At the Ocean’s Edge: A History of Nova Scotia to Confederation
by Margaret Conrad
University of Toronto Press,
455 pages, $39.95
Condensing centuries of history into a single volume is a Herculean task, even when the subject is Canada’s second-smallest province. Nova Scotia may be modest in terms of land mass, but its human history is vast, spanning millennia of occupation by Indigenous peoples, waves of European settlement, a succession of imperial wars, captures, and counterattacks, and a golden age as a powerhouse of seaborne commerce.
Who better to bring order to this historical chaos than Margaret Conrad, a retired professor of history at the University of New Brunswick and a keen student of Nova Scotia’s past? At the Ocean’s Edge is her ambitious effort to bring fresh eyes to the province’s story by incorporating the latest research and insights as well as marginalized voices and points of view. It’s a resounding success.
“The outpouring of new scholarship on Nova Scotia’s pre-Confederation past,” she writes, “offers exciting, if troubling, new perspectives that call into question long-held assumptions about what happened in this European colony perched on the western edge of the Atlantic Ocean” — and, importantly, what happened before it became a European colony. Conrad’s opening chapters examine life in Mi’kma’ki — archeological finds confirm that it was home to the Mi’kmaq at least 10,600 years ago — before the first French settlement was established near Annapolis Royal in 1605.
The author reassesses accounts of Indigenous life and culture produced by missionaries and other early visitors, reminding us that the primitive living conditions and brutality some of these interlopers observed differed little from the plight of Europe’s peasants and the cruel punishments meted out to criminals in the missionaries’ homelands. The infamous bounty offered by British commander Edward Cornwallis for Mi’kmaq scalps after he founded Halifax in 1749, she asserts, was part of a “genocidal campaign against Indigenous peoples.”
Other minority groups receive the attention they deserve. The French-speaking Acadians who called Nova Scotia home for almost 150 years were rounded up and deported in the 1750s, and Conrad identifies this act of British cruelty and injustice for what it was: “a brutal ethnic cleansing.” The racist mistreatment and marginalization of Blacks who sought refuge in Nova Scotia to escape enslavement, after siding with the British in the American Revolution and the War of 1812, is exposed and condemned.
There is light as well as darkness in this retelling of Nova Scotia’s history, including Halifax’s reign as Britain’s North Atlantic military bastion and, in Kipling’s phrase, “Warden of the Honour of the North”; the literary achievements of pioneering author Thomas Chandler Haliburton; geologist Abraham Gesner’s distillation of coal to produce kerosene; and the educational initiatives of Pictou’s Thomas McCulloch.
But Conrad never loses sight of the often-overlooked stories of minorities and women. A giant of Nova Scotia history such as newspaperman turned politician Joseph Howe shares the stage with Rose Fortune, a Black Loyalist entrepreneur and innkeeper in Annapolis Royal who is considered Canada’s first policewoman.
Nova Scotia was dragged, kicking and screaming, into Confederation in 1867, as one of Canada’s four founding provinces. Howe led a spirited but failed anti-Confederation movement, making him, in effect, our first separatist. The province that was at the centre of so much history found itself marginalized and bypassed as Canada and the United States expanded westward. As Conrad’s thoroughly researched and accessible study ends, Nova Scotia is about to enter a new phase of its history, this time “at the continent’s edge.”