Newfoundland and Labrador is often described as having the most homogeneous population of European origin in Canada. This is a result of the historical pattern of settlement by Europeans and the low levels of later immigration compared to the rest of Canada.
The aboriginal population of what is now Newfoundland and Labrador can be divided into three, or perhaps four, ethnic categories. The Inuit (previously called 'Eskimos') lived along the north Labrador coast. as fishers and hunters of sea mammals. The Innu (previously called 'Montagnais/Naskapi Indians) lived in the interior of Labrador as hunters of caribou and other game. The island portion of the province was occupied by the Beothuk, a people who probably spoke an Algonkian language, like the Innu, and lived by a complex seasonal movement between interior hunting, mainly of caribou, and coastal fishing and sea-mammal hunting. The Mi'kmaq traditionally used southern areas of Newfoundland. (Aboriginal groups are discussed in the Aboriginal Peoples section of the site).
English and Irish Immigrants
A large majority of the present-day inhabitants of Newfoundland and Labrador are the descendants of people who migrated here from relatively small areas of southwestern England and southeastern Ireland between the mid-17th century and the mid-19th century. Europeans exploited the fisheries of Newfoundland long before there was any appreciable permanent settlement. Most members of the crews who crossed the Atlantic for the seasonal fishery went back in the autumn. A few stayed over the winter to maintain the shore installations, and fewer still stayed on permanently as 'liveyers'.
The resident population grew very slowly until the beginning of the 19th century, when a decline in the migratory fishery made permanent settlement in Newfoundland attractive, and the population quadrupled in a little over 30 years. In those years there were more Irish migrants than English, but Irish migration came almost to a halt by 1833, and English migration continued at a slower rate for a longer time.
Later movements of people from Europe to the New World, like the Irish migration in the famine years of the 1840s, did not come to Newfoundland but went on to Canada and the United States.
After the flow of migration nearly stopped in the middle of the century, the population of Newfoundland continued to grow by natural increase. By the 1930s, more than 95 per cent of Newfoundland's people were native born, the descendants of the English and Irish settlers of 100 years before.
French settlement on the west coast of Newfoundland probably began in the late 18th century, but most French-speaking immigrants arrived during the following century, both Acadians and others from France and St. Pierre. In the early part of the 20th century the francophones and other minorities such as the Mi'kmaq were subjected to considerable pressure to assimilate, but since the 1970s there has been a linguistic, social and cultural revival among people of French and of Mi'kmaq ancestry.
A small number of Highland Scots migrated to the Codroy Valley on the southwestern coast in the middle part of the 19th century. Many of their descendants still live there and preserve some elements of the Scots Gaelic language.
Chinese and Lebanese Christian Immigrants
At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, a number of Chinese men came to Newfoundland, and in spite of both official and unofficial discrimination against them, established themselves as residents. Several opened businesses - at first laundries and later restaurants. No Chinese women were allowed to immigrate until 1949. The Chinese came first to St. John's, and some later opened businesses in other larger centres. In spite of discrimination and mistreatment, the small contingent of Chinese Newfoundlanders has become a significant part of the society.
Around the same time as the Chinese were first arriving, a number of Lebanese Christians were being driven from their homes in Syria and Lebanon by religious strife, and some of them came to Newfoundland. They were at first called “Assyrians” by the press, and also subjected to a certain amount of discrimination, but settled successfully in St. John's, Bell Island, Grand Falls/Windsor, and the Corner Brook area, where they and their descendants have played an important part in Newfoundland life.
Small numbers of people of other ethnic backgrounds did come to Newfoundland and Labrador , and since 1949 more have arrived, either from Canada or directly from their original homelands. Memorial University has attracted people of varied ethnic backgrounds, both as staff and students. However, the vast majority of the population is still made up of the descendants of the English and Irish settlers of the 19th century.