Newfoundland and Labrador

Newfoundland, the youngest of the Canadian provinces, joined Confederation in 1949. Some portion of its coast was undoubtedly one of the first parts of the continent seen by Europeans. Its total area is 405, 720 km2, of which Labrador makes up almost three-quarters (294,330 km2). The island of Newfoundland is the easternmost region of Canada, while Labrador is located on the mainland to the northwest. Since John Cabot's arrival on the “new isle” the island has been referred to as Terra Nova, or in English, Newfoundland. Labrador probably received its name from the Portuguese designation, "Terra del Lavradors."

Land and Resources

The province is physically divided into two major units of unequal area: the much larger mainland territory of Labrador to the north; and the smaller island of Newfoundland to the south. Within each there are distinct variations in the physical characteristics of the environment, in the occurrence and availability of natural resources, and corresponding variations in the pattern of human settlement.

In Labrador there are three such sub-regions: a northern coastal region, which is ruggedly mountainous, deeply fjorded, grows only ground-level subarctic vegetation and has very little settlement; a southern coastal region that has a rugged, barren foreshore and a forested hinterland, with light to moderate settlement; and the bulk of the vast interior, which comprises a well-forested, dissected plateau, and where settlement is concentrated in a few large towns.

On the island of Newfoundland there are four distinct regions: the west coast, the interior, the northeast coast and the south coast. The west coast is dominated by the table-topped Long Range Mountains, which rise to 814 m. They are bordered in places by narrow, well-forested coastal plains and are frequently penetrated by glacially-deepened valleys and by several large fjord-like bays, the largest of which are the Bay of Islands and Bonne Bay.

There is almost continuous settlement in the bays and coves along the west coast. There is also some interior settlement in the Codroy Valley to the south and around Deer Lake, which lies on a small plain within the mountain range. The interior is a plateau-like region with frequent undulations in the terrain representing the ridges and slopes of the watersheds carved out by the major stream systems. Four large rivers — Exploits, Gander, Humber and Terra Nova — drain most of the area.

The west coast supports extensive forest stands, particularly on the gentle slopes of the major watersheds. Settlements are widely separated and most of the population is concentrated in a few large towns associated with forest or mineral resource use and with transportation services.

The northeast coast, with its numerous bays, islands and headlands, fronts on the Atlantic Ocean from the Great Northern Peninsula to the Avalon Peninsula. Inland sections of this region are generally well forested, but exposed headlands and offshore islands have low, scrubby vegetation. The region has a shoreline typical of land that was submerged by glaciation and, in places, rebounded after the ice caps melted. Thus, there are innumerable bays, coves, islands and fjords which often provide excellent harbours. It is also an area that can annually expect to be blocked by arctic drift ice throughout the winter and early spring. Settlement has developed along the shores of most of the bays and on some offshore islands.

St. John's Harbour, Narrows
Approach to St. John's Harbour, known as the Narrows, 207 m wide (Colour Library Books).
St. John's Town and Harbour
Painting by W. Eagar, 1831 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-003371).

The south coast region coincides with the whole southern portion of the Island of Newfoundland. This coast also has the deeply embayed characteristics of a submerged shoreline. It is not blocked by arctic drift ice, although in some years parts of the eastern Avalon Peninsula as far south as St John's may be cut off for a few days.

The inland areas of the island are generally hilly and rugged while shallow bogs and heath vegetation covers much of the land. The variation in climate and in the nature of the terrain dictates a similar variation in the nature of vegetation and growth rates. Generally the well-drained lowlands have the best forest growth, and there are sufficient timber stands to constitute an important resource.


Labrador occupies the easternmost section of the Canadian Shield and comprises mostly tough, ancient Precambrian igneous and metamorphic rocks. There are some areas of softer sedimentary rocks, notably in the west in a formation called the Labrador Trough. This area contains some of the most extensive iron ore deposits in North America. The interior region is plateau-like, on average about 450 m above sea level and greatly dissected by large, east-flowing rivers, such as the Churchill River and its tributaries. These rivers cut through the eastern rim of the saucer-shaped shield to discharge into the Labrador Sea. This rim is largely mountainous, especially in the north, where the Torngat Mountains rise to over 1,500 m. Of these, the highest is Mount Caubvick at 1,652 m.

Torngat Mountains
The deep fjords, finger lakes and spectacular rock walls of the Torngat Mountains in Labrador are the legacy of glaciation (photo by John Foster/Masterfile).

In 1993, a large nickel, copper and cobalt discovery was made at Voisey Bay (approximately 35 km southwest of Nain). It is considered the richest base metal discovery since the Second World War.

The Island of Newfoundland is part of the Appalachian system and displays the typical southwest to northeast alignment in its major bays, peninsulas, river systems and mountain ranges. Rocks are more varied on the Island than in Labrador. Continental drifting, followed by frequent periods of crustal deformation, interspersed by long periods of erosion and deposition, have combined to produce this great variety in types and ages.

The oldest rocks are Precambrian and occur in the east, in and around the Avalon and Burin peninsulas; they are mostly folded sedimentary rocks, but in a few areas later intrusions have solidified into volcanic rocks. Small remnants of gently sloping Cambrian and Ordovician sedimentary rocks occur in pockets along the coast. The most significant are in Conception Bay, where the Ordovician rocks that form Bell Island contain layers of hematite iron ore with estimated reserves of billions of tonnes.

