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Debate on referendum notably muted in Canada’s most Scottish province

Duncan McGregor sits next to the statue of Scottish poet Robbie Burns at Victoria Park in Halifax September 16, 2014. Scotland goes to the polls to vote on Thursday.

Paul Darrow/The Globe and Mail

Nova Scotia loves to play up its Scottishness. A lone bagpiper welcomes tourists as they enter from New Brunswick along the Trans-Canada Highway during the summer, and a six-foot papier mache lobster, painted in the Nova Scotia tartan design, is stationed in the departure area of the Halifax International Airport, neatly pulling together two important provincial symbols.

There were 288,180 Nova Scotians of Scottish origin, or 31.9 per cent of the population, according to the 2006 census – yet there has been surprisingly little public debate in "New Scotland" about the fate of old Scotland.

As campaigners across the Atlantic worked furiously ahead of Thursday's referendum on independence from the United Kingdom – with the "No" side clinging to a four-point lead, according to the latest opinion polls – the political talk in the province with the Scottish-style flag remains notably muted.

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Still, last week the gentlemen members of the Halifax Burns Club weighed in on the subject at their monthly meeting. Their club is modeled on the Tarbolton Bachelors' Club, founded by Robbie Burns, and seeks to be a "diversion for the weary man worn down by necessary labours of life," according to its website.

It was the second of two debates on Scottish independence – and the majority of the 30 men there voted for Scotland to remain part of the U.K., said Duncan McGregor, the vice-president, an ex-pat who moved here five years ago with his Nova Scotian wife.

"I want everything to remain part of the United Kingdom," said Mr. McGregor, who is in his mid-40s and has a degree in economics. "The younger people want change and they want to make a difference and they are voting with their heart rather than their head. I am kind of hoping that the 30s [demographic] into my generation and beyond will see the benefits of remaining part of the U.K."

At St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Michael Linkletter teaches Gaelic Studies, including the language, which he describes as very poetic – "You'd swear that it's a language that was created to sing in."

Prof. Linkletter says Gaelic has seen a renaissance in the past 20 years, in part because of the establishment in 2006 of the Gaelic Affairs Division in the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage, which promotes the culture. There are 1,275 Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia; in the 2011 census, 300 people said Gaelic was their mother tongue.

This week, the issue was debated in his third-year History of Gaelic Scotland course. A quick poll was taken at the end, with 12 of 16 students in favour of independence, he said.

As for Dr. Linkletter, who grew up in Prince Edward Island and earned his PhD in Celtic languages and literature at Harvard, "if I really went with my heart … I probably would vote 'yes' now. Perhaps I am feeding on the excitement a bit and being more informed about the issues myself – but it would be a cautious 'yes,'" said Dr. Linkletter, who has friends and colleagues in Scotland.

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Scots have been coming to the Maritimes since the 1700s – many of them to Cape Breton and northern Nova Scotia. But it wasn't until the 1930s and the vision of then-premier Angus L. Macdonald, a Cape Bretoner, that Nova Scotia really became Scottish. He served between 1933 and 1940, was elected again in 1945, and died in office in 1954.

"After Macdonald became premier, tartanism triumphed," writes Ian McKay, a Queen's University history professor, in an academic article, Imperial Health: How Nova Scotia became Scottish.

Prof. McKay explains that "tartanism" was a romanticized view of Scotland – all about bagpipes, tartan and highland dancing, but it ignored the politics. "Angus L.," as the premier was known, used this strategy to brand his province to promote tourism.

Looking at census data from the 1920s, Prof. McKay notes that Nova Scotia was not "predominately Scottish, and not the most Scottish of Canadian provinces." A larger percentage of Prince Edward Islanders had Scottish roots.

"Angus L. had no real interest in actual Scottish politics and cold-shouldered Scottish nationalists when, on the basis of his tourism promotion campaign, they thought they might have found [in] him a sympathizer to their cause," Prof. McKay said. If Angus L. were alive today, the professor said, "I think he would have probably voted 'No' in the referendum."

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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