Nova Scotia Archives

'The Way We Were': Nova Scotia in Film, 1917-1957

Darrell Varga, 'Margaret Perry and the Nova Scotia Film Bureau' (2010). Wherever possible in the text below, discussion of specific film footage available within the Virtual Cinema component of this website has been linked directly to that footage.

Margaret Perry and the Nova Scotia Film Bureau

By the time of her death in 1998, there was a flourishing film and television industry in this province, but for many decades Margaret Perry was the Nova Scotia film industry. Born Margaret Rice in 1905 in Upper Mills, New Brunswick, in 1934 she married Stanley Perry, then head of the department of geology at the University of New Brunswick. Following his untimely death in 1936, Perry took a brief correspondence course and began to explore photography and filmmaking as a career.

Margaret Perry

In 1942, she was one among the hundreds of nascent filmmakers recruited by John Grierson to work in Ottawa for the newly established National Film Board of Canada. Grierson, patriarch of documentary film in this country, hired a goodly number of women over the years, and in a backhanded compliment observed that they "had ideas above the station to which it had pleased God to call them" — although in this more earthly station he paid them far less than men.1 Perry worked on many films while at the NFB, including the script for Grand Manan (1943) about fishing in the Bay of Fundy, which emphasized the interdependence of people within the community and the value of the cooperative movement. She also directed Trappers of the Sea (1945), which explored the role of cooperatives in the Nova Scotia lobster fishery.2

At the end of World War II, Perry was offered a position with the Government of Nova Scotia and was supported in this career move by Grierson, who envisioned mini-versions of the NFB established across Canada. While it would take until 1974 for the Board to open an office in the Atlantic region, in 1945 Margaret Perry became Director of Motion Picture Publicity Films for the provincial government. Equipped at first with a single camera and tripod, she was the only filmmaker on staff until 1959, after which she continued to work as director and producer until her retirement in 1969.3 Throughout this period she made over fifty films, carrying out scriptwriting, directing, cinematography, editing, negative cutting, and the supervision of final mixing and production of the 16mm release prints — a tremendous volume of work, especially in the pre-digital era.

Perry's first major production in Nova Scotia was Battling Bluefins (1947) click to view film, a companion piece to the later Bluefin Rodeo (1960); both were made to promote Atlantic Ocean tuna fishing. Battling Bluefins won a prize at a documentary film festival in Rome in 1951 and in this way helped draw international attention to local culture and maritime life. Over the years, Perry's work at the Film Bureau was done for various government departments, but the primary focus and intent was always the promotion of tourism and industrial development in Nova Scotia. This dual purpose — to promote tourism with images of pristine landscape while depicting Nova Scotia as integrated into the technological flux of modern life — creates a consistent and interesting tension within the films, between images evoking an anti-modern culture amidst natural splendor, and those that glorify relentless industrial progress.

These are the forgotten products of film history, made for informational and propaganda purposes without concern for their place in the sphere of entertainment, never mind the legacy of film history. Films such as these were made for specific purposes reflecting the immediate needs of the day. A good example is Lobsters Unlimited (1959), which examined the economic value of what was, at the time, an unfamiliar delicacy: "The lobster is a bizarre looking creature, even frightening." Twice in the film we see a lobster placed upon a map of the province as the narrator strains to tell us "Nova Scotia even has the shape of a lobster."

These films are essentially time capsules of social attitudes and everyday life at the time of their creation — clothing, cars, buildings, and the ever-changing landscape, together producing an 'idea' of Nova Scotia that reflects the time of their production and reveals as much by what is left out of the picture as by what is inside the frame. It also needs to be said that the dichotomy of the quaint and the modern presented in these films was very much of its time and by no means unique to Perry's work in Nova Scotia. In this way, the films are a measure of the broader ideals of culture and taste that were prevalent then.

For example, an otherwise banal informational film on fishing techniques, Otter Trawling (1948) click to view film provides powerful close-up images of grizzled fishermen and reminds us that fishing is hard work. In Nova Scotia By-Ways, we are invited to pull off to the side of the road and talk to fishermen, in order to learn about their work and hear a well-told ghost story. Gateway to the World (1947) click to view film details the value of Halifax Harbour for international commerce and as a military port, but also provides images of stevedores labouring on the dockside — a job now all but vanished in the modern age of container shipping.

In Perry's work, the ocean is presented both as playground and as economic resource; many of her films begin with outstanding nature photography, even if their focus quickly becomes industrial development. Similarly, her films may detail the economic value of the fishing industry, but just as strongly emphasize leisure and sport fishing — we see, for example, pastoral scenes of fly-fishing on a quiet river, as well as 'big game' fishing for giant tuna on the ocean. Some of the images of men on the water in Free From Care (1965) are as powerful as the great American filmmaker Robert Flaherty's mythic images in his final film, Louisiana Story (1948). As in Flaherty's film, Perry gives us a masculine ideal of the conquering of nature, and where we see a woman fishing it is described as "just for the fun of it" and with a much smaller catch. Free From Care also provides us with a strange dream sequence of a hunter being outwitted by a white-tailed deer. The animal is swiftly slain upon awakening, followed by plenty of backslapping among the happy hunters.

