Before the arrival of Europeans, the Mi'kmaq, who constituted a single linguistic and cultural entity, inhabited all of present-day peninsular Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island, Prince Edward Island and southern and eastern New Brunswick. Only in the upper Saint John River valley were the Wolastoqiyik, who spoke a somewhat different Algonquian dialect but had much in common with their Mi'kmaq neighbours. (See also First Nations on Prince Edward Island; First Nations in Nova Scotia; First Nations in New Brunswick.)
The coming of the French, especially in the early 17th century, challenged the Mi'kmaq-Wolastoqiyik presence in the region. 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 — Louisbourg — to the British. Therefore, in 150 years, the region passed from the Mi'kmaq and Wolastoqiyik 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, a variety of people settled in the area, including Acadians, New Englanders, Protestants from present-day Germany and Switzerland, English, Irish, Scots and a mixture of Loyalists. 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 was radically different, being significantly influenced by the interplay of three major forces: the Atlantic Ocean, New England and Britain. The Atlantic was for many inhabitants of the area a frontier of space and economic abundance, and for them its metaphors coloured many of the cultural expressions of their region.
The second formative force was that of neighbouring New England. Until the American Revolution shattered the Anglo-American empire, the Maritime region was "New England's outpost." Even today, economic, cultural, religious and social ties between the regions are 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 Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island 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.
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 blamed the federal government, based on the following observations: before Confederation there was widespread prosperity and the region shared a feeling of optimism and pride. By comparison, after Confederation there were prolonged economic recessions and a growing sense of inferiority and bitterness.
The anti-Confederation feeling, especially strong in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, provided the emotional substance to much of Maritime regional protest, particularly from 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, and by the end of the decade, the mood in the region had obviously changed. One reason was economic resurgence after 1927, when a construction and tourism boom encouraged the first signs of hope in nearly a decade. Staple industries also revived, as did traditional markets in Britain and the United States. 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 three-quarters went to the United States. For most, the Maritime Rights Movement had led to cynicism and apathy.
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 moved 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.