The central and western portions of the Island are underlaid by a great variety of Palaeozoic rocks of sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic origin, within which crustal deformation has been generally severe. Long periods of erosion following periods of uplift have left a poly-cyclical landscape with the remnants of old erosion surfaces displayed in the plateau-like interior and on the flat-topped mountains of the Long Range. A mineralized belt in these Palaeozoic rocks, stretching from an area on the south coast just east of Channel-Port Aux Basques to the general area of western Notre Dame Bay on the northeast coast, contain ores composed of copper, lead, zinc, gold and silver.

The youngest and least-disturbed rocks of this Palaeozoic series lie in and around the coastal plain on the west coast. These are Mississippian and Pennsylvanian, containing much gypsum, which is quarried, and limestone. There are a few coal deposits and signs of petroleum, but nothing of commercial value has been discovered. Off Newfoundland’s coast, extensive deposits of Cretaceous rock stretch the length of the Grand Banks.


All areas of the province show the effects of continental glaciation during the Pleistocene era, the final stages of which are dated to 7,000 years ago. Moving ice sheets scoured and sculpted the province’s surface. Most of the unconsolidated parent material beneath present-day soils consists of glacial debris or marine sediments.

The interior regions of both Labrador and the Island are strewn with lakes and covered with moraines, and give evidence of an immense ice cap, which initially moved radially outward from a centre west of Labrador, but in the later periods of the Pleistocene period broke down into smaller, separate ice caps with centres in Labrador, the west-central Island and the Avalon Peninsula.

Most coastal regions are fjorded where the ice channelled down the valleys of the pre-glacial fluvial system. The longest and most steep-sided fjords occur in northern Labrador and around the Great Northern Peninsula of the Island, but there are several places where this scouring effect from ice movement is absent. Most bays have been deepened and are often fjord-like in character. Many places in the north of the Island and in Labrador show, because of postglacial uplift, raised shorelines and large stretches of marine sediments.

The most striking and extensive marine deposits are those in the remnants of raised deltas that occur around St George's Bay and around Happy Valley-Goose Bay in Labrador at the mouth of the Churchill River. Coastal features, such as offshore islands, spits, tombolos and bay-mouth bars (barachoix), which are typical of a submerged shoreline, are common throughout the south and southeast coastal regions.

In northern Labrador, and in high places throughout the province, soils are generally coarse and immature. Due to cool temperatures and exposure to hard environmental conditions, vegetation is either entirely lacking or is only of the subarctic, lichen, tundra or ground-level variety.

Due to deep surface deposits, there are excellent forest stands in the interior regions, such as on the watersheds of the Churchill, Exploits, Humber and Gander rivers. Extensive bogland has developed in the many hollows of this glaciated landscape. The forest is made up of several of the species common to the boreal forest that stretches across northern North America.

Boreal Forest Floor
Wetlands, composed of acidic peat bogs, fens and marshes cover large areas of the boreal forest (photo by Bill Brooks/Masterfile).

Balsam fir predominates as the most common tree in Newfoundland and the second most common in Labrador. Black spruce and balsam fir are dominant in close forests, but the ratio is dependent upon site type. Balsam fir, for example, regenerates more successfully in places that have been clear cut. Nevertheless, black spruce grows particularly well, especially in open stands and where forest has regenerated after fire, and approximately one third of Newfoundland’s forests and two thirds of Labrador’s forests are black spruce. Subdominants are represented by larch, pine and typical boreal deciduous species such as paper birch, aspen, alder, pin cherry and mountain ash.

Many of the non-forested areas support ground-level, mossy plants, some of which are food for wildlife, while others, such as the blueberry, partridge berry and bakeapple ("cloudberry"), can be gathered for human consumption.


Through scouring and deposits, glaciation left a pockmarked landscape capable of storing vast quantities of water in thousands of lakes, ponds and bogs. Many of the ponds are shallow, but many of the lakes are in large, old valleys deepened by glacial scouring and dammed by glacial deposits. In interior Labrador hundreds of lakes have been combined by means of canals, dikes and dams, to create the 6,527 km2 Smallwood Reservoir (roughly one-third the size of Lake Ontario) behind the huge hydro development of Churchill Falls.

Because of the moist climate and plentiful snowfall, the water table is high in all areas, lakes are usually full and rivers flow perennially. There is naturally some seasonal fluctuation and occasionally very wet or dry years, but water shortages for domestic or industrial use are rare.


Climate varies considerably throughout the province. Interior Labrador has a continental climate, but the southeastern areas around the Burin and Avalon peninsulas are marine. The transitional variation makes it difficult to designate specific climatic regions, but certain generalizations can be made.

The climate of northern Labrador is truly subarctic in that there is generally coolness and dryness throughout the year. In Nain, average mean maximum temperatures are approximately -13°C in January and 15°C in July. The mean minimum temperature drops to approximately -20°C in January and 5°C in July. The winters of interior Labrador are also extremely cold.

Precipitation varies by region even within northern Labrador. For example, Nain’s average annual precipitation is 892.7 mm, approximately half of which is from snow. However, Cape Chidley’s annual precipitation is approximately 460 mm. In coastal areas the modifying influence of the ocean reduces the temperature range between summer and winter. In southern Labrador coastal regions are cold in winter and cool in summer, and interior regions are often severely cold in winter but warm in summer.

On the Island there is a similar though not so marked difference between coastal and inland regions. In St John’s, mean maximum temperatures are approximately -1°C in January and 20°C in July. The mean minimum temperature drops to approximately -8°C in January and 11°C in July.

Precipitation across the island varies in a northwest to southeast direction. Precipitation is fairly even every month, but in northern locations about half falls as snow and in the milder southeast, snowfall is only about 12 per cent. Average annual precipitation around the Avalon and Burin peninsulas is over 150 cm.

The mixing of the air masses off the Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream frequently creates fog on the Grand Banks, and in eastern and southern coastal areas, particularly in spring and early summer.


