Escaping the Celtic Mafia: Rethinking the Causes of the Atlantic Canadian Diaspora

By S.g. Irving | May 3, 2005

The seemingly unending dilemma of Atlantic Canada’s economic disparity has been a recurring theme in the Canadian experience, most recently revived during last winter’s debates over offshore oil revenue allocation between Ottawa and the governments of Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia. Over the past century, the region has consistently sustained a reputation in the rest of Canada as either a collection of constant complainers or as the “colourful peasantry” of Canada. Beginning shortly after Confederation and continuing today, the region’s four provinces have been plagued with high regional out-migration levels and an inability to attract new immigrants.

This is normally thought to be the result of a lack of economic and employment opportunities in the region.I don’t buy this. As a native Prince Edward Islander, who has lived in various parts of the country, I have consistently been surprised by the opportunities available to people in Atlantic Canada, opportunities which in my opinion are just as good as anything I have seen in other parts of the country. Thus, it is my position that the cause of continued regional out-migration has more to do with cultural issues and is not simply the result of limited economic opportunities.

To contextualize, I’ll begin with some background. I moved to the static fishing and farming community of Alberton, Prince Edward Island as a child in the 1980s after my father retired from the Royal Canadian Air Force and decided to build a home on the family estate just outside of town, overlooking the north end of Mill River. The intent was, I suppose, to settle into a more bucolic lifestyle and enjoy a cheaper cost of living and a sense of tradition and community. However, these weren’t things I’d seen much of while I was growing up on a Canadian Forces Base in Alberta and I initially felt somewhat alienated and confused by this community and their traditions.

I never really adapted to Alberton’s rural dynamic as well as I should or could have. I was not what one would call Back From Away (BFA), meaning I had not been born in the area and had returned after being “away” as I was never really from there to begin with (although my father did fit this bill). Nor was I From Away (FA), meaning simply that I wasn’t (and could never be) a bona fide local even though my last name had a century and a half of history in the local area. Thus, I fell into a kind of nether region between BFA and FA that was never articulated or explained or talked about in any way.

But so what? With the volumes of immigrants and rural Canadians relocating to Canada’s urban centres, I’m certainly not the first person in Canada to feel a sense of cultural dislocation. I think that the urge to leave that ultimately propelled me to Vancouver at the age of 18 was fundamentally inspired by cultural choices, not economic ones. This constituted a rejection of the traditional belief that economic choices inspire the mass migration of young Atlantic Canadians to the cities of Central and Western Canada. It also was at odds with the remedy that is so favoured by local politicians as the salve capable of curing all of Atlantic Canada’s problems; money, and lots of it.

I began to seriously think about this during the negotiations between Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams and Prime Minister Paul Martin. I consulted my friend Michael MacDonald, who is from Cape Breton, about the issue of Atlantic Canadian out-migration. MacDonald at first struck me as the typical Atlantic Canadian cliché – a musician from Cape Breton of all things. However, I continue to find our debates on the region extremely thought-provoking. MacDonald feels that the issue of Atlantic Canadian out-migration comes down to a question of gravity, and while that might sound vague at first, I think he’s right. There are gravitational forces at work that are both pushing and pulling people out of Atlantic Canada. That Prince Edward Island’s population has grown minimally since joining Confederation in 1873 despite having a high birth-rate speaks in part to this. However, these forces are not strictly and one-dimensionally economic – there are no jobs, therefore we leave to find jobs – but rather a response to the urban mélange of cosmopolitanism and modernity that is so desperately lacking in the small towns and mid-sized cities that most of us grew up in.

Take, for example, the many Atlantic Canadian Opportunities Agency (ACOA) redevelopment projects in Prince Edward Island which seem intent on reinvigorating the provincial economy through the redevelopment of shabby buildings and derelict storefronts into clichéd and tourist-oriented Potemkin villages of yester-year complete with cobblestone streets, antique lamp-posts, and buildings constructed to invoke images of the shipbuilding heyday of the 1880s and 1890s. Both Summerside and Alberton have recently undergone this sort of historical retrofit, and I hate it.

This is, I think, done for the sole purpose of selling nostalgia to tourists. At the very least, I as a twenty-first century global citizen cannot identify with these images and symbols. These redevelopment projects depict a folksy and parochial place more conducive to perpetuating the myth of Atlantic Canada as home to Canada’s colourful peasantry rather than the real but eminently less marketable story of Atlantic Canadians being valuable contributors to the Canadian and global cultural aesthetic.

