Nova Scotia: Shaped by the Sea – CHYCE (CSS)

CHYCE, Lesley. Nova Scotia: Shaped by the Sea. Toronto: Viking, 1996. 352p. Resenha de: WILLIE, Richard A. Canadian Social Studies, v.35, n.1, 2000.

Lesley Choyce obviously cares deeply for his adopted province and has written a book reflective of his own maritime sentiments and interests. His book is not a definitive or comprehensive study of Nova Scotia, but is, instead, a series of short and interesting episodes, roughly arranged in chronological order, encompassing selections all the way from the ancient geological legacy of continental drift to the deeply troubled Atlantic fishery of today. The result is a breezy, highly readable, and sometimes chatty romp through Nova Scotia’s past encompassing wide-ranging accounts of a mixed bag of fascinating characters and the diverse and sometimes tragic circumstances which surrounded them.
From the outset, Choyce makes it quite clear that he has no intention of writing objective history, nor of joining the ranks of traditional professional historians in the province. In fact, he seems quite happy to leave to others the painstaking tasks of original research and creative syntheses and to eschew the recognized themes of politics, economics, warfare and diplomacy which usually supply the content for the story of Nova Scotia. Despite the author’s disclaimer, readers who press on are certainly rewarded.
Roughly half of the book is devoted to the shaping of Nova Scotia prior to its golden age of sail in the 19th Century. Each episode is meant to be a good read (and they are): the Micmacs; the earliest explorers; the French and English colonial empires and their conflicts; the Acadian deportation and return; the defeat of Louisbourg and the founding of Halifax; immigrants and Loyalists; and finally, the influence of the American Revolution and the War of 1812 are all there. Many examples of lesser knowns such as John Cabot’s son Sebastian, who is given the lion’s share of credit for publicizing his father’s discoveries, are also included. Choyce also does not overlook opportunities to report on myths that have been shattered; mentioning, for instance, that the widely accepted Viking visits to Nova Scotia actually have a dubious authenticity. In reporting myths, however, he is perhaps too uncritical in his support of the views expressed by a Micmac historian, Dan Paul, when he repeats the not unchallenged view that the story of “the arrival of white settlers is a tragic tale of the degradation of a near-utopian society ” (18). While few historians today would dispute that European contact led to enormously negative or ‘tragic’ consequences for native populations, the second part of this often repeated myth, the idea that prior to European contact native populations lived in perfect harmony with nature, is an interpretation which has frequently been used to supply a convenient corrective to our modern collective guilt over our stewardship of natural resources.
The second part of the book is devoted to the period leading up to Confederation and its subsequent history as a province of Canada. One would normally expect in a history of Nova Scotia that the themes which have tied the province to the Canadian experience, including responsible government, railways, national policy, patronage and political party developments, federal-provincial relations, regional disparity and sectionalism would receive greater attention, but aside from some focus on Confederation, the Maritime Rights Movement and federal policy bungling, there is very little of this. Stories about brothels and reformers, of shipping disasters and triumphs, of inventors and famous sojourners (apparently revolutionary Leon Trotsky was once a prisoner at the Citadel in Halifax), of catastrophes and contraband rum, and of the explosive impact of two world wars on Halifax fill these pages, yet they seem to serve mainly as a backdrop for the author to get to the closing chapters of the book. The closing chapters are, refreshingly, the best in the book, and in them Choyce reveals what he believes has been and remains wrong with his Nova Scotia: the still deeply rooted racial prejudice that includes the shame of Africville; the environmental degradation of polluting harbors with untreated sewage; the devastated fishery; and, the continuing economic and social despair associated with Cape Breton coal mining.
Though Nova Scotia is written with an eye to that which is most interesting in Nova Scotia’s past, there are also many important things which are not examined by Choyce, a fact made even more apparent by notable omissions from his select bibliography. Nevertheless, the book certainly could be used by secondary-level students and teachers seeking an accessible source on Nova Scotia’s past, but for those seeking greater content, coverage, and interpretive depth, it would provide only a starting point for further study.

Richard A Willie – Concordia University College of Alberta. Edmonton, Alberta.

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