“Knowledge For The People:” The Antigonish Movement

“Knowledge For The People:” The Antigonish Movement

The Antigonish Movement is, “the most famous adult education project in Canada and the best known outside our borders,” according to Canadian historians Selman et al., (1998, p.45).  This chapter in our history began when the “golden age of wind and sail” was waning across the maritime provinces and jobs, as well as the population, was in rapid decline. A once prosperous maritime region had come to be called “the graveyard of industry” (Coady cited in Welton, p. 48). And for good reason.


The Graveyard of Industry

Fishermen (or “fishers” as they are sometimes called) and their families were effectively owned by absentee conglomerate companies. The pejoratively named “Cod Lords” effectively owned the fishing boats, the fishing gear and the annual catch since most earnings often went to pay the “advances” on the year. In fact, many fishermen would end the season owing more to the fishery companies than when they began.

Meanwhile, coal miners worked in dangerous underground conditions and were typically required to live in the dilapidated houses owned by the mine owners. Families of the miners were compelled to deal exclusively with the company stores (remember Tennessee Ernie Ford’s song, “I owe my soul to the company store”)?

Man with bear fur in back of cartIn the bucolic country side, farmers worked to eke out an existence by taking their products to dealers and markets again controlled by absentee companies. The few steel mills of the day, especially in Cape Breton, actually exploited child labor. Conditions have been described as “feudal.”

One Catholic clergyman reported that families in his district “were living on 4 cents a day . . . children were clothed in discarded flour bags and . . . the only bedclothes were old feed bags” (cited in Welton, p. 45). In late December, 1925, after visiting the coal regions of Nova Scotia, the bishop of the Antigonish Diocese wrote a letter to all the priests in his diocese saying he had “direct evidence that there is a large number of people who are [on] the verge of starvation” (cited in Welton, 2001, p. 45). He urged the clergy to do whatever they could. As discussed below, two Catholic priests did just that.

Literacy as Tool; Not School

Up to this last installment in our series, we have seen how our earliest heroes were missionaries or motivated by a religious calling. In the later vignettes seen this year, the social gospel was typically the impetus for the literacy landmarks. One might reasonably assume that our two literacy heroes: Father Moses Coady and Father Jimmy Tompkins, might have seen literacy as a way to promote the Catholic church. To “evangelize.” But not so.

Instead, the literature makes it clear that, for these two priests, adult literacy was not a vehicle to salvation or Catholicism. One famous quip by Father Jimmy, when asked if the Antigonish Movement should exclude non-Catholic participants, his reply was: “There is no Catholic way to catch lobsters.”Quite simply, these two priests sought to turn the economy around through adult education and, for our field of adult literacy, EAL and Basic Education, we see how literacy was a tool, not a school.

Father Moses Coady & Father Jimmy

With the help of hundreds of willing volunteers, within a decade the economy of the entire region was rebounding. The dignity of thousands was returning.

Here is a look at their story…

The Antigonish Movement began in Nova Scotia in the 1920’s and came to include the provinces of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and, to a lesser extent, Newfoundland. It was at its peak from the early 1930s to the 1940s and continued into the 1950s.

Father Jimmy Tompkins

Father Jimmy Tompkins

One of the founders was Father Jimmy Tompkins. An avid reader and a visionary, he published a watershed pamphlet in 1921 entitled Knowledge for the People. It was widely distributed and advocated “useful knowledge” as the key to the flagging regional economy. Father Jimmy urged the community to begin to share both their labor and their products. He also pressed his university colleagues “to go out to the people”(Alexander, p. 68) and, in that same year, the first People’s School was held at StFX with academic subjects such as economics, mathematics, agriculture and public speaking taught to the fishermen, farmers, and laborers who came forward.

But this approach alone was too centralized, too textbook-based. In 1930, while the rest of Canada was just beginning to see the start of an economic depression, the university decided to establish an Extension Department. They hired Father Moses Coady to direct it.The Antigonish Movement was born.

Masters of Their Own Destiny

Father Moses Coady

Father Moses Coady

The stated mission of the Antigonish Movement was: “The improvement of the economic, social, educational and religious condition of the people of eastern Nova Scotia” (cited in Alexander, p. 78).

Coady took this mission to heart traveling tirelessly through Nova Scotia. From town to town, he spoke forcefully in town halls, churches, anywhere he could assemble a public meeting. He advocated for cooperatives, shared resources, pooling incomes, and marketing products directly. Above all, he encouraged the people to stand up for themselves. They did not have to be “slaves to company owners.”

But how to actually accomplish this? Where to begin?

The communities did not begin with classes on poetry or art works, like Hull House. Nor did they start with formal evening literacy classes in school houses, as did Cora Wilson Stewart. In fact, they started with the tasks themselves. Informal Study Clubs were created in community after community with meetings often held in kitchens and farm yards. Each participating community was provided with literature on community development, including how to create cooperatives and credit unions. Communities were encouraged to begin to identify the issues they faced and were inspired by Coady to think about their options. To roll up their sleeves.

But how could a population with wide-spread low literacy engage with these pamphlets and bulletins?  How could study clubs succeed? Herein lies the difference between this movement and the others we have seen this year.

