|Newfoundland and Labrador
society has been shaped by a particular combination of geographical,
economic, and historical forces. Among the most important influences
have been its isolated location on the eastern edge of North America,
its marine environment, the work patterns and social relationships that
developed in the fishing economy, and the British and Irish roots of the
majority of its people.
A west coast fishing settlement in Bonne Bay.
Newfoundland culture has been largely shaped by its marine
permission of Ben Hansen. From Ben Hansen, Newfoundland
(St. John's, Newfoundland: Vinland Press, ©1987).
These and other factors have fostered a vital society
and a culture whose elements range from oral traditions to popular
entertainment and games, from techniques associated with work,
especially in the fishery, to both official and unofficial religious
beliefs and practices. Distinctive variations of spoken English and
French and a rich material culture are also found in Newfoundland and
The roots of many aspects of this culture can be
traced as far back as the seventeenth and even sixteenth centuries, when
fishers visited the region for the annual harvest of cod or when planters
attempted to establish permanent settlements in places such as Cupids
and Ferryland. The society began to take on a more permanent form,
however, only at the beginning of the nineteenth century when the
migratory fishery began to be replaced by a local village-based economy.
The new conditions generated a complex set of social
relationships among fishing families, local and more distant merchants
and their employees, church and clergy, and often remote but powerful
governments. Folk entertainments that have been widely described as
"typical" of Newfoundland life - mummering, 'times' and
kitchen parties with their repertoire of performance, stories and songs
- all emerged as important parts of outport life.
Conche, Great Northern Peninsula.
permission of Candace Cochrane. From Candace Cochrane, Outport:
Reflections from the Newfoundland Coast, edited by Roger
Page (Don Mills, Ontario: Addison-Wesley Publishers, ©1981)
Beyond providing pleasure, these customary activities
could also reflect the social relations and tensions inherent in a
community - Hallowe'en pranks could be quite destructive and many
ballads have a satiric edge.
The material culture also began to develop its
distinctive forms at this time, shaped by the fishery and Newfoundland's
sense of place as an emerging colony. Less focused on subsistence
agriculture and more on an export trade, Newfoundland was probably more
outward-looking than many of its continental neighbours. Because of
their frequent contact with maritime communities throughout the Atlantic
world, Newfoundlanders who could afford to do so imported many goods,
and until quite late in the nineteenth century there was little local
manufacturing. People in small fishing communities who had little or no
disposable income had to make things for themselves: clothing,
furniture, some housewares, tools and, above all, the buildings in which
they lived, worked and worshipped.
An example of local craftsmanship - man
and woman displaying handmade rugs, ca. 1919.
Courtesy of the
Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL VA26),
St. John's, Newfoundland.
As income increased, particularly in the major towns,
so did the presence of specialized craftspeople and the availability of
locally manufactured goods. These, in their turn, brought about a
refashioning of the buildings and the goods made by local people. Until
the twentieth century the forms that survived these changes tended to be
those associated with the fishery: the structure of stages, stores and
flakes remained virtually the same as they had been since the first days
of the migratory fishery 300 years previously.
The development of St. John's, the capital, and of the
principal towns and outports, also had a marked effect on other aspects
of Newfoundland and Labrador society. As the population and wealth of
St. John's increased, so did its capacity to support public and
educational institutions. Such institutions sponsored drama groups,
bands, choirs, and a broad spectrum of community activities, thus
nurturing a host of talents and interests which remain an important
feature of Newfoundland and Labrador culture at the end of the twentieth
century. Similar institutional structures could be found in many of the
principal settlements, fostered sometimes by churches, sometimes by
fraternal societies, and sometimes -- as in the case of Heart's Content
-- by companies. Social distinctions were more sharply defined in larger
centres, where rich and poor developed social and cultural forms that
expressed their different economic positions. A vibrant working-class
culture, with its many distinctive features, flourished in St. John's.
||Poster board on display in downtown St.
Various advertisements displaying the province's
broad spectrum of community talents and local events.
permission of Ben Hansen. From Ben Hansen, Newfoundland Gems
(St. John's, Newfoundland: Vinland Press, ©1996) 67.
With the passage of time and the restructuring of
social and economic life in Newfoundland and Labrador, many aspects of
the old culture have necessarily disappeared, others have been
transformed and, more recently, some have been revived. The new economy,
more diverse and less tied to the fishing village and to the power of
fish merchants, has brought social diversification. In the older
society, the middle class was very small, but in the last half of the
twentieth century there has been a great increase in the numbers of
white collar workers in business, industry, government and education,
and of people in managerial and professional positions. At the same
time, there is a new awareness of the older and suppressed ethnic and
cultural realities of the French and aboriginal peoples. Traditional
culture is not dead; but its remnants survive in a more complex, rapidly
changing social environment, where the population of the region is far
more exposed than previously to external influences.
Throughout the nineteenth and for much of the
twentieth century, "traditional" elements of Newfoundland and
Labrador culture were a living reality, part of the fabric of people's
lives. Increasingly, traditional culture is being transformed into an
object of study and its elements into commodities to be bought and sold
as part of the culture industry, especially in connection with the
tourist trade. This commodification of culture is disturbing to
some, but others view it as a means of revaluing and revitalizing the
old culture and strengthening the new, thereby strengthening the society
of Newfoundland as a whole.
Source: Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site