By Sarah King
The Atlantic Canadian perspective is often glaringly absent from national narratives on politics and history – including CBC documentaries like 2000’s Canada: A People’s History (for a thorough discussion of this, see Margaret Conrad’s (2001b) article in Social History, “My Canada Includes the Atlantic Provinces”). Apparently, CBC producers did not consult this source and 2017’s Canada: The Story of Us repeats many of the errors of its predecessor. What is not absent, however, is Atlantic Canadians’ vocal and vociferous dissent at these conspicuous omissions. These contrasting themes of omission and opposition are central to a discussion of Atlantic Canada’s place in national conversation.
The exclusion of the Atlantic Canadian region from national narratives perpetuates unfair stereotypes of the region as backwards and unimportant, and lead to constructions of the region’s citizens as lazy, backwards, and apathetic. These misunderstandings often lead to the dismissive attitudes of politicians like Underhill, and even Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau who, when challenged by Atlantic Canadians about rising unemployment rates in the region remarked “why don’t you just get off your asses” (in Corbett, 2007, p. 14). In response, Savoie (2006) argues that historical “accidents” like these, and events perpetuated by “national political and administrative institutions” can be blamed for the region’s underdevelopment (p. 14).
While focusing on the ways in which the Atlantic Canadian region is unlike the rest of the country, scholars continue to perpetuate negative understandings of the region and its peoples, instead of a more appreciative understanding of the region’s uniqueness (White & King, 2017).
Corbett (2007) and McKay (2000) suggest that a restructuring of these deficit discourses can help re-shape a more nuanced understanding of the region more broadly, and foster understanding of civic life and behaviour in Atlantic Canada. McKay (2000) argues for a reconfiguration of research on the Atlantic Canadian region. He says that by “placing emphasis on gender, ethnicity and community, rather than on, say […] topics as regional underdevelopment, class conflict and the position of the Atlantic Provinces within Confederation” (p. 89), scholars can continue to help shape perceptions of Atlantic Canada in national and scholarly narratives, by supplanting “the old narratives of nation building, the coalescence of regional grievance, the development of underdevelopment and the making of working-class consciousness […with] new stories of identities and ideals” (McKay, 2000, p. 89).
In my dissertation, I attempted to respond to these authors and reconstruct an understanding of Atlantic Canada through an appreciative lens. Using conversational inquiry and appreciative inquiry as methodological frameworks, I studied universities in Atlantic Canada and their commitment to civic engagement. However, after completing my data collection and analysis, it was clear that frameworks of citizenship and civic engagement from literature in the field didn’t always fit with what I came to see as a unique regional construction of citizenship in Atlantic Canada. In order to frame my results, I used scholarship in literature, folklore, political science, community development, education, and history to approach an understanding of Atlantic Canadian citizenship as it is shaped by national and regional narratives. If, as Smith (2007) contends, fictional and literary narratives help shape perception of the Atlantic Canadian region, it stands to reason that these narratives also impact how Atlantic Canadians develop their own individual consciousnesses and identities. The way narratives like The Shipping News, or Anne of Green Gables, or the more recent Broadway musical Come From Away construct Atlantic Canada and, thus, Atlantic Canadians, impacts how Atlantic Canadians come to think of themselves in the context of a larger Canadian and international whole.
This work led me to develop four cornerstones of Atlantic Canadian civic identity: 1. A familiarity with geographic and physical hardship; 2. An economy founded on the region’s natural resources; 3. A complicated relationship with formal political structures; and 4. A fierce sense of independence juxtaposed with an equally fierce connection to community. These cornerstones helped support my argument for an appreciative understanding of citizenship and civic education in the region’s universities.
