History Does Matter

The future of the past in Atlantic Canada.

When the LRC’s editor approached me about writing an essay for this special eastern issue, she suggested that I might like to address the question: is history an albatross around the Maritimes’ neck? I wonder if such a question is ever asked of other regions of Canada. Designed, she suggested, to “get my dander up,” the question was, for me, yet another example of the stereotypical way that Atlantic Canada is viewed elsewhere in the country. Those folks out East are mired in the past, don’t you know? For those readers who are still with me—that is to say those who have not been turned off by the very mention of the Atlantic region in the title of this piece—I will offer a sampling of what dander can muster when it is up.1

First, let me point out that I am expanding my comments to include Newfoundland and Labrador as well as the three Maritime provinces, which together comprise a region that, since 1949 when Newfoundland and Labrador joined Confederation, has been called Atlantic Canada. The two terms Atlantic Canada and Maritimes should not be conflated. Notwithstanding their well-documented differences, all four provinces share a relationship to the nation-state that gives the notion “East of Canada” its double meaning. Under term 29 of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Confederation agreement, the cash-strapped Maritime provinces, not Canada as a whole, were made the benchmark against which to measure the new province’s financial needs. How mean-spirited was that?

I also want to assure readers that Atlantic Canadians are no more hobbled by the past than other Canadians. This is one of the surprising findings of a major survey undertaken by York University’s Institute for Social Research on how Canadians engage the past in their everyday lives.2 As in so many matters, the research on this question suggests that there are more differences within the Atlantic region than between the region and the rest of the country. In other words, Atlantic Canada is a complex place (think Labrador Inuit, Acadians and the Irvings, for example), with a history long and deep enough to accommodate most political and academic prejudices.

What seems to remain a constant is the tendency, identified by the historian E.R. Forbes three decades ago, to substitute a conservative stereotype for research when the analytical gaze turns to Atlantic Canada. Examples abound. My favourite is a statement by Barry Cooper, a political scientist based at the University of Calgary, who argued, in 2002, as a matter of “fact,” that “stagnation and decadence remain the most prominent features of pre-modern communal life to have survived into the present” in the Maritimes.3 Comments on Atlantic Canada often take a scatological tone, as in Ralph Klein’s angry outburst—“Don’t give me that shit”—in reference to the region’s equalization payments. Picking at old scabs such as these helps keep Atlantic Canadians vigilant.

The truth is that most Canadians know little about Atlantic Canada. A Pollara survey, undertaken in 2003 as part of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Royal Commission on Renewing and Strengthening Our Place in Canada, found that a majority of Canadians outside of the Atlantic region felt that their province contributed more to the nation than did Newfoundland and Labrador, and that the most commonly held impression of the province’s inhabitants by other Canadians (21 percent) was that they were “uneducated/stupid/unskilled/unsophisticated.” Disparaging remarks about Atlantic Canadians are not only a reflection of ignorance on the part of people in other parts of Canada. Like racial slurs, they also serve as a means of consolidating second-class citizenship, suggesting that we are unworthy to pursue our own interests in ongoing national negotiations. How did this happen?

History does matter, less as a cause of the region’s second-class condition than as a means of understanding it. While it is true that provincial boundaries and ethnic make-up had been pretty well set in the Atlantic region by the mid-19th century, this did not mean that narrow provincialism and stagnation prevailed. The Maritime provinces were leaders in the movement for responsible government (Nova Scotia in 1848), public schooling (Prince Edward Island in 1852), the secret ballot (New Brunswick in 1857) and higher education for women (New Brunswick in 1875)—leaders not just in what is now Canada but in the British Empire. Nor were Maritimers slow to embrace the opportunities emerging in the industrial age. It was not a hotshot from Ontario or the West, but New Brunswick’s Leonard Tilley who, as minister of finance in John A. Macdonald’s cabinet, introduced the National Policy tariff of 1879, designed to develop a thriving manufacturing sector in the fledgling nation.

