Setting the Heather on Fire – The Antigonish Movement

I fell in love with Nova Scotia in the 1970’s.

It started in Antigonish – green rolling hills, sea bound coast, hundreds of fiddlers performing under the summer stars, John Allen Cameron singing at a local club, caber tossing, and the Coady Institute. The Coady Institute is the inheritor of the famous Antigonish Movement started by two radical priests in the wake of the depression, Father Moses Coady and Father Jimmy Tompkins, who happened to be cousins.

The Antigonish Movement blended social action, economic cooperation and adult education. Father Coady believed, “Human energy must be unleashed by the universal dissemination of ideas.” The basic approach of Coady and Tompkins was the formation of study clubs to address the immediate economic needs of local farmers, miners, fishers and others living in poverty.

At its height the Antigonish Movement launched 1100 study groups with 11,000 members, hundreds of credit unions and a range of coop stores, buying clubs, fish plants, lobster factories and housing throughout Eastern Canada. It’s impossible to visit Nova Scotia today without bumping into the cooperative economy or the community based leadership it ignited.

Alas the Antigonish Movement is better known outside Canada nowadays. Its values, ideas and methods attracted so much interest from South America, Europe, Africa and Asia that the Coady International Institute was created in 1959.

Today Coady brings Canadians and people from the global South together to create effective, practical and sustainable solutions to reduce global poverty and injustice.  There are more than 5,000 Coady graduates and partners working in 130 countries and impacting millions.

The Antigonish Movement anticipated the work of the Brazilian adult educator, Paulo Freire as well as the self-help movement. A proud heritage, alive and actively contributing thanks to Coady.


In a democracy people don’t sit in the economic and social bleachers; they all play the game.

-Father Moses Coady

Can you imagine a piece of the universe

more fit for princes and kings?

I’ll give you ten of your cities

for Marion Bridge and the pleasure it brings.

– from Song for the Mira

Here is John Allen’s version of Song for the Mira, guaranteed to nestle a little of Nova Scotia into your heart. If the video link isn’t available simply follow this link.

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  1. Aaron Johannes

    thanks for this – somehow I had missed the fact that the Antigonish movement pre-dated Freire’s work. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I learned about Father’s Moses Coady and Jimmy Tompkins that I understood a number of my Grandfather’s ideas from 30 or so years ago… as a child who left school at 11 to support himself he got involved in co-operatives and community education later in life in Winnipeg and was a determined self-educator throughout his life. This is really a part of Canada’s history we should pay more attention to.

  2. Debbie Hamilton

    Hello Al,
    I have to play devils advocate and dismiss the movement of Antigonish as a movement only for that time. Yes it has given Nova Scotia the Coady Institute, and there are great things happening outside of Canada, but what about Nova Scotia today? Where is the movement? Where is the Coady Institute? What happen to the cooperatives and credit unions that helped the people of the 20s and 30s. Of late there have been many reports about the economic struggles happening in Nova Scotia. Its now or never ( being one of them. I have to wonder if the movement was a one time deal and we just like to talk about it because it makes us feel good to be Canadian. I feel it is a part of our history that should be paid more attention to…just as your previous commenter said…but seriously.

    • Al Etmanski

      thanks Debbie. I am interested in learning from movements that have had impact to see if there are critical ingredients that made them successful and that we ignore at our peril. It strikes me the genuine grass roots dimensions of movements like Antigonish are not reflected in many of today’s initiatives or movements. Including in social innovation work. What do you think?

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