Since most of the interior of the province is relatively uninhabited, there is ample space and a suitable habitat for wildlife, some species of which constitute an important resource. There is a greater variety in Labrador than on the Island. Among large game are several species of caribou, moose, black bear and, in northern coastal areas, polar bear. There are many small, fur-bearing animals, the most important of which are beaver, fox, lynx, rabbit, otter and muskrat. Some are trapped for the value of their pelts or for food while others are hunted annually by licensed sportsmen.


In many coastal areas colonies of millions of seabirds nest annually, primarily gulls, gannets, murres, kittiwakes and puffins. Sanctuaries to protect these birds have been established in six provincial ecological reserves (e.g., the Gannet Islands off the Labrador coast, on Funk Island on the east coast of the Avalon Peninsula and at Cape St Mary’s on the south coast). Three migratory bird sanctuaries are on the Grey Islands and in Terra Nova National Park.

Gros Morne
Classic fjord at Gros Morne, Newfoundland, a UN World Heritage Site (photo by J. Kraulis).

Gros Morne National Park preserves a spectacular natural region on the west coast and Terra Nova National Park on the east coast. There are also 32 provincial parks, 11 other ecological reserves.


Urban Centres

Settlement by Europeans was slow and reflected the dominance of the fisheries. Early settlers paid little attention to the soil or lack of amenities, settling on the shoreline in bays and coves close to the inshore and offshore fishing grounds, primarily on the east coast. Settlement gradually spread and became permanent. The first centres developed aroundSt John’sand Conception Bay, then generally along the east and south coasts. Today, St John’s is the capital of the province and the largest city, followed byCorner Brook,Grand Falls-Windsorand Bay Roberts. In 2016, 58 per cent of the population was urban, which follows larger national trends of increasing urbanization.

Labour Force

In the years leading up to the collapse of the Atlantic fishery in the 1990s, 5 to 6 per cent of the labour force was employed by the fishing, hunting and trapping industries. In 2016, however, this number had decreased to 2.6 per cent. For a time, employment in mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction increased dramatically, rising 96 per cent between 2002 and 2012, from 5,700 to 11,200 people. As with other provinces with significant employment in oil and gas, these numbers have declined in recent years, falling to 8,185 people in 2016, or 3.8 per cent of the labour force.

Despite the importance of resource-based industries to the province, in 2016 the sectors employing the most people were health care and social assistance, retail, and construction. The unemployment rate in Newfoundland and Labrador is often the highest in the country. In 2016, it was 15.6 per cent, compared to a national average of 7.7 per cent.

Language and Ethnicity

There are several Indigenous communities in the province, including theMi’kmaqon the Island and theInnu, Inuitand Inuit-Métis in Labrador.

Elsewhere the population is of predominantly European origin, the majority descended from immigrants from southwestern England and southern Ireland. On the west coast of the Island there are pockets of people of French descent (mostlyAcadian) and someScotswhose ancestors were fromCape Breton, NS.


Religious affiliation closely follows ethnic origin as the majority of residents are Christian, identifying as either Catholic or Protestant.


Aboriginal Settlement

During the prehistoric period, a group of people referred to by archaeologists as the Maritime Archaic lived in the area now known as Newfoundland and Labrador from about 8000 to 3200 BCE. They were followed by the Palaeo-eskimo, who lived in the region from about 2800 to 600 BCE, and then the Recent Indians, present from about 2000 BCE to the historic period. On the Island, the Recent Indians were the ancestors of the Beothuk, and in Labrador, the Innu. The ancestors of the Labrador Inuit were the Thule.

When John Cabot arrived in 1497, the Beothuk inhabited all parts of the island. While they did have some contact with the Europeans, they generally tried to avoid them, retreating inland. Without access to the coast, their food sources were limited, and they also began to suffer from European diseases, particularly tuberculosis. The best known Beothuk were two women, Mary March (Desmasduwit) and Shawnadithit, who were captured in 1819 and brought to St John's. They, like the remainder of their community, soon died.

Following Cabot’s arrival the Mi’kmaq, originally of the region now known as Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, the Gaspé Peninsula and New Brunswick, began to travel the Gulf of St Lawrence in order to trade fur for European goods. Eventually some settled in Newfoundland. Today there is a Mi’kmaq community at Conne River.

Like the Beothuk, the Innu and Inuit of Labrador also suffered upon the arrival of the Europeans. Among other challenges, they died from foreign disease, and their land base was encroached upon. However, there remain two Innu communities in Labrador today, Sheshatshiu and Natuashish. In 2004, the Inuit won the right to self-government. Called the Nunatsiavut Government, the settlement area is in Northern Labrador and includes five Inuit communities: the Nain, Hopedale, Rigolet, Makkovik and Postville.


At the end of the 10th century, Norse, including Leif Ericsson, made several voyages of exploration from Greenland to overseas lands to the west and southwest, and established a temporary settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows on the Great Northern Peninsula of the Island. In 1497 John Cabot, a Venetian navigator, sailed on a voyage of discovery for Henry VII of England and discovered new lands, which are believed to have been between Nova Scotia and Labrador, and included a "new isle." In 1500 the Portuguese explorer Gaspar Corte-Real made a more thorough exploration, and named several bays and capes along the east coast of the Island. In 1535–36 Jacques Cartier demonstrated that Newfoundland was an island by sailing through Cabot Strait as well as the Strait of Belle Isle. In 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert sailed into St John's Harbour and claimed the Island for England.

gilbert, sir humphrey
from A compleat collection of voyages and trends, London, 1705. Elizabethan explorer who took possession of Newfoundland August 1583 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-4725).

