Next to the family, “community” is the oldest and most basic unit of people living together. A community is a group of people who live in the same area and share the same culture. Members of a community feel that they belong to the group, and identify their interests as coinciding with other members of their community. Newfoundland and Labrador itself is a community, and in turn, consists of many smaller communities.
Any simple description of Newfoundland communities of European descent would be deceptive. (Aboriginal communities are discussed in the Aboriginal Peoples Section of the Site.) Each community is different from the others, and each has changed over time. The ethnic makeup of these communities varies, and their individual characters reflect their economic bases. Yet there are many commonalties. Outports share certain characteristics, as do farming communities. As a mercantile and administrative centre, the city of St. John's has long had distinctive features, yet is still recognizably a Newfoundland community. In the 19th and 20th centuries, industrial enterprises built upon mining, the railway and papermaking gave birth to communities in the interior of Newfoundland and in Labrador. These industrial towns, and the communities formed around military bases, are much closer to the urban pattern of towns in the rest of North America. However, they also share many aspects of Newfoundland culture.
During the days of the migratory fishery and the early settlement of the coast, most Newfoundland communities were extensions of communities on the other side of the Atlantic. Europeans worked in Newfoundland for a period of time, with full intentions of returning to England, Ireland or France at the end of the season. They brought with them cultures, customs and modes of behaviour that shaped how they related to each other. Long after a population of permanent residents had evolved, the settlers remained a part of the international community and continued to have contact with the British Isles. Trade, new immigrants and sending children to Europe to be educated all reinforced the elements of their original culture, even after a distinct Newfoundland way of life had evolved.
Despite the high turn over of population, in which whole family names might die out and be replaced by other names over the span of a few decades, many communities developed a character of their own. Communities in the area originally settled by the English, such as Ferryland, have had people living in them since the beginning of the 17th century. In such places, local knowledge of places to fish, collect wood and how to survive was developed and passed from person to person. From such modest beginnings, people who lived in the same place developed social networks of kin and friendship that made them communities. Although they were part of an international economy, they also produced from within the community much of what they needed to live.
Communities developed where families, which were the most basic economic unit, could harvest resources. Generally, this meant that families needed a place with shelter, fresh water and access to the fishing grounds. Additional factors such as availability of shore space for the drying of salted fish, and timber for building and firewood, were also crucial in making some places desirable in which to live. When all the existing shore space became allocated, or when more productive fishing grounds became known, some people would move to other areas. These geographic and ecological factors account for the high number of small communities spread over the length of shoreline and hundreds of islands of Newfoundland and Labrador. A number of communities also developed in Labrador at sites chosen by groups such as the Moravian Church or Hudson's Bay Company.
The ethnic composition of communities varied, since immigrants from different parts of the British Isles came to Newfoundland during periods that particular stretches of coast were being settled. Large numbers of Irish immigrants thus made up the bulk of settlers on parts of the Avalon Peninsula - as they immigrated while those areas were being settled. On the north east coast of the island, families from the West of England settled. These communities consisted of people who were more likely to be Church of England or Protestant than the Irish Roman Catholic communities.
The character of communities also varied with the kind of economy in the area. In the communities on the Burin Peninsula, for example, men went to sea for extended periods to engage in the Grand Banks' fishery. Since men were gone for large parts of the year, women had a larger role in the economic organization of their family's activities than would be the case in other areas. Men on the north east coast of the island, who engaged in the inshore fishery, would have been home every evening, and were thus able to participate in the lives of their communities all year. Many men in this area engaged in the seal fishery each spring, an activity that brought men from different communities into the same ship for weeks of difficult work and harsh conditions. This experience forged a common bond among men of different communities. Thousands of fishing families on the island, especially in Conception Bay, also sailed to the coast of Labrador to fish each summer, and many of these in turn settled coastal Labrador and founded new communities. As new areas became available for settlement, such as the Straits of Belle Isle or the former “French Shore, internal migration within Newfoundland and Labrador gave birth to new communities that had links to more established settlements.
Starting in the early 19th century, and perhaps culminating in Newfoundland's proud contribution to the Great War between 1914 and 1918, residents started to see themselves as Newfoundlanders rather than English or Irish people living on the island and Labrador. Common cultural elements evolved, and contributed to a sense of place. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians feel they belong to their communities, an attachment and feeling of belonging to both the physical place and the people they live with. Upon first meeting, Newfoundlanders will sometimes ask “to where do you belong?” Although there are Newfoundlanders living in many parts of the world, they retain an identification with their homeland and community.
The small size of most Newfoundland and Labrador communities discouraged elected municipal government outside of St. John's, until well into the 20th century. Most communities governed themselves through consensus and through the leadership of clergy, merchants and other individuals who commanded respect. There were often remarkable community consensuses about which families were entitled to which resources, and what was fair and unfair. When someone violated those boundaries, members of the community would band together to right what they believed was wrong. In times of great economic dislocation, such as the Great Depression, the self-sufficiency of communities and their ability to resolve conflict broke down.
When the Royal Commission on Newfoundland (the Amulree Commission) investigated Newfoundland's economy and society in 1933, it argued that Newfoundlanders were too dependent upon the central government in St. John's to provide for their wants. The Amulree Commission thought that establishing local government in the larger outports could encourage people to provide for their own public services such as roads and wharves. Efforts to encourage the spread of municipal government did not really achieve much until after 1949, when Newfoundland underwent a number of other changes.
Road and causeway building connected many more communities to each other during the last half of the 20th century. Meanwhile the provision of electricity and municipal water and sewage systems and made these communities more "modern." A government-sponsored "resettlement program" also evacuated many remote communities and moved the people to centralized locations where services such as health and education could be provided to them more cheaply. But it would be a mistake to see these developments exclusively as an effect of Newfoundland's union with Canada. These services had been expanding, and many communities had been abandoned, before 1949. Such changes would have occurred, although perhaps at a slower pace, had confederation not occurred. It would also be easy to make too much of road construction bringing an end to isolation. Although roads changed the character of communities, the sea was a highway and during the age of sail Newfoundland and Labrador outports had regular contact with Europe, the Caribbean, Canada and New England.
Development in the late 20th century
During the last decades of the 20th century, rural communities came under increasing pressure. Technological change within the forest industry made woods work less labour intensive, and the moratorium upon fishing for northern cod robbed many fishing communities of their economic base. The long-standing trends of out-migration and smaller families caused the populations of most rural communities to plummet. Meanwhile urban areas, especially the greater St. John's area, which benefited from the development of new industries such as offshore petroleum, continued to grow.
Community boundaries were once clear and unambiguous. Outports and towns were separated from each other by woods and sea, with the ocean often being the easiest way of travelling from one community to another. In the St. John's area, growth filled in the spaces between communities in recent decades, leading to a seamlessness of urban sprawl that has made municipal boundaries artificial. With rural depopulation and improvements in transportation and communication, the North American urban lifestyle is now the experience of most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. For these people, the community in which they live is not as relevant to their daily lives as it had been for their predecessors. Their lives are centred around their career and the broader institutions to which they belong. While aspects of the urban North American lifestyle are desirable, many people worry that the distinctive culture and society forged in the Newfoundland and Labrador communities will soon become a thing of the past.