- A Region in Retrospective:The History of Atlantic Canada, 2009-2019
REGION IS A SLIPPERY IDEA. From its earliest iteration at the turn of the century, David Russell Jack's magazine Acadiensis concerned itself with the study of the Maritimes from a geographical perspective. With the revival of the journal in 1971, Newfoundland and Labrador were introduced as key areas of interest for scholars of the now-expanded Atlantic region. In the journal's first essay, entitled "Acadiensis II," Philip Bucker describes its focus as encompassing "not only the Maritime Provinces and Newfoundland, but also Gaspésia and Maine with further extensions into Central Canada and Northern New England."1 The impetus for a journal dedicated to this area emerged out of a historiographical suspicion of nationally focused historical narratives that ignored regional concerns and produced a collective antipathy towards the sense, famously expressed by Frank Underhill, that "nothing, of course, ever happens" in the Maritimes.2
The assumption of a coherent Atlantic region that conforms with the boundaries of political geography has also inspired calls for political action. Jack, in the earliest years of the original Acadiensis, was a proponent of Maritime Union.3 Ernie Forbes argued in 1979 that the Maritime Rights Movement, the regional flavour of the social gospel, and working class activism in places like industrial Cape Breton revealed a radical sense of regionalism that emboldened various forms of resistance to structural decline.4 This vision of the Atlantic region has also invigorated calls for political action from more conservative perspectives. A future union of the region's provinces, whether under a Maritime Union or Atlantic Union model, would – under this line of argument – reduce wasteful inefficiencies that go hand-in-hand with operating three (or four) distinct provinces. Why bother maintaining such [End Page 230] arbitrary borders, when – in the words of Conservative Senator Stephen Greene – "provincial boundaries are artificial.… They divide a group of people … who have the same, or very similar, ethnicity and histories, and who have very common problems and aspirations?"5 Whatever the fate of such schemes, their continued relevance lends veracity to the assertion that Atlantic Canadians have "increasingly come to share an angle of vision regarding the world they inhabit."6
Since its founding in 1971, the revived Acadiensis has served as a forum for scholars to reflect upon how the region has been expressed through various areas of study. Class, gender, and race were, of course, explored – with an implicit understanding that their expression in the region is distinguished, in some way, from the broader Canadian experience. In 2000, Ian McKay published his modestly titled "A Note on 'Region' in Writing the History of Atlantic Canada," wherein he reflects upon the historical usage of the term at the turn of the 21st century. Recognizing five general themes, he identifies shortcomings in each and calls for regional historians to question "what 'region' – this 'region' we construct in the present and in our heads, to capture the elusive patterns of the past – may come to mean in our work and in our practice."7
Based upon a close reading of Acadiensis and a survey of monographs published on subjects germane to "the Atlantic region" between 2009 and 2019, it is clear that the most transformative work currently being done in the field has responded to this question originally posed by McKay. This is visible in a number of areas, but for the purposes of this reflection I will focus on just three: the re-consideration of "region" as a contested space that encompasses Indigenous and other ways of knowing historical landscapes and places; the recognition that Atlantic Canada has been naturalized as a category of analysis both due to its position vis-à-vis other geographies of Canadian and international capitalism and as a result of periodization within our fields of study; and the utilization of the Atlantic region as a lens through which it becomes possible to understand environmental change in the longue durée. [End Page 231]
One of the most significant ways that our consideration of region has opened up in the last ten years is through the work of Indigenous and settler scholars who...