In Grounds for Fishing (1955) click to view film, the narrator tells us "Perhaps no group of sportsmen are bigger dreamers than fishermen. ...They can dream of fish standing inline to get on the hook. It is no wonder that they dream of Nova Scotia where the rivers leap with salmon and the trout have traffic signals." The dream turns to the sublime later in the same film, over images of men playing cards and smoking by the fireplace: "When the night has settled down over the lakes and rivers, the time of magic comes to the camp. For though the day gives sport and action, it is the night that saturates the body with pleasure and binds the heart with memories."

Tourism imagery in Nova Scotia has traditionally emphasized the great outdoors, but in the years following World War II it was just as likely to project scenes of industrial progress. For instance, in Road to Keltic (1956) click to view film, which promoted Keltic Lodge as a tourist destination on Cape Breton Island, we see blasting and bulldozing of rock for the Canso Causeway, the man-made link between mainland Nova Scotia and the island. The narrator intones, with breathless certainty underscored with heavy orchestration: "In 1951 the dream came to life! The blasts that shattered the peaceful quiet of the countryside marked the beginning of one of the world's deepest causeways. The stony face of Cape Porcupine crumbled. Loads of rock and fill splashed into the strait." The conquest of nature is later met with a post WWII ideal of recreation that strains to be inclusive: "The coffee shop is popular with the young types. A snack or sandwich can be a potent stimulant after a swim, a hike, or a round of tennis."

Footage of the opening ceremony for the completed causeway shows a mass of people walking across the new roadway, led by a marching band and the inevitable bagpipers. The 'dream' was an appeal to American tourists, but the 'reality' was that the causeway also allowed Cape Bretoners to drift away from the island more easily, in search of work elsewhere — an observation omitted, of course, from the film. Instead, the images in Road to Keltic reflect the optimism associated with industrial development and the automotive age and the conquering of nature in order to facilitate travel to a region, all marketed under the guise of untrammeled wilderness. The causeway was celebrated as a form of nation building and the first blast of dynamite was broadcast on national CBC Radio.4

Road to Keltic also portrays the modern highway as gateway to the quaint folk culture to be found at the end of the road5 — a form of tourism marketing relying on an invented tradition that makes claims to a timeless authenticity. The highway cannot simply exist as a component of the present, but is ideologically constructed as a link with an imagined past and in this instance, with the idealized naturalization of Scottish heritage in Nova Scotia. As Marjorie Harper and Michael Vance indicate, the specific representation of 'Scottishness' is by no means neutral: "Until about 1925, Scottish immigrants were either portrayed as uncivilized, quarrelsome and litigious or, by the late nineteenth century, were increasingly ignored as irrelevant, pre-industrial bystanders in celebrations of Nova Scotia's material progression to cosmopolitan status. ...Yet, paradoxically, by the 1930s, Nova Scotia Premier Angus L. MacDonald had begun promoting his province's 'tartan' heritage — a process that continues to this day."6

Ian McKay points out, in describing the image of the province presented early in the 20th century, that "neither tourists nor local residents considered Scots, isolated fishing villages, or rocky coastlines particularly interesting or beautiful. ...and, like Anne of Green Gables, Evangeline, always portrayed as a sweet and vulnerable girl, appealed to sexist notions of 'woman's place'."7 During this first wave of modern Nova Scotia tourism, the focus was the Evangeline myth and the verdant Annapolis Valley — a location later taken up by Perry in Apple Valley (1959), a film detailing apple production from seedling to overseas market, including the in-between steps of crowning the apple queen and viewing a local parade complete with giant pies!

In Highland Heart of Nova Scotia (1964) we are told: "Though many races have made it their home, the Scot, living in its Forest Glen, has made it Nova Scotia's Scottish island." The beauty of the place is echoed by the presence of international luminary Alexander Graham Bell and we see footage of his 1919 test flight for his 'Silver Dart' aircraft on Baddeck Bay. In Old New Scotland (1954), the narrator allows a brief listing of settlers from various European countries, but the words are spoken over images of Highland dancing, as if to assert a Scottish ideal. That same film tells us of the difficulties faced by Champlain's first settlers: "Acadia was a lonely place where no other white people lived."

In many of these films, there is a mix of the modern and the pastoral. The province is established as a destination offering relief from the stress of modern life, but with modern conveniences available and paved roads to get you there. Prior to WWII, the tourism image of the province emphasized the place as undomesticated and not noticeably different from its southern neighbour. As Stephen Hornsby and John Reid describe it, "Travel writers portrayed Maine and the Maritimes as an undifferentiated paradise for sportsmen, and the states and provinces responded to the influx of wealthy tourists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by aggressively restricting the hunting and fishing activities of existing populations."8

Throughout these films, First Nations peoples are largely absent, except as a colourful backdrop to tourism, the gentle icons of a pre-modern era — although in some instances they are evoked in more sinister terms. For example, in Marine Highway (1957) click to view film, a tourism film extolling the virtues of Nova Scotia's Eastern Shore, the town of Dartmouth is presented as the traveler's starting point and as a bustling urban centre, but we are warned: "Its early history was far from uneventful. The village stirred with the continuous murderous attacks by the MicMac Indians." The blind stereotype imbedded in this prose is at odds with the picture-postcard photography of the film.

