John Reid on Ernie Forbes

The 2016 Atlantic Canada Studies Conference, held at Mount Allison University, featured a number of tributes to Ernie Forbes. We plan to publish these tributes in the coming months. Here is the first one – John Reid’s remembrance.

By John Reid

The first time I met Ernie Forbes was in Fredericton in 1974, at the time of the first Atlantic Canada Studies Conference, when he arrived at the basement apartment that I shared at the time with a number of other UNB graduate students.  The connection was through my friend Jim Snowdon, who had been a student of Bill Godfrey’s at Mount Allison.  Bill and Ernie were old colleagues from their graduate student days at Queen’s, and now they were making some social calls following the first day of the conference.  It was a good illustration of the principle that – to borrow from Tom Peace’s excellent recent contribution to Acadiensis – six degrees of separation are rarely necessary in Maritime scholarly circles, where two or three will often suffice!  I did not know at the time that the 1974 conference was, in effect, Ernie’s interview for his appointment to the Department of History at UNB, but soon afterwards the news circulated that he would be joining the department – and what an inspired appointment it proved to be.

Ernie from the beginning was always the kind of university professor who saw no need for scholarship to either impose or reinforce any inherent sense of hierarchy.  On the contrary, he made it clear that the cause of good scholarship demanded that even the work of very junior people be respected and nurtured, which made him all the more an important figure for the graduate students of the UNB Department of History.  It probably did no harm either, at least for the graduate students of my generation, that he joined us as a stalwart of the department’s soccer team.  The team – competing with remarkable success in intramurals, and also causing something of a stir by insisting that because it was a department team women as well as men must play together in what was technically a men’s league – was fortunate to have Ernie as a member of a defensive line-up that succeeded consistently in intimidating much younger and nimbler opponents!  As Del Muise pointed out in his fine tribute on the Acadiensis blog, Ernie had a strong competitive spirit, and if the Eurhetorian Society at Mount Allison University can take a lot of the credit for cultivating this quality through debating, the soccer team surely contributed also.  If Ernie invited somebody to run a friendly lap around the field at the end of a soccer practice, the first 200 metres might consist of jogging along companionably, but then Ernie would suddenly break away at a moment of his choosing and from that point on (as I can tell you from experience) it was a race to the finish!

Ernie’s scholarship, as many others have commented, was always inseparable from the person he was – his values, his deep commitment to fairness, and his strong sense of Maritime identity.  As well as his formative years spent moving around the region with his family, Mount Allison again would have had a major role, with its location on the interprovincial border and within easy reach of the PEI ferry.  Just the designation with which Ernie arrived here as a “freshie-soph” – a Nova Scotia student who received credit for first year, as a way of allowing Mount Allison to retain its competitive position with Nova Scotia universities that then offered a three-year degree as the norm – was an illustration of the university’s conscious status as a Maritime rather than simply a New Brunswick university.  It was an appropriate setting in which to begin a career that was devoted in large measure not only to what Ernie defined as “the regional approach” – as opposed to the principle, which he debated with his characteristic combination of vigour and courtesy with Murray Beck, that the history of each Maritime province must be understood separately – but also to contesting the myths and stereotypes that he impugned so convincingly as doing crucial and measurable damage to the Maritimes and to Maritimers, and identifying what he saw as the real sources of harm especially as they related to policy-related grievances.


It was in this context that Ernie Forbes’s work crossed over into the realm of public debate.  His contribution to the 1977 collection edited by David Bercuson, Canada and the Burden of Unity, contained the most trenchant of his several important statements on the history of transportation policy and the way in which federal policies in this area had done harm to the regional economy, and it concluded by expressing the hope that through then-ongoing federal-provincial negotiations “transportation may again become a genuine instrument of regional or national development.”  But he cautioned that there remained plenty of reason for Maritime scepticism.[1]  Years later, Ernie was photographed presenting a copy of The Atlantic Provinces in Confederation, that multi-authored testament to a generation of scholarship that he co-edited with Del Muise in 1993, to Premier Frank McKenna of New Brunswick with the implied hope that its evidence on the origins of a variety of ongoing Maritime public policy dilemmas might resonate in the political and policy climate of the 1990s.  The immediate response was not entirely encouraging, however.  In a discussion at a subsequent Atlantic Canada Studies Conference, David Frank recalled that “following the photo-opportunity, Premier McKenna tried to return the book.  He was invited to keep it and read it.”[2]

Yet sometimes there were also respects in which Ernie’s scholarship, while profoundly influential, could and should have made even more of a difference had others been persuaded to listen more closely.  One occasion was during one of the recurring crises of the Sydney Steel Corporation during the late 1980s, when the President of Algoma Steel took exception to the commitment of further public funds by the Government of Nova Scotia to Sysco as a competitor of his company, and said so indignantly on Halifax CBC’s Information Morning.  Ernie’s classic article on “Consolidating Disparity: The Maritimes and the Industrialization of Canada during the Second World War” was quite recent at that time, and the whole situation obviously called for his clear-sighted perspective on the subsidization of steel plants to be publicly disseminated.  CBC was duly prevailed upon to interview him on Information Morning a few days later, and a highly effective interview it was – with the one slight difficulty that the first interview with the aggrieved Algoma president had taken place in the prime spot at 7:40 am, while Ernie went to air at 8:40 am, a much less promising moment at which to reach an audience.  Rightly or wrongly, this has always struck me as emblematic in its own way of the difficulty of bringing even cogent and highly relevant historical analysis publicly to bear, and by extension of some disinclination in the policy sphere to ask the invariably hard and complex question that is central to our work as historians:  the question “why?”  Ernie, it is true, was philosophical about the matter, commenting much later of the politicians and policy-makers that “I guess we can blame ourselves a bit for not teaching them better.”[3]  Coming from such a fine teacher as Ernie Forbes, this may be seen as a touch over-generous, but then it was the comment of a person for whom generosity in its many forms was a central and defining characteristic.

So Ernie’s legacy is far-reaching and multi-faceted.  There are plenty of other examples that could be given – I think of his work in women’s history, and also of his exchange with Ken Cruikshank on freight rates and the Intercolonial Railway, which remains (on both sides of the question) such a fine model of what scholarly debate can and should be.  But my own favourite illustration of his legacy is expressed in the continuing response of undergraduate students to his work, and especially to that essay on “Consolidating Disparity.”  Student discussion of this article often yields different perspectives, which is exactly what Ernie would have wanted, but what is most noticeable is that the article speaks to young people just as effectively and directly some thirty years after it was written as it did in the first instance.  It offers good, robust, well-written analysis in an area they care about and one that makes them think.  It represents what it is that going to university is – or should be – all about.

All of which, I believe, can be summed up in a single phrase that was spoken to Ernie by a student, and one that he afterwards recounted with great pleasure:  that Ernie was, is, and will remain, “THE Ernie Forbes.”[4]

John Reid was a UNB graduate student when Ernie Forbes joined the Department of History at UNB Fredericton.  Over the years, along with so many others, he benefited from Ernie’s advice and support, especially while writing a history of Mount Allison University as well as in subsequent endeavours.


[1] David Bercuson, ed., Canada and the Burden of Unity (Toronto: Macmillan, 1977), 81.

[2] “Back to the Future: A Discussion,” Acadiensis, 30:1 (Autumn 2000), 63.

[3] “A Conversation with Ernest R. Forbes,” Acadiensis, 41:1 (Winter/Spring 2012), 238.

[4] Ibid.

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at
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