Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick cover 133,850 km2 — just a little more than one per cent of Canada's land surface. The populations of Nova Scotia at 913,462, New Brunswick at 729,997 and Prince Edward Island at 135,851 constituted about 5.6 per cent of the Canadian total of 31,612,897 (2006c). As part of a nation that has placed great stress on unlimited size, almost limitless space, and also on western development, Maritimers often found themselves, as the 20th century unfolded, pushed to the periphery of Canadian development, a trend that has continued into the next century.

The Maritimes constitute a cluster of peninsulas and islands which form the northeastern extension of the Appalachian highlands and are also significantly affected by the Atlantic Ocean. The tension between the pull of the continent and that of the Atlantic has, over the centuries, shaped the region's cultural, social, political and economic development. For much of its human period — both before and after European settlement — the Maritime region was a homeland for a distinctive group of people. Before the arrival of the first Europeans, the Mi'kmaq, who constituted a single linguistic and cultural entity, inhabited all of present-day peninsular Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island, PEI and southern and eastern New Brunswick. Only in the upper Saint John River valley were the Maliseet, who spoke a somewhat different Algonquian dialect but had much in common with their Mi'kmaq neighbours.

With the coming of the French, especially in the early 17th century, the Mi'kmaq-Maliseet hegemony over the region was challenged. From its beginnings in 1604 French Acadia gradually came into existence, a territory roughly encompassing that now covered by the Maritime provinces. Though made up largely of isolated settlements, Acadia was united by a common language, culture and economy. By 1763 France was compelled to surrender its last remaining outpost in Acadia-Nova Scotia (see Louisbourg) to the British. Thus, in 150 years, the region had passed from Mi'kmaq-Maliseet control to the French; then, after 1713, to the dual sovereignty of France and Britain; and finally, after 1763, to undisputed British control.

Once Britain controlled the entire region, ethnic heterogeneity characterized its settlement. Acadians, New Englanders, foreign Protestants from present-day Germany and Switzerland, English, Irish, Scots and a mixture of Loyalists provided Nova Scotia, New Brunswick (created in 1784 for the Loyalists) and PEI with their unique ethnic composition. This basic Anglo-Saxon and Acadian ethnic mix was virtually unaffected by the hundreds of thousands of European immigrants who, bypassing the Maritimes, flooded into Canada, especially after 1900.

At Confederation in 1867, the Maritime provinces had little in common with Canada. The region's development had been radically different, and furthermore a Maritime distinctiveness had been significantly influenced by the interplay of 3 major forces: those of the Atlantic, New England and Britain. The Atlantic was for many inhabitants of the area a frontier of space and abundance, and for them its metaphors coloured many of the cultural expressions of their region. Its powerful appeal helped to provide, for some, not only an escape from the grim and often mundane realities of everyday existence, but also a sense of acute fatalism affected by the conviction that the environment could never effectively be mastered.

The second formative force, not only at Confederation but also throughout the post-Indian period, was that of neighbouring New England. Until the American Revolution shattered the Anglo-American empire, the Maritime region was "New England's Outpost," and even in the 1980s economic, cultural, religious and social ties between the regions were surprisingly strong.

The British connection was the third formative force. After France's direct exercise of power in North America was eliminated, Britain's influence over the Maritimes was unrivalled. The arrival of thousands of Loyalists during and after the American Revolution, and the tens of thousands of British immigrants who settled in the region during the 19th century, reinforced Britain's influence. The interaction of these forces before 1867 gave the inhabitants of NS, NB and PEI a strong sense of provincial identity. They did not view themselves as Maritimers, and certainly not as Canadians, but rather as British Islanders, British Nova Scotians or British New Brunswickers.

It may be argued that the Maritime provinces have never fully recovered psychologically from the traumatic experience of Confederation and the sudden end in the late 19th century of the golden age of "Wooden Ships and Iron Men" (see Shipping History). Before Confederation, many Maritimers believed that their region had unlimited economic potential and that theirs was the most sophisticated and best administered of all the British colonies possessing responsible government. It was felt that the Maritimes had a special role to play in the evolution of a new British Empire.

The development of this sense of destiny came to a sudden halt after Confederation when the Maritimes found themselves left out of the westward transcontinental thrust of the new Canada, bypassed by immigrants to the interior, and lacking natural and human resources for industrialization. Most Maritimers believed the identity of the villain was obvious: the federal government in Ottawa. The proof was there - before Confederation there had been widespread prosperity and the entire region had shared a feeling of optimism and pride. After Confederation there were prolonged economic recessions and a growing sense of inferiority and bitterness.

The anti-Confederation feeling, especially strong in Nova Scotia, provided the emotional substance to much of Maritime regional protest, particularly 1867-1930. Maritimers tended to remain quiet until those periods of extreme economic crisis when their discontent and their suspicion of "Upper Canada" and "Upper Canadians" could be channelled into regional political protest (see Repeal Movement).

The Maritime rights Movement of the 1920s was the last significant manifestation of regional protest and anti-Confederation feeling. Because the movement had never sought political involvement outside the traditional two-party system, it could not transform the regional grievances into a permanent political framework. Even the Conservatives, who had been champions of the movement, soon became Conservatives first and Maritime Righters second. Maritime Rights made good political rhetoric. It could help win elections, could be carefully stored until the next election, and did not demand political action or political sacrifice. It made more sense for pragmatic Maritimers to avoid the possible confrontation towards which the thrust of their regional complaints was driving them. To deviate from the two-party system was considered political suicide. Evidently, central Canadian progress and development could not be reversed by "paranoid" regional protest separated from "power politics."

The mood of the Maritime region had obviously changed by the end of the 1920s. One reason was economic resurgence after 1927, when a construction and tourism boom encouraged the first signs of hope in nearly a decade. The staples industries also revived, as did the traditional markets in Britain and the US. Capital development gave new importance to the pulp and paper industry. But revival was largely restricted to areas such as the Annapolis Valley, Cape Breton, Halifax County and Saint John.

Elsewhere the decline continued, and consequently there was a steady exodus of young Maritimers — at least 300,000 from 1900 to 1930, of whom fully three-quarters went to the US. The social costs of such emigration are incalculable, but it seems reasonable to assume that those with ambition and initiative more often left the region than stayed. The remaining population resigned itself to a collective fate only as promising as their individual prospects of success. For most, the Maritime Rights Movement had led to "cynicism and apathy"; a feeling of dependence had replaced regional pride and the cutting edge of alienation had been worn smooth by a prevailing indifference to change.

By the late 1970s the Maritimes had undergone a remarkable transformation of collective identity. No longer were Maritimers the most vociferous critics of Confederation and Canada; they had become, in an ironic twist of historical development, ardently Canadian. They had been able to move beyond the point of merely stressing their Maritime distinctiveness to a position where they could, at the same time, freely discuss and contemplate their powerful emotional attachment to Canada. When a person is able to admit to being an ardent Islander, New Brunswicker or Nova Scotian and an ardent Canadian at the same time, it reveals an ability to integrate two quite different, but not incompatible, levels of identity.

According to Northrop Frye, this dynamic tension between the imaginative sense of locality and the attachment to Canada is the essence of whatever the word "Canadian" means. Nova Scotians are Nova Scotians, Islanders are Islanders, and New Brunswickers are New Brunswickers, because as one Maritime premier put it in 1967, "we're Canadians before we're anything else."

See also Atlantic Provinces.