Five Simple Rules for Saving the Maritimes: The Regional Stereotype in the 21st Century

800px-Peggys_Cove_Harbour_01By Lachlan MacKinnon

The Maritimes are on the brink of catastrophic economic and demographic failure [1]. Our lack of entrepreneurial spirit, engrained sense of entitlement, conservatism, and folksy racism are major factors preventing us from joining in the prosperity enjoyed by our more enterprising cousins in the “have” provinces of Canada. Such are the problems enumerated in John Ibbitson’s recent Globe and Mail editorial. The “culture of defeatism,” proclaimed by Steven Harper in 2002, is apparently still alive and kicking on the east coast. Despite the popularity of this analytical framework, it is not borne out in the historical literature surrounding region and regionalism in the Maritimes. Nor are the commonly proposed solutions to the actual problems facing the region particularly novel or creative, including those enumerated within the much-lauded Ivany Report in Nova Scotia.

The regional stereotype of the staid and conservative Maritimes is not a recent phenomenon. Historian Ernie Forbes traces the lineage of this notion to 1893, when Frederick Jackson Turner described the “frontier thesis” of American westward development. According to Turner, a profound sense of nationalism and a progressive liberal spirit was the result of continued expansion and settler colonialism in the American west. This concept was readily applied to the Canadian national narrative. Forbes writes:

In short, the frontierist approach implied that for an understanding of the progressive dynamic animating Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one should look westward to Ontario, to the Prairies, to British Columbia, and to the North. The Maritimes were of interest only as a foil […] if the frontier encouraged progressive, egalitarian and democratic attitudes, then that part of the country furthest removed from the frontier stage must be conservative, socially stratified and unprogressive. [2]

Forbes and a cadre of Atlantic Canadian scholars effectively demolished the foundations of a pre-supposed Maritimes conservatism by the 1980s. Contrary to Ibbitson’s belief that residents “agree with each other far too much,” these historians have shown that the Maritimes were the staging ground for nationally progressive political movements such as women’s suffrage, the social gospel, and labour activism [3]. The latter decades of the 20th century also witnessed radical movements within the region; popular protest resulted in the nationalization of the Sydney steel industry in 1967, New Brunswick nurses demanded valuation for their labour in a series of wildcat strikes in the 1970s and 1980s, and popular environmentalism influenced the Sydney tar ponds cleanup efforts during the 1990s and early 2000s.

Despite these examples, Forbes reflects on the staying-power of the myth of Maritimes conservatism:

One should be under no illusion that myths disappear simply because their basic inaccuracies have been exposed by a scholar. Myths become popular when they serve the purposes of those transmitting and / or receiving them […] The more [our] perspective on the past is distorted by myth and stereotype, the less [we] are able to cope intelligently with the stream of decisions and judgements which a complex society sends [our] way. [4]

To what end does the repetition of these myths serve today? In Ibbitson’s piece, the regional stereotype is used to forestall opposition to what he terms the “Five Rules for Saving the Maritimes.” These rules, drawn from the Ivany Report and the recommendations of regional development scholar Donald Savoie, can be paraphrased as: reliance on federal support is a problem, not a solution; governments must craft pro-business policies; regional tax dollars should be redirected to support the further development of Halifax; barriers to inter-provincial commerce should be reduced; immigrants should be aggressively recruited [5]. Although seemingly mundane, proposed solutions based upon a mistrust of government intervention and a near-total reliance on market solutions are revealed to be deeply reactionary when translated into public policy.

The recent Nova Scotia Tax and Regulatory Overview (Broten Report), peppered with similarly acclamatory references to the Ivany Commission, recommends a series of regressive changes to the provincial tax structure designed to increase “efficiency” and “competitiveness.” It advocates cutting income taxes for those earning more than $150,000 each year while increasing the tax burden on consumption goods such as: “printed books, children’s clothing, shoes, and diapers; feminine hygiene products; residential energy; and first-time home purchases” (See Recommendation 1.3 and 1.6). Also included is a proposed reduction in the corporate tax rate while increasing rates for small business owners (Rec. 1.10). These and other recommendations seemingly lifted from the most uncharitable pages of 1980s Thatcherism should not be offered as unassailable. Neither should those who find fault in these solutions be tarred with the regional stereotype; the rejection of austerity politics must not be caricatured as an unquestioning reliance on the status-quo.

