The Labrador Boundary

Victory in the Seven Years' War gave Britain control over New France, including Labrador. In 1763 the British government organized these new territories, in part by creating the province of Quebec. The 1763 proclamation also stated that "to the end that the open and free fishery ... may be extended to and carried on upon the Coast of Labrador ... we have thought fit ... to put all that Coast, from the River St. John's to Hudson's Streights ... under the care and inspection of our Governor of Newfoundland." The interior boundary - that is, the boundary between the "Coast of Labrador" and the territory then controlled by the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) - was not defined.

Division of Responsibility

The situation was complicated by a series of changes after 1763. Considerable friction between the governments of Newfoundland and Quebec was generated by the complaints of those who had obtained Quebec grants to settle along the coast between the St. John River and Blanc Sablon and conduct sedentary fisheries - the Newfoundland authorities being intent upon encouraging the migratory fishery. One of the provisions of the 1774 Quebec Act (14 Geo III c 83), therefore, was to transfer to Quebec all the "territories, islands and countries" in Labrador that had been placed under Newfoundland jurisdiction in 1763. In addition, the northern boundary of Quebec was now defined as the southern boundary of HBC territory (wherever that might be). However, instructions issued to governors of Newfoundland after 1774 required them to supervise the fisheries at Labrador, and to protect the Moravian mission settlements which had been established at Nain, Okak and Hopedale.

Nain Mission Station, n.d.
Nain Mission Station, n.d.
Nineteenth century lithograph by an unknown artist. In 1771, Moravians established a settlement at Nain which became the Moravian headquarters in Labrador.

Courtesy of Dr. Hans Rollman. From Archives and Special Collections (Siegfried Hettasch Collection), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

This vague division of responsibility proved unworkable. As a result of lobbying in London, in 1809 the Labrador coast (as defined in 1763) was returned to Newfoundland (49 Geo III c 27). There remained, however, the problem of the proprietors on the North Shore, and this was finally settled by an act of 1825 (6 Geo IV c 59), which moved the southern boundary from the River St. John east to Blanc Sablon, and extended the boundary line inland to the 52nd parallel. From there it ran west to the headwaters of the St. John River.

Interior Boundary Issues

There was, then, a southern boundary, and it came to be generally accepted that northern boundary lay at Cape Chidley on Killinek Island. But the interior, western boundary remained undefined. Active discussion of the interior boundary issue began in the late 19th century, prompted by two linked developments. First, the former HBC territories were acquired by the Dominion of Canada in 1870. Second, an 1880 order-in-council gave to the Dominion all British territories in North America which were not already included either in Canada or Newfoundland. Not surprisingly, both Ontario and Quebec pressed for a redefinition and extension of their borders.

Extension of Quebec Territory

In 1898, the Canadian government extended the northern boundary of Quebec. The line was to run from the coast of James Bay, along the Eastmain River and the Hamilton (now Churchill) River, and then through the middle of Hamilton Inlet until it reached territory under Newfoundland jurisdiction. In Canada's view, Newfoundland could claim only a coastal strip of land. This legislation ignored the 1825 act.

Quebec soon tried to enforce the new boundary. In 1902 the Newfoundland government granted a timber concession on both sides of the Hamilton River (297 sq mi) to a Nova-Scotia based company, the Grand River Pulp and Lumber Co. Ltd., owned by Alfred Dickie. The Quebec government promptly protested that part of the concession was - by virtue of the 1898 act - in Quebec. The company responded that it was not trespassing on Quebec territory since Newfoundland claimed all lands north of 52 latitude and east of 64 longitude. Quebec appealed to the federal government to intervene.

The Privy Council

Canada agreed that the "coast" of Labrador could not include the Hamilton River, and so informed the British government. For its part, Newfoundland repudiated the allegation that the timber concession on the Hamilton River encroached on Canadian territory. It was eventually agreed to submit the dispute to the Privy Council, Newfoundland claiming that the boundary was defined by the height of land.

The fact that the boundary was in dispute did not prevent another significant extension of Quebec territory in 1912, when that province was given jurisdiction over the whole Labrador Peninsula except the territory "over which the Island of Newfoundland has lawful jurisdiction", and the offshore islands, which remained under federal control. As in 1898, the 1912 act assumed that Newfoundland was entitled to no more than a narrow coastal strip.

The case was heard by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in 1927. Canada argued that the annexation of the Labrador coast to Newfoundland in 1763 reflected the policy of developing a British migratory fishery there. Newfoundland was not then a colony in any official sense, but a fishing station, and it made sense at the time for all British fisheries in the region to be placed under one government. To carry out and supervise a fishery, all that was needed, and therefore intended, was jurisdiction over a coastal strip. Moreover, the Labrador interior was "Indian territory" as defined in 1763, and never under Newfoundland's control.

In reply Newfoundland emphasized the use of the phrase "coasts and territories" in instructions to various governors, and argued that more than a coastal strip was intended: John Agnew was granted in 1774 the right to search for minerals up to 60 miles inland; the southern boundary ran inland to the headwaters of the River St. John, and later as far as the 52nd parallel. In any event, so Newfoundland held, it was clear from the proclamation that whatever did not fall within the jurisdiction of the Hudson's Bay Company or Quebec, fell within that of Newfoundland, and was not "Indian territory". Moreover, the Newfoundland government had continuously administered Labrador since the late 18th century. Finally, precedent proved that the word "coast" included the entire watershed..

The court upheld the Newfoundland arguments, and declared the Labrador boundary to be

... a line drawn due north from the eastern boundary of the bay or harbour of the Anse au Sablon as far as the fifty-second degree of north latitude, and from thence westward ... until it reaches the Romaine River, and then northward along the left or east bank of that river and its head waters to the source and from thence due northward to the crest of the watershed or height of land there, and from thence westward and northward along the crest of the watershed of the rivers flowing into the Atlantic Ocean until it reaches Cape Chidley.

This decision has always been unpopular in Quebec. Ironically, in 1925, the Newfoundland government had offered to sell Labrador to Quebec in order to pay down the public debt, but the Quebec premier turned the offer down.