By P. E. BRYDEN
The eastern coast of Canada is home to some of the nation’s oldest settlements. The Beothuk First Nation populated the most easterly corner of the area, while the Maliseet and Mi’kmaq inhabited territory that would become New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. But it was fish that lured Europeans to the shores of Atlantic Canada: the Norse established settlements about a thousand years ago in the area we call Newfoundland and Portuguese, English, French and Spanish fishermen were making regular summer runs to one of the richest fishing areas in the world – Newfoundland’s Grand Banks – by the 15th century.
The fishing may have been attractive, but the reality of settling in the Atlantic region was less so. A number of communities sprang up and quickly disappeared, including various French settlements in Ile St. Croix and Port Royale in Nova Scotia in the first decade of the 17th century, and Lord Baltimore’s English Catholic settlement in Newfoundland about 20 years later. Lasting settlements only very slowly took root in coastal areas, attracting both French and English colonizers. And thus throughout much of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Maritimes (as the three provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island are collectively known) shifted imperial overlords from French to English and back again repeatedly. Only after the English victory in the Seven Years War (1756-63) did the area become British and remained so. Throughout the period of conflict in the Maritimes, Newfoundland remained firmly under the control of a rather uninterested England.
By the middle of the 19th century, four distinct colonies existed on Canada’s eastern seaboard. Newfoundland retained its original fishing culture and British immigrant base, although the Beothuk quickly became extinct following the arrival of permanent settlers; Nova Scotia was organized around a naval presence based at Halifax and small coastal fishing villages; New Brunswick had split from Nova Scotia following the settlement of large numbers of Loyalists – including a substantial number of former slaves who had been granted their freedom in return for fighting on the side of the British – following the American Revolution; and tiny Prince Edward Island supported both farming and fishing.
All were remarkably isolated and had little connection with each other. Trade was more likely to occur with Great Britain or with the New England states than it was between the colonies. But all shared a number of common complaints. The railway that the Maritimes had undertaken in order to solve the problem of isolation was both unfinished and driving the colonies further into debt; their position perched on the edge of the continent, and next to the United States, posed problems of defence; and all the colonies were dependent on trade, but foreign trading partners were fickle and unreliable. These problems led the Atlantic colonies to meet in 1864 to discuss the possibility of wider union – an association that offered little for Newfoundland, whose representatives attended without serious intentions, but one that was attractive enough to other British North American colonies to entice politicians from further west to the conference. The result was Confederation, and a union that initially included Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, but quickly broadened to include PEI and other colonies further to the west. Newfoundland remained aloof, choosing not to join Canada until 1949.
Joining Canada was a mixed blessing for the Atlantic provinces. Their economies, based on fishing, ship-building and lumber, remained volatile. The late 19th century policy of high tariffs, designed to protect Canadian manufacturing from American imports, stifled growth in the region, favouring central Canada instead. Ultimately, though, it was the dependence on primary production that hurt the Atlantic provinces the most.
In other ways, the area has benefited from access to the richer Canadian treasury. The national government assumed the colonial debt at the time of Confederation, offered better financial terms to Nova Scotia when it threatened to pull out of the union, and buttressed the region again during the 1920s following a wave of talk about Maritime independence. In the post-war period, these cash-infusions have taken the form of Atlantic Adjustment Grants and equalization payments. Moreover, the national social policies of the last 75 years – including unemployment insurance and health insurance – have been particularly attractive to the people in Atlantic Canada.
The financial benefits of Confederation have helped to make up for the relatively weak political position of the region. With a total population of about 2.5 million, or half that of Greater Toronto, and an economy that has not thrived since the late 19th century, the region has little weight in national decision-making. The fish that first brought settlers to the Atlantic region have long ago been depleted and, while tourists still flock to the scenic coasts, the economic future of the region remains uncertain.
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