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  • The Big Picture: The Antigonish Movement of Eastern Nova Scotia by Santo Dodaro, Leonard Pluta
  • Corey Slumkoski
The Big Picture: The Antigonish Movement of Eastern Nova Scotia by Santo Dodaro and Leonard Pluta. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012. 424pp. Paper $34.95.

In the 1920s the rural poverty endemic to the many small mining communities, farming villages, and fishing outports of northeastern Nova Scotia prompted Catholic clergyman Jimmy Tompkins to mobilize the fishermen of Canso in an effort to offset the influence of the region’s monopolistic fish buyers. His successes in this endeavour prompted nearby St. Francis Xavier (FX) University to use its resources to try to improve the lives of the rural poor who lived near the campus. In 1928 the university founded an Extension Department under the directorship of Tompkins’s cousin and fellow clergyman, Moses Coady. Under Coady’s direction, Extension Department employees rallied Nova Scotia’s rural communities with a message of community empowerment, inspiring them to educate and organize themselves to mitigate the detrimental influences of industrial capitalism on their towns and villages. Collectively known as the Antigonish Movement, such St. FX-led efforts as programs of adult education, the establishment of credit unions, and the development of co-operative wholesaling strategies had a positive impact on the lives of many rural Nova Scotians throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

Most studies of the Antigonish Movement have focused on the efforts of the early leaders, notably Tompkins and Coady, lauding their efforts at economic development in impoverished rural communities in northeastern Nova Scotia. Santo Dodaro and Leonard Pluta’s The Big Picture: The Antigonish Movement of Eastern Nova Scotia is a refreshing break from this hagiographic model, offering a sustained analysis of the Antigonish Movement from its 1920s founding, through the creation of the Coady Institute as an international arm, to its weakening in the late 1960s and its de facto termination at the hands of a disinterested St. FX administration in 2000. Dodaro and Pluta, current and former St. FX faculty members, use their close connection to the university with great effect to provide a detailed and informative history of the Antigonish Movement and its economic development role in northeastern Nova Scotia. Their intimate knowledge of the university and the community is evident and helps to make The Big Picture a welcome and overdue addition to the historiography of economic development in Atlantic Canada.

Dodaro and Pluta present the story of the Antigonish Movement in eight chapters. They begin with a theoretical discussion of the nature of economic movements that firmly situates the Antigonish Movement as an economic movement, not a social or political one. They then present a chronological history of the Antigonish Movement, beginning with the movement’s founding, then moving on to chapters analyzing the movement during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, and, finally, from 1970 to 2000. While this temporal structure makes it rather easy for the reader to follow along, the decade-by-decade approach also seems somewhat arbitrary. For example, it may have made greater sense to use Coady’s 1952 retirement as a demarcation point between the chapters on the 1940s and 1950s, rather than the start/end dates of decades.

As Dodaro and Pluta see it, economic movements such as the Antigonish Movement originated “in response to the failure of existing economic conditions and institutions to meet perceived needs and aspirations and attempt[ed] to bring about socio-economic reform through the fundamental restructuring of economic institutions and the redistribution of economic power” (pp. 4–5). This focus on the Antigonish Movement as an economic undertaking is both the book’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Their theoretical discussion of economic movements is rich and engaging, and Dodaro and Pluta use the experience of northeastern Nova Scotia as a microcosm for the economic history of the Maritimes during the decades following Confederation. They do an excellent job of detailing the economic difficulties that prevailed in rural Nova Scotia, and the ways these struggles, when coupled with a generally homogeneous rural population, could give birth to the grassroots-led Antigonish Movement in the 1920s.

However, Dodaro and Pluta’s discussion...


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