We get asked all the time if Newfoundland used to be its own country and what country Newfoundland belongs to. The history of Newfoundland is pretty rich, and as far as Canadian provinces go, it’s the most unique.
Newfoundland is officially known as Newfoundland and Labrador although most people refer to it as just plain Newfoundland (don’t say this to anyone from Labrador). The island portion of the province is what’s technically called Newfoundland and the part that’s attached to mainland Canada is what people call Labrador. Although right now Newfoundland is part of Canada, it wasn’t always like this. Newfoundland and Labrador is the newest Canadian province and the last one to join the confederation of Canada.
Handy Dandy Links: Becoming a Province(Heritage NL)
Most people don’t realize Newfoundland used to essentially be its own country. It was what’s known as a dominion which basically functioned the same way as an independent country up until 1934 when a British appointed commission started to rule it. It wasn’t until March 31, 1949, when after one of the closest votes in Canadian politics, Newfoundland and Labrador officially joined Canada. The vote was very close, with only 52 percent of the people supporting joining Canada. Many wanted to stay independent, and still to this day, it’s a hot topic of discussion among locals. What if Newfoundland had remained independent? Would they have been able to control their fishery better? Did Newfoundlanders give up their freedoms and rights? Newfoundland and Labrador has a strong nationalist history. Today you can still find people that want to separate from Canada but the overwhelming majority embraces being Canadian.
Although quite controversial, this joining of peoples is not without it’s conspiracy theories. But that’s another post for another day.
So what would life be like in Newfoundland if the vote to join Canada had gone the other way? While nobody knows for sure, the history of Iceland may hold some clues. A few years before Newfoundland officially joined Canada, Iceland held a referendum to separate from Denmark. This time the vote that took place on May 24, 1944, went the other way and just a few weeks later, on June 17, 1944, Iceland became its own country. Most Icelanders consider this to be a big win for the resource-rich country. It was a game changer for Iceland, which, like Newfoundland, has one of the richest fishing grounds on the planet.
When Newfoundland joined confederation, they essentially lost control of their own fishery. The reverse, however, happened in Iceland when they separated from Denmark. When Iceland became its own country, they became free to manage their fishery as they pleased. Some Newfoundlanders argue the decline in the Newfoundland fishery, particularly with cod and off-shore fishing, started as soon as Newfoundland joined Canada, when the power over the fishery shifted from the dominion of Newfoundland to the Canadian government and federal ministers in Ottawa. The fishery stopped being managed by the locals who knew and understood it and decisions started to be made by people who knew little about the Newfoundland fishery. The lack of local control was one of the driving factors behind Iceland separating from Denmark around the same time Newfoundland became part of Canada, and the contrast between these two Atlantic fishing nations is worth exploring.,
So what does Iceland’s fishery look like today? Iceland has one of the largest fisheries in the world. They’re famous for producing some of the best fish in the world and fetch top dollar for their product. When Canada took over the Newfoundland fishery it started to focus on bulk export of “cod-blocks”, essentially low-quality commercial frozen bricks of fish to be sold at low prices to manufactures of fish sticks and commercial feed. Alternatively, in Iceland, a move was made to only export high-quality whole fish to international markets that demand the best of the best. While Canada kept the economic development strategies in Newfoundland focused on fishing and general resource extraction, Iceland switched gears, focusing on the diversification of their economy. Now, Iceland has a healthy well-managed fishery, but that’s no longer their main revenue producer. In Iceland today, tourism along with alternative energy such as hydro and geothermal power share the stage. Iceland’s exports near 7 billion yearly and their country ranks high on the OECD better life index.
Most residents of Newfoundland and Labrador are proud Canadians. The province is fully part of Canada with all the rights, privilege, and responsibilities of any Canadian province. For many, looking back at the collapse of the Newfoundland Cod fishery in 1992 when Newfoundland’s North Atlantic cod biomass dangerously dipped to just 1% of pre-confederation levels, they can’t help but wonder what things would have been like if Newfoundland had been able to retain control over their fishery. That day on July 2, 1992, when the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans Minister John Crosbie announced a moratorium on Newfoundland cod fishing due to the mismanagement of the resource, it changed everything. The North Atlantic Cod Moratorium is still etched in the minds of Newfoundlanders who lost their livelihood and those who make their living on the ocean now. The decision, which arguably had to happen due to 50 years of poor fisheries management on the part of the Canadian federal government, shaped the lives of coastal communities throughout this special Atlantic Canadian province.,
Today Newfoundland’s economy is more balanced. Over 500,000 tourists visit Newfoundland and Labrador each year and the tourism industry is thriving. Fishing, forestry, mining, and hydroelectric development also play a major part. The air and water in Newfoundland is some of the cleanest on the planet, and the standard of living in the province is high. The fishery is focused on producing high-quality fish and marine product such as hand line caught cod, lobster, and snow crab that’s exported to national and international markets. If you’ve tried fish from Newfoundland, you already know how great it is, with some of the best fish and fish products in the world coming from Newfoundland and Labrador. Newfoundland has regained more control over their own fishery and is reaping the rewards, now doing many of the things Iceland did when they left Denmark.
What do you think? Were you or someone you know affected by the Newfoundland Cod Moratorium? If you were around during the vote to join Canada in 1942 would you have voted to join confederation or would you have preferred to see Newfoundland be its own country? Post your opinion in the comments below. We want to hear from you.