Perry's films, in fact, unintentionally follow the dominant stereotypes of First Nations as depicted over the course of North American history, portrayed simultaneously as virtuous and as savage. Historian Daniel Francis describes this duality: "Europeans have tended to imagine the Indian rather than to know native people, thereby to project onto Native people all the fears and hopes they have for the New World. If America was a Garden of Eden, then Indians must be seen as blessed innocents. If America was an alien place, then Indians must be seen to be frightful and bloodthirsty."9

Marine Highway presents a narrative of progress where the past is kept at a safe distance. Apart from the occasional "murderous attack," history is depicted as safe and loveable; we see famed Nova Scotia folklorist Helen Creighton recording folksongs along the shore, while we are told that "Like the folk songs are the highways. They spread in all directions, linking one place with another, making new places familiar." Here the landscape is a place to play, and buff bodies are frolicking in water sports. Based on whom we see on the screen, we would never know of the many African Nova Scotian communities scattered throughout the province. Instead, our eyes are drawn to the quaint landscape: "Drab fishing shacks are silver grey and glamorous in the eyes of the artist who sees beyond their homely use and gives them dignity and beauty." This single line of narration could, indeed, be taken as the mission statement for all of Margaret Perry's Nova Scotia films.

Perry's crowning achievement is Glooscap Country (1961) click to view film, a carefully made re-telling of the Mi'kmaq creation story, presented with narration and through beautiful wildlife and landscape shots. Among other things it is an anecdote to the stereotype of First Nations articulated in Marine Highway, but then it is portraying a story and not the people themselves. Government bureaucrats at the time were more concerned that the film omitted evidence of human civilization, asking, as Adrian Willsher notes, "Where are the roads?"10 This complaint indicates the limitations under which these films were made.

When we see First Nations peoples in these tourism films, it is typically through a pre-modern perspective, situating them as separate from present-day society. As Willsher indicates: "The Mi'kmaq become history, become a people who have no present living culture at mid-century and are often remembered only in monuments, or exist in the present only for the continued exploitation of their interesting appearance."11 It was not part of the commonsense logic of the time, for example, to have Glooscap narrated by a Mi'kmaq storyteller.

Like all such films that make a claim to the past, Glooscap Country reveals much about the biases of the time in which it was made. The film is nonetheless a poetic rendering of the landscape, detailing the diverse beauty of the terrain and the abundance of wildlife. The final words of the film capture Glooscap as aged and weary, but they also voice a kind of melancholy for all the conflicting images of progress and development which have unspooled in Margaret Perry's body of films: "He looked over the sombre waters, and the shadows darkened the sunlit beaches. He heard from afar his messengers warn of the coming of the pale-face warriors. Saddened, he called his people to a final feast at their gathering place on the shore. The feast over, he threw his teakettle into the sea where, upturning, it became an island. And to this day the tea leaves from Glooscap's kettle wash up on the lonely beaches."

Darrell Varga ©2010
Canada Research Chair in Contemporary Film and Media Studies
Nova Scotia College of Art and Design


1.     Annette Kuhn and Susannah Radstone, eds., The Women's Companion to International Film (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 281.

2.     The NFB's Atlantic studio later produced a film overview of Perry's career called Margaret Perry: Filmmaker (1987). Les Krizsan, who worked with Perry in the early years of his own career, directed it and later became an accomplished Director of Photography for many dramatic productions made in Nova Scotia. Details of the NFB films can be found at

3.     Ned Norwood was hired into the department in 1959, shared credit with Perry on many films, and eventually took over upon her retirement.

4.     Elaine Ingalls Hogg, When Canada Joined Cape Breton (Halifax: Nimbus, 2005), 9.

5.     Adrian Alexander Willsher, "Where Are the Roads?: The Tourist and Industrial Promotion Films of the Nova Scotian Film Bureau," Dalhousie University, unpublished M.A. Thesis, 1996, 97.

6.     Marjorie Harper and Michael E. Vance, Myth, Migration and the Making of Meaning (Halifax: Fernwood—Gorsebrook Research Institute for Atlantic Canada Studies, 1999), 29.

7.     Ian MacKay, "The Five Ages of Nova Scotian Tourism," in New Maritimes (July-Aug 1987): 8. See also Mackay's excellent book on the uses of folk imagery to promote a depoliticized anti-modernism in the province: The Quest of the Folk: Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in 20th Century Nova Scotia (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's, 1994).

8.     Stephen J. Hornsby and John G. Reid, eds. New England and the Maritime Provinces: Connections and Comparisons (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005), 13.

9.     Daniel Francis, The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1992), 8.

10.     Willsher, 112.

11.     Willsher, 47.