New Brunswick notes from an accidental tourist

New Brunswick is a province without a centre. At least that’s how it looks from a traveller’s perspective.

This weekend we did a whirlwind tour of half the province. We travelled up the coast to the Fundy National Park then up to Moncton and east to Sackville for a surprise visit with our daughter at Mount Allison. Then we did a second trip the next day, driving north to Glassville for a family reunion.

I could get into a travelogue here, describing all the highlights, you know, the scenic lookouts where wisps of clouds are rising off the ocean and drifting over the mountains or the rugged coastal towns hanging out over the water or the patchwork of groomed, green farmland stretching over the hills and off to the horizon. But there were interesting social patterns woven into the landscape also worth considering.

Rural New Brunswick seems to be rotting away, with the exception of big farm country. In the stretches between the cities old houses are falling down, old farm fields are turning back into bush. Along the coastal back-roads the tourist infrastructure is aging and falling apart. Vintage ’50s-era motels are boarded up, the signs for hippie-era arts and crafts shops are weathering into invisibility. The only viable businesses seem to be huddled around the major destinations like the Hopewell Rocks park.

Meanwhile, the suburban sprawl is expanding around the province’s three bigger cities, with housing developments sprouting up everywhere like proverbial mushroom patches.

And what of the smaller towns in between? It’s a mixed bag. Each seems to have its single major industry. Florenceville has McCains. Sackville has its university. So as goes the single industry so goes the town. New Brunswick is in mid-transition from a rural to an urban province.

Although there are similarities to other Maritime provinces, New Brunswick is unique. It doesn’t have a single major centre acting as a stabilizing gravitational force for the entire provincial culture. Where Newfoundland has St. John’s, Nova Scotia has Halifax and PEI has Charlottetown, New Brunswick has three, each with different economic and cultural functions.

Globally speaking, we live in a centralized reality. Governments and corporations rely on centralized systems of command and control, development and financing, production and marketing. Both Louis Robichaud and Frank McKenna, New Brunswick’s two most visionary premiers, understood this and worked to centralize the province’s social and economic structures into a more modern, urban framework. But due to the original urban-rural-ethnic design of the province, their efforts were only partially successful (if centralization is the key to success, and success is defined as urban materialism).

So how could one create a more modern, centralized New Brunswick? Well that’s the challenge facing every new provincial government. Given the structural diversity of the province the wisest and simplest answer would be, “I don’t know.”

One could simply anoint Saint John with principal city status and move the provincial capital there. The city has the biggest and best urban environment in the province and is a working international port. Fredericton would be a regional hub servicing the agricultural-education-technology sectors. Moncton would remain, well, Moncton, a franco-anglo transportation-retail-innovation centre. And that would be it. Saint John would be on its way to becoming a big city, and the province would have its gravitational centre.

Alternatively, the Maritime provinces could amalgamate, whereby Moncton would make the ideal capital city for the new province of Atlantica. Now that’s really reaching for it. I somehow doubt that Maritimers, and in particular Haligonians, would ever be willing to agree to that. At least not without some dramatic leadership and a compelling reason to do it.

Back to the local scene, sitting with the family in a shabby Chinese restaurant in Sackville I realized that the town’s main industry shaped its culture and economy. Students, the backbone of Sackville’s economy, don’t spend money on fancy restaurants. And that led my thinking back to the recent study on the state of the province’s educational system, which itself seems to be a decentralized mess with universities scattered everywhere in a province of just 750,000 people and a functional adult illiteracy rate of between 60 and 68 percent. Something seems broken here.

Could these abysmal literacy rates, Canada’s highest rates of obesity and classically high rates of sustained unemployment have something to do with a decentralized, rural-urban split, bilingual provincial structure stitched together—and keeping us trapped motionless in our cars—by the best four-lane highways in Atlantic Canada? Again, I don’t know. But nothing seems to come into focus in New Brunswick other than the two large and famous centralized family conglomerates: the Irvings and McCains. These two companies, as Connors Bros. did before them, seem to get the importance of the centralization concept a whole lot better than our governments do.

So how would I sum up our two-day experience of the province? Well, if it were a tourism slogan it would be: “Visit New Brunswick, the way life used to be,” or “There are so many New Brunswicks you won’t know which one you’ll like the best.”

To summarize, New Brunswick is the result of a failed political strategy of giving everybody a little bit of something—without ever having a grand vision and the discipline to focus on what we could all be, collectively.

Unless one plans to live in the 19th Century—which is another sustainability strategy—and if that’s the solution we’ve been abandoning that heritage as well. Either way it seems to be a pretty sad state of affairs.

But maybe you have some easy answers I've missed…


  1. Yes you have. If NB was truly a business (which it's not) rural regions would be developed as profit centres revolving around their particular assets (like potatoes for example) or the particular talents or skills of their inhabitants. BUT, this requires motivation, effort, vision, and determination ... much of which seems to be lacking since our 2 great "visionaries" put the screws to rural self determination ... not that the urban centres seem to have it together!!

  2. Well, food for thought. At first glance I would have to say that the rural economies have been radically altered by the fossil fuel-technology revolution, which moved masses of people off the farms (less than 3% now engaged in agriculture for example). That redistribution of economic effort has reshaped the developed world.

    That's not to say that different strategies—beyond top-down, centralized approaches—can't or won't work. Flanking and guerrilla strategies could also be used but haven't been explored because, until now, energy has been cheap. But with the looming deficits of easy energy, relocalizing, retooling and reskilling may indeed be the answer. Call it the "desktopping" of the economy, which would put rural regions back into play.

    But that's a whole other discussion...


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