Europeans had been exploiting the rich cod stocks off the coast of Newfoundland since shortly after John Cabot's voyage. During the 16th century this was a migratory fishery with crews from ports in France, Spain, Portugal and England sailing each spring and returning in the fall with salt cod. Starting in the 1540s, Basques from France and Spain also carried on whaling operations on the south coast of Labrador. Although England was involved in some of the earliest voyages to Newfoundland, its role in the migratory fishery was small before the 1570s. However, war in Europe crippled the other nations' fisheries and opened up markets for English salt cod. By 1600 the English fishery had grown to include approximately 150 ships sailing mostly from West Country ports, and the coast from Trepassey to Bonavista had come to be known as the English Shore.

European Settlement

Relative peace in Western Europe in the early 17th century resulted in various attempts to settle the east coast of North America. Although it was well known for its fishery in many western European ports, the English were reluctant to use Newfoundland as anything more than a fishing colony. To this end women were initially prohibited from venturing to the island, as it was thought that their presence would increase the likelihood of permanent settlement. Keeping Newfoundland’s population flexible and transitory was in the best interest of the British Crown and its merchants as it could be used as a training ground for its naval officers, they owed little responsibility to those who visited the island and migratory fishing had already proven profitable. Nevertheless, women were eventually allowed to settle on the island once it became apparent that having small settlements could prove even more advantageous for the fishing industry. The first colony was founded by the London and Bristol Company at Cupers Cove (now Cupids) in Conception Bay in 1610, and in 1611, 40 men and 16 women arrived to start the settlement. By 1618 some of the Bristol merchants had established a second colony, called Bristol's Hope, at Harbour Grace. In 1621, George Calvert began a settlement at Ferryland, and Carbonear was settled by at least 1627. Over the next 50 years settlement gradually expanded and by 1675, there were 1,655 people living in 31 small fishing villages on the English Shore.

The tradition of appointing the master of the first fishing vessel to arrive in a harbour each spring the "admiral" of that place dates back to the 16th century. However, despite popular belief, it seems that these "fishing admirals" usually restricted their activities to various fishery related matters. In the first half of the 17th century, the various proprietary governors, such as John Guy at Cupids and David Kirke at Ferryland, were responsible for maintaining order among the colonists; and during England's Interregnum (England was without a monarchy from 1649–60), Parliament appointed a commissioner, John Treworgie, to oversee the Island's affairs. However, despite various petitions from some of the more prominent settlers, little attention was paid to the Island's governance between 1660 and 1697.

Certain elements in the West Country fishery objected to year-round settlement and some legislation was passed in an effort restrict it. In 1675 those opposed to settlement persuaded the English government to order all the settlers to leave. However, John Berry, the naval commander sent out to enact this policy, soon realized that any such attempt was futile and became a staunch defender of settlement, arguing that the planters were both an asset to the migratory fishery and a defense against the French. Two years later the English Privy Council recognized the settlers' right to remain in Newfoundland.

In 1662, the first French colony was established in Newfoundland at Placentia. Over the next 20 years, a number of other settlements grew up, and by 1687 there were more than 600 French settlers in Newfoundland and on the nearby island of Saint-Pierre. War between England and France broke out in 1689 and continued with only a short respite until 1713. It was during these conflicts, known to the English as King William's War and Queen Anne's War, that the issue of who would control Newfoundland was finally decided.

The French launched two devastating campaigns. In the winter of 1696–97 when a French force and some native allies, led by Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville, destroyed almost all the English settlements. However, the French failed to consolidate their victory; and by the summer of 1697, the settlements were re-occupied and a British garrison had been established at St John's. In the winter and spring of 1705 another French force, led by Jacques Testard de Montigny, destroyed many of the English settlements but it too was a short-lived victory and the English soon returned. Despite the devastation of the French attacks, the Treaty of Utrecht, signed in 1713, awarded Newfoundland to England and left the French with fishing rights to the French Shore, a section of the coast between Cape Bonavista and Point Riche. In 1762, at the end of the Seven Years’ War, the French captured St John's briefly and used it as a base to attack other settlements, but the British soon drove them off.

King William's Act, issued in 1699, recognized the rights of settlers but made no allowance for a settled government. Instead it confirmed the position of the fishing admirals and gave the commanders of the Royal Naval ships that accompanied the English fishing fleet the right to act as appeal judges. Over the course of the 18th century the Royal Navy was to become the dominant judicial and political force in Newfoundland.

In 1729 Newfoundland's first naval governor, Captain Henry Osborne, was appointed. The naval governors sailed to Newfoundland each spring and returned to England in the fall. To maintain order during the rest of the year, Osborne divided the Island into six judicial districts, and justices of the peace and constables were appointed from among the local population. Twenty-one years later, the first court of oyer and terminer (hear and determine) was held at St John's with a jury made up of local residents. By 1776 a customs house was built at St John's to regulate trade and suppress smuggling, and in 1792 a Supreme Court of Judicature was established.

The removal of the French in 1713 led to an expansion of English settlement beyond the original English Shore. Along the south coast, settlement spread into St Mary’s, Placentia and Fortune bays. Settlement also expanded northwest onto the French Shore. Fogo Island and Twillingate, both in Notre Dame Bay, were settled in 1728 and 1732 respectively.

There were a few Irish settlers among the first colonists in Newfoundland but the majority was English. More Irish arrived in the latter part of the 17th century. These were mostly female servants, many of whom married local servants and planters. Some of the Irishmen among the soldiers stationed in St John's in 1697 also settled on the Island. By the 1720s Irish servants were arriving in Newfoundland in considerable numbers. This mixture of West Country English and Irish cultures has continues to shape the identity of the Island's peoples.

