Social Changes, 1949-1972

Confederation prompted immediate and massive social changes in Newfoundland and Labrador. A new network of roads connected once-isolated communities; health care became more affordable; the province’s poor received cash from Canada's social assistance programs; and reforms in education greatly improved the public school system.

Despite an improvement in the material standard of living, tensions did arise. Many people feared that overexposure to North American media was eroding traditional dialects and ways of life; others resented the province's resettlement and centralization programs, which saw hundreds of small communities disappear - some of which had existed for centuries.

Nonetheless, the first two post-Confederation decades were a boon to Joseph Smallwood’s Liberal government, which became closely associated with all the benefits of joining Canada in the public consciousness. Popular enthusiasm for the apparent progress and material comforts that accompanied Confederation helped Smallwood remain in office for almost a quarter century.


By North American standards, Newfoundland and Labrador was not a very modern society in 1949. Many of its residents, especially those in the outports, practiced a way of life that had remained largely unchanged for generations. The fishery was the backbone of the economy; cash was a rarity in some communities where credit systems still persisted; electricity, paved roads, and other amenities were not widespread; nor were newspapers, radio, and other forms of mass communication.

The Second World War brought a brief period of prosperity to the country, as the American and Canadian Armed Forces employed thousands of local men and women to help build military bases in St. John’s, Goose Bay, and other areas. With peacetime, however, came an end to the construction boom and many workers returned to their previous occupations as inshore fishermen, loggers, and miners. Still, the bases had exposed Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to a higher standard of living, and many did not want to return to the comparative hardships of the past. In 1949, a vote for Confederation was a vote for change, and a vote for modernization.


Upon Confederation, Smallwood took immediate steps to improve the province’s education system. During the first meeting of the House of Assembly, he transformed Memorial University College into a degree-granting institution. The province reorganized the public school system and opened large, regional high schools that enrolled students from surrounding communities. Teachers were better-trained than before, largely due to an expansion of Memorial University’s Faculty of Education.

School attendance also increased dramatically for a variety of reasons. Although the Commission had required all students aged 14 or younger to attend class, it did not actively enforce this law. In 1948, only 76 per cent of the country’s children regularly attended school. Many remained home because their families could not afford the proper supplies, shoes, or winter clothing, or because no school existed within a reasonable travelling distance. After Confederation, the federal and provincial governments built a series of roads, which made schools more accessible to people living in remote outports. Yellow school buses – almost nonexistent before 1949 – became commonplace and began picking up many students.

An economic incentive also helped raise enrolment: as Canadian citizens, residents of Newfoundland and Labrador were now eligible to receive family allowances, but these were conditional on school attendance. In the years following Confederation, more than 90 per cent of all school-aged children were going to class. Attendance at Memorial University also steadily grew, jumping from 300 in 1949 to more than 4,700 by 1966.

Communications and Transportation

Before Confederation, there were only 195 kilometres of paved roads in Newfoundland and Labrador. By 1965, the Trans-Canada Highway ran across the island and the province was building thousands of kilometres of secondary roads, linking remote communities with the highway. This brought outports to within a day’s car ride of larger centres, ending centuries of isolation. By the early 1970s, there was approximately one car for every five people in the province.

Air travel also flourished. In 1949, Smallwood helped establish Eastern Provincial Airways, which became one of the few transportation links between Labrador and the island. Trans-Canada Airlines, which later became Air Canada, also provided daily flights to the rest of Canada and the globe.

Improved communications further opened Newfoundland and Labrador to the world. Radio and television were particularly influential. In 1949, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) absorbed the Broadcasting Corporation of Newfoundland, modernized its facilities, and added more Canadian content to its programming. Commercial radio also thrived in the post-Confederation climate, and a wide range of AM and FM stations began broadcasting. These often followed North American models, and exposed many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians – in many cases for the first time – to Canadian and American forms of entertainment, including western music, commercials, news “flashes,” and quiz shows.

In 1955, entrepreneur Geoff Sterling established the province’s first television broadcasting system, the privately-owned CJON. CBC followed suit nine years later with two stations, one in St. John’s and another in Corner Brook. Although both CJON and CBC included regional programming, they gave considerably more air time to Canadian and American content. Advertising was also prominent, but rarely promoted local products.

Smallwood's policy of electrification greatly enhanced all advances in broadcasting – without power, radio and television could not thrive. In 1949, only half of the province’s population had electricity; by 1972, almost no one was without it.

Health and Welfare

Upon Confederation, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians became eligible for federal and provincial social assistance programs. These included family allowances, war veteran allowances, unemployment insurance, and old age pensions. Alongside assisting the province’s poor, the payments helped smaller communities shift from a credit to a cash economy. Fishermen no longer had to rely on credit from merchants for goods, and became independent consumers.

Advances were made in public health care as well. In early 1957, the province unveiled a progressive medical program which provided free hospital and medical coverage to all children under the age of 16. That same year, the province passed the Hospital Insurance Act, making a wide range of medical services more affordable for the general public; these included hospital fees, nursing services, and various diagnostic procedures.

Mixed Reaction

While Confederation brought with it numerous changes, they were not completely welcomed by the people. Television and radio placed North American entertainment and culture into thousands of homes across Newfoundland and Labrador. Many worried that traditional ways of life and speech were disappearing under outside influences. Commercial media increased materialism and marginalized local arts and crafts – mail order catalogues, for example, decreased the need for women and men to knit sweaters, socks, blankets, and other woollens. Young people, attracted to urban lifestyles, were leaving rural communities in larger numbers than before, with help from new and convenient modes of transportation. Hundreds of small communities disappeared altogether under the government’s centralization and resettlement programs.

Smallwood, meanwhile, felt all the changes to education, transportation, and communication would ultimately attract foreign industrialists and big business to set up in Newfoundland and Labrador and provide employment for future generations. Before he left office in 1972, Smallwood helped usher in more major social changes than perhaps any leader before or after him. Whether they were for the ultimate good of the people is an issue that continues to be debated by the province’s press, public, artists, academics, and politicians.

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Video: Resettlement