History: The Dominion of Newfoundland and Labrador

Something you may have noticed if you were at any point a student taking a history class in Canada is that textbooks seem to gloss over Newfoundland and Labrador. History books mention that they voted against confederacy, but then the future province is barely mentioned again until it joined Canada in 1949.  The way some books have it written, one could almost assume that from 1867 to 1949, Newfoundland ceases to exist.

Obviously, that isn’t the case. Newfoundland and Labrador continued as a dominion in the British Empire. But what was life in the dominion like? How did it fare through the turbulent beginning of the 20th century?  But before answering those questions, one must go back to the beginning.

The Indigenous People of Newfoundland and Labrador

Newfoundland Mi'kmaq people in traditional garb.
Image by Shawn Harquail/Flickr CC

It would be inappropriate to speak about the colony’s history without first mentioning the land’s original inhabitants. Long before the English built permanent settlements, the territory was the home of four distinct Indigenous groups. The Beothuk and Mi’kmaq lived on the island now known as Newfoundland. The Innu and Inuit’s traditional territory is the area now known as Labrador.  


As noted by the Canadian Encylopedia, the Beothuk traditionally lived on the coast in bark or skin-covered tents known as Wigwams and hunted fish and other coastal mammals. In the winter, the Beothuk traded their Wigwams for partially underground homes to keep warm. The establishment of permanent settlements by European colonists in the 18th century wreaked havoc on the Beothuk way of life. Cut off from the coasts, the Beothuk had to live in inhospitable areas of the interior. The colonists also brought with them diseases that severely decimated the Beothuk population. The last known Beothuk, Shawnadithit, died of tuberculosis in 1829.  Before her death, Shawnadithit created some of the only known records about her people in St.Johns, detailing their territory, language, and customs.


The Mi’kmaq lived in the island’s interior and only went to the coasts to fish in the summertime. That meant they could continue their traditional way of life mostly undisturbed into the 18th and 19th centuries since settlers in the area congregated around the coast, as noted by the Canadian Encylopedia. However, the Mi’kmaq did interact with the colonists and were allies of the French during the 17th and 18th centuries.


The Innu were traditionally nomadic and hunted a variety of animals, most notably the caribou.  The Innu used every part of the caribou, and the animal was an important part of their beliefs. Innu groups in the south often interacted and traded with Europeans and were allies of the French. In the 19th century, the fur trade caused Innu lands to become overhunted, and they had to rely on government aid. The government then forced the Innu to give up their nomadic lifestyle and move into small towns.


The Labrador Inuit descended from the Thule. The Thule were a prehistoric group who were talented hunters able to move great distances using skin boats and dog sleds.  The Labrador Inuit lived mainly on the northern coast and did not interact much with Europeans during the early colonial era. According to the Labrador Inuit website, however, Moravian missionaries in the 1760s brought change to the Inuit lifestyle, discouraging their nomadic nature. The missionaries also exposed the Inuit to disease, causing many of their people to become fatally ill.

Rejection of Confederation

The settler population increased considerably in the late 18th century and the early 19th century. The total population of Newfoundland and Labrador rose to more than 40’000. With this change came the want for a local government to handle the island’s affairs. Newfoundlanders petitioned Britain and obtained both a responsible government and colonial status in 1855.

In 1864, delegates of the newly established Newfoundland government attended the Quebec Conference. At the conference, the thirty-three delegates from the various colonies sat down to discuss the details of a potential union. Newfoundland sent two representatives, Fredrick Carter and Ambrose Shea, purely in the roles of observers. The two men returned from the conference strong supporters of joining the union and became the faces of the pro-confederacy movement in Newfoundland.

They were faced with an uphill battle, however, as the anti-confederacy movement was strong. Religion played a large role in Newfoundland politics. The Protestants formed the base of the Conservative party and the Roman Catholics the base of the Liberal party. The majority of Roman Catholics were of Irish descent and feared the idea of union. Ireland’s union with Britain at the beginning of the century had been a turbulent one. Newfoundland Catholics were wary of the same issues occurring.

St. John’s merchants also pushed back against the confederacy, led by C.F Bennett, a well-known merchant himself.  They argued that confederation would negatively impact Newfoundland’s economy because tariffs would impact their exports. They also claimed that products from Canada would be so cheap that Newfoundlander’s goods would be impossible to sell.

Pro-Confederates promoted the idea that Newfoundland would gain new goods and services and that being a part of a larger union would attract new business to the area.  Despite their arguments, the confederacy movement struggled to gain supporters.

