Uncovering the History of the Atlantic Region: What’s the Acadiensis School’s Legacy?

Paul W. Bennett

History matters more than most of us recognize unless and until it directly affects us. Yet it shapes in subtle and unconscious ways how provinces and communities are perceived in the past and present, and how they confront the future.  That applies especially in the case of Atlantic Canada, lying “Down East” and, until the past fifty years, viewed as mostly outside the mainstream of Canada’s historical tradition.

Two significant academic developments changed that outlook, both of which originated and were ‘hot-housed’ at the University of New Brunswick.  Since its founding in 1971, influential articles, research studies, and book review essays published in Acadiensis: Journal of History of the Atlantic Region, have challenged regional stereotypes, exposed buried public policy issues, and influenced how the province and region are viewed not only in North America but across the Atlantic world.Fifty years ago, in 1974, the founders of the “Acadiensis School” established the biennial Atlantic Canada Studies conference, which, in 1979, earned the Clio Prize of the Canadian Historical Association for outstanding scholarship, putting regional history on the scholarly map in Canada.

Historical research, normally produced in public archives in laborious fashion rarely gets properly acknowledged in the public sphere.  Two prominent University of New Brunswick historians, Bill Parenteau and Elizabeth Mancke, who passed away in the fall of 2023, did make their mark leaving a trail of shock and sadness in their wake.  The duo were an integral part of the research team that helped Matawaskiye (Madawaska Maliseet First Nation) win a federal tribunal land claim in April 2021 resulting in a $145-million payout, the largest settlement in the history of the Maritimes.

Over the weekend of May 10-12, 2024, the Atlantic Canada Studies Conference, marked its fiftieth  anniversary year in typical, understated Maritime fashion.  That conference, hosted by UNB-trained historian Mark J. McLaughlin at University of Maine Orono, paid tribute to not only to the two historians’ roles in achieving that historic settlement, but equally important, their legacy in sustaining Acadiensis, as the region’s flagship and influential journal of Atlantic Studies.

Founders of the journal, spearheaded by founding editor Phillip Buckner and known as the ‘Acadensis School’, came together in the late 1960s and early 1970s, convinced that something was seriously missing. Our region was consigned to the periphery in national debates. With the UNB History Department as their base, they were committed to filling the yawning gap in research and establishing a larger presence for Atlantic Canada our national story or narrative. In 1974, they established the biennial Atlantic Canada Studies conference, and, in 1979, their outstanding work earned the Clio Prize of the Canadian Historical Association for putting regional history on the scholarly map.

The UNB-based journal formed its own publishing arm known as Acadiensis Press in 1980 and the big breakthrough came in 1989 with the appearance of E.R. (Ernie) Forbes Challenging the Regional Stereotype: Essays on the 2oth Century Maritimes. Drawing upon the storehouse of articles published over two decades, Forbes and the contributors countered the prevailing view that the Maritimes was a conservative society doomed to the fate of economic marginalization because of the region’s distance from central Canada and its supposed dynamism.

Good history was essential to good policy, Forbes and the Acadiensis School of researchers believed, and a change in perspective was warranted. Together they documented a tradition of active resistance and advocacy for structural change, from the 1880s onward, connecting the Maritime Rights Movement, railways and transportation policy, Depression-era relief initiatives, and the impact of wartime consolidation of power and manufacturing capacity in central Canada.

The journal flourished and UNB became a magnet for some of the country’s leading historical thinkers and authors. Forbes and his close colleagues David Frank and Gail Campbell provided the anchor at UNB, and a succession of historians, cutting their teeth or expanding their reach at Acadiensis, rose to become Canadian Historical Association presidents:  Phillip Buckner (1992-93), Gregory Kealey (1998-99), Margaret Conrad (2005-07, and Don Wright (2024-25). In a fascinating 2015 article, Atlantic Canadian historian Tom Peace analyzed the citations of articles published in Acadiensis and identified a small group of key contributors to the scholarship but a web or network of influence extending to some 700 historians and researchers.

