That statement has certainly proved true for me during my brief time here in Antigonish, Nova Scotia while studying toward my Masters of Adult Education. Outside of the classroom, I’ve learned that the spirit of the Antigonish Movement is alive and strong in 2011.
Last week, we spent most of a day learning about this social movement which started in the early 1900s, led by a group of priests and educators who were determined to help small, resource-based Maritime communities like Antigonish to improve their own social and economic circumstances.
The movement resulted in many initiatives that still exist today, including a large housing cooperative, the Maritimes’ own credit union system, an unusually people-friendly library (complete with art gallery, fireplace sitting room and healthcare clinic), and a cooperative grocery store. Students broke into groups of four to speak with, and learn from, representatives of these organizations last week.
Our group interviewed Brenda McKinnon from the Braemore Food Cooperative Advisory Council, which runs the town’s last remaining cooperative grocery store.
Compared to the massive Sobeys next door and the Loblaws superstore at the other end of town, the food co-op is drab and gloomy—and was nearly empty during our visit. Brenda said the store is struggling to survive in the face of intensified big-box competition.
“Maybe the time of food cooperatives has run its course,” Brenda told us during our interview in the store’s cheerless rear lunch room.
We left wondering if the spirit of the Antigonish movement was indeed fading. Had the town lost its spirit for community building from within?
I was beginning to think so—until I went for a bike ride with Dr. John Chiasson, an emergency room physician at the local hospital and spokesman for the Positive Action for Keppoch Association.
I met Dr. Chiasson through Youtube. I was hoping to connect with some local mountain bikers during my Antigonish visit and found one of his cycling videos online. Last weekend, he took me for a ride up nearby Sugarloaf Mountain, a former downhill ski resort that Dr. Chiasson’s group is developing into what could become a significant eco-adventure tourism attraction.
Dr. Chiasson, who at the age of 59 kicked my butt all the way up the mountain, told me that he’s one of a core of about a dozen volunteers who are working to develop an all-season family recreation area that will offer mountain biking, hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and zip lining. The facility will also provide interpretive layouts showcasing local heritage and will promote healthy living concepts, sustainable development, education and culture, says its Facebook page, which has more than 300 members.
The land is owned by several farmers who have agreed to loan out their land to the cause. It’s hoped the park will enrich the quality of life for locals and attract tourists to Antigonish, a town that hasn’t grown for decades.
Supported by a small army of volunteers, the board includes a former county councillor, two retired school principals, a retired RCMP officer, an engineering consultant, a university professor, two teachers, and the head of the local branch of the Canadian Association for Community Living. All are avid athletes who are keen to bring new fitness and sustainable tourism opportunities to Antigonish.
The project has already secured $50,000 from the federal government and $25,000 from the municipality, and community fun days on the mountain have attracted hundreds of residents from all walks of life who wouldn’t normally spend time together.
Hearing Dr. Chiasson talk enthusiastically about the project and the slow-building excitement growing within the community as he pushes effortless up the trails of Sugarloaf Mountain is enough to convince me: Maybe co-op grocery stores are a relic of the past, but the spirit of community cooperation, of group action and growth from within, is alive and well and thriving in Antigonish.