Everyone at Acadiensis was saddened to hear of the passing of Ernest Forbes last week. In addition to being a forceful advocate for the Atlantic region, Ernie was a friend, a colleague, and a mentor to all of us at the journal. Here Del Muise, Ernie’s long-time friend and collaborator, offers a moving reflection on his near-50-year friendship with Ernie.
by Del Muise
Ernie struggled with declining health for the past decade; fighting the progressive and impossible loss of control that is Parkinson’s. While it was moderated with drugs and care, its impact gradually cut back on the vital force of the Ernie we had all come to know and love. Through it all his spirits remained high and he managed to write his wonderful memoir (The Education of an Innocent), as well as a shorter history and genealogy of his mother’s family.
We first met in 1966 when he came to Halifax from Victoria to defend his Master’s thesis at Dalhousie. Though technically an examiner, I mostly watched the sparring between Ernie and Murray Beck, two heavyweights in the ring of Nova Scotia political history whose enormous respect for one another would become a feature of their subsequent interactions.
We had shared similar trajectories up to that point; the same age and at similar neophyte career stages. After the thesis defense we walked the streets of Halifax mulling over future possibilities for post-Confederation regional studies and plotting how to nurture it along. We were young and foolish; little did we know that we, along with a few others who shared that centennial moment, were at the cusp of a dramatic turn in Canadian historical awareness.
The deep friendship born that day continued until his death this past week, in spite of distance and the problems of communication with someone capable it seems of breaking any computer with just a look. I still have correspondence we started writing to each other back then. After I moved to Ottawa in 1969 and he was establishing himself in Victoria and then came to Queen’s for his PhD studies we met regularly. Along the way I discovered his passion for the region exceeded my own, as did his profound abhorrence of negative regional stereotyping so commonly held back then by people who should have known better.
In many ways he was the quintessential Maritimer. As youngest son of the manse he had experienced various rural communities across the region as his United Church Minister father was moved from back woods Cape Breton to the Gaspe Peninsula, Queens County and various locations in between. Such a peripatetic upbringing and the profound impact of a regionally dispersed family that he was constantly visiting bolstered his understanding of the region far beyond most of his contemporaries, including me who did not manage to leave industrial Cape Breton until I was a senior in high-school. Over the years, I wondered if he was related to just about everyone in the region or had at least attended Mount A. with the rest of them. That network was extended exponentially with his marriage to Irene, whose similar background in rural Nova Scotia and a large complex family became part of his own.
As an undergraduate at Mount Alison in the late 1950s, much as at StFX where I was at the same time, there was precious little opportunity to study the region’s history, or that of Canada for that matter. Though he did manage to rebel against the lacunae with active engagement in student politics and what used to be called extracurricular activities; in his case including debating and mock parliaments. It gave him a competitive, some might say combative, edge that continued throughout his life.
Ernie’s early scholarship was imbedded in his own family history. Concentrating on the 1920s made him a pioneer of the new narratives of regional consciousness that would be so important in informing the Acadiensis School, as we were sometimes derogatorily referred to, of regional history. His early essays on temperance movements and the role of the churches in reform politics was a direct product of his early formation; and his discovery of Maritime Rights, which he talks about in his memoir, was treated as an extension of his earlier work and imbued with the reformist ideas of the day.
Atlantic Canada Studies, along with a wide variety of other new approaches, emerged in the 1970s as a broad collaborative response to the flood of students arriving at university infused with a desire to understand Canada better. That it was okay to study Canada made it okay to study region. The first few lucky scholars to take the region seriously, we surfed the demographic wave and were soon overawed by the many who quickly followed along behind us.
The comradery surrounding regional scholars was on display at the early Atlantic Canada Studies conferences, where Ernie presented much of his research. At the third one, held in Fredericton in 1978, he delivered his much-cited historiographical paper, taking Canadian historians to task for ignoring or undervaluing Maritime contributions to the country’s reform traditions. A packed audience in Tilly Hall gave him as close to a full standing ovation as I have ever seen at a scholarly conference. A rock star was born.
The Atlantic Provinces in Confederation book, which took up most of the 1980s and interminable meetings, brought us into collaboration, a process he describes well in a chapter of his memoir. He failed to mention it was worked out at an ACS banquet on the proverbial back of a napkin as we looked around the room and identified likely chapter authors. The strength and cohesion of our colleagues finally dawned on us as we decided to let them write their own chapters rather than have us try to summarize them.
Around the time I met him he was extending his love of the outdoors, particularly through hunting and fishing, but also in a wide variety of sports and fandom that included his fatal attraction to the Leafs. It would be a constant throughout our lives, particularly when his and my children shared cottage life and bouts of swimming, endless chasing of balls and whatever games Sarah was interested in.
With some health problems he had to get outdoors and exercise regularly. So, visits always began and ended with long walks. He tried in vain to interest me in fishing and hunting; I also managed to resist the temptations of wilderness camping he so loved. When I bought a summer home in Margaree he arrived soon after with a $50. 00 yard-sale canoe and proceeded to start me on my journeys on the water. “Just a little fibre glass…” was all it needed; a phrase I am sure many have heard. I am not sure he ever encountered a yard-sale he did not like, and fibre glass was a tool of choice for many things. That canoe lasted over ten years and I do not blame him for the many spills it took on the Margaree, though he and Irene should not have laughed so hard. He never quite forgave me for not taking up fishing, living as I do now on one of the great fishing rivers of the world.
Cape Breton summers since the late 1980s always revolved around long stops with him and Irene and the kids, either in Fredericton or at their Moosehorn Lake cottage. His annual week-long visits with us in Margaree were always full of adventures around the Island. Along the way, we played a fifty-year long cribbage tournament, which was mostly an excuse for gossip. Though the trophy he had struck to measure our play changed hands regularly, I am pretty sure we came out of it with a tie overall.
It is hard to imagine how anyone could regard him as anything but the “Finest Kind”.
I miss him as a brother; he can never be replaced.
Del Muise is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at Carleton University. Together with Ernie, he co-edited The Atlantic Provinces in Confederation.