The Maritimes initially did well in developing industries under the umbrella of protective tariffs but, by the beginning of the 20th century, the National Policy had served to consolidate the head offices of Maritime banks (Royal and Scotia, for example) and businesses, as well as U.S. branch plants, in Montreal and Toronto. Joseph Howe, the most vocal spokesman for Nova Scotia’s anti-Confederation movement, would have said “I told you so.” It was Howe who identified most of the disadvantages that Confederation would impose on provinces whose small populations meant that they lacked the numbers in the House of Commons to shape policies in their interests and received inadequate per capita grants to sustain provincial administrations. Donald Savoie, who has devoted much of his celebrated scholarly career to exploring the region’s political economy, concluded his recent survey of economic development in the Maritimes with a chapter in Visiting Grandchildren: Economic Development in the Maritimes subtitled “Where Can Little Dogs Eat?” Nowhere in Canada, it seems. Savoie’s advice for the region is to “look south to New England to strengthen its economy.”

The major economic question of our times—or of any time, for that matter—is how a society distributes its wealth and cares for its citizens. As reports from Census Canada, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the United Nations increasingly remind us, we are not doing a very good job of sharing wealth or of insuring the well-being of the least prosperous among us. Atlantic Canadians, along with a great many other Canadians, bear the brunt of this policy failure.

Nor do we measure wealth and well-being very effectively. Political scientist James Bickerton even questions the value of the commonly used indexes, which inherently reflect the characteristics of large metropolitan regions (or regions with large metropolitan areas), for understanding the Atlantic region’s economic performance. Similarly, per capita comparisons on such matters as equalization payments and employment insurance obscure the relatively small amounts of money that are actually earmarked for the Atlantic region compared to more populous jurisdictions. More to the point, the region often does not receive its share, even on a pitiful 8 percent per capita basis for its 2.3 million citizens, of funding from many of the national policies designed with other regions of Canada in mind. This democratic deficit will prove disastrous if, as seems to be likely, the equalization program suffers death by a thousand cuts. As any provincial financial minister will confirm, national policies and federal spending do matter, and anyone who denies this simple truth is seriously deluded.

Furthermore, policies that make sense in narrow economic terms often serve to destroy the social fabric of small, fragile societies. The “reform” of unemployment insurance in the 1990s is a good case in point. By drastically reducing access to what was now aptly called employment insurance, it guaranteed that Atlantic Canadians remained the foot soldiers of capitalism, roaming the North American continent in search of jobs. The result was not only a great many poverty-stricken, dislocated individuals and families in Toronto, Calgary and Fort McMurray (on which many people base their evaluation of Atlantic Canadians), but also a shocking number of hollowed-out rural communities and small towns “back home.” Neither outcome benefitted Atlantic Canada. With the exception of the 1930s, out-migration has been endemic to the region since Confederation, a condition that, had it occurred anywhere else in Canada, would have been a signal for emergency measures to staunch the flow of human capital. If anything gets my dander up, it is the view, implied in many national debates and policies, that sustaining healthy, vibrant communities in Atlantic Canada is less important than it is in Quebec, Ontario or Alberta.

Atlantic Canadians have a long history of protesting their neglect by Ottawa—the Maritime Rights Movement of the 1920s is a good example—but demands for relevant policies were usually dismissed as whining and eclipsed by political manoeuvring. If we rear up on our hind legs, as Premier Danny Williams is inclined to do from time to time, we become the butts of disparaging media frenzies. Little dogs are not supposed to perform such tricks. Only once did “the times” coincide with the region’s economic agenda—the “golden age” of the 1950s and 1960s when the Cold War competition between capitalism and communism made governments more open to tackling the spectres of poverty and underdevelopment. The “Atlantic Revolution,” which brought equalization, federal adjustment grants and planning agencies to bear on regional disparity, failed to eradicate the region’s “have not” status, but it did reverse the economic free-fall. Since the 1960s, the per capita income of Atlantic Canadians has risen from about 65percent of the national average to more than 80 percent—a significant achievement by any standard, given the phenomenal growth of the Canadian economy in the last half century.

One of the unfortunate consequences of the prevailing neo-liberal orthodoxy, embraced by governments in Atlantic Canada as enthusiastically as anywhere else in North America, is the weakening of the state as an agent for achieving social and economic goals. As the aforementioned rise in regional income attests, states can work wonders as handmaidens of economic and social restructuring. In Atlantic Canada, provincial governments in the mid 20th century proved outrageously bold and controversial in their efforts to plant modernity in their jurisdictions—for example, the outport resettlement program in Newfoundland and Labrador, Equal Opportunity municipal reform in New Brunswick, the Comprehensive Development Plan in Prince Edward Island and industrial strategies (some of them more successful than the Bricklin or Clairtone failures usually mentioned) undertaken by administrations in every province.

