Guest Contribution by Liam Murphy
Mismanagement, insecurity, poverty – these have been bleak realities for many of the world’s small-scale fisheries. And turn-of-the-century Nova Scotia was no exception. Fortunately the fisheries cooperatives that arose across Atlantic Canada starting in the 1930s acted as a bit of a shield, providing necessary protection for fishermen and their families.
Economic shifts in the early 20th century were particularly hard on fishing communities, leaving many open to economic exploitation. Many of Nova Scotia’s small-scale inshore fishermen, too poor and denied any credit from banks, rented their boats and gear from private merchants to whom they bartered and sold their catch. These merchants took their catch and deducted its value from what the fisherman owed. This feudal system ensured that few of the folks who caught the fish saw much profit– profit that was needed to maintain or upgrade their boats and gear to run a more efficient operation.
Bottom trawlers– locally known as ‘draggers’- had also begun to leave their mark, with each of these “efficient” vessels catching more fish in a day than the average inshore fisherman could bring in over the course of a year. Their heavy nets were also degrading the ocean floor, destroying valuable fishing habitat. This left Nova Scotia’s 35,000 small-scale inshore fishermen simply unable to compete. They were left at the mercy of circumstance – caught up any increasingly industrialized economic system that oppressed them and their families.
A dramatic change for small-scale fishermen was needed, and the wheels were set in motion after a town meeting on June 1st, 1927 in Canso. At the town meeting, 40 fishermen banded together and engaged in a heated debate about the plight and conditions they faced. This landmark meeting led to the federal appointment of a Royal Commission to investigate the condition of the Maritime fishing industry. Altogether 49 hearings were conducted, with some bold recommendations following:
• The abolition or restriction of steam trawlers.
• That fishermen be assisted to organize co-operatives with an organizer appointed to carry out the work.
• That education among fishermen be promoted – similar to the education for farmers.
• That inspection and grading of fishing products be introduced and enforced.
In August 1929, Canada’s head of the Department of Marine and Fisheries, Hon. J.A. Cardin, recommended that Dr. Moses Coady be appointed to organize co-operative among the fishermen. Dr. Coady, a native of Nova Scotia and professor at Saint Francis Xavier University, already had first-hand experience studying wheat farmer co-operatives in Alberta and setting up adult education courses to improve the lives of the working class. Dr. Coady believed that each individual was the master of their own destiny and that adult education along with the formation of unions would improve the state of Nova Scotia’s fishing industry.
In September 1929, Coady spoke to 600 people in Canso, later defining the problem: “They weren’t looking for handouts … all they asked for that day was a plan of action.” Coady set out on a tour in the biting winter of 1929/1930 to rural fishing villages across Nova Scotia and started organizing fishermen. Coady, with his strong physical presence and masterful oratory skills, set up local leaders to organize their own fishing co-operatives. By the spring of 1930, a federation of fishermen across not only Nova Scotia, but also Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and the Magdalene Islands, Coady drafted a constitution for the creation of a co-operative organization known as the United Maritime Fishermen (UMF).
The founding convention of the UMF took place in Halifax on June 25th, 1930 and led to the proliferation of fisheries co-operatives across the province. These organizations empowered fishing communities, and acted as a powerful shield, providing protection for fishermen and their families.
To this day the goal of Nova Scotia’s fishing co-operatives remain the same – providing small-scale fisheries an opportunity to direct marketing opportunities, improving negotiating power and facilitate investments in shared structures such as canning facilities and ice plants. The work of newer co-ops like Off the Hook Community Supported Fishery and the Fundy Island Fishermen’s Cooperative continues in the same vein, working to help their communities to remain unified and strong in an industry that is increasingly becoming globalized, centralized, and unsustainable.
2012 is the International Year of the Cooperative. Liam Murphy grew up on Cape Breton Island and is an Environmental Science honours student at Saint Mary’s University.