 Fredrick Carter became Prime Minister of Newfoundland in 1865 after the current head of state resigned. While he was still in favour of confederacy, he did not want to force the public into it. Newfoundlanders would decide in the next election. The election came in 1869, which resulted in a massive victory for C.F. Bennett and the side of anti-confederacy. Newfoundlanders threw a  celebratory parade in the streets of St.John, and  participants carried around a fake coffin labelled “Confederation.” While confederation would occasionally be brought up again in the government afterward, the election was ultimately the death of the idea for the 19th century.

Life in Newfoundland 1855 -1900

Newfoundland and Labrador Railway
Image from page 11 of “Newfoundland railway system R. G. Reid, proprietor, St. John’s Newfoundland.” Retrieved from Flickr.com’s The Commons.


Unsurprisingly, the fishing industry was the backbone of the Newfoundland economy during the 19th century. There were two most common fishing practices: inshore and offshore.  Inshore fishers would sail to close-by fishing areas and return when their boats were full. The shore crew would then prepare the fish, a task often undertaken by the wives and children of the fishers.  Offshore fishers embarked a few times each season further out into the ocean, where they stayed for weeks at a time. The men on the boat would prepare the catches themselves before they returned to Newfoundland.


For Newfoundlanders in this period, the most crucial road in the colony was the ocean.  Newfoundland and Labrador had very few roads at this point, so instead, Newfoundlanders almost entirely relied on boats. During this half of the century, steam-powered boats rose in popularity due to their efficiency. These boats would carry mail, goods, passengers and food all over the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Newfoundlanders gained another transportation choice with the construction of a railway at the end of the century. It ran through the island’s interior, with the mainline connecting St.Johns to Port Aux Basques. Isolated towns found themselves more connected than ever before. The rail line was able to transport both goods and people, and it helped usher in the changes of the 20th century to Newfoundland.


Much like the political sphere, the education system was split in two by the Protestants and Catholics. An education grant from the Newfoundland government provided most of the funding for schools, divided between the Catholics and both the Protestant Anglicans and  Methodists.

Education responsibilities fell mainly on the churches, with the government doing little more than providing the funds and occasional amendments to the dominion’s Education Act.  Each of the denominations opened as many schools as possible to reach the most children, which caused teachers’ salaries to decline steadily.

There were no opportunities for post-secondary studies in Newfoundland in the 19th century. Instead, the Council of Higher Education (CHE) in Newfoundland had agreements with institutes in other countries they encouraged students to apply for. Students were required to write the Common Examination, and if they were successful, they could attend a foreign university. However, the exam was difficult, and students had to study well if they wanted a chance to succeed.

Life in Newfoundland, 1900-1918

Newfoundland Regiment World War One
Image is believed to be by John Warwick Brooke (War Photographer). Image posted by the National Library of Scotland on Flickr.com

While the fishing industry was still the backbone of Newfoundland and Labrador, the new century brought new opportunities. Companies began setting up paper mills and mining operations in the interior of  Newfoundland, and bustling towns started sprouting up around them. The new paper industry significantly grew to become an essential part of the dominion’s economy. Newfoundlanders were also able to begin careers that needed degrees more easily thanks to the opening of Memorial University College in 1925.

The government paved more roads, and the new interior towns got connected to the railway. According to Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador, the first automobile arrived on the island in 1903, when railway contractor Robert Gillespie Reid purchased his Rolls Royce.

This newfound access and occupation of the island’s interior proved disastrous for the Mi’kmaq. The colonists almost destroyed the caribou population, an animal that was an important staple of the traditional Mi’kmaq diet.

 World War One

As a proud British colony, Newfoundland and Labrador went to war when Britain declared war on Germany. When the Newfoundland Government recruited for the First Newfoundland Regiment, they initially planned to send 500 men to Europe. They had over 900 men apply without hesitation. With that enthusiasm, Newfoundland was able to send an entire battalion of over 1000 men instead.

The Regiment would go on to make a name for itself for its bravery and skill, but not before suffering incredible losses. The Newfoundland Regiment took part in the Battle of the Somme, a battle infamous for the number of casualties it caused. When the Newfoundland Regiment arrived to the battle it brought over 700 men. Only 68 reported the following morning. Despite this loss, however, the Regiment would continue to participate in the war with new volunteers continuing to arrive from the home front.  The Regiment would go on to earn the title of “Royal” an accomplishment no other unit in the British Empire would earn during the first world war.

The Great Depression and Dissolution of Government

For Newfoundland and Labrador, the period of the late 1920s into the 1930s was a bleak one. There were high points, such as a brief economic upturn in the 20s and women gaining the right to vote in 1925. Still, the dominion’s near financial ruin overshadowed all else.    The Great Depression spelled disaster for Newfoundland. The price of its exports was in freefall, and by 1933 a quarter of its population was on government relief. The government itself was also having debt issues. Newfoundland had taken on a surplus of debt after financing the Regiment in the first world war and numerous railway and road expansion projects in the following decade.

