“Growing up in small town Ontario, I was only dimly aware of the ‘Maritimes’ and ‘Atlantic Canada’ and what little I knew of these terms and regions reflected well-worn stereotypes. For me, the Maritimes and Atlantic Canada were synonymous with each other. . .”
Corey Slumkoski begins Inventing Atlantic Canada by reporting his childhood biases regarding Canada’s four easternmost provinces. Slumkoski is hardly alone: here is a recent map taken from an Alberta-based tour company’s brochure, advertising a package tour of Newfoundland. They have taken the island of Cape Breton (Nova Scotia) and placed Newfoundland towns and attractions on it.
This made it through several layers of proof-reading to publication. The map went viral in Newfoundland corners of social media in May 2015. The company issued an apology, speaking of their “passion” for Newfoundland. They published a corrected map – except, this time, they made a classic error. The Newfoundland capital, St. John’s, is labelled as Saint John, the city in New Brunswick, a 1,706 km drive away.
To complete the hat trick, the Metro newspaper reported on this snafu with the headline MARITIMES MAP MIX-UP, when Newfoundland is emphatically NOT one of the Maritime provinces – and that is the point. In the broader Canadian imaginary, the four easternmost provinces are so similar as to be more or less interchangeable.
In Anne of Tim Hortons: Globlization and the Reshaping of Atlantic-Canadian Literature, Herb Wyile describes both the negative and positive aspect of this general Canadian view of Atlantic Canada: culturally homogenous, lazy and ungrateful recipients of welfare and transfer payments, a parochial drain on the rest of the country, but also a bucolic touristic playground, good humoured hard-drinkers with charmingly quaint folkways, accents reminiscent of the British Isles, a site (or even THE site) of “pre-modern” authenticity for Canada’s settler society.
So what’s the difference? The Maritimes are the trio of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. The first two are founding members of the Canadian confederation. PEI joined six years later, in 1873. Atlantic Canada includes Newfoundland and Labrador, two politically linked but distinct landmasses, physically discontinuous from the Maritimes and from each other. Newfoundland and Labrador only joined Canada in 1949. It was a contentious and deeply ambivalent decision. Newfoundland had been a quasi-nation within the British Empire for several generations beforehand – a status equal to Canada’s own at the time (Prime Ministers, passports, stamps, banknotes, the lot).
Newfoundland and the Maritimes diverged well before Confederation, though. Robert Finlow argues in favour of an Atlantic Canadian regionalism, writing of “similarities among these provinces”, including “a population with fewer recent immigrants, mostly old-stock British and Acadian, with First Nations and African-Canadian minorities” – but this argument defeats itself with its own example. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were shaped immensely by New England planters and by Loyalists arriving after the American Revolution. Neither group settled in Newfoundland. Newfoundland’s settlement drew overwhelmingly from the area around Waterford in Ireland and from Devon, Dorset, and Somerset in the southwest of England, a pattern of European settlement more distinctive and limited than anywhere else in North America – including the Maritime provinces. Finlow is right that Acadian and African Canadian communities make important contributions to the story of the Maritimes, but this is less the case in Newfoundland. Lebanese and Chinese Newfoundlanders, though, are important minority communities making cultural contributions reaching back well into the 19th century – yet they often go unacknowledged and unheard when Atlantic Canada is taken as a whole, because they are not afforded a place in the common racial algebra of the supposedly homogenous region.
One important note: Labrador will not enter into my discussion, although it may be the final nail in Atlantic Canada’s coffin (if Newfoundland doesn’t ‘fit,’ Labrador really doesn’t fit). My reasons are similar to Jennifer Bowering Delisle’s when she omits Labrador from her book The Newfoundland Diaspora:
“[Labrador] constitutes a separate literary culture with unique issues and concerns, which merits its own critical study. To include Labrador in my study would be to draw a literary community along provincial political lines rather than cultural ones, which is a move I want to oppose rather than support.”
I, too, want to oppose such a move. “Atlantic Canada” as literary region is also an attempt to draw a literary community along provincial political lines rather than cultural ones.
Atlantic Canada was invented as a political region in 1949, intended to be a single federal unit. As Slumkoski explains, Atlantic Canada is inextricably related, ontologically, to the Maritimes, despite the differences between Newfoundland, Labrador, and the three Maritime provinces. Term 29 of the Newfoundland Act, the legislation that made Newfoundland (and Labrador) part of Canada, “reveal[s] that . . . [Ottawa] saw Newfoundland as an extension of the Maritime Provinces; it was the Maritime provincial average – not the Canadian one – that would be the new province’s benchmark for economic and social development.”
In one legislative stroke, Atlantic Canada is both created and locked into a permanently disadvantaged place in the legislative structure of federalism: the goal is to make the poorer, less developed, marginalized Atlantic Provinces equal to each other, not equal to the rest of Canada. Atlantic Canada was thus legally united at the moment of its creation through its structurally disadvantaged position within federalism.
Further, Atlantic Canada seems to have been devised as a purely economic and political region, not a cultural one. Slumkoski notes that “little was done following Confederation to link Newfoundland and the Maritimes as a cultural region or to foster cultural ties between the two jurisdictions. . . . thus it fell to Term 29 to bind the new region.”
Is this sufficient? Historians James Hillier and Margaret Conrad suggest it is not. They make a case for region as concept, along the lines of Benedict Anderson’s theory that nations emerge through repeated expressions of an imagined sense of commonality — the ‘imagined community’ of Anderson’s famous book. They argue that ‘region’ is defined by some sense of commonality by those who claim it: “While the Atlantic Canada ‘region’ can be easily found on a map, ‘regionalism’ implies a political stance, a consciousness of shared outlook that can be summoned up when other structures – familial, communal, provincial, national, global – fail.”
Literature is a good place to look for expressions of such regional identity – literary texts express ideas about place and culture, and in that way they can be used to ‘map’ the boundaries between places and between groups. Texts from the four Atlantic provinces provide little evidence for the existence of an Atlantic regionalism with the qualities Hillier and Conrad use to define regionalism. The four provinces share some characteristics, but their literary production does not suggest a sense of enduring commonality. In its literature, Newfoundland tends to imagine itself as a partly digested foreign kernel, distinct from the rest of Canada, defined by its unalterably not-Canada history and by its physical discontinuity with Canada – its island-ness. Meanwhile, Maritime literature, when it thinks of Newfoundland at all, tends to imagine it as distant, unfamiliar, ‘other.’
In the next installment of this three-part entry, I’ll look just at how literature from both Newfoundland and the Maritimes imagines (or fails to imagine) Atlantic Canada.