Great work gets done by good people

The founders of the Antigonish movement told people to "set the heather on fire" and create a new cooperative economy. What lay behind their success?

Dan MacInnes
25 February 2015

Wild heather in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Credit: and All rights reserved.

When he was excited, Jimmy Tompkins liked to say that “there’s no Catholic or Protestant way to catch a fish” in a high-pitched voice he never could control. As a Catholic priest in Canso, Nova Scotia, in the late 1920s, Tompkins and others were involved in a struggle to break the hold of local merchants over the lives of small-scale fisherman in the diocese of Antigonish.

At that time, fishing was based on the ‘truck’ system through which fishermen obtained the capital they needed from local merchants to whom they had to sell their catch. The merchants made their money by inflating the costs of the supplies they sold to the fishermen and lowering the price they paid for fish—colluding with each-other at every wharf and dividing the fishermen in the process.

Increasingly, Tompkins became a kind of ‘prophet’ for co-operative control over fish production as an antidote to this system. Few realized it at the time, but priests and fishermen were organizing around a powerful set of ideas that eventually became the “Antigonish Movement”—one of the most influential forces in the spread of credit unions and co-operatives in Canada and across the world. 

Today, the Catholic Church likes to say that it always supported this movement as a practical demonstration of Catholic social teachings. But Rome’s public backing came only after the Antigonish Movement was in decline, and it was framed in terms of grassroots participation as an alternative to ‘Godless communism’—a characterization that Tompkins rejected.

But religion did play a role in the formation of the movement in ways that are instructive for those who seek the transformation of society: new ideas about community economics and the role of adult education were accepted in part because they were introduced by Catholic priests to a largely-Catholic population, and those ideas went on to generate a stronger collective identity.

Tompkins wasn’t sent to the poorest parish in Antigonish to work with fishermen. He knew nothing about fishing, and his 17 years as Vice President of St. Francis Xavier University hadn’t even prepared him for parish ministry. He was in Canso because his Bishop had “exiled” Tompkins there—that was the word that some people used to describe the reassignment of teaching priests to small rural parishes at the time. The Bishop was annoyed by discussions about social issues that had been developing in Antigonish since 1918, involving the priests of the Diocese in an annual spiritual retreat.

The Antigonish Movement began in these retreats when Tompkins and other priest-teachers like Moses Coady opened a discussion about the need of the church to ‘go to the people.’ By the time of his death in 1959, Coady had become the sole figure in the development of co-operatives and credit unions in the area, but in these early days Tompkins bore the brunt of challenging church conventions.

The central question faced by this group focused on the kind of education that was needed for the contemporary world. Most Catholic clergy didn’t understand the crises that faced modern society. Few could make the link between religion and economics. They were uncomfortable because of their unfamiliarity with commerce and their limited understanding of Christ’s injunction to ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.’

Without the participation of local people, these discussions would have remained an internal debating club at best. In Antigonish, lay Catholics lived in communities that were socially isolated from one another.  Scottish immigrants, whose history included the dispossession of their homes in the Highland Clearances, outnumbered everyone else in 1920, and they dominated the numbers of nuns and clergy too.  Minority ethnicities included Mi’kmaq aboriginals, French Acadians and pre-famine immigrants from Ireland, but all these groups were Catholic.

Did their common religious beliefs overcome ethnicity and draw people together? The answer is no. Although converted to Catholicism in the 1600s, the Mi’kmaq never participated in the Antigonish movement, the Acadian fishermen were the most enthusiastic, and it was urban Catholics who led in establishing credit unions. Priests from the Irish Catholic minority dominated the Movement’s leadership. In fact Tompkins and Coady could recite stories from their common grand-father, Mogue Doyle, who had been a leader in the rebellion of the United Irishmen. After imprisonment Doyle was exiled to Cape Breton, and by the 1920s dozens of his descendants were clergy, doctors and lawyers who made up a large faction of his grandsons’ supporters.