Literacy as a Vehicle for Change

Despite the fact that Coady was acutely aware of “the question of illiteracy” (Coady personal communication to a Nfld inquiry, February 7, 1933), his vision did not envisage a separated stream for  school-based adult classes. Instead, without school buildings, without formal teachers and no extra funding, neighbors simply helped neighbors in the Study Clubs. And they kept helping as needed with the projects that followed. Adults read together, discussed together, worked together, and many learned basic reading as was necessary. Literacy was simply one skill among many needed to get the job done.

In 1930-31, its first full year of operation, a total of 192 general meetings were held with 14,856 people attending. One hundred seventy-three clubs were established with 1,384 members by 1931 and, by 1935, there were 940 clubs with 10,650 participants. The reports showed that 84 cooperatives and credit unions were in place to make small business loans to members. By 1938—less than a decade after the movement began—more than 10,000 members belonged to the Antigonish Movement. This was a remarkable number for such a sparsely populated region. Especially considering many communities were accessible only by boat.

Houses that still stand today were built by the people

Houses planned & built by the people themselves

Fishermen started to get small loans to buy their own fishing equipment; miners began to cooperate and organize for better wages; farmers began to take their products directly to market. Some villages and towns undertook to build their own houses using a co-operative housing approach—always under the scornful eye of local builders who claimed every house would fall down. But they learned and worked together as they acquired practical knowledge (and the houses are still standing today)

Father Moses Coady

Above all—quite literally “above all” since he towered at over six feet—Father Moses Coady used his transfixing oratory to turn despair into hope (Welton, 2002). More than a regional leader, Father Coady addressed the United Nations in August, 1949 on “Organizing Rural People for the Proper Use and Conservation of Natural Resources.” He became a powerful force for change across the northern U.S. and throughout Eastern Canada, speaking indefatigably to co-operative movements, wealthy philanthropist organizations… anyone who would share the vision.

But, according to biographer, Michael Welton, Coady’s dreams were ultimately just that….dreams. The “new, permanent cooperative order” (Welton, p. 217) he preached never appeared. After a series of heart problems and illnesses, he collapsed at the microphone addressing a co-operative rally in Wisconsin during one of his speeches. He ultimately died July 28, 1959 in St. Martha’s hospital in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. His casket was carried to its final resting place in the local Antigonish cemetery by a steelworker, a coal miner, two farmers and two fishermen…not an academic among them.  His life was a testimony to the fact that that people can create their own answers. They can be “masters of their own destiny,” to use Coady’s famous phrase.

Today, courses, seminars and international conferences on issues of development, micro-finance, and globalization are regularly held at the Coady International Institute on the St. FX campus. Named for Father Coady, it works with over 50 developing countries to continue the legacy of co-operative adult education practices and community development.

The Relevance of This Landmark Today?

My wife and I now live in B.C. but we lived in Antigonish and taught at StFX for over 13 years. In fact, our Department of Adult Education was located in the same office space used by the original Extension Department. Students and visitors would often ask me why the Antigonish Movement wasn’t still alive to help those living in that  same region today?  While StFX has an active Extension Department, and it is not as if there is no poverty today in the Maritimes, I wonder if perhaps adult education is sometimes at its best in times of crisis. In times of campaigns. I am not sure. But, there is another very important question here for adult literacy.

Given the range of models and approaches we have seen in this series, why are so many EAL, literacy and basic education programs so dedicated to the traditional bricks-and-mortar schooling model? Especially since we know that many adults with low literacy had negative experiences in their past schooling. And, we know that fewer than 10% of the estimated target group attends sponsored programs with dropout rates often over 40% (Quigley, 2007). In earlier blogs, we saw how outreach innovation with Frontier College made a difference. Why is it that distance technology is used so widely to reach mainstream adult learners and so rarely to reach our literacy population? Here we see how project-based literacy in a community can make literacy a tool, rather than a “school.”  In closing this series, perhaps we need to rethink Canada’s, America’s and the U.K’s history of proven approaches if we are to better diversify and reach as well as retain more of our potential literacy delivery in the 21st century. We have a rich history, let’s learn from it.

We have seen some of our history’s heroes and heroines in this series, but it is vital to add that the passion and commitment of our founders are still alive and thriving today–we still have heroes and heroines, and this includes so many of our learners.

I can personally say it has been a matter of personal pride to have been one among such people for some 40 years. And, ever optimistic, I believe we will continue to build new and better landmarks to serve Canada’s literacy needs. I hope these glimpses of our past have been enjoyable and will, perhaps, help inform our future.


Alexander, A. (1997). The Antigonish movement: Moses Coady and adult education today. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing.

Quigley, B.A. (2007). Building professional pride in literacy. Malabar, FL: Krieger.

Selman, G., Selman, M., Cooke, M., & Dampier, P. (1998). The foundations of adult education in  Canada, 2nd ed. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, Inc.

Welton, M. R. (2001). Little Mosie from the Margaree: A biography of Moses Michael Coady. Toronto: Thompson Education Publishing, Inc.

This is the final instalment on the “heroes and heroines of literacy” series… we hope you enjoyed it.  Next month will be our annual “lessons learned” wind-up instalment–the last blog of the year.      

Hoping you will stay tuned…..

Dr. Allan Quigley and the SARN Team.


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