Resilience and Place in Atlantic Canada

Fishing boats at North Rustico, PEI. Photo by Carolyn Peach Brown, used with permission.

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When I am in Cape Breton Island, the place where I was born and raised, my family and I often go for a hike along the Lighthouse Trail that runs along the coastline across the harbour from the Fortress of Louisbourg. Originating at the site of the first lighthouse in Canada, built to guide mariners to the Fortress in the early 1700’s, the trail then follows along the rugged coastline, weaving in and out of mainly spruce forests, giving stunning views of the pounding surf. As you walk along the trail it becomes evident that the vegetation has been shaped by the wind and the sea. It is easy to tell the direction of the prevailing winds and to know that the climatic and soil conditions are not always conducive to growing tall, straight spruce trees. However, these short, lop-sided spruce trees are resilient. Among the grey, gnarled trunks, young trees spring up. Seeds germinate in the rocky soil, grow and adapt. Sometimes they are changed in the process but they continue to survive. Sometimes even to thrive.

Along the lighthouse trail, Cape Breton, NS. Photo by Carolyn Peach Brown, used with permission.

The book From Black Horses to White Steeds: Building Community Resilience emerged from an international dialogue among community and indigenous leaders, community organizations, government, and researchers in 2015. This dialogue, held in Summerside, PEI, was a partnership of the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation, the North Atlantic Forum, and the Institute of Island Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island. Each chapter seeks to change the prevalent narrative about rural regions being unsustainable to one that focuses on their resilience. They highlight inspiring examples of rural resilience in the face of new realities, focusing on innovative strategies of governance, partnerships, resources, and assets.

Over the last few decades, the concept of resilience has moved from having just an ecological focus to an interdisciplinary discussion of resilience in coupled social-ecological systems. Resilient social-ecological systems are characterized by a capability to learn to live with uncertainty and change, to nurture diversity to allow for reorganization and renewal, to combine different types of knowledge for learning, and to create opportunities for self-organization.[1] Like spruce trees on the Lighthouse trail, resource-based coastal communities in Atlantic Canada have been resilient to changing conditions. Historians have examined local resilience in many forms, although they may not always consider it in these terms: seasonal migration and pluri-occupational responses to economic decline, community governance in response to collapsing fisheries, and cultural resilience from the Acadian renaissance to Africville resistance. But new challenges face the region’s communities and in addition to adapting to changes in economics, globalization, demographics, and public policy, increasingly coastal communities are coming to grips with the uncertain future presented by a changing global climate.

Research shows that communities on the east coast of Canada will be significantly impacted by climate change, including rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, increasing ocean temperatures and acidity, rising sea levels, and increases in extreme weather events, such as hurricanes. All of these changes are leading to changes in marine and coastal ecosystems with consequent impacts on sources of livelihood, cultural heritage in coastal communities, including Indigenous communities, and placing increasing pressure on supporting infrastructure.  Some of these changes could have a positive impact on such sectors as the tourism sector, with an extended season of warm weather. Other changes could be harmful as rising sea levels and coastal erosion will increase the vulnerability of homes, cottages, tourism facilities, drinking water sources, wharfs, and other infrastructure. Climate change will also have an impact on cultural heritage, for example, Indigenous archaeological sites in the coastal zone or local heritage properties. As the reality of the effects of climate change are becoming evident in many parts of Canada, governments, local communities and researchers are exploring ways to adapt.

Along the lighthouse trail, Cape Breton, NS. Photo by Carolyn Peach Brown, used with permission.

Communities with greater resilience are characterized by having strong connections between people and place, shared values and beliefs, a positive outlook on change, knowledge, skills and learning, social networks, and engaged governance, among others.[2] These community strengths are combined in influence through the agency and the ability to self-organize, ultimately fostering resilience. In one of the chapters in Building Community Resilience, three case studies from Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia – cultural values-mapping in Indigenous communities, design charrettes in an historic city, and place-specific governance at harbour authorities in fishing communities – summarize some key ingredients for building resilience in coastal communities.[3]

These three case studies illustrate that any attempt to build the resilience of communities must take into account the reality that such communities are deeply rooted in the physical and geographic place in which they have existed for generations. The culture of these communities has been shaped and defined in many ways by their connections to the biophysical system, whether that is fishing communities in Nova Scotia or Indigenous communities in PEI. Integrating local knowledge into the research – using participatory methodologies – recognized the embeddedness of these communities within the coastal social-ecological system.  It also affirmed the value of such local knowledge. By using these approaches the researchers, together with those in the communities, were able to draw on the knowledge of a broad range of community members, not just the community leaders or the researchers to plan for the future.[4]

Like the spruce trees along the Lighthouse trail near Louisbourg, coastal communities in Atlantic Canada have been and will continue to be shaped by their location close to the sea. With a changing climate, how they will be affected into the future is uncertain. However, among the sources of resilience they can draw on will be the strength of their connection to place, and their ability to integrate different types of knowledge about change and responses to change. Like the spruce trees, resilient communities may be changed in the process but they will continue to survive – even to thrive.

To contact Dr. Carolyn Peach Brown or to learn more about Environmental Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island please visit

Along the lighthouse trail, Cape Breton, NS. Photo by Carolyn Peach Brown, used with permission.

[1] Resilience Alliance. 2017. Accessed November 1, 2017.

[2] Berkes, F., and H. Ross. 2013. “Community resilience: Toward an integrated approach.” Society and Natural Resources 26(1): 5-20.

[3] Brown, H.C. Peach, Angus, R., Armitage, D., Brown, S., Charles, A., Khirfan, L. and J. MacFadyen. 2017. “Building Resilient Coastal Communities in the Context of Climate Change.” pp. 169-190. In L. Brinklow and R. Gibson (Editors) From Dark Horses to White Steeds: Building Community Resilience. Island Studies Press, Charlottetown, PEI.

[4] Ibid.

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Associate Professor and Director of Environmental Studies, a multidisciplinary liberal arts and science program, at the University of Prince Edward Island. Her research focuses on strategies in environmental governance that contribute to sustainable environmental management and improved livelihoods for local communities in a changing climate.

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