The Maritimes: Hardscrabble Entrepreneurial Lessons

I recently visited New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island and over 10 days drove through much of those Maritime provinces, passing through numerous hamlets and fishing villages. Here are some insights regarding business generally in the Maritimes and some hardscrabble entrepreneurial lessons. 

I start with Fort Louisbourg, NS, established by the French, which thrived from 1713 - 1768 because of the cod fisheries. Legend has it that fishermen could scoop fish straight out of the harbour. The settlement was all about the cod fishery, plundering stock for the Old Country, and sending back dried and salted cod. So, the economics drove the community which thrived. 

After various battles between the French and the English and continued overfishing, the community vanished. More broadly, the plundering of fish in the Maritimes continued until the cod fishery disappeared in the 1990s and 35,000 people were out of work.

There was a lot of business activity within the fort, among them various entrepreneurs. For example, a slave woman named Marie Marguerite Rose was freed by her owners (the Loppinot Family) and she became the first black woman to run a business in what is now Canada. She ran a tavern within the bustling fortress of Louisbourg.

Interestingly, as we flash forward, the federally-owned tourist site of Louisbourg is a one-time and ongoing sinkhole of tax dollars (but for the local and greater good). The reconstruction of the entire Fort has likely absorbed more the $1 billion, as none of the original buildings survived to the present time. It’s an example of federal national building with the government artificially creating jobs in the “have-not” provinces.

That explains the government's commitment to the skewed economics of the Fort. The admission fee is $18.75 per person. It had 67,000 visitors last year; 13,000 during COVID-19, and the highest ever annual total was 102,000. That minimal revenue requires ongoing subsidies to employ the 50-100 people working in the Fort. As one local entrepreneur bemoaned, Parks Canada is not known for its economic or marketing prowess.

The Maritimes generally are not flush with money. That’s reflected in housing. In Vancouver, you have the most expensive houses going for $30-40m and starter homes for $1.5m. In addition, homeowners are getting an equity windfall with rising markets. By contrast, in many places in the Maritimes, you could buy a nice home on a big yard for $250,000–500,000, and there is minimal upside. 

What about the job market? The Maritimes is not a hot spot for job seekers, but there is, of course, always some movement across the country and from newcomers to Canada. It’s always encouraging to see immigrant spunk, like the young and enthusiastic Uber driver I met. He recently left India for better opportunities in Canada. He was working on his Registered Nurse designation. He was attracted to the lower costs in Halifax, though housing was still a problem. He’ll do fine. 

Yet, despite the economic challenges of the Maritimes, there are also entrepreneurs attempting to better the economy. There are a plethora of small family businesses. Many of the lobster restaurants are family businesses, like Hall’s Harbour Lobster Pound (near Wolfville, NS). There are small artisanal businesses in places like Victoria by the Sea (chocolates, candlemakers, and arts & crafts). The entrepreneurial spirit does exist in the Maritimes.

A great example of the entrepreneurial spirit is the North Star Hotel. It was featured in a four-part GEM TV series called “Hotel Hell.” In this instance, two Scottish interior designers (Colin & Justin) who live in Toronto decided to buy a hotel out of bankruptcy and turn it around. They seem to have done just that. The room I stayed in was definitely the nicest looking hotel room I have ever experienced.

Another entrepreneurial story is that of the Hadhad Family, Syrian immigrants who settled in Nova Scotia. Their original chocolate factory in Lebanon was bombed. They started from scratch in Antigonish, NS, and have built “Peace by Chocolate” into a thriving business in a very competitive industry. They are featured in a 2022 movie by the same name (well worth watching). Their chocolate is unique and quite good; Sobey’s is on board as a distributor.

Then there is COWS ice cream, which started in Charlottetown, PEI, in 1983. It now has 11 stores across Canada and Beijing. They have a very large facility in Charlottetown and have become a modern-day entrepreneurial success story. They have won numerous awards for the quality of their product. One of their early stores was set up in the Whistler Village—it has been a popular fixture for a long time. I don’t think many people know that COWS in Whistler originated in PEI. 

Another homegrown company is Ganong Chocolates, founded in 1873 and based in St. Stephen, NB, right on the US border. They have innovated over the years with types of products and packaging (way back originated the heart-shaped chocolate box). They have unique products from “chicken bones” to “Pal-O-Mine” chocolate bars. The company still has family leadership. They are a fixture in the Maritimes and presently employ about 300 staff at One Chocolate Way.

So, there is a long history of entrepreneurship in the Maritimes. There are hardscrabble entrepreneurial lessons—people can succeed, and have done so, but it won’t be easy. The entrepreneurial spirit spurs people on even in a challenging environment.