 Added to the debt issue was the fact Newfoundland and Labrador’s Government had been unstable for almost a decade at that point. Prime Minister Richard Squire’s Government, which was in power from 1928 – 1932, was plagued by allegations of theft from the treasury.          

  In 1934, Newfoundland reverted to colonial status as a Commission of Government, set up by Britain, replaced the prior democratically elected one. Newfoundlanders would no longer vote to determine who was in power. Instead, Britain would select officials to govern the colony until Newfoundland could once again support itself.  In exchange for relinquishing control, Newfoundland and Labrador would receive financial assistance with its debt.

World War Two and Confederation

St. Johns, Newfoundland and Labrador, in WW2
Photo by unknown photographer. Image retrieved from the Maritime History Archive.

War brought prosperity to Newfoundland and Labrador. They entered the war with Britain on September 3rd, 1939. Newfoundland was an important strategic location, being a key player in trans-Atlantic flight at the time. Its airbases would become home to anti-U-boat aircraft that would accompany boats carrying vital supplies and soldiers to the war front.

American soldiers came to Newfoundland after Canada and the United States formed the Permanent Joint Board on Defence to Protect the Western Hemisphere in 1940. New amenities arrived in Newfoundland as the Americans were used to having readily available recreational activities. Locals made use of the latest entertainment opportunities and often mingled with the Americans in the process.

The economy of Newfoundland soared during the war. Newfoundlanders could easily find employment on military bases. The market for fish improved considerably. The Commission Government was able to invest in public infrastructure, housing, education and more.  But the Commission Government knew that this upswing would not last. The wartime boom would eventually fade, and the war was a costly one for Britain. It would not be able to support Newfoundland for as long as initially thought.

The Referendum

In 1948, a referendum decided the fate of Newfoundland. The Newfoundland National Convention, which consisted of 45 elected members, had been deliberating for the past two years what should be on the referendum ballot. The convention recommended to the British Government the forms of government that should be on the ballot were responsible government ( a return to Newfoundland’s Government system pre-1933) and a continuation of Commission Government.  Confederates of the convention led by Joseph Smallwood campaigned to add joining Canada to the ballot but were outvoted.

However, the British government announced that confederation would be on the ballot despite the results of the convention. And with that, campaigning began in earnest.

  Right away, the anti-confederate side ran into issues. Their supporters were split between two parties, and the campaign lacked leadership, funding and focus. However, they had a broad pre-existing base of support. On the other hand, the pro-confederate side united under Joey Smallwood and Gordon Bradley’s Confederate Association, which ran a tight, colony-wide campaign.  

The results ended up incredibly close. Confederation received 41.1 percent of votes, followed closely by responsible government with 44.6 percent. Commission Government lagged behind at only 14.6 percent of votes.

  A run-off vote was called for the following month, with Commission Government taken off the ballot entirely. The race was tight yet again, but in the end, confederation inched out a victory.

A Divisive Legacy

Newfoundland and Labrador officially became a province on March 31st, 1949. Joey Smallwood would go on to become the province’s first premier and stayed in power until 1972.

The transition to provincehood was bumpy at first. One issue not considered was the continued of the Mi’kmaq, Innu and Labrador Inuit. There were no treaties between the Indigenous Peoples and the government and no mention of them in the terms of confederation. Smallwood allegedly said that “There were no Indians in Newfoundland.” This neglect of recognition would result in years of legal disputes as the Indigenous population fought to be recognized and respected.

The referendum would remain a controversial topic for the years following. Some Newfoundlanders felt cheated out of their independence. Even today, it would not be hard to find a Newfoundlander with a passionate stance on the subject of the 1948 referendum.

However, no matter a person’s opinion on the subject, everyone can agree that Newfoundland and Labrador’s time as a dominion has shaped the province into what it is now today.

Sources Used and Further Reading

Bélanger, Claude. Newfoundland History – Periods of Newfoundland History, Marianopolis College, 2004, faculty.marianopolis.edu/c.belanger/nfldhistory/NewfoundlandHistory.htm.

“Labrador Inuit.” Nunatsiavut Government, Nunatsiavut Government, www.nunatsiavut.com/visitors/labrador-inuit/.

“Museum of the North.” Thule Culture | Museum | Museum of the North, University of Alaska, www.uaf.edu/museum/collections/archaeo/online-exhibits/paleo-eskimo-cultures/thule/.

Newfoundland Heritage Web Site, www.heritage.nf.ca.

The Canadian Encyclopedia, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca.

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