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.
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.
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 the Centre
for Newfoundland Studies Archives (Siegfried Hettasch Collection),
Memorial University of Newfoundland Library, St. John's,
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.
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.
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.
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.
©1997, J.K. Hiller