Can we learn anything from 1846 New Brunswick?

I mentioned before the break that I would be reading a book over the holidays written in 1846. The author claims it to be a comprehensive review of the New Brunswick’s history, population and economy at the time.

There is not a whole lot in here that I didn’t know from reading other books about the period.  I think it was more what was not written about and the tone that was the most interesting.

In general, New Brunswick was growing rapidly at the time.  In 1821, the population was 74,000, in 1834 it had risen to 119,457 and by 1840 it was up to 156,000. Even though the new Census had not been taken as of 1846, the author estimates the population to be around 200,000. 

The book contains strangely little writing at all about the province’s Acadian/Francophone population.  We know that by this time there would have been thousands and thousands of Francophones living in a large area of the province.  Even though the Acadian deportation was less than 100 years in the past at that time, the writer only mentions “a series of conflicts” between England and France that led to “the French troops were driven from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick”. Both provinces were “left in possession of the British forces”. No mention of the forced civilian migration at all. It seems that even by the 1850s the story of the deportation, to paraphrase Churchill, was being shaped by the victors.

The author does say the Indians had “lived in such good friendship” with the Acadian French but that “they [Indians] were not so charitable to the Christians from Massachusetts.

Taxation was already a thorny issue in New Brunswick. There was a Governor called Archibald Campbell in the 1830s who resigned in ‘disgust’ after the Legislative Assembly started charging import duties “predicting that much evil would result” from this new form of revenue.  Maybe this is where I get my free trader instincts.  

On a city and town basis, the landscape was quite different in 1846.  Saint John already had the reputation of being a city that can “survive misfortune and rise again with new vigor from its ashes with increased elegance and advantage” (referring to more than one major fire in the city). Saint John is covered more extensively than any other city in New Brunswick – by a wide margin – followed by Fredericton. Moncton is hardly mentioned. In fact, Dorchester was the Shire Town at that time. Moncton only started to become a town with prominence later in the 19th century.

The discussion of climate at the time is very interesting. The writer says “winters are very pleasant” and infers there has been a significant warming of the climate in the first half of the 19th century suggesting “considerable alteration in the climate” leading to “fields bare of snow in any month of the winter”.

He says the soil of New Brunswick is considered to be “superior to that of the adjoining eastern states of America” but goes on to say agriculture has been neglected “owing to the great repute of the timber trade, ship building and other pursuits”. There are three pages listing all the different varieties of fish – some of which I hadn’t heard of – Sprats, Cusk, Collops, Shiners, Gizzard Fish and Toledi (the author makes a point of saying “the French pronounced this Two Lady”). There was a robust fishery for seals and porpoises too (he claims they are “taken to considerable extent”).

Apparently 170 yeas ago New Brunswick was a significant producer of plums and cherries. Times have changed.  My mother tells me in the 1940s she remembers some old plum trees on her property in Blissfield but doesn’t remember getting any fruit from them.  Statistics Canada says there are still areas where plums exist but no real production. 

New Brunswick was already exporting minerals – coal, gypsum and grindstone and the author was bullish on a variety of other minerals.

Apparently caribou were prolific in 1840s New Brunswick (spelled Carraboo).

Municipal government reform was a hot topic even in 1846!  There had been attempts to give more power to municipalities but “When we look at the workings of municipal corporations in the Untied States, see their constant or continuous elections, and witness the ruinous effects of their numerous taxes, we see nothing desirable in their system”.  Sometimes the reason change is so difficult is embedded deep in our DNA.  

The author is very positive about the influx of immigrants to New Brunswick at the time although he does say they arrive “in this province quite ignorant of their best interests, and under very erroneous impressions as to the best method of proceeding” which sounds a bit like some of our in-migrants these days. 

The New Brunswick economy was already heavily focused on exports – with a major wood ship building industry along with timber exports to Europe – fish, horses and lumber to the West Indies and gypsum and grindstone to the United States.  Interestingly enough there is no mention at all about any trade with upper Canada. 

The most depressing part of the book relates to the author’s comments on the indigenous population.  I realize that context matters – 1846 was not 2021 – but it is still shocking to read. 

The author suggests the ‘Milicete’ Indians “wander about the country, few in number, degraded in appearance, and destitute in their circumstances’ few acquire either a competency or improvement of their circumstances. Their general habits of drunkenness keep them degraded and miserable; and were it not for the charitable donations of clothing and provisions given them by the Government, they would suffer more. All endeavors to educate them has been of little advantage; the Milicete is an Indian still.”

“They seem to have retained not even a traditional account of their country, and care little for the success of their posterity.”

It can be very hard to purge deeply embedded cultural prejudices (notwithstanding the historical revisionism of the recent Anne series on CBC).  If our forebears felt this way about New Brunswick’s indigenous population it is not hard to believe some of that thinking still line our cultural arteries. 

I was reading this book as there are growing calls from David Alston and others to establish an inquiry into systemic racism against indigenous communities. While I am not an expert on this issue at all, it seems to be a good idea. 

In the end, I enjoyed much of this short book but it does get me wondering how today’s New Brunswick will be reflected on down the road.  Did we attract a new wave of population to ensure we have a strong labour market and tax base?  Did we embrace new industries and new technologies?  Did the evolution to a carbon free economy help or hurt us?  Did our heavy reliance on federal transfers constrain our economic potential?  Did our Acadian community thrive and grow in the first half of the 21st Century?  How about the First Nations relationship?

It’s hard to know the answers as the pages are just now being written. 


1 thought on “Can we learn anything from 1846 New Brunswick?

  1. Maybe plums and cherries are an answer! We should continue to look to grow more of our own food and perhaps provide foods that could be exported to upper Canada. Post the Pandemic will certainly have a lot of people growing some of their own food. It was one of the biggest growth (pardon the pun) hobbies!

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