One of the unfortunate consequences of the prevailing neo-liberal orthodoxy, embraced by governments in Atlantic Canada as enthusiastically as anywhere else in North America, is the weakening of the state as an agent for achieving social and economic goals. As the aforementioned rise in regional income attests, states can work wonders as handmaidens of economic and social restructuring. In Atlantic Canada, provincial governments in the mid 20th century proved outrageously bold and controversial in their efforts to plant modernity in their jurisdictions—for example, the outport resettlement program in Newfoundland and Labrador, Equal Opportunity municipal reform in New Brunswick, the Comprehensive Development Plan in Prince Edward Island and industrial strategies (some of them more successful than the Bricklin or Clairtone failures usually mentioned) undertaken by administrations in every province.

Missing from the narrative is any genuine national policy, such as the TransCanada pipeline, the St. Lawrence Seaway or the Auto Pact, to put Atlantic Canada squarely in the black. Instead, the region gets what Savoie calls “guilt money”—equalization and a development fund to legitimize national policies that fail to serve the region very well. Even the region’s marine resources above and below the sea floor are owned by Ottawa, so there is little likelihood of any Atlantic province becoming another Alberta based on offshore oil and gas riches. And the fisheries under Ottawa’s watch are a mess.

As a result of their historical experience in Confederation, many Atlantic Canadians were understandably wary of the neo-liberal agenda that descended in the 1980s.4 A predictable byproduct of the free trade agreement with the United States has been rampant economic regionalism, based on north–south lines and narrow provincial, even municipal, agendas. Why does the Canada West Foundation promote a western regional response to globalization rather than a pan-Canadian one? What benefit would derive from the campaign by the Conference Board of Canada to increase the powers of mega-cities in the body politic?5Now that Ontario’s industrial base is unravelling, Premier Dalton McGuinty has argued that it is “perverse” for Canada’s most populous province to keep giving away a disproportionate share of its wealth to prop up the rest of the country. This comment comes from the premier of a province that receives far more economic benefits from having Ottawa within its boundaries than equalization payments could ever yield. If such narrow thinking continues, I fully expect that Atlantic Canadians will soon be identified by their permanently rolling eyeballs.

We all, of course, understand that statements relating to equalization are mostly political posturing. They nevertheless reveal much about a nation that no longer (if it ever did) sees the distribution of wealth as a goal of the state. Markets have assumed this role, we are told, and equalization at any level hampers their ability to do the job. Incredibly, such arguments are even made about such essential services as health care and early childhood education. Although markets may be our means of determining the price of commodities, they, along with clumsy GDP indexes, are poor vehicles for deciding the values on which societies are built.6 It is the conflation of these two functions that disturbs many people, not just Atlantic Canadians.

It is difficult to say whether Atlantic Canada will make a successful transition to the knowledge economy. In an age when border security and stock market indexes trump social security and human well-being in the minds of many of our political leaders, the entrails are not encouraging. Yet there are signs that we are “adjusting” to the boot-strap approach to policy development. In 2000, the Council of Maritime Premiers morphed into the Council of Atlantic Premiers with a renewed mandate for regional cooperation. Think tanks, right and left, are roiling away—most notably GPI Atlantic, which has developed improved indexes to measure human well-being, the Halifax-based branch of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which has had some success in influencing government policy in Nova Scotia, and the Atlantic Institute for Market Research (AIMS), which, among other things, promotes closer ties in a cross-border community in northeastern North America dubbed “Atlantica.” Despite, or perhaps because of, the bumpy ride on the neo-liberal highway, the region’s civil society remains strong, sprouting groups that demand wide-ranging reforms. The Atlantic Canada Sustainability Initiative, designed to bring municipalities, businesses and voluntary organizations together to address the challenges of sustainability on a region-wide basis, shows considerable promise. Meanwhile, status of women advisory committees in the region continue to advise provincial governments on issues relating to that half of the population poorly positioned to influence political and economic structures, and disadvantaged minorities are seeking long-denied justice. The Acadians, especially those in Canada’s only officially bilingual province, are feisty and forward looking; in 2005, a treaty was signed that gave the Labrador Inuit substantial control over an area of the coast that they named Nunatsiavut (“our beautiful land”); Maliseet and Mi’kmaq have successfully pursued human rights cases to the United Nations (Sandra Lovelace) and the Supreme Court (Donald Marshall). And despite the challenges, our towns and small cities remain among the best places in Canada to live.

