Notes on 41st Text for Reading Field: Forbes

Canadian History, Week 7

fish pei

“Fishermen,” photographed at Souris, Prince Edward Island, c.1920-25. Source: Library and Archives Canada / PA-043972.


Ernest R. Forbes. The Maritime Rights Movement, 1919-1927: A study in Canadian regionalism. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, c.1979. [Google books preview online:]

Ernest R. Forbes describes an instance of regionalist expression in the Canadian political forum. According to Forbes, the call for redress of Maritime rights and claims surfaced during a period of uncertainty after the Great War, concurrent with widespread enunciation of optimism by proponents of the Progressive movement. The principal fear of Maritimers appears to have been that their provinces were in danger of being left behind as the Central Canadian provinces availed themselves of opportunities to progress.


Children gathering potatoes in Prince Edward Island,” dated c.1921. Source: Canada. Dept. of Interior / Library and Archives Canada / PA-043964.

Initially, Forbes observes, the move to consolidate disparate Maritime groups by imbuing them with a shared sense of grievance was evident in farming and labouring circles by 1919-1920. Subsequently, business and political leaders championed the idea of forming a regional bloc that could force desired changes in federal policy. Forbes, sympathetic to the Maritime cause, ultimately finds that Central Canadian interests and powers used an alliance with progressives in the Western Canadian provinces – an alliance secured on a promise that Western concerns would be met — to subdue and dissipate the Maritime movement, without substantively meeting its demands.

bb farm

In the Petitcodiac Valley near Moncton, N.B.,” dated c.1924. Source: Canada. Dept. of Interior / Library and Archives Canada / PA-041708.

Forbes traces the causes, for the Maritime Rights movement’s rise, to a general unhappiness over Confederation that had quieted but had not entirely vanished. However, he finds that the deciding impetus to renew protest arose out of changes made to freight rates. The rise in the rates was seen as undermining the ability of Maritime industries to compete with industries situated in central Canada. Taxation was another grievance. There was strong objection voiced to contributing monetarily to westward expansion if there were no immediate benefits to be reaped. The fact that Portland, Maine, had become a main Canadian grain port, while Maritime ports were being bypassed, represented a particularly galling loss of benefit that had been expected to accrue through Confederation — though perhaps economic ‘promise’ would be a more appropriate term than ‘benefit’, as having Atlantic ports appears to have been the only significant marketing differential the Maritime provinces possessed. Forbes explains that the excuse given for using Portland – i.e. Central Canadians feared American reprisals if they did not make good use of their Grand Trunk/St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad line — seemed disingenuous to Maritimers. Why the Maritime provinces had not objected to the Portland connection more forcefully and much earlier is not clear however. In any case, Maritime grievances were exacerbated with each relocation of a commercial central office to Central Canada — especially that of the Intercolonial Railway, when the Canadian National Railway was formed in 1923. There were also a series of political battles over losses in political representation. In Forbes’ view, over time, through aggregation, the combined scope of these problems expanded to transcend what had been traditional internal divisions that sectioned areas of the provinces into discrete pockets harbouring diverse viewpoints.


“‘The Samson’, Canada’s first locomotive 1838. ‘The Nova Scotia Pioneer’ Canada’s 1st Passenger Coach 1838.” Source: Library and Archives Canada / C-002614.

The successes of the Maritime movement – beyond drawing Maritimers closer together regionally — are not easy to enumerate, partly because the movement itself seems to have been informal to a fairly large degree, leaving successes small in scale and widely dispersed. Even the mass delegation to Ottawa in 1925 had an accidental, as opposed to organized, quality about it in terms of its programme. From Forbes’ description, the movement appears to have been a popular trend that had visibility and did promote awareness, but it also seems to have been based on volunteer networking with little formalized coherence. Prince Edward Island in particular seems to have had its share of talk about ‘movement’ that implied planning, but in fact, at least in Forbes’ recounting, there is little concrete evidence of any. And it is obvious that political parties in the Maritimes responded to protest more than they orchestrated any of the agitation.


Tuna fishing,” photographed at Hubbards, Nova Scotia, c.1928. Source: Library and Archives Canada / PA-041872.

The disintegration of the movement in 1927 with the advent of more prosperous times leaves too many questions unanswered to described Forbes’ analysis as fully explanatory. The protests from the Maritimes appear to have had validity. Why was the movement so fragile? If hope was on the horizon, why quit? Surely Maritimers, if as thoroughly fed up with Central Canadian indifference as Forbes implies, would have been too angry and too savvy to simply accept platitudes and vague promises — even if preceded by a Royal Commission? If the roots of a common Maritime consciousness grew out of exceptionally hard times relative to other regions, then the nature of the hardship could have been described in more detail. In what ways were the Maritime mining strikes different from those in Western Canada? How were the ways in which Maritime families were faring different from Western Canadian families; in what ways worse? What exactly were the rates of migration in and out of the provinces? How did they compare with rates in other regions? Who owned the companies that made up the Maritime industries that were undermined?


Fishing scene, Little Wood Island off Grand Manan Island, N.B.,” dated c.1926. Source: Canada. Dept. of Interior / Library and Archives Canada / PA-047956.

Forbes’ description of the Maritime movement is illuminating as far as the view of the movement itself is concerned. As a Western Canadian, I did not find it particularly illuminating about the context in which counter-opinions were formed. This is really only problematic when Forbes attempts to explain the movement’s demise as being a result of actions on the part of more powerful opponents to the west. In my opinion, the emphasis on Mackenzie King’s bid to court Western Canadian votes could use some balancing against other possible factors. For instance, more attention might have been paid to the role of competing industries in Western Canada – British Columbian and Albertan mining for example – and the way in which these interests were connected (in some cases directly, as corporate holdings) to railroad policy makers and to the making of broader political policy. Forbes succeeds in raising an alert to the centrality of railroad policy and practice in Canada but I was disappointed that this point was not more thoroughly followed through.


“Canadian Immigration Building, Edmunston/Bridge Head, New Brunswick,” dated c. 1July 1927. Source: Canada. Dept. of Public Works / Library and Archives Canada / PA-135576.

Additional resources:

Jean Daigle, revue, The Maritime Rights Movement, 1919-1927: A Study in Canadian Regionalism, par Ernest R. Forbes, Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française 33, no. 4 (1980): 592-594 [available online at érudit:]

McGill-Queens University Press, press release, The Maritime Rights Movement, 1919-1927: A Study in Canadian Regionalism, by Ernest R. Forbes, book web-page, McGill-Queens University Press website,

Greg Marquis, “New Brunswick’s Population Growth Strategy in Historical Perspective,” paper presented at the at the New Brunswick and Atlantic Studies
Research and Development Centre Conference, “Exploring the Dimensions of Self-Sufficiency for New Brunswick” (St. Thomas University, 9-10 May, 2008), available online as a NBASRDC New Brunswick and Atlantic Studies Research and Development Centre, pdf.

Robin Neill, A History of Canadian Economic Thought (New York: Routledge, 1991), [Google books online preview:].


“Fishing scene,” photographed in the Kedgemakooge District, Nova Scotia, c.1925. Source: Library and Archives Canada/PA-042006.


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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