rooms (one ‘couch-free,’ named for an early graduate—musical phenom Bob Bossin); small intimate classrooms; the first “people’s” unisex washroom; a basement ‘”smoking room” (for things that are now legal); and a place we set up a silk-screening enterprise. The small snack bar would eventually add a pinball machine. And thanks to Bill Norrie at Labatt, it was the first campus pub, courtesy of Friday night special permit licenses.

Somehow, those of us extremely involved with Innis obtained a set of keys. And if we stayed late to meet, socialize or perhaps study, it was our crash pad. Night watchman, Oswald, would wake us at the end of his shift, to direct us to Hart House for a 6 a.m. shower.

–Briane Nasimok (BA ’73 Innis)

1969

Innis launches its first for-credit courses in September 1969, including a film course by instructor-turned-Hollywood producer Joe Medjuck.

Vladimir House at 651 Spadina Avenue becomes the College’s first student —and co-ed — residence, home and social hub of Innis student life for over 20 years. Although the building is eventually demolished, the Vladite spirit lives on!

1971

Respected Canadian political scientist Peter H. Russell becomes Innis’s second principal.

1974

Construction begins on the new Innis College building, designed by renowned architects Jack Diamond and Barton Myers. The building committee tours and toasts the construction site at 2 Sussex Avenue.

Urban Studies Program launches at Innis College — offering the first experiential learning courses in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

1975

The Cinema Studies (minor) Program is introduced.

Innis is the first on campus to hold an open pub at Vlad House. Vlad House is also home to U of T’s first unisex washroom.

1976

Finally, Innis College opens its brand-new doors, incorporating the Victorian façade of the site’s house into its modern, red-brick structure. On January 9, in can-do Innis fashion, students help move the furniture from St. George Street to the new building.

Staff and students were very involved in the plans, and members of the House Committee met regularly with Jack Diamond, the architect. . . .

We felt the pub/café was a very important part of the building where students could meet and feel a sense of belonging. BUT, before the completion of the building, we were informed there were no funds to provide equipment for the kitchen. Peter Russell convinced President John Evans to loan us funds with the promise we would pay back the University — this is when the Kitchen Sink Fund was launched. We did various fundraising events and paid back the money, and the Kitchen Sink Fund continued fundraising to provide additional furnishings for the College, and eventually became a scholarship.

The impact of the move was life-changing! We had always been the poor-relation college and now we had a building where staff and students were in one place and could meet and work together, and with the student/staff parity, the College became an even closer community.

-Audrey Perry (secretary to the principal, 1974-84; business officer, 1984-97)

William Saywell, historian and East Asian studies expert, becomes Innis’s third principal.

1978

The Environmental Studies Program, under the direction of Professor Douglas Pimlott, is launched at the College.

1979

Dennis Duffy, professor of English, becomes Innis’s fourth principal.

1981

Marvi Ricker, a U of T staff member, gathers a group of about 15 people together to discuss offering lectures to seniors. Later Life Learning is soon born.

1983

The minor program in Writing & Rhetoric is founded at Innis — U of T’s first ever credit-based writing program.

1985

John W. Browne begins a 14-year term as Innis’s fifth principal.

1994

The Innis Residence opens its doors.

To kick things off, Innis Res threw a party on October 23rd for all of its newly-moved-in residents. Music, bridge and chess tournaments, and lots of food and beer (paid for by the one-dollar-locked-my-key-in-my-room-and-I-want-a-don-to-open-my-door fee) were the order of the afternoon. . . . So far, Innis is by far the most successful residence on campus, with all of its rooms filled . . . and a waiting list of more than 500 students. . . . Why is Innis Res so popular? Well, first of all, it is new. No drafty windows or roaches or rodents to room with. Second of all, it offers apartment-styled living, where four or five single-bedrooms share a living room, kitchen, and two bathrooms. And third, there is not a mandatory meal plan at Innis, although the food at the Innis Café is not at all bad. . . .-Alan Wong (BArch ’99; original Innis resident) excerpt from “Innis Bits” in The Innis Herald, vol. 29, no. 2, Nov/Dec 1994, p. 11

2000

Frank Cunningham, professor of political philosophy, becomes Innis’s sixth principal.

2005

French and Québécoise literature professor Janet Paterson becomes the College’s seventh principal.

2007

Cinema Studies attains institute status, ceasing to be a college program of study, and inaugurates an MA program.

2013

The Cinema Studies Institute launches a PhD program by welcoming its first cohort of doctoral students.

2014

Innis celebrates 50 years with events and anniversary reunions. There is much fond reminiscing, with alumni  wondering,  “where have all the years gone?”

2015

Early cinema expert, and Cinema Studies Institute director Charlie Keil, becomes the eighth principal of Innis College.

2017

2017 is the 40th anniversary of the Cinema Studies Institute. It is now one of the most respected cinema studies programs in North America.

2020

In the midst of a global pandemic, many Innis classes go virtual. The popular Canadian Film Forum screenings and speaker series follows suit.

“We’re Innis together” becomes the launch slogan for the $10-million Campaign for the Innis College Renewal and Expansion. With the current building bursting at the seams, the revitalized and expanded academic areas and common spaces will dramatically enhance student life and learning.

Thanks to Roger Riendeau, former vice-principal of Innis College, whose informative and candid article we used as a foundation for the “Innis throughout the years” timeline.