Growth Fantasies and the Shrinking City: Researching the Saint John Experience

by Gregory Marquis

In 1867, Saint John was one of the top cities in the new Dominion of Canada.  For decades its chief rival was Halifax. During the early 20th century the Nova Scotia capital, in terms of population, began to outpace the New Brunswick city and by 1971 Halifax had one third more residents than Saint John. In the meantime both regional metropoli had been surpassed in size and influence by cities in central and western Canada. Saint John then entered a period of long-term population decline which continues to this day. The 2016 census revealed that there were fewer than 59,000 people in the city although the larger Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) totalled 126, 202. And the Saint John area was no longer the biggest urban agglomeration in the province: the Moncton CMA had grown to 144, 202. Given a continued trend towards a shrinking population in both the city of Saint John and the CMA, it is likely that within a few decades the CMA will be surpassed by the greater Fredericton area (population 101,760 in 2016).[1]

Old North End 2017

Old North End – Saint John

For a Baby Boomer who was born in the city of Lancaster (amalgamated with Saint John in 1967) and attended public school and two years of university in Saint John, and who has taught at UNB Saint John for nearly two decades, researching and writing the city’s history is not simply an academic exercise. It is part lived experience. For example, I lived through the Bricklin episode of the 1970s, the building of the Coleson Cove thermal plant and the Point Lepreau nuclear power station; attempts in the 1980s to revitalize the central business district with the Trinity Royal heritage district and the construction of the Market Square complex; the closing of the Saint John Shipyard and Dry Dock and the Atlantic Sugar Refinery; the proliferation of call centres and the expansion of the information technology sector; the opening of Harbour Passage, a waterfront walking trail; and the completion of two terminals to handle cruise ships which arrive mainly during two months of the year. I have witnessed the city tackle longstanding issues such as raw sewage piped directly into the harbour, poverty and a shortage of decent affordable housing. ‘Harbour cleanup,’ spearheaded by an environmental organization, ACAP Saint John, has been achieved thanks to support from three levels of government. Serious poverty and housing issues remain, although a host of organizations are working in these areas.

Both as an academic who studies urban issues and a resident of the area, I have also observed and sometimes taken part in public policy debates. Should an international energy company be given a tax freeze on its liquefied natural gas plant? Should the National Energy Board permit a natural gas pipeline to be built through a civic park? Should the Port Authority allow Irving Oil to build its international headquarters on a public wharf when the longshoremen’s union claims it would hurt the business of ‘the working port? Should all or part of N.B. Power, which employs many people in the Saint John area, be sold to Hydro Quebec? How can Saint John attract and retain immigrants? (Saint John is one of the least diverse CMAs in Canada). Should the local branch of the University of New Brunswick be converted into a so-called ‘polytech’ to serve the needs of industry? Should the only nuclear power plant east of Ontario be refurbished for another generation? Should economic planning be entrusted to business elites and paid for by the tax payer? Which heritage buildings should be saved, and which ones demolished?  To what degree should municipal, provincial and federal politicians be cheerleaders for large private sector projects, particularly when the latter two levels of government are also in charge of environmental approvals? Should the City of Saint John, as part of a ‘growth strategy,’ sell off a public park and beach on the scenic Kennebecasis River?  What should the city do about dozens of abandoned buildings?

Area of Saint John's uptown core experiencing gentrification

Area of Saint John’s uptown core experiencing gentrification.

My recent research note in Acadiensis, “Growth Fantasies,” examined how economic and political elites, as well as the media and organized labour, worked hard in the 1960s and early 1970s to promote investment, jobs and an increased tax base. The rest of the title was “Setting the Urban Agenda,” but it could also been called “Selling the Urban Agenda.” All of the projects proposed (some of which came into being) involved convincing the public of their inherent logic and their potential for the well-being of the entire community. Although my published research (much it completed through Community-University Research Alliance and Major Collaborative Research Initiative projects) focuses on the decades prior to the 1980s, I see many continuities in how growth coalitions have operated in recent years.[2] Economic goals are paramount, but politics is also part of the mix, which brings in both provincial and federal governments, politicians and agencies. The Liberal government of Shawn Graham (2006-10) for example, put much stock into Saint John becoming an ‘Energy Hub.” Those who speak for the growth coalition become ‘community leaders.’ Citizens who oppose or even question aspects of development can be excluded from the conversation. Outlets for oppositional voices are not enhanced by the fact that the powerful Irving interests enjoy a provincial monopoly in anglophone daily and weekly newspapers. Recently, for example, a former heritage planner who owned property in the area questioned why the municipality was changing its planning bylaws to accommodate a multi-story office building in the uptown core. The planned structure (now being built) was the new headquarters for Irving Oil. By speaking up, Jim Bezanson was vilified on social media for impeding Saint John’s progress and according to news reports was threatened with violence.[3]

This insular climate, which is fuelled by economic uncertainty, means that debates over development that are normal and expected in larger centres either never take place in Saint John or are much diluted.  The result is not only a weakening of democracy, but a distorted vision of development that probably hurts the economy in the long run.  Although the outlying suburban communities contain many of the best educated and most prosperous families in the province, the City of Saint John struggles to provide basic services to an aging, shrinking population. There is no magic bullet for these problems, but a blind faith in mega projects such as the much-hyped Energy East Pipeline, which would ship Alberta and Saskatchewan crude oil to a marine terminal (and possibly the Irving refinery) at Saint John, seems unlikely to reverse the city’s declining fortunes.[4]

Greg Marquis is a Professor in the Department of History and Politics at UNB Saint John and author of Truth and Honour: The Death of Richard Oland and the Trial of Dennis Oland (Halifax: Nimbus, 2016).


[1] Data on the various cities and CMA’s are derived from:  Canada, Statistics Canada, Focus on Geography Series, 2016 Census, available online at:

[2] Greg Marquis, “Regime or Coalition? Power Relations and the Urban Agenda in Saint John, 1950-2000,” Journal of Enterprising Communities: People and Place in the Global Economy, III (4) (2009): 355-68; “Uneven Renaissance: Urban Development in Saint John, 1955-1976,” Journal of New Brunswick Studies, I (2010): 99-112, available online at:;  “Multilevel Governance and Public Policy in Saint John, New Brunswick,” in Robert Young and Martin Horack eds. Sites of Governance: Multilevel Governance and Policy Making in Canada’s Big Cities (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012): 136-61.

[3] CBC News New Brunswick, Sarah Trainor, “Saint John developer threatened with violence over Irving HQ appeal,” April 11, 2016, available online at:

[4] Trans Canada Energy East Pipeline, available online at:


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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2 Responses to Growth Fantasies and the Shrinking City: Researching the Saint John Experience

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of October 22, 2017 | Unwritten Histories

  2. Anne Marie McGrath says:

    Confederation has served Ontario and Quebec too well and still both provinces exercise veto powers over provinces other than the Maritimes. There is no equality at the table. On the other hand Saint John has jumped from one goal to another – each time motivated by a biased perspective. Many of the uptown projects have been good but SJ is not just the central peninsula, not just the festivals. We are now working ourselves out of a mixed population and ignoring the needs of other neighbourhoods. Tunnel vision has become our modus ooerandi.

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