Down in History: How N Became NL

We all know our province is two rather different geographic entities arbitrarily aligned as one. Fewer people know how the union came to be, so, here it is in under 500 words.

Newfoundland and Labrador. And Labrador.

Everyone’s aware how big, long, and clunky our province’s name is, especially graphic designers or journalists working with limited space and wordcounts. What our province lacks in financial management skills, we make for in syllables.

We all know our province is two rather different geographic entities arbitrarily aligned as one. Fewer people know how the union came to be, so, here it is in under 500 words.

In a nutshell, Newfoundland inherited it from Quebec after a war. When the British won the Seven Years War against France in 1763, the Treaty of Paris granted Britain possession of what is today Quebec, and this included the mass of land known as Labrador.

At this time, Newfoundland was also owned by the Brits. Britain decided to give leaders in Newfoundland control of Labrador, given our close proximity to The Big Land, and because the booming fishery of Newfoundland could be extended up into the Coast of Labrador.

Quebec got rule of Labrador back though, 11 years later, as part of the Quebec Act. This happened as a result of considerable friction between Quebec and Newfoundland over ownership of Labrdor, to which Britain caved.

This agreement was again reversed in 1809, when Newfoundland was re-given Labrador, in part so we could fend off illegal fishing in the area by Americans.

Labrador was a ping pong ball or trading piece for political appeasement (All the while there were Innu and Inuit living there, whose existence majorly predates the French and English who were vying to administer Labrador.)

Interestingly, during some hard times, Newfoundland tried to sell Labrador back to Quebec for $15 million in 1924. It was one of 4 times, pre-confederation, that Newfoundland tried selling Labrador off to Canada, but Canada was never willing to pay what we were asking, so Labrador remained forever Newfoundland’s.

During some hard times, Newfoundland tried to sell Labrador back to Quebec for $15 million in 1924. It was one of 4 times, pre-confederation, that Newfoundland tried selling Labrador off to Canada

Visually, when looking at map of Canada, Labrador still looks like it belongs to Quebec moreso than Newfoundland, barring the jagged border between Quebec and Labrador. The origin and rationale of that strange erratic border warrants an article in itself, and Quebec has never formally accepted it.

Basically, the line was drawn by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council – the highest court of appeal for British territories and Commonwealth countries – at a time when Canada and Newfoundland were two separate dominions of the British empire, that were disputing over the border between them.

Canada/Quebec felt the border should follow the coast, extending just a mile or two inland. But the Privy Council ruled the border be set at the “height of land,” to include all territory whose waters flowed east to the Atlantic. Which made for a jagged border.

Today’s Canadian province of Newfoundland has really benefitted from the history that gifted it Labrador, in the form of lucrative mining operations, tourism dollars, and mega-power projects (seldom in the best interest of Labradorians. Muskrat Falls aside, the last hydro project in Labrador, from Joey Smallwood’s time in power, flooded ancient burial grounds, and disrupted the habitat of woodland caribou Innu and Inuit folk really relied on for food, and more).

Interestingly, despite the French-English-French-English ping-pongy history of colonial ownership of Labrador, the term Labrador is of Portuguese origin.

The name, Labrador, comes from the Portugese word for farmer or land-owner: Lavrador. But the big land is not named for, nor known for its farmers. Labrador is named after João Fernandes Lavrador, a Portuguese explorer who was in the area in 1498. Lavrador was in fact a farmer as well, from Azores Island.

Today, Labrador constitutes 71% of the land area of our province, but not even 10% of its population. Until the 1950s, its people were primarily Innu and Inuit. In 2001, our province officially changed its name to Newfoundland & Labrador.

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