By Jacob Remes
In March 2022, I returned to Halifax for the first time since 2009. Even though I cut my teeth in Nova Scotia history, I hadn’t been back since the summer I finished the research for the dissertation that became my first book. When I returned 13 years later, I did so leading a group of mostly American students as part of a program my university runs called the Americas Scholars. Top undergraduate students apply for an almost free study trip led by a professor, preceded and followed by a zero-credit seminar that places the trip in an intellectual and thematic context.
In many ways, I see my role as a university professor in the Anthropocene as preparing students to live, work, and organize amid economic, political, and environmental transition. “Transition is assured,” John Cartwright, the president of the Toronto and York Region Central Labour Council told my Initiative for Critical Disaster Studies last year, “but justice is not.” That is, we know that because of climate change, we there will be massive upheaval in culture, society, and economy. The question—over which we have some control—is whether those changes will be just or not. Scholars and activists are increasingly looking to understand deindustrialization as a sort of usually unjust transition from which we can learn as we plan a transition from a carbon economy. Nova Scotia has seen more than its share of unjust transitions, and the goal of the class was to think about whether its history can prepare us for our own looming transitions.
One of the ways that Nova Scotians have long handled economic transitions is by moving—whether from the country to the city, to other parts of Canada, or to the Boston States. Out-migration is, of course, a long-standing theme in Atlantic Canadian history; one of the arguments of my first book was that we must understand even an event as local or as Canadian as the Halifax explosion within a transnational region that was built, primarily, by migration. Out-migration and its effects across generations is a major theme in Nova Scotian literature, too, and one cannot help but notice the number of literary interpreters of the region—from Hugh MacLennan to Alistair MacLeod, from George Elliott Clarke to Sashi Bhat—who did or do their writing elsewhere. “We all understand why you moved away,” sings Dartmouth’s Joel Plaskett, “but we’ll hold a grudge anyway.”Continue reading