- A familiarity with geographic and physical hardship
Central to many narratives about the Atlantic region, including those mentioned above is the complex relationship between the people and the place they inhabit. Author Alistair MacLeod calls these “emotional effects of region [the] landcapes of the heart” (Berces, 1991, para.1). Creelman (2003) posits that there is a “common struggle against the economic hardships of underdevelopment and underemployment” (p. 3) in the literature of region. This struggle is central to the works of authors like Alistair McLeod and Lisa Moore (Creelman, 2003). This shared cultural context has shaped Atlantic Canadians’ understanding of themselves and their relationship with the broader Canadian Other
The obstinate relationship with the physical landscape, which Keefer (1987) summarizes as an “epic struggle against starvation and the sea” (p. 4) becomes important to a discussion of Atlantic Canadian civic and political identity or consciousness, as the concept of struggle forms a central core in the relationship between Atlantic Canada and not only its physical geography, but its separateness from the rest of Canada, and the rest of its people and structures. As Berces (1991) describes the metaphor present in Alistair MacLeod’s works: “Water, rain and the sea frequently become complex exponents of beliefs, fears, hopes” (para. 4), we see these complex struggles in the lived political and civic experiences of Atlantic Canadians.
- Natural Resource based Economies
The physical landscape of Atlantic Canada has not just shaped the cultural and relational identities of its citizens, but the economic and occupational lives of Atlantic Canadians have also been created by the geographic landscapes that surround and create their communities. Hodgett and Royle (2003) articulate this connection between economy and geography: “the islanders of Cape Breton (or Newfoundland, or Prince Edward Island) […] with their fellow Atlantic Canadians from mainland areas in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Labrador inhabit the physical (and economic) extremities of nation and continent” (p. 315). From the earliest Indigenous peoples, through European settlement, and continuing into the modern era, the harsh landscapes of the region have dictated the work, mobility, and perhaps even character of the people.
For many Atlantic Canadians, natural resource industries are not merely sources of employment and income; rather they are cultural artifacts that represent a connection to the land, its people, and its culture. Despite its much-maligned status, the slogan for the province of New Brunswick “Be…in this place” captures the importance of creating a life within the province. As such, Atlantic Canadians are not clinging to a romanticized past, but seeking policies and practices that create space for them in the resource-based economies that are central to their identities as citizens.
As Parenteau (2013) documents, New Brunswickers also have a long and complicated history with natural resource policies (in this province, forestry), and the governments who have imposed them. Since the 1930s, citizens, forestry workers, and county-level politicians have been protesting governmental policy, which they see as detrimental to their relationship with Crown forests and the products of the forestry industry. However, “demands from citizens who feel entitled to utilize the public forest to rebuild their communities […] have been summarily dismissed” (p. 108) and recent (2007) “funding for a planned round of public consultations in nine communities was cancelled by the New Brunswick government without explanation” (p. 109).
Beckley (2014) summarizes the disconnect between citizens and government with regards to New Brunswick forest policy as a fundamental misunderstanding of the foundations of the connection between people and resources. He argues that citizens engage in values based discussions of forest policy and practices, while the government relies on science and ‘objectivity’ to structure its arguments. This dysfunctional relationship can also be seen in other discussions of resource mangagement and regional economies, like the vociferous opposition to the northern cod fishery and moratorium in Newfoundland & Labrador. This disparity between the change Atlantic Canadians demand and the policies implemented by governments in the region serve to distance citizens from their elected officials.
- A complicated relationship with formal political structures
While many scholars report the low levels of voter turnout in Atlantic Canada in recent elections (Marland, 2009; Siaroff & Wesley, 2015), and a plethora of reasons are posited for this disengagement broadly across the country (including frustration with political patronage (Perlin, 1974; Parenteau, 2013); low sociodemographic indicators (Andrew, 2005); and youth disengagement (Howe, 2010; Milner, 2010)), the unique nature of the Atlantic Canadian region presents unique variables which shape citizens’ complicated relationships with formal political engagement.
While Atlantic Canada’s relationships with formal mechanisms of democratic engagement are fraught, Atlantic Canadians are very connected with, passionate about, and demonstrative when it comes to issues that directly affect them and their region. Certainly, there is an historic precedent for this type of involvement.