Individuals, too, sometimes make a difference. In 2002, John McLaughlin, president of the University of New Brunswick, launched the Next New Brunswick initiative that inspired business leaders, young people, public intellectuals and anyone who would listen to engage in imaginative thinking about the future of their province.7 Such leadership is desperately needed. Indeed, one of the main issues facing Atlantic Canada today is how the region’s 17 universities, built to impressive stature in more generous times, will keep up with their counterparts elsewhere in the world. If current trends are any indication, we may well look back in horror when we see how these tiny, perfect knowledge industries—they attract high-quality personnel, are usually environmentally friendly, prepare their charges to cope with change and do most of the research related to regional development—were allowed to fall through the cracks as we pursued what seemed like more worthy goals. At the very least, we should insist that the region’s universities are sufficiently funded to bring the matching money required to participate in federal programs such as those sponsored by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which are more accessible to universities in wealthier provinces.

In sum, Atlantic Canadians are doing what they always have done—adjusting to larger forces not of their own choosing. Campaigns by administrations in Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick for “self-sufficiency” indicate that our politicians have got the message that the big dogs are determined to take even the crumbs and leave the little dogs to starve. There seems little point in wasting our time trying to develop what is really needed—a national strategy to address our collective economic, environmental and social challenges.

Many of us in Atlantic Canada reached that conclusion in the 1990s and have since been living in a kind of schizophrenic limbo—as Canadians and separatists at the same time. We look enviously at the track record of Scandinavian countries, arguably the political jurisdictions that have made the most successful adjustments to changing economic forces. We ask ourselves this question: had we rejected Confederation—or if we did so now—would we be in the enviable position of Iceland, with its high standard of living and even its own airline that actually gets people where they need to go? If the experience of Scandinavia, Great Britain and Japan is any indication, lack of primary resources, an aging demographic, even a small population living in a cold climate are not impediments to creating cooperative, caring and sustainable communities.

Whether Ottawa likes it or not, it has ultimate stewardship over a wide range of large spaces with small populations. The three territories, the four Atlantic provinces, often a Prairie province or two, and vast expanses of hinterland in the wealthier provinces have been forced to fight a rear-guard action in our market-oriented age. Looked at another way, however, these historically constructed communities may well provide the kind of “genetic diversity” that this country and the world desperately needs as alternatives to our increasingly unsustainable lifestyle.

Living on the edge of a great country and a great continent, people in the Atlantic provinces have developed a deep longing for economic and social justice and a growing capacity for interprovincial collaboration. Economic and social justice and collaboration are valuable tools in addressing the daunting challenges we face in the 21st century. Indeed, they may be the best tools we have.

The future of the past in Atlantic Canada, you ask? It does not look very promising, but the future of the future has potential.


  1. For a more measured discussion, see the essays in “Forum, Re-Imagining Regions,” Acadiensis volume 35, number 2 (Spring 2006), pages 127–162.  

  2. See “Canadians and Their Pasts” at http://www.canadiansandtheirpasts.ca.  

  3. Barry Cooper (2002), “Regionalism, Political Culture and Canadian Political Myths,” Regionalism and Party Politics in Canada, edited by Lisa Young and Keith Archer (Toronto: Oxford University Press), page 97.  

  4. See David G. Alexander (1983), “New Notions of Happiness: Nationalism, Regionalism and Atlantic Canada,” in Atlantic Canada and Confederation: Essays in Canadian Political Economy, edited by Eric W. Sager, Lewis R. Fischer and Stuart O. Pierson (Toronto: Memorial University and University of Toronto Press).  

  5. See Alan Broadbent (2008), Urban Nation: Why We Need to Give Power Back to the Cities to Make Canada Strong (Toronto: Harper Collins) and the review of this book by the Conference Board of Canada’s Anne Golden (2008), “Bold Prescription for Our Cities,” LRC (May), pages 20–22.  

  6. See Jonathan Rowe (2008), “Our Phony Economy,” Harper’s (June), pages 17–24.  

  7. See “Next NB” at http://www.unb.ca/nextnb.