Newfoundland and Labrador: A History

Newfoundland and Labrador: A History by Sean T. Cadigan was a long and heavy read. To call it extremely detailed does not do it justice. Cadigan cited from dozens of sources and had twenty-two pages of endnotes. That number might not seem long in itself, but the pages in this large-format paperback were densely packed with minimal spacing between the lines. It certainly felt like a much longer read than its 297 pages. That will explain why it took me exactly four weeks to read this book, however I did take it with me on a thirteen-day vacation to the Canadian west so I was not reading it daily. That said, for the most inclusive history of the island of Newfoundland and mainland of Labrador, I recommend Cadigan’s History.

My high school history classes did not cover anything about Newfoundland except its entrance into Confederation. Cadigan covered the indigenous peoples, the first European contacts and migration and the varying states of government that brought Newfoundland from a British colony to Newfoundland and Labrador as a province of Canada. A major part in the modern history of Newfoundland are the grandiose schemes to industrialize the island interior, or to seek viable alternatives to the fishing industry. The island is nicknamed “the rock” for a good reason, as I saw for myself when I flew to St. John’s in 2012. Almost a third of the land surface of the island has no soil. Newfoundland is home to little arable land and thus agriculture is not a viable option for producing self-sufficiency. It does not sustain an internal population because of this. Check out a map; all of Newfoundland’s settlements are on the coast or have a direct outlet to the sea.

As fish stocks depleted, especially cod, the colony looked towards developing other industries. Forestry, mining, drilling for oil and energy production were among the more successful schemes. The province’s first premier, Joey Smallwood, tried to modernize both the island and Labrador yet his wasteful (and often self-serving) plans to make Newfoundland an eastern industrial powerhouse ruined his reputation. He became a whipping boy for all of Newfoundland’s woes, yet his schemes were nothing new. Even in colonial days massive (and failing) landward developments predated Confederation.

I liked Cadigan’s punny fishy writing spread over two pages in the middle of the book. In what was otherwise a heavy read, packed with information in every line yet not boring, I was nonetheless impressed to laugh during the following lines:

“In his struggle with Bond during the general election of 1908, Morris had angled for the support of fishing people and the FPU by promising better fisheries reform and an old-age pension scheme. However, Morris’s failure to establish government-controlled, mandatory regulation of salt-fish marketing and his refusal to enforce regulations against commercial cutting on a three-mile-deep strip of coastal forests reserved for use in the fishery alienated Coaker and the FPU. Through 1911, Morris continued to fish for FPU support, using the bait of a limited number of pensions worth $50 per year available only to men over the age of 75.”

I would not recommend this book as pleasure reading. It was far too deep to cuddle into yet excellent as an academic study, teeming with details.

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