Shedding historical baggage: Hugh John edition

Struggle for a dollar, scuffle for a dime
Step out from the past and try to hold the line
So how come history takes such a long, long time
When you’re waiting for a miracle

-Bruce Cockburn (Waiting for a Miracle)


For the first 120 years or so of New Brunswick’s post-Confederation history, provincial governments blamed Ottawa for all their ills.  In the 1944 New Brunswick Committee on Reconstruction, there was a stream of data showing how the NB economy had dramatically under-performed the rest of Canada since 1867.

I just read yesterday a speech given by Hugh John Flemming before the Royal Commission on Canada’s Economic Prospects in 1955.  He had some zingers.

“New Brunswick has not shared to a proper degree in this great Canadian economic advance”.

“For nearly 100 years the relative economic level of this province has been steadily declining”.

“Three weeks ago I drove down to beautiful Fundy Park.  For miles along the route, crews were busy tearing up rails – owned by the CN Railway.  And why this retrogressive step?  Because, I was told, the Railway did not pay.  And this at a time when rich mineral deposits are being uncovered in Albert County, which, if they are developed, will undoubtedly call for more and better railway service – rather than none at all.  this is the kind of thing that we in New Brunswick fail to comprehend.”

“We all know that the St. Lawrence Seaway must inevitably further reduce railway traffic, both passenger and cargo, in the Atlantic region.”


and my personal favourite:

“Though it is my firm conviction that the great economic experiment undertaken by Confederation to make trade flow artificially east and west instead of naturally north and south [italics in the original] was like trying to make water run up hill – it has turned out to be like our own famous Magnetic Hill in New Brunswick – a definite illusion.”


There are many more but I think you get the point.  As Donald Savoie chronicles superbly in his book Visiting Grandchildren this kind of grievance has helped ease the pain for a very long time.

And it may all be true.  I have talked about this enforced east-west trade flow that was summarily jettisoned when it made sense for Ontario and Quebec.  Certainly the St. Lawrence Seaway – paid for by Canadian taxpayers cut Atlantic Canada off as a principal trade route (I heard last week that all international mail into Canada used to come through the Port of Saint John – if so, amazing).

However, complaining about the past doesn’t fix the future.  Understanding the past does – I firmly believe the federal government should be a partner in a serious new effort to promote regional economic development (note – more than the banking services to industry they are providing now).   I talk about how the shale formation that holds shale gas extends all the way to the northeastern tip of New Brunswick.  But do you think any government would think about investing in a pipe to the north?  Outrageous waste of taxpayer money.  Spending $300 million or more each year on EI payments to mostly seasonal workers in Northern NB is a good investment, then?

I’m not suggesting the government put a natural gas pipeline to Northern NB willy nilly but they could incentivize a company to run a test program up there to see the potential.  If it made sense, maybe a joint public/private sector partnership might work.  Of course, the anti-frackers would be out in full force to scuttle it anyway so it is probably moot.

But you get my point, maybe.

Natural resources development – forests, fish, minerals, oil/gas – are an important part of the national economy and they are particularly relevant as economic drivers in rural areas.

I have been talking with dozens of politicians, bureaucrats, business leaders, journalists, etc. in the past few years and I think this historical grievance angle has just about run its course.  I rarely hear it now – except for in an historical setting.


We need new, big ideas for the economic renewal of New Brunswick.  The feds need to be partner in this but the leadership must come from New Brunswickers.




2 thoughts on “Shedding historical baggage: Hugh John edition

  1. David

    The postal contract for the port of Saint John was a highly politicized affair, involving Bill Pugsley, Laurier’s Minister of Public Works. Like countless other examples, it highlights how critical a strong cabinet presence has been for NB in the decades before power was consolidated inside the PMO.

    A brief bio of Pugsley shows how influential he was in Southern NB’s economic development…



  2. Went for a shopping foray yesterday to Moncton (1.5 hr drive) and during that visit I had a epiphany…I have less hope for this province getting it together – a province the size of a European country, the population of a small city and 4 distinct groups: English, French, Acadian and Aboriginal all lobbying for their own agenda.

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