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Review

The Education of an Innocent: An Autobiography by E.R. “Ernie” Forbes

By Ernest R. Forbes

November 4, 2013

Review By Patricia Roy

Why should BC Studies review the autobiography of E.R. “Ernie” Forbes, a leading historian of Maritime Canada? The answer is that several years in Victoria helped him to confirm his ideas about the importance of regionalism in Canada. These ideas appear in his collected essays, Challenging the Regional Stereotype  (Fredericton: Acadiensis Press, 1989). This book, however, is a personal memoir originally written for the benefit of his children.

In 1966, Sydney Pettit of the University of Victoria was recruiting faculty to teach multiple sections of an introductory course in Canadian history. He asked Peter Waite, the head of the department at Dalhousie University, to recommend a suitable person. Ernie was then completing an M.A. thesis on Nova Scotia politics. He and his wife, Irene, were planning to celebrate with an extended holiday in Europe before returning to high school teaching. On Waite’s recommendation, Forbes was offered the job, sight unseen. He did not accept until Irene pointed out that they hadn’t seen the west coast and they would be paid to go to Victoria. His first encounter with Victoria, a phone call to a Halifax moving company, was not promising. The company’s agent asked why anyone would want to go to a place where it rained all the time. Ernie does not mention that the rain seemed so endless in his first winter in Victoria that, as a son of the manse, he considered checking the Bible to see if Noah had provided instructions about building an ark! Nevertheless, Ernie liked Victoria, especially the Sooke Hills and the Malahat, which offered opportunities for him to hunt deer, and for cougars to hunt him.

His M.A. research had made Ernie aware of the Maritimes’ many grievances. In Victoria he learned that British Columbians also had a tradition of complaining of unfair treatment at the hands of the federal government. Alas, he never turned his talents to what could be an interesting comparison. Nevertheless, his interest in regionalism increased. As part of the 1967 Centennial celebrations, the Canadian Historical Association sponsored a series of seminars on the theme of regionalism.   At the Victoria session one of the senior scholars was George Rawlyk, who Ernie had known at Dalhousie. Assigned the task of critiquing Rawlyk’s paper on the “paranoid style” in Nova Scotia politics, Ernie listed the “rational reasons” why Maritimers felt hard done by. Two Toronto graduate students, Viv Nelles and Michael Bliss, responded with anti-Maritime jokes. Ernie was soon off to Queen’s where he wrote his thesis on Maritime Rights that became an acclaimed book. He happily returned to Victoria, but the University of New Brunswick soon offered him a position. Since parenthood made extended research trips to the Maritimes impractical, he realized that he must change the focus of his research or return to the East. British Columbia’s loss was the Maritimes’ gain.

 

The Education of an Innocent: An Autobiography by E.R. “Ernie” Forbes
By Ernest R. Forbes with an Introduction by Stephen Dutcher
Fredericton: Acadiensis Press, 2012. 142 pp. $14.95 paper.