Learning, or Unlearning, Collectivist Traditions? Economic and Social Change in a Cape Breton Fishing Community

Submitted by Sonja Johnston on Mon, 02/24/2020 - 08:33

Julie Zatzman is a doctoral candidate in the OISE Department of Adult Education & Community Development and is the 2019-21 Amilcare Iannucci Graduate Fellow in the Humanities. Julie's doctoral research aims to shed light on an increasingly urgent question: why, with all the alarming news concerning the state of the environment and climate change, do some communities take progressive action, while others do not? Julie provided the text for this post.

Set against a global background of sharply declining wild fish stocks, Julie’s research asks if situated learning theory can help identify influences that moved the coastal village of Cheticamp away from its environmentally friendly collectivist traditions.

Julie’s presentation briefly traced the history of the fishery off Atlantic Canada. In 1497, John Cabot found that fish were so abundant they could be caught simply by lowering a basket into the water.

unused dory with lobster pots
Traditional dory by Parsonsphotography.bp - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28034953

Over the next five hundred years, capital investment in fishing had increased fishing efficiency so much that stocks of Northern cod off Atlantic Canada were decimated. In response, Canada’s federal government placed a moratorium on the fishery in 1992, throwing some 40,000 people out of work. Though scientists expected the fishery would resume within 10 years, stocks have yet to recover. The federal government also restructured the fishery at that time, in effect privatizing access to the right to fish through individual transferable quotas (ITQs). However, research has found that ITQs have been associated with negative social, economic, and environmental repercussions (Carothers, 2015; Olson, 2011; Pinkerton and Davis, 2015) and are unlikely to curtail overfishing (Pauly and Zeller, 2017).

Other research suggests a locally managed, democratic and cooperative approach to protecting the resource is more effective (Armitage, D., Charles, A., & Birkes, F., 2017; Tolley, Gregory, & Martin, 2015).

Three inshore fishing boats at dock
Inshore fishing boats by James Somers - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2569288

However, despite its celebrated history of cooperative community development (Quarter, 1992), Cheticamp offered no resistance to the government’s privatization plan. Some other communities have, implementing alternative local, cooperative measures in an attempt to preserve the fishery and the continuing viability of the coastal communities that depend on it. Why did Cheticamp, with its cooperative traditions, accept the government’s privatization of the fishery?

Fishing trawler in port
Commercial trawler by skagman - https://www.flickr.com/photos/16822508@N05/3177194833/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5940908

Julie’s research will employ a novel application of situated learning theory (Lave, 1988; Lave and Wenger, 1991) and critical ethnography (Madison, 2012) interviewing techniques to explore factors that influenced the thinking of Cheticamp fishers at the time of the industry restructuring. Unlike many psychological conceptions of cognition which understand learning as something that takes place entirely in our brains, situated learning theory conceives of learning as a dimension of social practice that incorporates specific historical, social, cultural, political, and personal influences. Building on ideas from other Fellow presentations, findings from the research might help us create more effective counter narratives to our current understanding of our relationship to nature, thereby supporting more environmentally sustainable behaviours.



Armitage, D., Charles, A., & Birkes, F. (2017). Governing the coastal commons: Communities, resilience and transformation. New York: Routledge.

Carothers, C. (2015). Fisheries privatization, social transition, and well-being in Kodiak, Alaska, Marine Policy, 61, 313-322.

Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Maddison, D. (2012). Critical ethnography: Method, ethics, and performance (2nd. ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

Olson, J. (2011). Understanding and contextualizing social impacts from the privatization of fisheries: An overview. Ocean and Coastal Management, 54, 353-363.

Pauly, D., & Zeller, D. (2017). Comments on FAO’s State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture (SOFIA 2016). Marine Policy, 77, 176-181.

Pinkerton, E. & Davis, R. (2015). Neoliberalism and the politics of enclosure in North American small-scale fisheries, Marine Policy, 6, 303-312.

Quarter, J. (1992). Canada’s social economy: Co-operatives, non-profits, and other community enterprises. Davidson, NC: Lorimer.

Tolley, B., Gregory, R., & Marten, G. (2015). Promoting resilience in a regional seafood system: New England and the Fish Locally Collaborative. Journal of Environmental Sciences Studies, 5 (593-607).