November 22, 2017

The Antigonish Movement

How ordinary people changed their communities in eastern Canada

Cape Breton Harbor

Cape Breton Harbor

The Asset Was Cod is the story of a persistent priest and the fishermen, miners and loggers who refused to suffer in isolated villages around Nova Scotia and Cape Breton in the early 1900’s. Out of desperation grew lobster canneries, food co-ops and the first co-operatively built houses in North America. The Antigonish Cooperative Movement is a reason for hope.

A group of angry lobster fishermen building their own cannery and starting a fishing cooperative in the 1920’s is a model for hope. It is a lesson even for modern towns and neighborhoods with the internet.

Nova Scotia, the Canadian east coast maritime province, and Cape Breton Island on its northeast shore had fallen on its hardest times in the early 1920’s. Huge fishing trawlers and wealthy conglomerates in Ontario and Quebec slowly drained the economic life from the fishermen. The inland steel mills and the mines were grinding to a halt. Within six years, 42% of the manufacturing jobs disappeared.

Little hope remained among the miners, loggers and fishermen until the arrival of two charismatic Catholic priests. With their encouragement, dispirited workers organized a fishing strike in a small fishing village on Canada Day, July 1st, 1927. It marked the beginning of the Antigonish Cooperative Movement.

Over the next twenty years Cape Bretoners organized Study Groups that met in meeting halls and homes. There they learned why they were paid so little for their cod and lobsters and why they paid so much for their mill housing.   These hard working Canadians also learned they had to act and not wait for the government.

Fr. Jimmy Tompkins

Fr. Jimmy Tompkins

  • The fishermen in the lobster cooperative borrowed money and invested their own. By brokering lobster and they turned a profit.
  • In Reserve Mines, Cape Breton villagers decided to answer the question, “Why can’t we build our own houses?” In spite of the doubtful laughter, they invested their own money and received help from the government.  By 1953, thirty-five cooperatives, with government help, had built four thousand homes; the first cooperative housing in North America was a success.
  •  The Cape Bretoners started people’s banks or credit unions. By 1935 Nova Scotia had forty-five credit unions that invested their own money back into the community.
Xavier University and the Coady International Institute is a good source for more information about the use of adult education, community engagement, and asset-based community development.