Darren Calabrese is a photographer who splits his time between Halifax and rural New Brunswick. He is the author of the new book Leaving Good Things Behind: Photographs of Atlantic Canada.
“I’m leaving Toronto,” I exclaimed. “I’m moving home to the East Coast.”
I’ll never forget being squeezed amongst a crush of media – in a sweaty hallway in one of the city’s luxury hotels while covering the Toronto International Film Festival – when I made the announcement to a colleague. “What!” he said. “What are you going to do? Take pictures of lobsters? What are you thinking?”
What I was thinking in that moment in 2015 was that photographing lobsters seemed a lot more appealing than my current assignment.
And so, three months later, my pregnant wife, two-year-old daughter and I made our way back to the Maritimes, where I no longer had to fear another urinary tract infection from standing next to the red carpet for hours while waiting for some celebrity to make a minute-long appearance.
I bring all this up only to point to the woefully narrow lens through which my colleague in the fancy hotel hallway, and much of the country, view my home – Atlantic Canada.
This week, of course, Canadians have seen our hardships take the headlines as wildfires threaten many of our neighbours across Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. I’ve been on the front lines, photographing the fire in Halifax’s suburbs, trying my best to communicate the devastation.
The challenges and joys of living on our Eastern Coasts always seem so palpable, which I believe galvanizes the complex communities that dot the landscape.
For me, home growing up was a 400-acre woodlot in Douglas Harbour, N.B., where generations of my family lived and farmed since the late 1700s. Although my work doesn’t necessarily allow our little family to live so remotely, it’s only a short drive from our new home in Halifax.
It’s there, however, on the woodlot that my personal foundation was set, and where I learned the core value of commitment – commitment to a place. Upon returning to the Maritimes, I found myself revisiting those familiar rituals that paced life when I was younger, all the while trying to avoid being paralyzed by nostalgia. Things change – inevitably.
Here is where I must admit that we didn’t return home entirely of our own volition – we came home largely because of my mom’s death. She was killed in a tragic accident on the property. My dad was there with her and never really recovered. The entire family rallied around him, but eventually, he too died suddenly. His heart couldn’t carry the load any more.
So, I came home concentrated not only on my family, but motivated to make my profession as a photojournalist pan out. We weren’t going to leave again, so it had to work. It took some time, but I began to recognize that those meaningful traditions I was seeking out were a perfect means to share the stories of Atlantic Canadians and expand the narrow view held by much of the country.
Take the conventional images my colleague teased me about: the lobsters or the white male fishermen hauling their catch.
Those are certainly still here and continue to be important pieces of the Atlantic identity, but so too is Kyekue Mweemba – impressively perched on the shoulders of her friend Dan Campbell during a peaceful demonstration against anti-Black racism. Living in Halifax’s urban Maritime environment formed her identity just as meaningfully as the region did for lobster fisherman Jason Raymond arduously collecting traps in the middle of the Bay of Fundy at night.
Or Dane Shiwak, a young Inuk boy playing with a friend outside of his home in Rigolet, Nunatsiavut. Dane’s family and the Inuit people have lived on the North Coast of Labrador for thousands of years.
All three – Kyekue, Jason and Dane – are what makes up our Atlantic coasts. Perhaps different as individuals, their stories belong together in the narrative of Atlantic Canada.
Speaking of predictable narratives, I need to backtrack a bit. The reason my wife and I left in the first place, in 2006, was the same as all those other Atlantic Canadians who have infiltrated your friend circles across the country – opportunity.
Outmigration has long been a struggle for Atlantic Canadian towns and cities to retain our young ambitious community members. As author Kate Beaton so succinctly illustrates in her wonderful graphic novel Ducks, “I can have opportunity or I can have home. I cannot have both, and either will always hurt.”
This is true, but it is changing.
During the height of the pandemic and immediately afterward, our urban centres recorded the greatest growth in Canada, with Moncton and Halifax drawing the two highest population surges. Not to be overlooked, the rural populations in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have seen growth with younger people moving back and immigration, which is not only providing momentum in the region but also diversifying and strengthening our communities.
I’ve always felt that Atlantic Canadians have to yell a little louder to get the attention of national media, which isn’t a natural reaction for most folks here. With this emerging swell in population comes opportunity – opportunity for more inclusive and comprehensive storytelling. But we need publications and media companies to recognize the same because we are still seeing journalism positions erased or moved from our region.
Dismantling the stereotype of the pogey-dependent Maritimers or the poor-fish Newfoundlander becomes an impossible effort without honest storytelling from the places and communities that mark the Atlantic coastlines. In order to achieve this, we need clear and true commitment from our media companies – the same type of commitment for which Atlantic Canadians are unwaveringly known.