restricted access Beware the Canadian Wolf: The Maritimes and Confederation
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Beware the Canadian Wolf:
The Maritimes and Confederation

IN MARCH 1990 I WROTE A BROAD OVERVIEW for the Canadian Historical Review entitled "The Maritimes and Confederation: A Reassessment."1 As we mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation, I want to reassess that reassessment. All historians are influenced by the climate of opinion of the times in which they live and I was no exception. The 1980s were a period when historians of the Atlantic region sought to engage with what Ernie Forbes described as the stereotype of Maritime conservatism, and in my 1990 article I sought to show how this stereotype had distorted the historical literature on the Maritimes and Confederation. In a perceptive critique of my paper, published in the same issue of the Canadian Historical Review, Bill Baker was critical of my "rather static view of the literature from the 1920s to the 1960s."2 In retrospect I think that he may have been right about my comments on the interwar years, but I still maintain that the stereotype of Maritime conservatism was embodied in the major works written about Confederation in the 1960s. These works established what became the dominant interpretation of the attitude of the Maritimes to Confederation, one that saw the Maritimes as a conservative backwater dragged kicking and screaming into union with the United Province of Canada. The central theme of my 1990 paper was that this interpretation drastically underestimated the degree of support for Confederation in the Maritimes by lumping together the die-hard anti-confederates who were opposed to Confederation on any terms with those who were not opposed to Confederation in principle but who objected to the terms of the Quebec Resolutions – usually described as the "Quebec scheme" by its opponents. Many of the latter were converted, with various degrees of enthusiasm, into pro-confederates when they came to the conclusion that Confederation was indeed necessary to meet the challenges of the mid-1860s and that the "Quebec scheme" was the only option available. I did convince Bill Baker on this point. He had written a biography of one of the leading anti-confederates in New Brunswick, and my article persuaded him that his biography "significantly underrates the force of the pro-confederate movement in the Maritimes."3 [End Page 177] and unfair union with Canada. Gradually anti-Confederation sentiment in the Maritimes did dissipate, as politicians from the Maritimes came to occupy influential positions in the federal government, as the provincial governments received larger financial subsidies from Ottawa, and as the region benefitted from industrialization. The Maritimes shared (though not equally) in the prosperity of the Laurier boom years from 1896 to 1911, and the outmigration of Maritimers to the United States, which had begun before Confederation, was temporarily halted. In the 1920s, however, the Maritimes entered a deep recession, one from which the region never really recovered. In that decade the region lost about half of its manufacturing jobs, and nearly 20 per cent of its population emigrated to the United States. That decline was reflected in the smaller proportion of MPs from the Maritimes in the House of Commons, thus reducing the region's political influence. Faced with this changing reality, many Maritimers began to long nostalgically for the world they had lost and the Maritime anti-confederates came to be seen as prophets who had correctly predicted the decline of the region within a continental union. In The True Story of Confederation, one of the leaders of the Maritime Rights movement, Alexander Paterson, argued "Time has more than justified practically every point raised in opposition to Confederation by Maritime Anti-Confederates."4 This interpretation entered the popular imagination and many Maritimers accept as a given that Confederation turned Maritimers away from their true destiny as a sea-bound people, leaving them with "Empty Harbours" and "Empty Dreams."5 Although I hinted in my 1990 paper that this was an oversimplified version of regional history, I did not confront it strongly enough, partly because, like most regional historians in the 1980s and 1990s, I was more concerned to show that the Maritimes had indeed been treated unfairly within Confederation in the 20th century and that...