Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


University extension for social change: The Antigonish Movement

In 1928, in Nova Scotia, Canada, St. Francis Xavier University created an extension department which, under the leadership of Father Moses Coady, developed an original community development program that combined the principles and practices of critical adult education, on the one hand, and of the cooperative movement, on the other.

Coady was a charismatic leader who had a clear vision, and superb oratory and organizing skills. He argued that the essence of a genuine community development project was that participants became masters of their own destiny. Adult educators, in his view, should be aggressive agents of reform who were pivotal actors in mass movements for social change. He firmly believed in cooperativism to address the problems generated by market capitalism, in the power of local community organizing to affect social reality, and in the adequacy of peaceful, democratic means to achieve a more just and humane world.

As soon as he was named director of Extension, Coady put his philosophy in motion in an impoverished area of Nova Scotia known as the Antigonish, where he joined his cousin Jimmy Tompkins, also a Catholic priest, who had been working in the area for several years. In the late 1920s, after holding a first meeting with 600 people, Coady travelled 13,000 kilometers in ten months, organizing up to four meetings a day in fishing villages.

By the summer of 1930, he was able to bring together more than 200 delegates from fishing communities to a meeting in Halifax, in which they founded the United Maritime Fishermen, a marketing cooperative. The members gained skills in fish conservation, marketing, refrigeration and the like, and the cooperative rapidly grew and unexpectedly expanded into other areas such as housing and banking.

Both Coady and Tompkins believed that universities had to go to the people, and not the other way around. Thus, the university generated materials and organizational structures oriented to the social and economic development of the exploited fishing, farming and industrial communities of the region. However, the Movement was not only about starting study clubs and distributing information about how to start and manage co-ops. The most difficult task was to peacefully resolve local conflicts and to persuade people about the benefits of working together towards a common goal, breaking old patterns of passivity and dependence.

The Antigonish movement was based on study circles in which people critically examined their problems and sought collective solutions, and on the traditions of economic cooperation. This formula of collective learning and economic self-reliance rapidly produced a noticeable impact. During the 1930s, the number of study clubs increased from 179 to 1,300, the number of participants of these clubs from 1,500 to 11,000, the number of credit unions from 8 to 170, and the number of co-operative organizations from 2 to 85. In spite of the customs and traditions of the time, women were active participants in the process. The main adult education publication of the Antigonish movement, the Maritime Co-operator, for instance, was entirely managed by local women for a long period of time.

Early in the twentieth century, the Antigonish Movement addressed many of the themes that would reappear decades later in liberation theology and in popular education. Among them were the importance of self-confidence, self-reliance, critical consciousness and solidarity in the construction of an emancipatory movement, the connections between community development, economic co-operation and social justice, and the affirmation of the social mission of the Church expressed in an ethical commitment to the poor and the oppressed. The Antigonish Movement has influenced adult education and community development programs throughout the world. Its creative linkages between adult learning, community organizing and economic cooperation still constitute a source for inspiration.

In 1959, after Coady's death, the St. FX University created the Coady International Institute to train adult educators from developing countries based on the theories and practices of the Antigonish Movement. In the following decades, more than 22,000 people attended courses and seminars organized by the Institute in order to study the Antigonish approach to adult education and to find ways to apply it to their own communities.


Coady, M., Masters of their own destiny. New York, Harper and Bros., 1939.

Stabler, E., Founders: Innovators in education 1830-1980. University of Alberta, Edmonton, 1987.

Laidlaw, A.F., The campus and the community. Montreal, Harvest House, 1961.

Lotz, J. and M. Welton, Father Jimmy. Life and times of Jimmy Tompkins. Breton Books, Cape Breton Island, 1997.

Selman, G., The imaginative training for citizenship. In Scott, S., B. Spencer and A. Thomas (eds.) Learning for life: Canadian readings in adult education. Thompson Educational Publishing, Toronto, 1998.

Selman, G. et al., The foundations of adult education. Thompson Educational Publishing, Toronto, 1998.

Welton, M., The stuggle of memory against forgetting. In Scott, S., B. Spencer and A. Thomas (eds.) Learning for life: Canadian readings in adult education. Thompson Educational Publishing, Toronto, 1998.


Daniel Schugurensky, 2000

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