In the many speeches he gave in parish halls across the diocese as priests went ‘out to the people’ in an early variant of adult education around economics, Coady urged his audiences to “set the heather on fire.” This expression came from a springtime practice in the Scottish Highlands when whole communities would burn the hills in order to foster the growth of grass. Encouraging these ‘economic fires’ created first an enthusiasm, and later an identity that was associated with cooperative production and consumption. As the economy became a legitimate place to express community, parishes and church halls, one-room schools and storytellers, history and music all became focal points for the development of this new identity.

In Scotland, communities transformed hill, fire, and pasture into nitrogen; in Eastern Nova Scotia, well-disposed people met transformative leadership in the form of Tompkins, Coady and others, and developed a whole range of alternative economic institutions. But what made these leaders so effective?

There was no ready-made formula for success and their vision was comprised of many parts—not one utopian whole. One influence was the social marginality of the Irish.  Since the majority Scots and their clerics dominated society, Irish leaders like Tompkins had to employ the skills of minority perception. The Highland taken-for-granted-world valued and even expected a degree of reticence. It seldom displayed emotion, overemphasized the value of loyalty and—most importantly—was caught up in the vigorous folk narratives that were part of everyday life. Traditional music, stories and genealogy fuelled the discourse of most adults.

By contrast, the Irish had lost their Gaelic and were socially gregarious outside their own milieu. The strength of a once vibrant Highland culture was its greatest weakness; the weak ties of the Irish were their emerging social strength.  Coady and Tompkins recognized these strengths and weaknesses, and their strategy was to expand the scale of public discourse at the center of the movement. Invitations to speak went sequentially from priests to Catholic laymen, to Protestants, and finally to women. The duration of meetings went from a few hours to whole weekends. Within two years, a newspaper was purchased to produce weekly articles on the issues that were being discussed in small groups.

Besides the problem of expanding inclusion in the movement, Tompkins and Coady recognized that undue deference was accorded to the clergy. From the very beginning they looked for leaders in lay positions and challenged anyone who was pompous, but the fact that both of them were priests was a strategic advantage: it meant immediate acceptance among Catholics. People learned by their doing. 

The Antigonish Movement was established on moral ground created by diverse peoples. Sometimes co-operative principles meshed with religious convictions and sometimes not. Some participants were gladdened by the prospects of incremental change and integration, while others saw co-operation as a mistake. Coady’s response was generic. He claimed that the great default of the people was their political and economic inertia. But the religious leadership of the movement also interpreted capitalism and market forces as natural phenomena over which people had no control.

When speaking of a people’s aspirations, it’s misleading to label their efforts as ‘Catholic.’ This suggests that religion was the primary motivator. Religious conviction can appear seamless to people living in faith. But identity, a frequent accomplice of religion, is always intertwined with wider elements of culture and history. In the same way, leadership can also be overstated. As brilliant as Coady and Tompkins were, leaders emerged throughout the Diocese. Individual insight brought new realities into being. These realities were simple to understand but profound in their consequences: the struggle with capitalism in Antigonish was a struggle to mitigate its effects, and there had to be a viable alternative that respected the dignity of the people.

The Antigonish Movement never became a transcendent force. No cooperative religion developed.  No sainthood emerged for Tompkins or Coady. Perhaps its principles were too pragmatic. Its strength was an emphasis on group education, not personal salvation.  Structurally, group education must start with ‘the economic’ in the transformation of society and continue until equality for all is satisfied. In these efforts, support from a benevolent God is not the issue. If anything, education works best because rationality can bring the transcendental back to earth. Democracy can be deepened and the abuses of capitalism regulated by cooperative structures that work. That at least was their hope.

Throughout history there have been capitalist, communist and cooperative ways to create wealth and foster economic growth. Since the middle of the 1700s, capitalism has become dominant. It does a great job in production, but it isn’t worth a damn in terms of sharing. In the 1930s, the Antigonish Movement tried to do something about this central problem. They developed strategies for group action, education, and the creation of producer and consumer co-operatives. Others in the world followed the same path.

They knew that God seldom intervenes in history to transform life through acts of divine intervention. Great work gets done by good people, with or without religion. But in Nova Scotia at least, they had a little help from Catholic priests who had a wider vision, including one with a squeak in his voice called Jimmy Tompkins. 

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData