Detailed Summary of Our Project

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This project builds on contemporary debates about the “presence of the past” in contemporary life. The most significant conclusion in those wide-ranging discussions is that despite frequently expressed concerns about the adequacy of historical knowledge, history remains a cultural resource of value to citizens in the clarification of personal identity and public issues in the present-day world. In this context it is important to ensure that there is sufficient and necessary access to information and analysis concerning the past. Under the title “Re-Connecting with the History of Labour in New Brunswick: Historical Perspectives on Contemporary Issues”, we have launched a programme of research, study and activity focusing on the need for an informed public memory on issues related to the experience of work in the Province of New Brunswick.

The inquiry addresses a prevailing malaise in New Brunswick about the social, cultural and economic future of one of Canada's older and historically less favoured provinces. Demographic growth is at a low level, and the province attracts relatively few immigrants. Levels of employment are a source of anxiety, especially outside the major urban centres. There is concern among younger citizens who are unsure of their prospects in a province where employment standards and other legislated rights are weaker than in most Canadian jurisdictions. There are continual controversies over labour standards, public services, pay equity, work-load, health, safety and compensation, the subcontracting and privatization of services and other issues. Labour organizations have a perception that the general public, and possibly the government, lack an understanding of the social contract between workers, employers and governments that has been one of the principal social reforms of the 20th century. This is a particularly critical issue at a time when the resource and industrial sectors are both undergoing renovation, the public sector is often engaged in restructuring and the digital revolution is producing new sectors of employment. In this context, our inquiry is based on the idea that the present moment is part of a larger history and that historical knowledge can be activated constructively to enhance public understanding of contemporary challenges.

It is also the case that the New Brunswick story remains virtually invisible in accounts of 20th century Canadian labour history, despite the fact that the province had one of the first federations of labour in the country and some of the earliest public sector unions. Moreover, the contributions of workers and labour unions are rarely mentioned in discussions of the New Brunswick identity, which tend to focus on founding moments in the 18th century such as the expulsion and return of the Acadians and the arrival of New England Planters and United Empire Loyalists. In this context, the project advances a major research question that seeks first to identify the changes in the working lives of New Brunswickers over the past several generations and secondly to examine the role of labour movements in contributing to the process of social change. In the first instance we are seeking to document the experience of work as a shared identity among the people of New Brunswick, and in the second we are seeking to analyze the activism of those who participated in one of the major social movements of the 20th century. By framing the question in this way, the research programme attempts to incorporate both the social history and institutional approaches to the field of labour history that have been common in recent decades.

The project itself has been made possible by the award of a five-year grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, under a programme designed to promote interaction between academic researchers and community organizations. The Community-University Research Alliances are a relatively new programme that requires working partnerships between universities and other institutions. In a sense the question about the “social relevance” of research initiatives, often found in grant application forms, is directly validated by the participation of the community partners. The participation of labour unions establishes a direct link with the most visible representatives of working people in the province, while the participation of public institutions links us to those responsible for the preservation and dissemination of history and heritage in the province. In each case the partners have helped define specific objectives that serve their needs while also participating in the broader objectives defined by the research team. On the university side, the project draws together the leading academic practitioners of labour history in the province, located at the two provincial universities, one of them an English-language and the other a French-language institution; this in itself is a significant form of partnership in Canada's only officially bilingual province.

The project is organized around five major research areas that correspond to shared interests and concerns. The five thematic areas can be briefly introduced as follows:

1. Provincial Solidarities
The objective here is to establish an understanding of the historical record of unions in the province in representing members and influencing public policy. It is a story of accelerating solidarity that can be traced back to the origins of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour, which was established in 1913.

2. Le travail en Acadie
The themes of working experience and union activity have been neglected in studies of Acadian history. We aim to increase the understanding of the economic contributions and working lives of Acadians through attention to issues of community survival, regional depopulation and access to employment.

3. Contested Territory: Transformation of the Woods
New Brunswickers have regularly responded to significant economic and technological change in the resource industries that have long formed the backbone of the New Brunswick economy. A major case study will focus on the working experience in the forest industries over the course of the 20th century.

4. Women's Work: Focus on Caring
The work of women has been hidden and undervalued as a contribution to the provincial economy. Within this framework, a major case study will address women's work in care-giving with a particular focus on the work of nurses and their professional and union activities.

5. Labour Landmarks
Public commemoration raises important questions about the selective nature of historical memory and its representation in the public sphere. Our purpose is to explore the stories, explain the origins and bring attention to a series of statues, memorials and other cultural markers within the provincial landscape.

Our methodologies draw on the traditional resources of the social sciences and humanities and contemporary labour studies, but the outcomes will be diverse. In addition to articles and other publications of the kind usually produced by academics, they will include a series of community-oriented labour history workshops, presentations at the meetings of partner organizations, museum exhibitions and other displays, teaching and learning materials for labour education and public school classes, video presentations and a substantial interactive website. The use of oral history is especially appropriate in the research strategy because it plays such an important part in democratizing the practice of history: it involves the creation of a durable historical record where traditional sources have been inadequate or have not been preserved; and it involves active collaboration between historically informed interviewers and informants in recording memories of accumulated personal experience. In the early stages of the project, we have assigned priority to activity in this area in order to help build the oral history collections in the Provincial Archives and the Centre d'études acadiennes.

Our programme of research and activity is designed to produce a large body of resources, research, information and analysis concerning the experience of work and labour organization during the course of the past century. It is large and ambitious, but the provincial scale and the organizational and institutional partnerships also serve to make it a realistic undertaking for a small research team based at two small-to-medium sized universities. Not surprisingly, this is a “labour-intensive” project in which most of the funding will be spent in support of project officers, research assistants and graduate fellowships. This emphasis on the development of research and dissemination capacities meets another of the programme's objectives, namely the training and preparation of researchers in the field of labour studies and public history more generally.

In all this, we are proceeding from the view that historical knowledge is a source of empowerment and can be activated in constructive ways to build an informed public knowledge. The project will contribute to the expressed needs of heritage institutions and labour organizations while also satisfying the desire of historians to participate in public forms of dissemination while undertaking original historical research. In the context of New Brunswick today and the challenges it faces, the project will serve to underline the importance of the world of work as one of the major shared experiences in the growth of provincial society.


Short Summary of Our Project

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Provincial Solidarities | Le travail en Acadie | Contested Territory | Women's Work | Labour Landmarks

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