By 1775 the population of Newfoundland had risen to nearly 12,000. Although the cod fishery remained the main industry, increased population led to a more diversified economy: logging, shipbuilding, trapping, salmon fishing and sealing all came to play a more important role, and the demand for a variety of skilled tradesmen increased. This period also saw the beginning of a seasonal fishery between Newfoundland and Labrador, and merchants establishing premises on the Labrador coast to collect furs and exploit the cod, salmon and seal fisheries.

The French Revolution (1789–99) and Napoleonic Wars (1799–1815) saw dramatic change in Newfoundland. The English migratory fishery ground to a halt and never fully recovered as the dangers of a trans-Atlantic crossing increased; and many West Country fishermen were pressed into the British Navy. Increased danger at sea also meant that many more people chose to remain on the Island, thus spurring population growth. The defeat of the French in Spain in 1811 reopened the markets in southern Europe for Newfoundland salt cod and initiated an economic boom that saw many new arrivals, especially from Ireland. By the time peace arrived in 1815, the Newfoundland population had risen to more than 40,000 and the fishery was firmly in the hands of the resident population.


Once a significant permanent population was established, petitions for better government and local representation increased. Dr. William Carson and Patrick Morris, through a campaign of pamphlets and petitions to Britain, succeeded in having representative government established in 1832, with the objective to obtain responsible government and full colonial status, which was finally achieved in 1855.

Settlement increased throughout the 19th century. The salt-cod fishery was the principal occupation and the mainstay of the economy, but there was also logging, mining and agriculture. In the late 1800s the trans-insular railway began to open up the interior, and goods and services became accessible to many parts formerly isolated in winter.

Representatives of the various Newfoundland governments attended the Confederation conferences, but they chose not to join, despite substantial support of the movement. When the French fishing rights were revoked in 1904, the northern and western coasts became available for settlement.

Dory Fishing
Dories from the schooner "Albert J. Lutz" are shown being towed astern prior to being dropped off 1913.

Until about 1925 the economy was based on the primary industries — fishing, mining, and pulp and paper — but debts incurred through building railways and supporting a regiment in First World War, coupled with the Great Depression after 1929, produced bankruptcy and government collapse. Newfoundland was forced to beg Britain for assistance and eventually reassumed colonial status under a Commission of Government.

The economy recovered remarkably towards the end of the 1930s, mainly because of increasing demand for products from the sea, mines and forests, and because of increased activity in defence-based construction in anticipation of Second World War. During the war many young people joined the armed forces overseas, and at home there was full employment. The US, Canada and Britain established several army bases, two large naval bases and five airports in Newfoundland. Gander was the largest and most important airport because of its role in the transatlantic Ferry Command. When the Commission government was dissolved in 1949, it had cleared all debts and left a surplus of over $40 million.

After the Second World War, a national convention was elected to debate the question of Newfoundland's future and to make recommendations. It was decided to hold a referendum through which the people would make a choice between the Commission government, confederation with Canada, or a return to responsible government and Dominion status. The referendum proved inconclusive except that Newfoundlanders were unwilling to retain the Commission government. A second referendum with the options of Confederation or Dominion was then held. An intensive campaign ensued between the confederates, led by Joseph R. Smallwood, and the anti-confederates, which the confederates won by a narrow margin, 52 per cent to 48 per cent. Canada accepted Newfoundland at midnight on 31 March 1949, and Smallwood became premier of the first provincial government.

Joseph Smallwood, politician
Smallwood signing the agreement that brought Newfoundland into Canada (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-1280).

The next two decades witnessed dramatic and substantial changes in the economy and in the lifestyle of Newfoundlanders. The fishing industry was revolutionized as dozens of fresh-fish-processing plants were established on all coasts and as they gradually all but replaced the old method of the family-run enterprise of catching, salting and sun-curing cod for sale to Caribbean and Mediterranean areas. Draggers operating offshore on the Banks, and smaller boats in the near-shore and inshore waters, could now catch a variety of species for delivery to the plants, where the fish were quick-frozen for new markets, chiefly in the US. The number of fishermen declined greatly and opportunity for shore work in the plants increased.

The pulp and paper mills at Corner Brook and Grand Falls substantially increased production, and mines at Buchans, St Lawrence and Wabana worked to capacity. New industries were launched with government-backing and although most failed — including a steel mill, a rubber-goods plant, a leather-products plant and a knitting mill — a few succeeded, notably the plasterboard and cement plant at Corner Brook, the particle-board mill near St John's and the phosphorus plant at Long Harbour, Placentia Bay. A huge oil refinery at Come by Chance at first failed (1973–76) but has been producing oil since 1987, mainly for export to the United States.

The huge iron ore mines of western Labrador came into production in the 1950s. Since the Second World War many people have moved from small communities to large towns and growth centres. As chances for local employment diminished, young people left the province at an annual rate of about 5,000. With opportunities accessible through cheap transportation by land, air and sea, they moved on, mostly to central or western Canada.

The impact of the economic recessions of the late 1970s, early 1980s and early 1990s were sharply felt in Newfoundland, although there was no comparison with the desperate conditions of the Great Depression in the early 1930s. Unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, social assistance and other benefits of the welfare state ensured decent living and health standards.

High unemployment most severely affected the young and there was again considerable out-migration in the late 1990s and early 2000s as people sought employment in western Canada's booming economy. The development of the Voisey's Bay nickel mine in northern Labrador and offshore oil production since 1997 have reversed the long-term trend of annual deficit budgets for the province. Increased economic activity, especially in the St John's metropolitan region, has contributed to the province experiencing in-migration.


