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  • Re-developing Underdevelopment:An Agenda for New Histories of Capitalism in the Maritimes
  • Fred Burrill (bio)

THINKING AND WRITING ABOUT MARITIME HISTORY has always been intensely personal for me.1 Although I have made my adult life in a different province, (largely) in a different language, and do my main academic work on an unrelated topic, there remains an integral part of me conditioned by having grown up in Upper Musquodoboit, Nova Scotia. Much of this, I suppose, is similar to what any of us feels when we look back: a childhood home lost, formative relationships broken up, old friends now gone. As bell hooks has written, "We are born and have our being in a place of memory."2 But another part is a result of having experienced my early political awakenings in a household steeped in the radical regionalism of the 1980s, my central analyses shaped by that New Maritimes3 generation that adapted core-periphery frameworks to the regional context while denouncing the exploitation of the transient, Maritime "light infantry of capital."4 This formulation, and therefore mine, was all about "our people," "our culture," and our "colonization" by Montreal, Ottawa, Boston, Toronto, and, later, the multinational corporations of the Alberta tar sands.5 [End Page 179]

Regional historiography has since evolved. Feminist histories of the interactions between state and civil society, new avenues of investigation into slavery and racism, and scholarship on colonialism and Indigenous resistance have complicated our understandings of power.6 Successive recent waves of transnational studies and environmental history have raised important questions about the ongoing relevance of regional frameworks.7 And, on the economic front, historians of rural capitalism and of fisheries have contributed works that call the underdevelopment approach into question on a number of levels.8

My own understanding of the region has, of course, also shifted, shaped by these historiographical discussions and by the experience of grassroots political organizing in the very different urban context of Montreal. All the same, however, my sense is that the demise of the underdevelopment framework has left a gap yet to be filled in the articulation of systematic investigations into the nature and workings of capitalism in the Maritimes. In what follows I aim to [End Page 180] critically re-engage with this scholarship, seeking to determine which, if any, of its central questions still hold promise for understanding the history of the region and attempting to imagine what a "new history of capitalism" might look like in this context.9

For much of the latter half of the 20th century, various versions of the narrative of Maritime economic underdevelopment exercised a virtual stranglehold over the study of the region's position in the country. Post-Second World War Maritime-born scholars experiencing the indignity of regional stereotypes in universities in central and western Canada and the frustrations at home of an alphabet soup of successive, incomplete federal government regional development programs10 helped develop an alternative regionalist narrative – a story of political machinations in far-off Ottawa systematically disadvantaging regional interests and of a central Canadian historiography littered with falsehoods of patronage-ridden regional conservatism and inevitable decline after a "Golden Age" of wind and sail in the mid-19th century.11

The narrative of underdevelopment particularly influenced the rapidly growing number of labour historians of Atlantic Canada in the 1970s and 1980s as well as the solidification of Atlantic Canada Studies as a field. These scholars constructed a Golden Age narrative of their own, focusing on the brief window of regional industrialization and labour strength between the 1890s' "Second [End Page 181] Industrial Revolution" and the deindustrialization of the 1920s. The contrast between the Progressive dynamism of the beginning of the 20th century and the disastrous consequences of regional takeover by Central Canadian capital were particularly stark in this version of the region's past, as historians painted a picture of modernity betrayed: "In the 1910s," wrote Ian McKay, "Maritimers had seen their region as one of advanced and advancing capitalism; its central problems were those of industrial societies the world over. But in the 1920s, the region would be seen anew, as industries collapsed, as workers and their radical leaders...