Cousins of a Kind: The Newfoundland and Labrador Relationship with the United States

By Earle, Karl McNeil | American Review of Canadian Studies, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Cousins of a Kind: The Newfoundland and Labrador Relationship with the United States


Earle, Karl McNeil, American Review of Canadian Studies


"O my America! my new-found-land ..."(1)

"The island was worthy of long study, and the folks too--queer folks with strong personalities."(2)

On 24 June 1997, while the great world peered expectantly into the new millennium, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador on the rugged Atlantic coast was--not untypically--looking elsewhere: to its roots. The 568,000 people of Canada's newest province paused on that date to join Queen Elizabeth II in celebrating the sighting of the east coast of North America by the justly famous Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot). Cabot was a mariner of Venice sailing, just five years after Columbus, under the auspices of Henry VII of England. His mission was the overture to one of the most fateful events in history: the beginnings of European settlement in the northern part of the Western Hemisphere. Exuberant Newfoundlanders like to brag about the fact that forty vessels lay anchored in St. John's harbor forty years before the Mayflower sailed. They gleefully claim that brimming glasses were being raised in Water Street pubs eighty years before the Declaration of Independence.(3)

Puff journalism aside, the American comparison counts for much in the far east of the Western world. "There's history to it, a context," comments W.G. Reeves of Memorial University's history department. "In American-Canadian relations, these currents of connection and disconnection draw us together.(4) While historians might easily demonstrate the Massachusetts Bay project as ultimately more significant for world history, there has been a curious resonance between Newfoundland and the United States, and New England in particular. Boston was so stocked with expatriate Newfoundlanders when I was growing up (my own aunt included, who would return occasionally with Yankee dollars and a broad accent) that New England was affectionately known as "the Boston states." Every schoolchild knew that, in 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill had met off Newfoundland to sign the Atlantic Charter. In 1948 there was a short-lived but lively movement for economic union with the United States, though most Americans knew little about it. When Joel Garreau penned his insightful The Nine Nations of North America in 1981, he had no problems putting Maritime Canada into the New England mold.(5) Finally, E. Annie Proulx's 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Shipping News was set in northern Newfoundland. "Proper thing," as the islanders might say, for the Yankee connection is long and enduring and quite revealing of that North Atlantic Triangle whose dynamics once loomed so large. Newfoundland was a country before it was a Canadian province and that fact informs this account.

The rashness of asserting such a sociocultural and spiritual connection given the enormous demographic and commercial disparities between the two regions--between Boston, say, and St. John's--is mitigated by geography and topography. One must not forget the enormous sweep and size of Canada's tenth province, especially when Labrador is part of the equation. The total area is 156,649 square miles, a land mass larger than the three Maritime provinces put together. This includes some 12,000 miles of coastline. The Appalachian mountain chain that is such a prominent feature of Maine and Vermont broke off to form one of the world's largest islands, "a pocket continent," as some call it. At 43,000 square miles, Newfoundland is almost half the area of England, Scotland, and Wales and, at times, evokes from its patriots Shakespearean overtones of

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in the silver sea.

Newfoundland, like New England, has often thought of herself as a "little world," her people as a breed apart. There are reasons--the sense of geographic distinctiveness and set boundaries being one of them. Joel Garreau's ironical style nevertheless conveyed the sense that the differences between the regions are quantitative, not qualitative. …

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