The province is generously endowed with natural resources, and periodic development of each resource has proved beneficial to both primary and secondary producers. Originally this resource was the fishery, and the economy was wholly dependent on it. Today the resource-based economy has diversified to include mineral, oil and hydroelectric developments.


Agriculture has been of minor importance in Newfoundland because of the poor soil and adverse climate. Less than one per cent of the agricultural land in Canada belongs to Newfoundland and Labrador, and about half of it is confined to the northern Avalon and Burin Peninsulas. Nevertheless, there are scattered pockets of fertile land and conditions are suitable for the growth of hay and pasture crops.

In 2012, the most abundant vegetable crops were potatoes, carrots, rutabagas and cabbage. Also of importance are fruit crops, namely blueberries, strawberries and cranberries, with the farmland devoted to cranberries increasing 850 per cent between 2006 and 2011.


Mining and minerals is one of Newfoundland and Labrador’s most valuable natural resources. Minerals mined in the province include iron ore, nickel, copper, zinc, gold, aggregates, cobalt, silver, dolomite, limestone, peat and pyrophyllite. Of these minerals, iron ore accounts for well over half the value of the industry, followed by nickel and copper. The total value of mineral shipments was $4.6 billion, a 22 per cent increase from 2010, due largely to higher production levels and prices.


Energy is Newfoundland and Labrador’s largest export, as the province uses only a fraction of the energy it produces, and an even smaller portion of the energy it is potentially capable of producing. Electricity is provided by two companies: Newfoundland Power; and Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro. There are several hydroelectric power plants, the largest being Churchill Falls Generating Station. Following the Robert Bourassa Generating Facility in Québec, Churchill Falls is the second largest hydroelectric plant in North America, with a generating capacity of over 5,400 megawatts (MW). In 2012, the provincial government approved the Lower Churchill Project, a hydroelectric development to take place in two phases: Muskrat Falls and Gull Island, both in Labrador. The project represents the best undeveloped hydroelectric source in North America, with an expected capacity of about 3,000 MW.

Oil Drilling Rig, Terra Nova C-09
Oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland (photo by Peter Christopher).
Detail of Hibernia, Bull's Arm, Newfoundland (photo by Naomi McIlwraith).

With respect to oil, there are four major offshore projects in production: Hibernia, Terra Nova, White Rose and, come 2017, Hebron. In 2010, these offshore projects accounted for about 10 per cent of crude oil production in Canada.

Decisions of the Supreme Courts of Newfoundland and of Canada in 1983 and 1984 declared that ownership of offshore resources (specifically the Hibernia oil field) was federal. However, on 11 February 1985 an agreement — called the Atlantic Accord — was signed between the Newfoundland government and the new federal Conservative administration, giving Ottawa and St John's joint say over offshore oil and gas management and allowing the province to tax the resources as if they were on land.


Both Newfoundland and Labrador have substantial forests. As of 2011, there were 10,730 hectares of forested land in the province, 26 per cent of which were stocked for harvesting purposes. The forestry industry itself directly or indirectly employed 5,500 people in 2009 and was worth approximately $250 million.


After its discovery around 1497, the Island depended on cod fishing for nearly 400 years, until forest and mineral resources began to be exploited. Before 1930 the fishing industry concentrated on the production and sale of salted and sun-cured cod. The advent of quick-freezing and of boats capable of transporting the frozen product to market radically changed the industry. Year by year the percentage of salted cod produced and sold declined, whereas the percentage of fresh-frozen fish species such as cod, turbot, plaice and redfish increased, and the principal market shifted to the US.

Changes in the fishery since 1930 meant more employment on shore in the processing plants and fewer people to secure the catch. In many settlements along the coast fishermen augmented their income seasonally by catching lobster, salmon, caplin, herring, mackerel, squid, eels, scallops and crab. On 2 July 1992, the federal government declared a complete moratorium on the northern cod fishery in an attempt to save the stocks after years of overfishing. As compensation, 25,570 unemployed fishermen received from $250 to $400 per week. The program expired in May 1999.

Today, the industry has largely shifted toward shellfish. In 2012, the total value of fish landings (i.e. catch brought ashore), was about $575 million, with shellfish making up 83 per cent of this income. Snow crab was the most valuable species in this category, followed by shrimp and surf clams. Groundfish, such as turbot, cod and yellow tail flounder, are also caught in the province’s waters, as are pelagics such as herring and mackerel. Sealing also accounts for a small portion of annual landed values (less than one per cent in 2012).


The most significant industrial activities are based on local raw materials, such as fish processing plants. Tourism is also an important contributor to the economy. In 2012, over 504,400 tourists visited the province, an increase of almost 10 per cent over 2011.


In the early years of settlement all transportation was by boat or, in the north during winter, by dog team. The establishment of railways, roads and airports brought changes. The trans-insular railway from St John's to Channel-Port aux Basques started in the 1880s and quickly developed branch lines to Argentia in Placentia Bay, Bay de Verde in Conception Bay, Trepassey in the southern Avalon and Bonavista. Branches were later built to Lewisporte on Bay of Exploits and to Stephenville. The line later operated by CN was narrow gauge and primitive, but it provided an essential service and fostered development across the Island throughout the first half of the 20th century. The railway was closed entirely in September 1988.

Highway development was rudimentary up to 1949. Roads were local, narrow and generally unpaved. A continual road-building and -improving program since the 1950s has provided an Island-wide road network, which is mostly paved and includes the Trans-Canada Highway from St John's to Channel-Port aux Basques. A few important offshore islands (e.g., Fogo, Ramea, Bell and the Little Bay Islands) have ferry service, while others (e.g., Random, Twillingate and Greenspond) are now linked by causeways. Communities in Labrador are linked by the Trans-Labrador Highway.

