By Jacob Remes
In March 2022, I returned to Halifax for the first time since 2009. Even though I cut my teeth in Nova Scotia history, I hadn’t been back since the summer I finished the research for the dissertation that became my first book. When I returned 13 years later, I did so leading a group of mostly American students as part of a program my university runs called the Americas Scholars. Top undergraduate students apply for an almost free study trip led by a professor, preceded and followed by a zero-credit seminar that places the trip in an intellectual and thematic context.
In many ways, I see my role as a university professor in the Anthropocene as preparing students to live, work, and organize amid economic, political, and environmental transition. “Transition is assured,” John Cartwright, the president of the Toronto and York Region Central Labour Council told my Initiative for Critical Disaster Studies last year, “but justice is not.” That is, we know that because of climate change, we there will be massive upheaval in culture, society, and economy. The question—over which we have some control—is whether those changes will be just or not. Scholars and activists are increasingly looking to understand deindustrialization as a sort of usually unjust transition from which we can learn as we plan a transition from a carbon economy. Nova Scotia has seen more than its share of unjust transitions, and the goal of the class was to think about whether its history can prepare us for our own looming transitions.
One of the ways that Nova Scotians have long handled economic transitions is by moving—whether from the country to the city, to other parts of Canada, or to the Boston States. Out-migration is, of course, a long-standing theme in Atlantic Canadian history; one of the arguments of my first book was that we must understand even an event as local or as Canadian as the Halifax explosion within a transnational region that was built, primarily, by migration. Out-migration and its effects across generations is a major theme in Nova Scotian literature, too, and one cannot help but notice the number of literary interpreters of the region—from Hugh MacLennan to Alistair MacLeod, from George Elliott Clarke to Sashi Bhat—who did or do their writing elsewhere. “We all understand why you moved away,” sings Dartmouth’s Joel Plaskett, “but we’ll hold a grudge anyway.”
And so I prepared my students for their trip by talking about people leaving. We learned some of the historiography, read MacLeod, Clarke, and Bhat, and talked about recent iterations, like the stir caused when Halifax blogger Allison Sparling announced she was moving to Toronto.
But when we got to Halifax, Haligonians didn’t want to talk to us about folks leaving, but rather about people coming. The city we found in March was bursting at the seams, with a drastically low apartment vacancy rate, skyrocketing rent, and a growing homelessness crisis. The most frequent version of the story we heard was that thanks to the Atlantic Bubble, Nova Scotia had “done well” during the worst days of Covid, and so Ontarians—or at least people imagined by our interlocutors as Ontarians—had streamed in to Halifax to work from home. Nearly everyone we spoke to in Halifax told a version of this story, even if they told it with different valences.
For a cab driver I rode with, who had himself moved to Halifax from Iran years ago, the story was about change; he wanted to wow me with stories of million-dollar homes, and he had me guess how much waterfront condos sold for. For a worker at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, the story was insecurity. When my colleague asked her what she’d want our students to know, she answered, “That nearly everybody they interact with is afraid of the rent going up and getting evicted.” For an art student we met, the fear was about growing demands on government services; the people moving in, she explained, are professionals working from home, not teachers, nurses, or social workers who provide essential services for a growing population. A waiter who served my colleague and me one night had grown up in Nova Scotia and moved back from Ontario a week or two before we met him; he was excited to move back to a changed Halifax, where the food and cultural scenes were more exciting than when he left.
I was surprised by what we found in Halifax—and a little chagrined that I hadn’t known it before, although it was probably a good experience for my students to watch their professor learn alongside them. But what might the history of out-migration teach us about contemporary in-migration? As I have written in this space before, history best informs our thinking about contemporary affairs not when we seek strict analogy but when historical inquiry shapes our questions about today.
Many questions suggest themselves. The most pressing, of course, is about a just response to Halifax’s housing crisis: What can governments at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels do to alleviate the housing crisis and to prevent displacement from the city and especially the Halifax Peninsula? Potential answers to that political question can be informed by analytical questions we can derive from historical study.
Just as an earlier period’s migration changed relationships between urban and rural areas, how will migration to Halifax and displacement from it shift the city’s relationship with surrounding parts of Nova Scotia? I think of the people I met in Peninsular Halifax worried that they would be priced out of the city and have to live ever farther from their jobs. But I also think of a bookstore owner in Lunenburg who was excited that people priced out of Halifax might move down the coast and shop at his store—and the former Haligonians he told me about who had just taken over and rejuvenated a beloved local restaurant.
I argue in my book that migration from Nova Scotia to the Boston States created meaningful affective and political ties that were mobilized and reshaped in the aftermath of the Halifax explosion. How will migration from Ontario to Halifax change the politics and culture that bind those two places? How will a reversal of migration patterns—especially of people like my waiter who moved from Nova Scotia to Ontario and back again—change Nova Scotian politics?
After my students left Halifax, they went to Sydney, where the dynamic was very different. But counterintuitively, it is what my students learned in Sydney that gives me hope. The group met Chief Terry Paul, the architect of an economic development strategy that has propelled Membertou into being the largest employer in Cape Breton. The history of industrial Cape Breton is one of colonial extraction and underdevelopment. What might development look like when it is consciously decolonial? Indeed, might we imagine Indigenous-led economic development to be an example of a just transition? Chief Paul and our other Mi’kmaw hosts told my students that they hoped they’d fall in love with Cape Breton and come back—perhaps even bringing or building their families there. Cape Breton is still a place where very many people have to leave in order to find work; what might in-migration, or return migration, look like should the economy be reimagined by its Indigenous people, rather than by distant financiers in London, New York, or Toronto?
These are, I hope, some of the questions my students are wrestling with now that they’ve returned from our trip. They are questions, whether or not phrased these ways, that Haligonians and Nova Scotians will necessarily ask themselves as they face a continued shortage of housing with winter looming.
Jacob Remes is clinical associate professor in NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. He is the author of Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era (University of Illinois Press, 2016).