This approach to regional economic development is artificial and should be rejected. Television and the internet are the great perpetrators of this mass-marketed provincialism. Just as it has been thought that images of Baywatch and Dallas brought down the Berlin Wall, so too have MuchMusic, Hollywood films, and the web inspired a kind of rural diaspora in Canada. Growing up watching the images of modern society portrayed through my television set with its inherent diversity and sophistication, in contrast with the perpetually quaint small town culture which entrapped me, paralyzed as a teen. Why would anyone want to watch the world from a computer or television set when you can pack your suitcases and experience the real thing.

This tension was addressed in a feature that CBC’s The National did on Prince Edward Island in December 2004. Rex Murphy toured the Island and underscored the conflicts and challenges between selling nostalgia to tourists and providing a contemporary modern society that will retain local youth and draw in new investment. Murphy interviewed Price Edward Island historian David Weale, who spoke of the “prison versus sanctuary” dynamic which was articulated during the provincial debates surrounding the construction of the Confederation Bridge. Those that viewed Prince Edward Island as a prison advocated for the bridge, while those that saw Prince Edward Island as sanctuary fought against it. Interestingly, Weale conceded that Islanders can switch back and forth between the two positions on the same day.

David Weale is, for the record, an academic at the University of Prince Edward Island and a bit of a provincial celebrity. He was the writer and performer of a musical entitled “Here on the Island” which played in Summerside’s Jubilee Theatre in the summer of 2003. I saw the show with my grandmother and parents that summer, and while they were swept away with how well it captured the Island back in the 1940s and 1950s I was stultified by how meaningless and irrelevant it was for anyone trying to live in the present instead of the past. The Island they nostalgize is not the Island that exists today, and it provided little more than a history lesson for people like me. It does not speak to my reality; in fact, I would identify the Showcase series “The Trailer Park Boys” as a better representation of the Atlantic Canada I know and love than Weale’s death-by-nostalgia approach. A recent article on the CBC Prince Edward Island website also pointed to this tension, citing Exclaim! Magazine editor James Keast’s scathing indictment of the 2005 East Coast Music Awards:

“They seem to think that East Coast music means what my friends on the East Coast refer to as the Celtic mafia, the Great Big Seas and the Celtic flavoured folk music. For at least five or six years there’s been a really strong hip-hop community on the East Coast. And there’s always been good indie rock and pop music coming out of the East Coast. I’d like to see more balance and just a little more variety.”

These conflicts can be difficult to avoid and could be chalked up to intergenerational difference, but this is where urbanization comes in. The Atlantic provinces seem to be progressing slowly with urbanization, focusing more on futile efforts to revitalize dying communities and industries than on invigorating urban centres. For this is what the rural constituency seeks; the revival of a way of life that can never exist anymore, and politicians continue to try to give it to them. Meanwhile, young people continue to pack their suitcases and get the hell out of dodge in droves, clustering in the scattered urban centres in the Maritimes and elsewhere in Canada.

While a lot of this push has traditionally been seen as the result of poor economic opportunities, rural Atlantic Canada does in fact offer good jobs that can be attained with little experience and even less competition. Often it is difficult to find locals trained and educated to perform the work, as witnessed in a recent call centre closure in Bloomfield, Prince Edward Island due to a lack of qualified employees. In this sense, I would argue that the diaspora was not merely economic and people did not leave simply because everyone else was doing it as MacDonald has posited. That’s only part of the picture. There is strong a cultural dislocation that spurned out-migration.

Paul Wells, writing in Maclean’s Magazine, advanced the idea that Atlantic Canada should regard their human capital as a natural resource and demand a reformulation of federal-provincial transfer payments based on this. The Atlantic Provinces pay for the education and social services needed to raise people like myself, yet the province of Ontario is currently collecting on the investment through my taxes, my family, and my economic and social contributions. That this argument has not yet been advanced within the political discourse of the region is indicative of the myopia and backward-thinking of the political elites in Atlantic Canada.

Further, I don’t get any sense that the political elites in Atlantic Canada understand the importance of the cultural dynamic that I’m suggesting drives out-migration. That Prince Edward Island’s Minister of Tourism, Phillip Brown, could go on record in the West Prince Graphic in 2004 arguing that Prince Edward Island should annex the Caribbean islands of Turks and Caico’s because we supposedly share an “island culture” underscores the intellectual poverty that some of Atlantic Canada’s political elites operate with.

