Society and Culture
Newfoundland and Labrador society has been shaped by a particular
combination of geographical, economic, and historical forces. Among the most important
influences have been its isolated location on the eastern edge of North America, its
marine environment, the work patterns and social relationships that developed in the fishing
economy, and the British and Irish roots of the majority of its people.
A west coast fishing settlement in Bonne Bay. Newfoundland culture has been largely shaped by its marine environment.
Reproduced by permission of Ben Hansen. From Ben Hansen, Newfoundland (St.
John's, Newfoundland: Vinland Press, ©1987).
These and other factors have fostered a vital society and a culture whose elements range
from oral traditions to popular entertainment and games, from techniques associated with work,
especially in the fishery, to both official and unofficial religious beliefs and practices.
Distinctive variations of spoken English and French and a rich material culture are also
found in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The roots of many aspects of this culture can be traced as far back as the seventeenth
and even sixteenth centuries, when fishers visited the region for the annual harvest of cod
attempted to establish permanent settlements in places such as Cupids
and Ferryland. The society began to take on a more permanent form, however,
only at the beginning of the nineteenth century when the migratory fishery began to
be replaced by a local village-based economy.
The new conditions generated a complex set of social relationships among fishing families,
local and more distant merchants and their employees, church and clergy, and often
remote but powerful governments. Folk entertainments that have been widely described as
“typical” of Newfoundland life -
mummering, 'times' and kitchen parties with
their repertoire of performance, stories and songs - all emerged as important parts of
Conche, Great Northern Peninsula.
Reproduced by permission of Candace Cochrane. From Candace Cochrane, Outport:
Reflections from the Newfoundland Coast, edited by Roger Page (Don Mills, Ontario:
Addison-Wesley Publishers, ©1981) 126.
Beyond providing pleasure, these customary activities could also reflect
the social relations and tensions inherent in a community - Hallowe'en pranks could be
quite destructive and many ballads have a satiric edge.
The material culture also began to develop its distinctive forms at this time,
shaped by the fishery and Newfoundland's sense of place as an emerging colony.
Less focused on subsistence agriculture and more on an export trade, Newfoundland was probably
more outward-looking than many of its continental neighbours. Because of their
frequent contact with maritime communities throughout the Atlantic world, Newfoundlanders
who could afford to do so imported many goods, and until quite late in the nineteenth
century there was little local manufacturing. People in small fishing communities who
had little or no disposable income had to make things for themselves: clothing, furniture,
some housewares, tools and, above all, the buildings in which they lived, worked and worshipped.
An example of local craftsmanship - man and woman displaying handmade rugs,
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (PANL VA26), St.
As income increased, particularly in the major towns, so did the presence of specialized
craftspeople and the availability of locally manufactured goods. These, in their turn,
brought about a refashioning of the buildings and the goods made by local people.
Until the twentieth century the forms that survived these changes tended to be
those associated with the fishery: the structure of stages, stores and flakes remained
virtually the same as they had been since the first days of the migratory
fishery 300 years previously.
The development of St. John's, the capital, and of the principal towns and outports,
also had a marked effect on other aspects of Newfoundland and Labrador society. As
the population and wealth of St. John's increased, so did its capacity to support public
and educational institutions. Such institutions sponsored drama groups, bands, choirs,
and a broad spectrum of community activities, thus nurturing a host of talents and interests
which remain an important feature of Newfoundland and Labrador culture at the end of the
twentieth century. Similar institutional structures could be found in many of the
principal settlements, fostered sometimes by churches, sometimes by fraternal societies,
and sometimes -- as in the case of Heart's Content -- by companies. Social distinctions
were more sharply defined in larger centres, where rich and poor developed social and
cultural forms that expressed their different economic positions. A vibrant working-class
culture, with its many distinctive features, flourished in St. John's.
||Poster board on display in downtown St. John's, 1994.
Various advertisements displaying the province's broad spectrum of community talents
and local events.
Reproduced by permission of Ben Hansen. From Ben Hansen, Newfoundland Gems
(St. John's, Newfoundland: Vinland Press, ©1996) 67.
With the passage of time and the restructuring of social and economic life in
Newfoundland and Labrador, many aspects of the old culture have necessarily disappeared,
others have been transformed and, more recently, some have been revived. The new economy,
more diverse and less tied to the fishing village and to the power of fish merchants,
has brought social diversification. In the older society, the middle class was very small,
but in the last half of the twentieth century there has been a great increase in the
numbers of white collar workers in business, industry, government and education, and of people
in managerial and professional positions. At the same time, there is a new awareness of
the older and suppressed ethnic and cultural realities of the French and aboriginal peoples.
Traditional culture is not dead; but its remnants survive in a more complex, rapidly changing
social environment, where the population of the region is far more exposed than previously to
Throughout the nineteenth and for much of the twentieth century, “traditional” elements of
Newfoundland and Labrador culture were a living reality, part of the fabric of people's
lives. Increasingly, traditional culture is being transformed into an object of study and
its elements into commodities to be bought and sold as part of the culture industry,
especially in connection with the tourist trade. This
commodification of culture is
disturbing to some, but others view it as a means of revaluing and revitalizing the old
culture and strengthening the new, thereby strengthening the society of
Newfoundland as a whole.
©1997, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site Project
Sidebar links updated February, 2008