Donald Savoie’s 2006 monograph Visiting Grandchildren provides some philosophical impetus for the Five Rules. Savoie effectively critiques lacklustre political efforts designed to offset the impact of regional underdevelopment since the 1950s – notably the provision of “guilt money” to the Maritimes through federal transfer payments [6]. However, as political scientist James Bickerton argues, Savoie “sometimes exhibits a tendency to lapse into a too-easy reliance on the nostrums of free market economics;” such a tendency is visible in calls for regional wage flexibility and the removal of “incentives to dependence” such as Employment Insurance and transfer payments. Bickerton reflects that the implementation of these solutions without a corresponding overhaul of national distributive spending would simply further immiserate “have-not” regions of the country [7].

Aside from the troubling policy implications of some of the Five Rules, their basis in the historical record is also problematic. The notion that federal intervention has consistently “made things worse” in the Maritimes is based on a selective misreading of regional economic history. Rather than “wither[ing] into a mostly rural economy dependent on forestry and the fishery” after the implementation of the National Policy in 1879, as Ibbitson asserts, historian T.W. Acheson writes:

In fact, the decade following 1879 was characterized by a significant transfer of capital and human resources from the traditional staples into a new manufacturing base which was emerging in response to federal tariff policies. This development was so significant that between 1881 and 1891 the industrial growth rate of Nova Scotia outstripped all other provinces in eastern Canada [8]

Indeed, as James Frost argues in his economic analysis of the Bank of Nova Scotia, the tendency of regional entrepreneurs to shift their focus to other areas of Canada is not characteristic of federal mismanagement, but rather “the concentration and centralization of capital and industry […] in the growth of Canadian capitalism” [9]. David Frank further articulates the usefulness of this concept:

The continuing search for new economic surpluses, better rates of profit, new raw materials, markets and sources of labour supply, all caused an expansion in the scale of capital accumulation. As part of this process, the operation of the free market system generally led to the concentration and centralization of capital . . . As the process continued, regional disparities deepened. [10]

If we are to conclude that the processes of capital accumulation hold more explanatory potential than flawed federal interventionism, what is to be done?

First, Maritimers must reject the regional stereotype; those who oppose downward pressure on wages, the turn towards consumption-based taxation, and cuts to public services in the name of increased “competitiveness” should not be told that they suffer from “attitudinal barriers to business development and entrepreneurship” [11]. This is not to say that residents should simply “keep going down the road;” rather, we should heed the words of New Brunswick political scientist and historian Donald Wright: “What is required is a fundamentally new approach to regional economic development, an approach premised on economic democracy, community-based development, and co-operativism” [12]. Such an approach requires the grassroots participation of disparate groups with intersectional interests; in the Maritimes, this includes organized labour, First Nations groups, women’s organizations, environmentalists, and others threatened by the politics of austerity.

Lachlan MacKinnon is currently a Ph.D. student at Concordia University focusing on workers’ experiences of deindustrialization in Atlantic Canada.



[1] With one-third of Cape Breton schoolchildren living in poverty, the crisis is already keenly felt in some areas of the region.

[2] E.R. Forbes, “In Search of a Post Confederation Maritime Historiography, 1900-1967,” Acadiensis 8, n. 1 (Autumn 1978), 5.

[3] See E.R. Forbes, “Prohibition and the Social Gospel in Nova Scotia,” Acadiensis 1, n. 1 (Autumn, 1971), 11; E. R. Forbes, “The Ideas of Carol Bacchi and the Suffragists of Halifax: A Review Essay on “Liberation Deferred? The Ideas of the English-Canadian Suffragists,” Atlantis 10, n. 2 (1985); Ian McKay, “Strikes in the Maritimes, 1901-1914,” Acadiensis 13, n. 1 (1983); John Manley, “Preaching the Red Stuff: J.B. McLachlan, Communism and the Cape Breton Coal Miners, 1922-1935,” Labour/Le Travail 30 (1992).

[4] E.R. Forbes, “Introduction” to Challenging the Regional Stereotype: Essays on the 20th Century Maritimes (Fredericton, NB: Acadiensis Press, 1990).

[5] John Ibbitson, “How the Maritimes became the incredible shrinking region,” Globe and Mail (20 March 2015).

