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.

Norris Point, Bonne Bay
Norris Point
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.

Cultural Roots

The roots of many aspects of this culture can be traced as far back as the 17th and even 16th centuries, when fishers visited the region for the annual harvest of cod or when planters 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 19th 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 outport life.

Kitchen Party, Conche
Kitchen Party
Kitchen party in 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.

Material Culture Development

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 19th 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.

Handmade Rugs, ca. 1919
Handmade Rugs, ca. 1919
An Example of Local Craftsmanship - Man and Woman Displaying Handmade Rugs, ca. 1919
Courtesy of The Rooms Provincial Archives Division (VA 26), St. John's, NL.

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 20th 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.

Rural Development

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 20th century. Similar institutional structures could be found in many of the principal settlements, fostered sometimes by churches, sometimes by fraternal societies, and sometimes by companies, as in the case of Heart's Content. 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
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, NL: 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 20th 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 external influences.


Throughout the 19th and for much of the 20th 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.

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