Book Review: Santo Dodaro and Leonard Pluta, The Big Picture: The Antigonish Movement of Eastern Nova Scotia

Santo Dodaro and Leonard Pluta, The Big Picture: The Antigonish Movement of Eastern Nova Scotia (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012).

In the autumn of 2012, the Braemore Cooperative Grocery Store, which had served the Antigonish, Nova Scotia area for over thirty years, closed its doors, touching off a brief but salient debate on the legacy of Msgr Moses Michael Coady and the Antigonish Movement. When informed that only twelve per cent of the store’s 4,900 members regularly patronized the business, one Antigonish resident lamented in the local newspaper: “It is sad to think that this store cannot survive in the heart of the co-operative movement.”

Fittingly, as the Braemore Co-op went out of business, McGill-Queen’s University Press released The Big Picture: The Antigonish Movement of Eastern Nova Scotia by Santo Dodaro and Leonard Pluta. The book, written by two members (one retired) of the department of economics at St Francis Xavier University (St F.X.), tells the story of the Antigonish Movement in the context of “the big picture” – the St F.X. Extension Department’s initial programme for social and economic reform. In very readable prose, the authors chart the institutional history of Extension from its founding in 1928-1930, to its ultimate demise as a neglected department of continuing education in the late 1990s. By then, all that remained of Coady’s legacy was “a minor organization of subregional scope involved in a few projects of an exploratory nature” (302).

The Extension Department unquestionably got off to a fine start. The sheer enthusiasm and determination of the people to become “masters of their own destiny” energized the burgeoning network of study club members, organizers and fieldworkers. Despite the inevitable setbacks (and there were many), a combination of progress and vision made the 1930s a period of growth and expansion. The study clubs were generally successful and by 1936 the movement entered its “most dynamic phase.” Throughout the 1940s, and particularly during the Second World War, Extension faced mounting obstacles, and yet, as the authors argue, the movement not only survived but “emerged from the wartime difficulties with a strong educational and economic base” (157).

The book’s real interpretive value, however, begins in chapter five, with its detailed analysis of Extension after 1950. So often, the interest of historians in the movement wains once the “remarkable characters” pass from the scene. In The Big Picture, however, the retirement of Msgr Coady instigates a new phase, and men such as Fr Michael MacKinnon and Fr John A. Gillis emerge to provide fresh leadership. Yet, although Extension remained confident (the Coady International Institute was founded in 1959), the authors illustrate that deprived of Coady’s guidance, Extension lacked “a clear sense of direction” (201). Moreover, its reliance on the static “six principles” instead of the more dynamic “big picture” meant that the movement moved away from its original mission and became fragmented.

From the late 1960s onward, the original mandate of self-help through education and cooperation was replaced by a policy “founded on academically driven scientific research”, which was largely government funded (248). Despite Fr Tompkins comment in 1914 that he would sooner “be a dog and bay at the moon, than to be beholden to the average politician,” by the 1970s Extension relied heavily on government for both funding and direction. Denied adequate resources the department became a “prisoner of its past” and was reduced to providing services for hire (318).

Interestingly, while some have tried to downplay the role of Roman Catholic doctrine from the movement (citing Coady’s ecumenism is an always popular overstatement), Pluta and Dodaro have no quarrel with the priestly realities of their subjects. Throughout the text the authors acknowledge the prominence of Roman Catholic teaching in the day-to-day operation of Extension, yet demonstrate that the decision to go beyond the spiritual and into the material aspects of the community took some courage. At the same time, however, like most of the literature, the authors choose to ignore the contributions of Archbishop James Morrison, which is unfortunate as the prelate had more to do with the day-to-day operations of Extension than Fr Tompkins who has over thirty-five references within the text.

Morrison is not the only personality omitted from the discussion. Other colorful and important characters, such as Fr Michael Gillis and Fr James Boyle, are hardly mentioned. Yet, because the book is not concerned with the personalities of the movement, it is able to avoid the pitfalls of “saints and sinners”, which has characterized much of the literature since the 1930s. Although it follows the traditional method of making Fr Tompkins and Msgr Coady the headliners, in praising those fascinating characters, the authors don’t chastise the other less attractive actors. Refreshingly, the book speaks to a collective engagement between diocesan priests, and the laity, and the authors note that Extension “put a concrete institutional face on the vision shared by Rev. Coady, Rev. Tompkins and others…” (53). It is those “others” that are so often ignored or misrepresented.

The book is rather lengthy and there are places where a gentle pruning would have helped. For instance, there are, in effect, two introductions. The first defines economic and social movements and speaks to cooperation and the conditions necessary for success, while the second explains the socio-economic environment in eastern Nova Scotia prior to Extension’s founding. More suited for the opening of a doctoral dissertation, the material in the first sixteen pages would have been better utilized if fused throughout the text, or placed as an appendix.

Such criticisms, however, are minor considering the breadth and scope of the book. The Big Picture makes a significant and impartial contribution to the literature of the Antigonish Movement. Highly readable, it offers historians and students a comprehensive account of the Extension Department in all its phases, while charting its successes and failures in an objective and informative manner.

Reviewed by:  Peter Ludlow, Holy Cross Historical Trust, NS

Published on: 2 June 2013
Posted by: amm098