The focus and preoccupations of Acadiensis changed over the decades, reflecting larger shifts in historical writing – from politics and national policy in the early 1970s to social, labour and women’s history in the 1980s to broader studies of the Atlantic world in the early 2000s. Today, a perceptible shift is underway in the direction of exploring ‘settler-colonialism’ and gender identities over time.

Bill Parenteau’s recent passing sparked a serious reflection on his role in shaping the research agenda and the impact of his scholarship on the field.  Moving from the University of Maine to UNB for doctoral studies from 1987 to 1994, he was central to what is known as the second generation of the Acadiensis School exemplified in the shift in focus to studying trees, forests, and Indigenous land claims.  His 1994 PhD thesis laid the groundwork tracing the evolution of the N.B. resource sector from lumber to pulp and paper from the 1920s to the end of the 1930s.

After returning to the UNB History Department in 2000 as a professor, Parenteau edited Acadiensis for seven years, and supervised some 22 graduate students, including his best known protégé, Mark McLaughlin, now based at the Canadian-American Studies Centre at UMaine Orono.  He also played an instrumental role in the rise and spread of environmental education, propelled by critical studies digging into forestry resource development and environmental impacts on the Atlantic salmon and the subsistence activities of rural New Brunswickers.

The late Elizabeth Mancke made her mark with a critically-important 2005 essay providing a completely new interpretation of the origins of New England and the Maritimes. Breaking from the traditional colonization framework, she saw “spaces of power” in the Indigenous-European contest that shaped the origin and drove the evolution of the early modern Atlantic world. Viewed through the lens of “spaces of power,” Indigenous-imperial European contact took on a completely new dimension, one where Indigenous peoples had inherent rights to land and self-determination.

Fellow American-born scholar Elizabeth Mancke arrived in New Brunswick in 2012 as Canada Research Chair in Atlantic Canada Studies at UNB, Fredericton. She emerged as Parenteau’s logical successor at UNB and, focusing on early Maritime studies, established a British North America Legislative Database, cataloguing key pieces of legislation relating to a whole range of Indigenous claims.

Parenteau and Mancke found common cause in their advocacy for Indigenous rights and claims to lands and resources. Armed with his completely unparalleled knowledge of the Public Archives of New Brunswick, he conducted research on several Wabanaki claims before working on the successful Madawaska claim. When Parenteau bowed out of the Madawaska claim because of illness, Mancke stepped-in and provided days of sometimes grueling testimony as federal authorities tried unsuccessfully to block the claim.

The latest Atlantic Canada Studies conference attracted some 150 professors and researchers. The featured evening event paid tribute to Parenteau and Mancke’s work in preparing and winning the Madawaska Maliseet claim. Chief Patricia Bernard, a 1999 UNB law graduate, who submitted the original claim while in her second year of law school, spent some 23 years fighting for justice for her community.  She credits research provided by Parenteau and Mancke with being critical in reconstructing the history of her First Nation, filling-in the missing pieces over a 100-year span, and integrating the whole struggle into the broader movement for reconciliation.

The Acadiensis School is now very much in transition.  The passing of both Parenteau and Mancke leaves a hole and so does the retirement of long-serving managing editor, Stephen Dutcher, after 21 years of dedicated service. Relatively new developments like the Acadiensis Blog curated by MSVU historian Corey Slumkoski provide a fresh outlet for topical research commentaries. While the two current editors are poised to reinvent the journal with an impressive advisory board, it’s quite a legacy to uphold at a time when academic journals face increased competition from digital blogs and open access publications.

Paul W. Bennett, EdD, is Director of Schoolhouse Institute, Adjunct Professor of Education, Saint Mary’s University, and the author of ten books, including The State of the System: A Realty Check on Canada’s Schools (2020) and Canada: A North American Nation (1988, 1995), one of Canada’s better known history textbooks. Over his teaching career, he was twice nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Teaching Canadian History, and founded the Historica Summer Institute for Teaching Canadian History. He is currently teaching North American school reform to SMU graduate students.

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