I made frequent visits to the city of Saint John throughout my childhood. I was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, but both of my parents were born and raised in the Loyalist City. When I was a kid, I remember packing the up car with pillows and games in preparation of the 45 minute journey, which seemed like an eternity at that time.
We’d always visit the same places. We cut through an abandoned church’s parking lot to see my mother’s parents, and we’d climb to a hilltop to see my father’s. As a child, I never retained strong impressions of the city. It was where my parents’ families lived, little more.
My parents families, and the fact that you NEVER abbreviate the Saint in the city’s name. Saint Johners are very particular about that.
I recently returned to Saint John to attend my grandfather’s funeral, and I was reaquainted with the old city. It’s characterized by bad weather, crumbling infrastructure, and lost industries. But the curious thing is that despite these shortcomings - or maybe because of them - Saint John is a special city that is rife with potential.
It is one of the oldest settlements in North America with its roots tracing back to 1604. It was the original capital of Acadia before it moved to Port Royal in today’s Nova Scotia. It was perfect for early settlers because it lays in a river mouth that acts as a natural harbour. Once the Maritime provinces were owned by the British, it became a global hub for shipping and shipbuilding. In 1851, it even earned the distinction of having built the fastest ship in the world.
Saint John played an integral role in the maturation of Canada’s nationhood. It continued its prolific ship building, and it proved to be an industrial hub by constructing a foundry and pulp and paper mills. It was also a transportation hub as it connected Montreal - Canada’s largest city at the time - to the state of Maine.
The city’s population reached its pinnacle in 1971, and it has been in decline ever since.
Government shipbuilding contracts began going to Halifax until finally the contracts ceased altogether in 2003. One of the pulp and paper mills was shut down and the foundry closed. Suddenly there were no jobs.
Saint John had built its entire identity around being an industrial town, and suddenly there was no industry. The city stagnated and the population began to drop. This stagnation, however, has had an interesting side effect.
Canada is a new country, and we don’t have many historic buildings, and we’ve also spent the last 50 years knocking down Victorian era structures in favour of new office and apartment buildings, but Saint John, like a time capsule, has remained the nearly untouched.
That’s not to say that Saint John doesn’t have its share of enterprises. It is the home base to three of Canada’s most influential companies. In fact, the entire city is dominated by the actions of three families: the Irvings, the Olands and the McCains. As a result the city - and by extension the entire province of New Brunswick - has become a fiefdom ruled by these corporations.
We seldom hear about the impact New Brunswick has on the national stage in Canada, but one of its ruling families was inconspicuously at the centre of one of Canada’s most controversial developments in recent years: the Energy East Pipeline. This is a massive pipeline that will transport 1.1 million barrels of crude oil per day to an Irving oil refinery in Saint John.
The Olands (the owners of Moosehead Brewery) have also been involved in a shocking trial rarely heard of outside the province. On July 7, 2011, Richard Oland, the Vice President of the Moosehead Brewery, was found dead in his office, bludgeoned to death. His son Dennis Oland was found guilty of second degree murder in late 2015, but he won his appeal in 2016 and the appeals panel ordered a new trial.
These prominent and wealthy families are juxtaposed by the poverty in the city. Saint John has a shocking 30% child poverty rate, and this is reflected by the derelict wooden houses that punctuate the city’s landscape. The fact that the fires in Fort McMurray, a tragedy that happened over 3,000 km away, greatly impacted the citizens of Saint John is also very telling. It was common for Saint Johners to go to the oil sands for work, hell, my cousin is still out there.
Saint John is regularly featured as one of the worst cities to live in Canada. It’s easy to see why. Its colourful houses once populated by dockworkers and sailors are in disrepair. Its jobs are drying up so much that citizens are forced to work in dangerous conditions five provinces away. It’s run on the whim of three oligarchal families.
But what if there’s something more?
The Atlantic provinces are sparsely populated. The only two cities of note are Halifax, Nova Scotia, and St. John’s, Newfoundland (mixing up Saint John and St. John’s is a treasonous affair in Atlantic Canada). These cities carry a lot of the same characteristics as Saint John, and they’ve been able to thrive. So why can’t Saint John?
Its past as an industrial town shouldn’t dismiss it as a hopeless cause. The city of Pittsburgh in the U.S. and Hamilton in Ontario both serve as examples of how former industrial cities who were faced with pending catastrophe were able to rebound into thriving cultural and scientific centres in their region.
The city has a lot of potential to become beautiful. Its winding bridges and Victorian era buildings situated on the rocky basalt coast create an identifiable landscape. Its natural harbour could still support a shipping hub. A good deal of our nation’s oil exports will ultimately be departing from there after all. This, coupled together with its industrial mainstays could support burgeoning cultural institutions. It has some of the cheapest real estate in the country that’s ready to be picked up. It just needs a push, and in stark contrast to its industrial roots, it could come in the form of clean energy.
The Bay of Fundy is home to some of the world’s most powerful ocean currents, and engineers are working to see how they can exploit these tides for clean energy. The project has proven problematic because the currents are so powerful they’re damaging the turbines. Saint John is the only urban centre on the Bay of Fundy, and it could reap the benefits of this new turbine project. The turbines are actually being repaired in Saint John right now.
The city has its share of ugly locations, but as you’re walking down its historic downtown boulevards, you can’t help but feel a sense of authentic history. It’s a place that great nations fought over. It’s a place that fed an empire. It’s a place that helped carve out Canada’s standing in the world today, it was Canada’s first incorporated city, after all.
The country has had a bleak outlook on the future of Saint John, but it’s not a city on which we should give up. Its natural beauty and historic architecture are ready to be revitalized, and with the burgeoning of new industries, there is hope for the crumbling city. We just need to recognize its potential.