In addition to ferry service linking the offshore island, there is intra-provincial ferry service between Newfoundland and the Labrador mainland, as well as a ferry from Port Aux Basques to Sydney, Nova Scotia, and another from Fortune to St Pierre et Miquelon.

Bush flying has been important in Newfoundland since the 1920s, and some isolated areas still rely on ski- or float-equipped small aircraft or helicopter service for mail and emergencies.

In addition to the eight major airports serving Newfoundland and Labrador (located in St John's, Gander, Deer Lake, Stephenville, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, St Anthony, Churchill Falls and Wabush) the province also has 13 community airstrips in Labrador and eight community strips in Newfoundland. National and regional airlines provide regular scheduled service to and from these points.

The strategic location of Newfoundland made it a logical point for the initial attempts to cross the Atlantic by air. The first successful flight was that made by Alcock and Brown 14-15 June 1919 from St John's to Clifton, Ireland, in a two-motor biplane. There were many subsequent crossings from Newfoundland in the 1920s and 1930s, culminating with the ferrying of thousands of bombers from Gander to England during the Second World War (see Ferry Command); there was also flying-boat service from Botwood, and regular transatlantic air service via Gander in the pre-jet era. Gander continues to serve as an international crossroads for aircraft carrying goods and people to distant corners of the world.

Provincial Government

There are 40 seats in Newfoundland and Labrador’s provincial government. Each seat is held by a Member of the House of Assembly (MHA). MHAs are elected by eligible voters in their electoral district. Provincial elections are usually held every four years on the second Tuesday of October. However, an election may be called before this date. This sometimes happens when the party in power thinks it may help them win re-election. Elections may also occur before four years have passed in cases where the government no longer has the confidence of the House of Assembly (see Minority Government).

As with the other provinces and territories in Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador uses a first-past-the-post electoral system, meaning the candidate with the most votes in each electoral district wins.Typically, the party with the most seats forms the government, and the leader of this party becomes premier. However, a party with fewer seats may also form a coalition with members of another party or parties in order to form the government.Technically, as the Queen’s representative, the lieutenant-governor holds the highest provincial office, though in reality this role is largely symbolic. (See also Newfoundland and Labrador Premiers: Table; Newfoundland and Labrador Lieutenant-Governors: Table.)

The premier typically appoints members of the Cabinet from among the MHAs who belong to the party in power. Cabinet members are referred to as ministers and oversee specific portfolios. Typical portfolios include finance, health and education. (See also Politics in Newfoundland and Labrador.)

Health Care

The foundations of the health-care system lie in the cottage hospital system and the International Grenfell Association facilities. The cottage hospital system, initiated by the Commission government in 1936, was designed to bring a high standard of health care to outport residents. Small hospitals were constructed in central locations around the Island, but their number has been reduced in favour of larger regional hospitals. The International Grenfell Association, founded by Sir Wilfred GRENFELL in the early 1900s and centred in St Anthony, provided essential health-care services to residents in the north, particularly coastal Labrador. In 1981 it transferred its medical assets, including hospitals, nursing stations, equipment, and land devoted to health care, to the province.

The General Hospital in St John's is the largest and best-equipped hospital; it is part of the Health Science Centre on the Memorial University campus, which also includes a Faculty of Medicine and a school of nursing. Under the Medical Care Act of 1969, most health-care services are free to residents of the province.


The first Newfoundland schools were organized by the Church of England's missionary Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG), which funded a school in Bonavista in the 1720s. Later in the 18th century the SPG operated schools in St John's and in several of the larger outports. They were apparently open to children of all denominations. A variety of schools were organized in the early 19th century, the most significant being those operated by the Newfoundland School Society. Established in 1823 with a special concern for educating Newfoundland's poor, by the early 1840s this society had nondenominational schools in many towns and outports.

The 1836 Education Act represented the first direct government involvement with education; funds were distributed among societies promoting education, and nondenominational boards of education were established. By 1843 the education grant had more than doubled and was divided between Roman Catholic and Protestant school boards. The Protestant grant eventually was distributed among several Protestant denominations. Post-Confederation amalgamation occurred among several Protestant school systems, but government-funded, church-administered education survives today. The denominational education system is protected in the Terms of Union (1948).

With the exception a few small private institutions, Newfoundland and Labrador's 268 schools are administered by five school boards, one of which, le Conseil scolaire francophone, spans the entire province. Councils have the primary responsibility for distributing funding provided by government and religious education programming.

Policy decisions are the responsibility of the Department of Education. In 2011–12, there were 67,933 students enrolled in kindergarten through to grade 12. This represents a 22 per cent decrease in enrollment from 10 years earlier (86,898 students were enrolled in 2001–02).

Memorial University of Newfoundland, founded in 1925 as Memorial University College, was made the province's only university by a special Act of the House of Assembly (1949). It is located on the outskirts of St John’s. Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, a degree-conferring institute located at the west coast Corner Brook campus of Memorial, was established in 1975. The Fisheries and Marine Institute in St John's became an affiliate of Memorial in 1992. Other post-secondary institutions include the College of the North Atlantic and 26 colleges of applied arts, technology and continuing education.

Cultural Life

The ancestors of most Newfoundlanders came from southeastern Ireland or southwestern England and brought with them distinct and enduring cultures. This heritage, shaped by centuries of Newfoundland's isolated, maritime way of life, has produced a vibrant, distinctive culture, expressed in dialects, crafts, traditions, cooking, art, music and writing.


