Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research

Social Enterprise in Atlantic Canada

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Nonprofit and Social Economy Research

Social Enterprise in Atlantic Canada

Article excerpt


The purpose of this article is to review the experience of social enterprise in the Atlantic Provinces. The article finds that there is not yet a strong conceptual attachment to social enterprise in Atlantic Canada. There are, however, a variety of approaches to social enterprise that we can observe in the region. The article will first look at the historical, contextual, and conceptual understanding and rooting of social enterprise in Atlantic Canada. Second, the article examines four illustrative cases-one from each Atlantic province-that demonstrate the diversity of social enterprise in Atlantic Canada. Third, I review the institutional supports (legislation, policy, and associations) for social enterprise in Atlantic Canada. Finally, I provide some comments on the present state of social enterprise in the region.


For at least the last half century, Atlantic Canada has faced serious and persistent economic and social challenges. Donald Savoie (2006) argues that the Maritimes have been an underperforming region in Canada going back to confederation. Social enterprises often emerge in such geographies-where the market and the state have failed to provide adequate responses to social, economic, and environmental challenges (Amin, Cameron, & Hudson, 2002; Hudson, 2011). It, therefore, should not be surprising that the history of social enterprise, which is broadly defined as a business operating for a social purpose, in Atlantic Canada is quite rich.

An organized economic movement around social enterprise in Atlantic Canada started in the 1920s with the Antigonish Movement (Dodaro & Pluta, 2012). The Atlantic Provinces, at that time, had seen a reversal in their fortunes. Whereas in the nineteenth century, especially pre-confederation, the Maritime Provinces had been some of the most developed of the colonies, the twentieth century brought on decline. Important financial institutions moved offices to Ontario or Québec; other important industrial sectors were subject to the desires of absentee owners; labour unrest was common; and traditional maritime industries (shipbuilding, forestry, shipping trade) were rapidly declining. The economic hardships felt by the region fomented distrust and anger toward industrial capitalism and opened up the possibility for an alternative socioeconomic system. The Antigonish Movement was able to address this desire for a different approach.

Led by Moses Coady and Jimmy Tompkins, the Antigonish Movement established numerous cooperatives and credit unions across Atlantic Canada (and further afield). Based on ideas borrowed from Robert Owen and other utopian socialists as well as Catholic social thought, the Antigonish Movement advocated for cooperatives as the outcome of an adult learning process. Critically, Coady and Tompkins argued that people had the potential, and the responsibility, to take control of the economic resources of the region; they had the power to become, in Coady's (1939) words, "masters of their own destiny."

Coady and Tompkins employed an integrated program of development. The first step was educational; it involved the rollout of informational sources via pamphlets, bulletins, and circulating libraries, as well as leadership training. The cornerstones of the educational process were mass public meetings. The mass public meetings would then lead to the creation of smaller study clubs. The study clubs would then organize to create cooperative economic institutions (Dodaro & Pluta, 2012).

The Antigonish Movement went through a rapid expansion in the 1930s radiating out from its home in Eastern Nova Scotia to all of the Atlantic Provinces and beyond. Attendance at mass meetings went from 14,856 people at 192 meetings in 1931, to 43,000 people at 470 meetings by 1936. Those meetings resulted in 173 study clubs being established in 1931 going up to 1,300 active study clubs by 1939. By the end of the 1930s the Antigonish Movement contributed to the creation of over 240 cooperative enterprises across Atlantic Canada. …

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