Social Changes 1972-2001

Newfoundland and Labrador society changed considerably during the last three decades of the 20th century. The spread of feminism, Aboriginal self-consciousness, a cultural revival, and other social movements altered attitudes and cultural norms, while advances in communication transformed the way rural and urban residents interacted with each other and the rest of the world.

The single most profound and far-reaching change after 1990, however, was shifting demographics. During the 1990s the province's population dropped by 10 per cent, became increasingly urbanized, and began to age rapidly. These changes reflected the collapse of the labour-intensive cod fishery in 1992, and growing job markets in Alberta and Ontario. The social consequences of such large-scale population change were enormous. Aging populations placed greater demands on the health-care system, while shrinking tax bases left municipalities with less money to pay for infrastructure and services. Rural communities became increasingly unsustainable.

New Social Movements

Several social movements caused significant social reforms in Newfoundland and Labrador in the late-20th century. Among the most influential was the modern women's movement. Active across Canada and much of the western world by the early 1970s, the movement strove to end discrimination and violence against women through legal, political, and social change.

A button promoting the 52% Solution. n.d.
The 52% Solution was created by the Provincial Advisory Committee on the Status of Women and various women's community groups in 1987 to encourage women to run for office.

The provincial movement lobbied for and brought about a wide range of social changes, including pay equity, affirmative action, pension benefits for women, changes to matrimonial property rights and reproductive rights, and greater representation of women in government and other decision-making bodies. Attitudes towards women and their roles in the province changed dramatically. The gender gap narrowed considerably in labour force participation, post-secondary enrollment, and health expectancy; gains were also made in political and executive representation, but to a lesser degree.

Social activism extended to other groups and issues as well. Aboriginal groups organized to protect their rights and cultures, forming the Labrador Inuit Association and the Native Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (today the Federation of Newfoundland Indians) in 1973, the Naskapi Montagnais Innu Association (today the Innu Nation) in 1976, and the Labrador Metis Association (today NunatuKavut) in 1985.

There was also a burst of local creative activity in the 1970s, known alternately as the cultural renaissance, revival, or revolution. Talented new artists worked in a wide range of disciplines in the literary, performing, and visual arts. Often for the first time, the local population saw their stories, dialects, and customs reflected back from the page, canvas, stage, or television screen. As the movement explored the province's culture, it also helped to validate and shape it.

Sunday Afternoon, 1972 Christopher Pratt's Sunday Afternoon, 1972.
© 1972. Serigraph, 5/30, 42 x 71 cm. The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery Permanent Collection, St. John's, Newfoundland.
Larger Version with more information (61 kb)

There were also important advances in technology. Personal computers entered the market in the late 1970s and by the end of the 1990s were commonplace household items. The advent of the Internet in the mid-1990s brought swift and far-reaching change. Almost unheard of before 1994, it quickly revolutionized the way that people in the province and around the world communicated with one another.

Changing Demographics

Fundamental demographic changes have done much to reshape Newfoundland and Labrador society in recent decades. In general, the population is shrinking, aging, and becoming increasingly urbanized. Experts believe these are long-term population trends. They are rooted in social and economic changes that began in the late 1940s.

Newfoundland and Labrador Population, 1971-2010
Created by Jenny Higgins.
Larger Version with more information (66 kb)
Sunday Afternoon, 1972

Immediately after the Second World War, much of the Western world, including Newfoundland and Labrador, entered a period of increased fertility known as the baby boom. Birth rates rose dramatically until the mid-1960s, at which point they began to drop off. By then, the modern women's movement was fuelling social change. Increasing numbers of young women were pursuing post-secondary education or entering the workforce. This, coupled with easier access to birth control and sexual education, resulted in fewer pregnancies.

In Canada and most other industrial countries, birth rates leveled off in the mid-1970s and then experienced a slight increase in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the largest group of baby boomers entered their child-bearing years. This period is known as the "baby echo". No such increase occurred in Newfoundland and Labrador, however, where birth rates declined continuously until the end of the century.

Out-migration was a major cause. Since 1961, the province's net migration had been almost continuously negative - meaning more people were leaving the province than entering it. Most migrants were young people, between the ages of 15 and 34, who moved to other provinces in search of better work and education. Rural areas were most affected because a recent industrialization of the fisheries and forest industries had eliminated many traditional jobs. The steady departure of young people after 1961 added to declining birth rates in the 1970s and 1980s.

Out-Migration in the 1990s

After the federal government closed the cod fisheries in 1992, out-migration soared to unprecedented levels. The effect was devastating in outport communities, where 30,000 people were suddenly out of work. No other major industry existed to absorb the unemployed. Thousands of people moved away to find jobs, often to Alberta or Ontario. Newfoundland and Labrador's population fell by 10 per cent between 1991 and 2001 - a period when population growth was the norm in every other province except for Saskatchewan's slight decrease of less than two per cent.

Net Migration Newfoundland and Labrador Net Migration, 1971-2010
Created by Jenny Higgins.
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The heaviest losses were in rural areas, where the population fell from 264,023 to 216,734 - a drop of about 18 per cent. Areas most affected were the island's northeast and south coasts, the Northern Peninsula, and parts of the Avalon Peninsula outside the St. John's metropolitan area. In contrast, the population of urban centres fell by only three per cent between 1991 and 2001, dropping from 304,455 to 296,196.

The composition and distribution of Newfoundland and Labrador's population also changed in the 10 years after the cod moratorium. By 2001, a greater percentage of the province's people (58 per cent) were living in urban centres than ever before, while rural areas were becoming depopulated. The change was driven by a variety of economic and social factors. Urban economies were more stable and diversified than rural ones, which created greater job opportunities. Cities also benefitted from larger tax bases and could therefore afford better health, educational, recreational, transportation, and other services. These differences became even more pronounced after the cod moratorium.

The province's population also began to age rapidly. This was mostly due to the large-scale out-migration of young people, but was compounded by a low birthrate and high life expectancy. Although aging was a trend across Canada, it happened much faster in Newfoundland and Labrador. The pattern was most pronounced in rural areas, which continued to lose young residents while attracting few immigrants.

While out-migration has slowed since 2001, the demographic shifts that took place in the province in the 1990s will continue to shape Newfoundland and Labrador society and economy for years to come. Experts predict the population will continue to age, the birth rate will continue to decline, and more people will move to urban centres from rural areas. A challenge facing policy makers is how to grow the provincial economy in the face of an aging, shrinking, and increasingly urbanized population.

Article by Jenny Higgins. ©2012, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site

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