- The Education of an Innocent: An Autobiography by E.R. “Ernie” Forbes by E.R. Forbes
The voice of E.R. “Ernie” Forbes has earned great respect, not just from fellow historians but also social scientists and the public at large. It stems from a teaching and research career spanning some four decades, complemented by generous service to church and community. He is admired by those who have read his seminal books and articles, listened to incisive and persuasive arguments by a passionate teacher and advocate, and responded with relief after his misadventures while fly-fishing and hunting moose. Now more of Ernie’s persona is revealed in The Education of an Innocent, an autobiography written mainly for his children and family but fortunately shared with a wider audience by Acadiensis Press. Recounting episodes in a life well and fully lived, Ernie Forbes provides sage insights about family, career, and region. Of the last, he reveals much about how the Maritimes has subtly given shape to his views on life’s “ups and downs.” Ernie’s reflections are thoughtfully introduced and edited by former student Stephen Dutcher, and the book concludes with an insightful conversation led by historian John G. Reid.
The narrative is spread over a lifetime of experiences, from youthful “innocence” in rural Nova Scotia, through grade school and degree-earning years, to early retirement from the University of New Brunswick after the onset of Parkinson’s disease. Along the way, the reader learns much about time, place, and circumstance. Interesting tales of personal and family adventures are woven within the wider context of social and economic conditions in the Maritimes, or set against particular family, university, church, and community affairs. In certain ways, the recounting of his early, rural-lived post–Second World War years reminded me of the novels and short stories of Charles Bruce [End Page 101] and Alastair MacLeod because of the clarity of Ernie’s writing when describing local landscapes and family life in the Maritimes.
After graduate training at Queen’s University and teaching for a few years at the University of Victoria, Ernie returned home to the Maritimes, accepting an offer to join the University of New Brunswick’s History Department in 1974. Throughout his university career and in community service, Ernie was always willing to give unstintingly of his time and more than ready to bargain hard for fair play, equality, and justice. Behind the facade of a seemingly unperturbed, “ah, shucks” sort of persona there was a certain stubbornness of mind. Regardless of outward demeanour, Ernie has always offered an honest, fair-minded appraisal of any situation that happened his way.
These traits are given substance throughout the narrative. Ernie was one of the leaders – and true to character, he is quick to point out there were others who played a greater role, particularly his departmental colleague Phil Buckner – who created a research “movement” that made the history of the Maritimes better known to Canadians, and to a wider world. Especially interesting is the role Ernie personally played behind the scenes to ensure success. A movement’s worth should be measured not just by the number of books and articles published and conferences organized, but in other, more personal ways. From this perspective, of great importance is the way Ernie practised the art of friendship and camaraderie that is so essential to accomplishing the goals of any movement.
I came to know something of Ernie’s perspective on camaraderie when I was teaching at Mount Allison University (where, incidentally, Ernie earned an undergraduate degree in classics). We first met in the mid-1970s in the hot, humid reading room of the old Public Archives of Nova Scotia building, at that time located on the campus of Dalhousie University in Halifax. Just as Ernie describes in The Education of an Innocent, he was always happy to escape to the somewhat cooler steps of the archives or elsewhere to share research finds and to chat about the history of the Maritimes – or...