[6] Donald Savoie, Visiting Grandchildren: Economic Development in the Maritimes (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 11-14.

[7] James Bickerton, “Visiting Grandchildren: A Review Essay,” Acadiensis 36, 2 (Spring 2007), 141.

[8] T.W. Acheson, “The National Policy and the Industrialization of the Maritimes, 1880-1910,” Acadiensis, v. 1, n. 2 (Spring 1972), 3.

[9] James D. Frost, “The ‘Nationalization’ of the Bank of Nova Scotia, 1880-1910,” Acadiensis 12, 1 (1982), 29.

[10] David Frank, “The Cape Breton Coal Industry and the Rise and Fall of the British Empire Steel Corporation,” Acadiensis 7, 1 (Autumn 1977), 3.

[11] Nova Scotia Coalition on Building Our New Economy, “Now or Never: An Urgent Call to Action for Nova Scotians,” (February 2014), 53. Colloquially: “The Ivany Report.”

[12] Donald Wright, “Regionalism, Politics, and Canadian Unity in the Age of a Global Economy,” Acadiensis 22, 2 (Spring 1993), 183.

9 thoughts on “Five Simple Rules for Saving the Maritimes: The Regional Stereotype in the 21st Century

  1. Corey Slumkoski

    This is an excellent response to Ibbitson’s piece, Lachlan. In reading Ibbitson I was struck both by his promotion of discredited historical tropes and by the irony of his castigating the Maritimes as conservative, and then proposing a solution rooted in conservative economic doctrine.

  2. Peter McInnis

    Trenchant analysis Lachlan. Key sentence: “Although seemingly mundane, proposed solutions based upon a mistrust of government intervention and a near-total reliance on market solutions are revealed to be deeply reactionary when translated into public policy,” is precisely the point. Ivany, AIMS, et al., seek to impose their version of “shock doctrine” austerity on a region already suffering from systemic disadvantage.

  3. Patrick (@faketrivia)

    I had issues with the Globe’s piece, but I also had issues with this one:

    1. MacKinnon uses labour strikes and environmental activism as an example of how the Maritimes aren’t as socially stagnant as the Globe made them out to be. This isn’t the kind of conservatism that Ibbitson was talking about. What Ibbitson meant is that the provincial Libs/PCs/NDP are virtually indistinguishable in NS/NB/PEI and are afraid to bring in any real changes, to say nothing of a resistance to immigration in the Region.

    2. MacKinnon takes issue with Ibbitson’s theory that the 1879 National Policy hurt the Maritimes by pointing out that manufacturing boomed there in the following decade. To both authors: This was 130 YEARS AGO. There has been ample time to address these problems since.

    3. “Maritimers must reject the regional stereotype; those who oppose downward pressure on wages, the turn towards consumption-based taxation, and cuts to public services in the name of increased “competitiveness” should not be told that they suffer from “attitudinal barriers to business development and entrepreneurship” The Maritimes don’t need to gut public services to achieve change, but to think that they should remain untouched is exactly the conservative recalcitrance Ibbitson was criticizing in his original piece. Difficult problems often require difficult solutions.

  4. Ed Dunsworth

    Thank you for this excellent response to Ibbitson’s piece, which was in desperate need of a rebuttal. Would be wonderful to see this piece reach a wider audience… Though I imagine it’s not exactly the Globe’s cup of tea! I do have some questions though. If regional inequality results from the concentration and consolidation of capital, what explains why some “peripheral” regions suffer while others (AL, SK) prosper? Seems to me that it’s not only about concentration, but also about the vagaries of market capitalism and the unending search for new, better sources of profit. And can we allow room for the National Party (and the development of the Canadian nation-state generally) within our explanatory framework for Maritime poverty? Didn’t the Maritimes enjoy a stronger trade relationship with the Northeastern US before the NP, and didn’t the region experience a loss of markets when those of NE were made more difficult to access? This is not my field of study, so please let me know if I’m totally off base!

  5. w.sobchek

    This article really made me think and I feel the author left out an idea of densification of our cities/towns with multi modular public transportation, properly subsidized by the province, and assisting in tax reform in the hardest problemed cases, ie Halifax, to increase demand in the core.

    A densified population are more easily to support local food and service industries as well.

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