By David Tough
I had the pleasure of attending the Atlantic Canadian Studies conference for the first time this year. It was a first in a lot of ways, in fact. It was my first time at Mount Alison University, my first time being in Sackville, New Brunswick, and my first time in New Brunswick at all other than on a train headed to Halifax. It was also the only conference I attended this year, and it turned out to be a great choice. I’m not really a scholar of Atlantic Canada per se, but I found myself more often than not torn between two or more panels of interest, and ended up missing papers by authors of two of my favourite recent books, Herb Wylie and Don Nerbas. Plus I saw some friends from far away.
This was also my first conference since my post-doc at Trent University ended last fall. My post-doctoral research examined the rediscovery of poverty in the 1960s, arguing that the rediscovery contributed to a vague perception that the welfare state didn’t work, which undermined support for redistributive programs in later decades. In Sackville I presented on one aspect of that research: what I call “poverty capitals,” communities that became emblems of poverty for the media and the federal government in the 1960s. The heart of the paper was a comparison of the way the poverty of two places – Keelerville, Ontario, and Brantville, in New Brunswick – was represented in the media. But it also examined ARDA, originally the Agricultural Rehabilitation and Development Act, later changed to Agricultural and Rural Development, a change that reflected a shift from being an agency that was focused narrowly on agriculture to being an anti-poverty organization and part of the Pearson government’s high profile ‘war on poverty.’
My paper really fit with the theme of the conference, Dimensions and Difference. Not only was I talking about the difference between the two communities, but I was also noting a shift in the dimensions (or scale) of state activity from the megaprojects of the immediate post-war period (especially the Family Allowances or baby bonus) to the community focused projects that characterized the 60s.
ARDA was so different in different places that it was essentially ten provincial agencies funded by the federal government. In Ontario, ARDA essentially did one thing from the beginning: farmland consolidation, buying up small, unsuccessful farms and selling the land to larger, more successful farms. In other provinces, farm consolidation wasn’t relevant. Until ARDA broadened its mandate in the mid-60s to include non-agricultural lands, in fact, it wasn’t really active in a lot of parts of the country.
ARDA’s mid-60s shift to anti-poverty was dramatically illustrated in New Brunswick, where the federal government and the province signed a major agreement in 1966, with the full attention of the parliamentary press gallery, which flew to Fredericton to cover the event, and celebrate the agreement, which covered 64 different small projects in various places and cost $100 million, as the work of a bold and energetic government.
There was a well-established journalistic rhetoric of poverty by the mid-60s. It was established by Michael Harrington’s The Other America, which spoke to a self-consciously affluent society of the poor as marginal, excluded, and invisible. Poverty was always represented in news stories in the period in ways that underlined its marginality in modern Canada.
A recurring trope was the exclusion from the grid. Poverty was always signposted by exclusion from what we now call ‘the grid:’ plumbing and electricity. In stories about Brantville and Keelerville, the houses were invariably covered in tarpaper, the houses were heated (poorly) with wood, and there was no running water, sewage, or electricity.
But the differences between the way the two communities were represented were just as striking. In stories about Brantville, poverty is represented more as marginal but not surprising. Stories about Keelerville repeatedly underscored the bewilderment of everyone involved: why was this community, so close to prosperous farms and bustling manufacturing and shipping centres, so determinedly poor?
The differences partly reflected the way ARDA operated differently in Ontario than it did in New Brunswick. In New Brunswick, Brantville’s poverty was linked explicitly to the many ARDA programs that would try to solve them, whereas in Ontario, Keelerville’s poverty vividly illuminated ARDA’s limited capacity.
More important, I think, though, was the fact that the reporters all travelled from Ottawa to New Brunswick, whereas they drove to Keelerville. In Keelerville, reporters had the sense that they were on familiar ground, and were baffled to find poverty so close to Ottawa; New Brunswick, the long flight, followed by a long drive, demanded words like “isolated” and “remote.” It amplified the distance.
I should say thank you to SSHRC, which funded my post-doc, and to the Symons Trust for Canadian Studies, which funded some additional research as well as my trip to the conference. Jim Struthers supervised the post-doc and told me a lot about ARDA, Christopher Ryan tracked down a lot of relevant documents for me at Library and Archives Canada, and Sara Spike gave me the idea for this paper last year when she remarked that what made studying anti-poverty interesting was the relationship between the federal government and very small places.