Newfoundland 101

Monday, June 09, 2014 Road Junkies 0 Comments


When is the last time you remember hearing a major news story about Newfoundland and Labrador?  Or even a minor one?  For many Americans, their image of this easternmost and newest of Canada's provinces was formed in the harrowing days after the tragedies we now know as "9/11," when terrorist attacks involving U.S. aircraft led to a complete shutdown of American air space.

Planes en route to U.S. cities were diverted to other destinations, and most of those closest to arrival were sent to Canada.  More than 200 flights carrying 33,000 passengers unexpectedly arrived at Canadian airports that day, including 75 in Newfoundland.  When thousands of passengers nearly doubled the size of the small towns where they arrived, Newfoundlanders famously opened their hearts and homes, giving their uninvited guests food, clothing, medicine and comfort.  While that paints a lovely portrait of this little-known province, there is a bit more to Newfoundland and Labrador's story.

The province of Newfoundland and Labrador includes the island of Newfoundland (about the size of the state of Virginia) and the large area on the eastern edge of the Canadian mainland known as Labrador (roughly the same area as Arizona).  Newfoundland and Labrador are separated by the Strait of Belle Isle, which averages 11 miles in width, and connects the Gulf of St. Lawrence with the Atlantic Ocean.  Ferry service across the strait connects the two parts of the province.

Newfoundland is the world's 16th largest island.  Glacial activity before the arrival of humans bulldozed most of the island's topsoil into the sea, leaving a cover of hard rock inhospitable to agriculture, so when the island was populated, people turned to the sea for sustenance.  Hundreds of small fishing villages occupy the sheltered bays and coves of Newfoundland's 10,900 miles of coast line.

Labrador is part of a vast rocky plateau known as the Canadian Shield.  Significantly larger, colder and more isolated than Newfoundland, Labrador is home to only 5 percent of the province's 526,000 citizens.  About 40 fishing villages lie along Labrador's icy coast, but the larger cities lie inland.  Much of the interior is covered with spruce forests, glacial lakes and peat bogs.  Labrador's soil is too poor and its growing season too short to support farming.  Very few roads, most of them unpaved, exist in Labrador, where residents of isolated coastal villages depend on ferry transportation in the summer and snowmobiles in the winter.

The province is so far north and east that its capital city of St. John's is just as close to Greenland as it is to Toronto.  Newfoundland's written history began when John Cabot, an Italian employed by England, stumbled upon the island in 1497 as he was searching for a western passage to Cathay.  Upon his return, he reported that the thick population of cod in waters off the island slowed the progress of his ship.  This revelation, regardless of its precise accuracy, generated a rush of Spanish, Portuguese, and French fishing vessels to the area in search of cod and later whales.

Fishing continued to be the backbone of the Newfoundland economy as it developed, first as a British colony and later an autonomous dominion in the British commonwealth.  By the 1940s, the supply of fish had declined and Newfoundland and Labrador were crushed by debt resulting from World War I and railway construction.  In 1949, they allied with Canada and became the country's tenth province.  In 2001, the name of the province was officially changed to Newfoundland and Labrador, but it is still widely referred to as simply Newfoundland.

Eventually, cod was so overfished, mostly by foreign fleets outside Newfoundland waters, that the Canadian government issued a ban on all cod fishing in 1994, leaving thousands of Newfoundlanders struggling to find a means to earn a living.  Offshore oil field development eventually came to the rescue, and today the province also has thriving industries in nickel, electricity, and information technology.  Tourism plays a significant role as well, and that's where our journey begins.