What Atlantic Canada needs is not to nostalgize but instead to embrace the present and provide cultural as well as economic incentives for continued growth and investment in the region. There are three fundamental ways this can be achieved. First and foremost, I would argue that the political elites and Atlantic Canadians as a whole need to embrace cosmopolitanism in a way that they have not yet done. Some would argue that human civilization will invariably return to a city-state orientation, a reality that Canada has embraced more readily and eagerly than any other country in the world. As it stands, only Halifax has so much as a claim to being a nationally recognized centre of power and influence. Cities like Charlottetown, Moncton, Fredericton, Saint John, Sydney and St, John’s are, at best, provincial. More needs to be done to build the status of these communities, not just nationally but internationally as well.

In “The Rise of the Creative Class: How it’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life,” Richard Florida argues that business is now drawn to communities with the human capital and labour pools available to enable that business to grow. If you accept this position, then only Halifax has any future potential for sustained growth. The logic that businesses will be attracted to rural locales with cheap labour costs is flawed. If a business seeks cheap labour then it will outsource its production to India, not Summerside. Florida argues that businesses in the information era are drawn to communities with population bases containing high levels of people in the “Creative Class” capable of working in the creative economy. This includes embracing vibrant artistic, multicultural and gay and lesbian communities.

Secondly, I would argue that more needs to be done to attract immigration. Citing the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (2002), Culpeper, Emelifeonwu and de Masellis state that “immigration is a tool for Canadian economic development… The emphasis is put on attracting professional, highly skilled, specialized and flexible workers who would fill an internal supply gap.” While one should be careful of federal government rhetoric, based on my experience I would agree with this policy direction and the view that immigration can reinvigorate communities with new blood, energy and ideas. Not only does immigration contribute to a communities overall wealth in these ways, it also encourages cosmopolitanism through an acceptance of diversity and internationalism necessary in today’s interconnected world.

Finally, subsidies to dying industries such as fishing and farming ought to be abandoned. These monies should be reinvested into the development of new industries that are sustainable and lucrative. For example, Prince Edward Island currently has the most aggressive commitment to wind energy of any province in Canada and intends to have 15% of the province’s electricity produced by provincially-owned wind turbines by 2010. Still, more needs to be done, not only in expanding these capacities, but in the larger sphere of research and development.

Currently, the wind turbine technology used is from the Danish company Vestas and Europeans are imported into the area to develop the necessary infrastructure. These are high-paying jobs that could, under the right circumstances, be going to locals who could in turn be marketing Prince Edward Island-designed technology internationally. Additionally, the provincial government has made great gains in establishing the aerospace industry as a viable sector of the Prince Edward Island economy. The other Atlantic Provinces have also been pursuing non-traditional industries but more needs to be done if this region is going to attract investment instead of government largesse.

The provincial governments of Atlantic Canada have a tough challenge facing them. Curbing out-migration while attracting new investment and immigration is no easy task, especially given the stigmas that have plagued the region for the better part of a century and a half. Atlantic Canada is at once beautiful and resource rich. Not only do resources come in the form of tourism, fishing and farming, but the region has long had a very valuable human resource that has been bleeding away. New direction on the part of political elites in the region which embraces cosmopolitanism and modernity can ensure that Atlantic Canada can be rebranded as being modern while still reflecting history and tradition which are important to the people of the area.

I do not regret my decision to leave the Prince Edward Island. I was drawn to Vancouver because it felt hip, diverse and bohemian, full of room for personal growth and exploration. Last year, for academic reasons, I again relocated to Ottawa. In both Vancouver and Ottawa I encounter smart and savvy Atlantic Canadians contributing to these communities in a variety of exciting and dynamic ways. Many of us talk about Atlantic Canada the way new immigrants talk fondly about their country of origin – fondly, but cognizant of the necessity to move on. Would I return to Atlantic Canada? I’m unsure at this point. I like Canada’s cities and their accelerated pace, sophistication, multiculturalism and culture. While I remain strangely loyal and committed to Prince Edward Island and the other Atlantic provinces, I have been spoiled by eight years of life away from the region and am unsure if I could readjust to a culture dominated the “Celtic Mafia” and communities designed to look like kitschy Victorian villages.

Ottawa, May 3 – 2700 w.


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