It’s a wry joke: Saint John is on the Bay of Fundy, which has the world’s highest tides, so it seems that as soon as our ship has come in, it goes out, it comes in, it goes out… And so it has continued for the history of the city, a tide of fame and fortune, or at least some regional importance, followed by bleak years of being a Maritime backwater.
Established in 1785 by a wave of United Empire Loyalists, buoyed by Irish and Scottish immigrants, Saint John became the transportation and manufacturing hub at the centre of a profitable trade between British North America, the Caribbean, and the United Kingdom. Then economic decline followed. The golden age of shipbuilding ended, the Great Fire of 1877 destroyed the city’s business district, and a depression sent many people west to look for jobs.
The pattern continued in the 20th century. Saint John’s ice-free port was the entry point for many goods coming into Canada in the winter. That stopped when the St. Lawrence Seaway was built in the 1950s. Shipbuilding played a huge role in reviving the city’s economy in the 1980s, but then the contracts dried up and the city lost population again.
The cruise ship industry has helped to revive the city once again, and people (including me) have been moving back to find jobs. Just two years ago, Saint John was touted as the new “energy centre” of the Maritimes. Now three potentially huge energy-related projects have been cancelled, and business and industry owners are once again tightening their belts.
So it was somewhat ironic to see Prime Minister Stephen Harper (pictured getting into his car) flying in to make an announcement (about funding for the harbour bridge) last week. Now he’s gone back to Ottawa, and the city is left to its troubles and the ceaseless tide, looking for the ship that never seems to stay in port long enough.