Dan Soucoup. A Short History of Fredericton (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 2015).
by Koral LaVorgna
Fredericton became a city in order to satisfy a particular tenet of English ecclesiastical law that required city status for the appointment of a bishop. In 1845, Bishop John Medley arrived in the newly-minted city and began construction of Christ Church Cathedral, an architecturally commanding structure that still stands today. However, Fredericton would only begin to operate as a city when it became incorporated in 1848. It is not only timely but appropriate that Dan Soucoup has written a new history of the capital, entitled A Short History of Fredericton, coincident with the 170th anniversary of its original city designation. Soucoup uses a topical or episodic format to trace Fredericton’s social, political, and cultural development. This approach, reminiscent of that used by W. Austin Squires in his comprehensive History of Fredericton: The Last 200 Years (1980), allows Soucoup to cover an array of events from Fredericton’s past, many of which resonate in the present. Fredericton’s transition in 1845 from town to city is captured in the episode entitled “The Celestial City.” During the 19th century, Fredericton had become known as “The Celestial City” given the number of churches located in the capital.
Soucoup has ordered his narrative into thirty-seven succinct episodes, which also constitutes a chronology of events. The benefit in taking such an approach is that it offers the option to explore Fredericton’s history through individual chapters. Although each episode can stand alone, when read in their entirety, they present a cohesive history of the capital. Soucoup also includes an historic timeline, which is not simply an abbreviated recapitulation of the events covered in his episodic history. The timeline contains new content, spanning four centuries from 1604 to 2014.
Soucoup not only presents a history of Fredericton, but a history of the St. John River. The role of the river flows through at least a dozen of the episodes, and for good reason. The river determined the location of the capital, shaped settlement patterns, provided a commuting as well as a communications highway, and developed trade and industrial interests. The river was also a fearsome force of nature. Floods are featured in at least three episodes (including the most recent 2008 flood and the lesser known one of 1831) reminding readers of the importance and periodic power of the local environment.
Soucoup skirts the political tensions which characterized relations between Fredericton and Saint John. The selection of Fredericton over Saint John as the capital remained a source of bitterness throughout the 19th century. This resentment resurfaced periodically, as succeeding generations held fast to the notion that Saint John had been robbed of its rightful position as capital of the province. Two of Soucoup’s episodes provide prime opportunities to visit the age-old rivalry, and while he references the issue in both relevant episodes, he does not indicate the intensity of each political debate. In “The Celestial City,” Soucoup notes but does not delve into the controversy surrounding the selection of Fredericton as the seat of the Bishop. Saint John residents were incensed that a sparsely populated village was chosen for the construction of a Cathedral. Opponents were certain that the Cathedral would fall into disrepair after the removal of leading citizens and politicians once the seat of government was restored to Saint John. This same theme is connected to the episode “Era of Public Buildings.” With the destruction of Province Hall by fire in 1880, heated discussion surrounding the rightful site for the seat of government once again emerged. Saint John claimed that since a new building would be erected, the time was right to move the capital in order to honour the original Loyalist intentions. In both cases, Fredericton triumphed, much to the chagrin of Saint John’s leading citizens and much to the detriment of convivial relations between the two cities.
Although there are a few minor errors in the text, including inconsistencies in dates, Soucoup’s A Short History of Fredericton is an important work. Not only do these episodes bring the history of Fredericton into the 21st century, but a number of them demonstrate that the capital has played a pivotal role in the growth of arts and culture in New Brunswick. The renowned Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the acclaimed Harvest Jazz & Blues Festival, and Fredericton’s recognition in 2009 as a “Cultural Capital” of Canada might suggest that artistic pursuits have largely been confined to the 20th century. In “The Literary and Artistic City” episode, Soucoup illustrates the endurance of a creative arts tradition that stretches back to the early 19th century, suggesting instead that Fredericton has long been a cultural capital. A Short History of Fredericton delivers on its titular promise while presenting informative and engaging episodes from the capital’s distant and recent past.
Koral LaVorgna is completing a PhD at the University of New Brunswick. She is also a research consultant for the City of Fredericton, specializing in historic properties.