Without neglecting universal concerns and techniques, many Newfoundland artists practise distinctive Newfoundland art forms and use local themes. Poets such as E.J. Pratt, painters such as David Blackwood, and Christopher and Mary Pratt, theatre groups such as the Mummers Troupe (see Mumming), novelists such as Margaret Duley and Wayne Johnston, and journalists such as Ray Guy have drawn inspiration from their Newfoundland homes. The comic troupe CODCO – consisting of Andy Jones, Cathy Jones, Bob Joy, Greg Malone, Diane Olsen, Tommy Sexton and Mary Walsh – became a cult sensation for its distinctly Newfoundland sense of humour and inspired a generation of Newfoundland comedians and political satirists, including Rick Mercer, Mark Critch and Shawn Majumder.

Filmmaker William MacGillivray, a founding member of the Atlantic Filmmakers Cooperative, is known for many award-winning films that explore the relationship between art and life, including his documentary The Man of a Thousand Songs (2010), about the Newfoundland folk singer Ron Hynes. One of Canada’s most esteemed songwriters and occasional actor, Hynes made his theatrical debut playing celebrated Newfoundland balladeer Johnny Burke. Hynes’s songs have been recorded by many other Newfoundland artists, including The Irish Descendants, who, along with the multi-platinum selling Great Big Sea, contributed to the popularization of traditional East Coast music in Canada in the 1990s.

Celtic and folk music has long been a staple of the Newfoundland cultural diet, exemplified by such musicians as Émile Benoit, Rufus Guinchard, Dick Nolan, Harry Hibbs, Omar Blondahl and Kelly Russell, and such groups as Figgy Duff, the Wonderful Grand Band and Rawlins Cross. Other celebrated Newfoundland musicians include Ignatius Rumboldt and Arthur Scammell.


The first newspaper published in Newfoundland was the weekly St John's Royal Gazette (1807). By the 1830s several weekly and biweekly newspapers were established in St John's and in the major outports. They were highly politicized, reflecting and perhaps aggravating the political, religious and social tensions that periodically upset 19th-century Newfoundland. Among Newfoundland's first daily newspapers were the St John's Daily News and Newfoundland Journal of Commerce (established 1860), the Morning Chronicle (established 1862), the St John's Evening Telegram (1879); and the short-lived St John's Free Press and Daily Advertiser (1877), and Daily Ledger (1879).

Today, there are three daily newspapers: the Telegram, the Western Star and the Independent.. Fourteen regional English newspapers are also published, as is one French paper, le Gaboteur.

Newfoundland's first public radio stations began operation in St John's in the 1920s. By the 1930s radio stations were broadcasting throughout the Island. In April 1949 the CBC began its Newfoundland operation and initiated FM broadcasting in 1975. The province's first TV station, CJON, was opened in 1955; originally a CBC affiliate, it became associated with the national CTV network in 1964 after the CBC opened its own St John's TV studios. Cable TV on the Island dates from 1977. The largest cable company is Cable Atlantic, which has stations in Corner Brook, Gander, Grand Falls-Windsor, Port aux Basques and St John's.

Heritage Sites

Signal Hill, St. John's
Cabot Tower on Signal Hill was built to commemorate the discovery of Newfoundland (photo by Sherman Hines/Masterfile).
L'anse Aux Meadows
Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows Historic National Park, Newfoundland, also a UN World Heritage Site (courtesy Malak, Ottawa).
Cape Spear
Cape Spear, Newfoundland, historic lighthouse, most easterly point in North America (Corel Professional Photos).
Newfoundland Museum
(courtesy Canadian Tourism Commission)

Federal assistance is generous in the establishment and maintenance of historic sites. Newfoundland's rich, colourful history is honoured in several national historic parks, including Signal Hill overlooking St John's harbour, site of one of the last French-English battles in North America; Castle Hill, near Placentia, commemorating the French fishing and military presence in Newfoundland; Cape Spear, site of one of Canada's oldest surviving lighthouses and the most easterly point in North America; Port au Choix, site of ancient Maritime archaic and native cultures; and L'anse aux Meadows, the sole confirmed Viking site in North America, which was declared a United Nations World Heritage Site in 1978. The Basque Whaling Archaeological site at Red Bay in Labrador has the only fully preserved Basque whaling vessel from the 16th century.

Newfoundland and Labrador Stats


St. John’s

Official Languages


Joined Confederation



Judy Foote


Dwight Ball

Population (Rank)


Population (Total)

519,716 (2016)

Area (Rank)


Area (Total)

405,212 km2


373,872 km2


31,340 km2

GDP (Rank)


GDP (Total)

$27.3 billion (2015)

Time Zone


Emblems of Newfoundland

Further Reading

  • D. Alexander, "Newfoundland's Traditional Economy and Development to 1934," Acadiensis (Spring 1976); J.K. Hiller and P. Neary, eds, Newfoundland in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1980); H. Horwood, Newfoundland (1969); H. Ingstad, Westward to Vinland (1969); J. Mannion, ed, The Peopling of Newfoundland (1977); S.J.R. Noel, Politics in Newfoundland (1970); F.W. Rowe, Education and Culture in Newfoundland (1976) and A History of Newfoundland and Labrador (1980); J.R. Smallwood, ed, Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador (vols I & II, 1981) and The Book of Newfoundland ( vols I-VI, 1967); W.F. Summers and M.E. Summers, Geography of Newfoundland (1965); J.A. Tuck, Aboriginal Inhabitants of Newfoundland's Great Northern Peninsula (nd) and Newfoundland and Labrador Prehistory (1976).

External Links