The political and civic engagement of Atlantic Canadians has a long and illustrious history. This engagement has often been tied to issues of specific importance to the region’s citizens, and in particular to the resources and geography of the area, as explored in previous sections of this post. When Atlantic Canadians feel the unique landscape of their region is threatened – particularly by outside forces who seek to change and corrupt that landscape – they engage in the vocal and vociferous dissent that has come to epitomize political and civic engagement in the area. Whether it is protest against the closure of the cod fishery in Newfoundland, or opposition to fracking and shale gas exploration and development in New Brunswick, Atlantic Canadians are fierce protectors of their ways of life, their environments, and their livelihoods.
- “Communitarian Liberalism”
The idea that communities in Atlantic Canada are apathetic and disappearing is perpetuated by discourses around low voter turnout, outmigration, and illiteracy (White & King, 2017). In 2002, Stephen Harper, then leader of the Canadian Alliance party, called the culture of Atlantic Canada one of dependency, which he claimed bred defeatism (CBC News), contributing to a discourse that constructs that Atlantic Canadian region as helpless. However, narratives of the fiercely independent nature of Atlantic Canada’s citizens complicate the political ideology in the region. Typically, liberalism “emphasize[s] the independent, self-determining nature of the subject and represent community and social institutions as structures that facilitate the individual’s search for freedom” (Creelman, 2003, p. 16). The individualized nature of the citizen in the Atlantic Canadian community is keenly felt. Mason (1990) references the “tradition of self-help in Cape Breton” and the self-reliance of the region (in MacAulay, 2001, p. 115) as central to development efforts in the region. Further, a trope of the “contrarian” nature of Atlantic Canadians certainly exists and is reflected in the paradoxical nature of Atlantic Canadian citizenship. Living in a harsh natural environment shapes the relationship between people and nature and between individuals as well. At the extremities of the continent (Hodgett & Royle, 2003), it’s every person for themselves. This might presage a more individualistic liberal political ideology in the region. In fact, as Workman (2003) describes, the Atlantic region, and New Brunswick in particular, has been used as a laboratory for neoliberal politics. These policies and ideologies do not reflect the deeply rooted values of Atlantic Canadians.
When clinging to a rock on the edge of the ocean, social bonds can mean the difference between survival and failure. Adger (2003) indicates, “resource-dependent communities have historically acted collectively to manage weather-dependent, fluctuating, and seasonal resources, such as fish, livestock, and water resources, on which their livelihoods depend” (p. 396). The communal nature of Atlantic Canadian communities is well documented in its folklore, and “the notion that community security is dependent on [an] adherence to a set of collective traditions has been especially appealing to Maritime writers” (Creelman, 2003, p. 16). But, a truly communitarian ideology fails to accommodate the region’s individualism, or its nostalgic connection with traditional cultural practices and social relationships.
Thus, this enigmatic reality of Atlantic Canadian life lends itself to citizenship founded in communitarian liberalism. Creelman (2003) explains: “communitarian liberalism locates the individual in a broader historical tradition and notes that the rational, self-aware members of a community are willing to compromise their own agenda in order to address the needs of the collective” (p. 17). Communitarian liberalism redistributes political capital amongst citizens, reclaiming it from the authority figures and structures of which Atlantic Canadians are so mistrustful. In this ideology, “community is rooted in something prior to the political order of the state” (Delanty, 2002, p. 159), grounding the philosophy in one of the most important symbols of Atlantic Canadian citizenship. Combining the idea of social welfare with the concept of liberation and responsible participation brings together the complex relationships Atlantic Canadians have with each other, and how their understandings of their pasts, presents, and futures are shaped by the physical geography and economic structures that govern their communities.
Sarah King received her PhD in Education in 2018 at the University of New Brunswick, where she teaches at Renaissance College and serves as the university’s Director of Experiential Education.
 It is important to note that the narratives that dominate the literary landscape of Atlantic Canada are primarily settler-colonialist narratives, recounting the experiences of the primarily White Irish, Scottish, and English settlers to the region. With some notable exceptions (including the work of George Elliott Clarke, and Rita Joe, among others) Acadian, Africanadian, and Aboriginal narratives are not part of this master narrative, and further research on how the inclusion of these narratives would undoubtedly change understanding of civic and political identities of Atlantic Canadians is necessary.