An ancient Francophone presence in Newfoundland and Labrador

Newfoundland was the first region of the North American continent to be visited by Francophone fishermen at the beginning the 16th century. Their presence was only seasonal, limited to the summer months. They came ashore and constructed modest facilities to salt and dry their fish. Then they returned to Europe. It was only in the 17th century that the first permanent settlements appeared, in particular at Plaisance (present-day Placentia) and along the west coast of Newfoundland up to Point Riche.

The population grew very slowly in Anglophone and Francophone villages that coexisted in relative harmony. After the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, the island of Newfoundland became an exclusively British possession. Many new Anglophone colonists settled in Newfoundland, but some isolated Francophone settlements continued to live there permanently, even though they were now forbidden.

Francophone settlement in present-day Labrador is much more recent. Several dozen Quebecers went to work there in the early 1960s. These skilled workers formed an important part of the iron mining workforce. Most of them lived in Labrador City.

The tenth province to enter Canadian Confederation, in 1949, Newfoundland and Labrador today has some 3,020 Francophones, representing 0.6% of the population (according to the 2016 censes). Most of them live in the capital of St. John’s, on the Port au Port Peninsula and in Labrador City.

Indigenous peoples: the first occupants of the territory

The presence of humans in present-day Newfoundland and Labrador appears to be very ancient. Indigenous people lived there 8,000 years ago, then seem to have disappeared about 4,000 years ago. Paleo-Eskimo populations (the ancestors of the Inuit) replaced them around 850 before our era, until the Algonquin nation of the Beothuk supplanted them a little before the year 1000. Mi’kmaq groups also lived on the southern portion of the island of Newfoundland when contact was first made with Europeans.

European colonization drove the Beothuk into the interior and upset their lifestyle, in particular because of diseases introduced by the Europeans. By the end of the 17th century, there were only about 500 Beothuk, and the last known survivor of this nation, Shawnadithit (also called Nancy April), died in St. John’s in 1829. The Historical Sites and Monuments Board of Canada recognized this tragedy by erecting a plaque in the memory of Shawnadithit in 2007.

The several hundred Mi’kmaq who were living in southern Newfoundland when the European arrived allied themselves with the French, as they had done in Acadia. Some of them lived permanently in the French fort of Plaisance (present-day Placentia).

European explorations

Around 990, the Vikings founded a colony at the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, at a place that is now called L’Anse aux Meadows. However, the hostility of the Indigenous populations caused them to return to Greenland. At the beginning of the 16th century, Basque fishers and whalers set out from Basque country and crossed the Atlantic searching for cod fish and whales. They arrived at the confines of a large unknown island, they called the New Found Land (present-day Newfoundland), where they returned sporadically in the following decades. It was only in the 1540s that they began to visit these waters regularly.

Thanks to many scientific and technical developments, the Europeans were able to engage in extensive campaigns of exploration and colonization at the end of the 15th century. In 1497, Giovanni Caboto reached the island beyond the Atlantic that was still unknown, and took possession of it in the name of the King of England, Henry VII. He baptized the island Newfoundland. The names Newfoundland and Terra Nova subsequently began to appear on maps in the 1510s and 1520s.

Alongside these land appropriation expeditions financed by kings, Breton, Basque, Anglo‑Saxon, Portuguese and Spanish fishermen increasingly became regular visitors of the fish-rich waters located off the coast of Newfoundland, known as the Grand Banks. They settled on the coast during the summer in order to prepare their catches. The first known crossing of a French fishing vessel was in 1504. By the 1530s, dozens of ships annually made the crossing and returned to European ports, loaded with dried cod and whale oil. When he sailed through the area in 1536, Jacques Cartier noted the presence of a number of ships “from both France and Brittany”, which led him to claim this territory in the name of the French King, François I.

From seasonal fishing to permanent settlement

In the middle of the 16th century, the ports of France outfitted several hundred ships annually to Newfoundland for the fishing season. Because of the presence of other nations, in particular the English, it became necessary to give more weight to French claims over this territory by founding an actual colony. The first was Plaisance, a small maritime village located on the south shore of the island of Newfoundland. A small fort was built there in 1662. The 200 or so inhabitants of Plaisance were placed under the authority of a government representing the King of France.

The English attacked Plaisance in February 1690 but failed to take it. The French then decided to consolidate the fortification of Plaisance. They built a palisade of logs reinforced with a mound of earth that went around the village, and built Fort St. Louis, on a hill overlooking the bay, to better defend this focal point of the French colony in Newfoundland. In response to British attacks, the French gave the most well-known Canadian soldier, Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville, the order to attack English fishing settlements. The aggressive winter campaign of 1696-1697, waged by fast-moving, snowshoe-shod militiamen and soldiers was to be the cruelest of Iberville’s career. After the English capital, St. John’s, surrendered, the French pillaged the town and set it ablaze. Thirty-six other settlements were subsequently pillaged and burnt; 200 individuals were killed, and 700 others were taken prisoner. All that remained in English hands were Bonavista and Carbonaer. D’Iberville was then recalled to Hudson Bay, and the treaty of Ryswick between France and England enabled the re-establishment of the English. This destructive campaign would nevertheless never be forgotten.

At the beginning of the 18th century, the French residents of Newfoundland represented some 450 colonists, soldiers and fishermen, concentrated on the southern coast of the island.

An era of compromise

After another long conflict, England and France finally signed a major peace treaty at Utrecht in 1713. France permanently ceded its Newfoundland possessions to the English. Most of the Francophone colonists then left the island to settle on Cape Breton Island, then named île Royale. However, some chose to remain, abiding by the conditions set out in the territory known as the French Treaty Shore. This provision authorized seasonal fishing only along the coast of the island, between Cape Bonavista and Pointe Riche. This region was henceforth called the French Shore, the French coast of Newfoundland. The English and French fishermen of Newfoundland coexisted relatively well until the Seven Years War started in 1756, a new confrontation that forced the French to leave.

With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, England again granted France permission to fish on the French Shore, without however allowing the French to settle there permanently. England instead ceded two small islands, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, to compensate for the loss of Cape Breton (now part of Nova Scotia), and to offer a place of residence for the French who fished the Grands Banks. In the absence of permanent French settlements in Newfoundland, English colonists and fishermen took over the French Shore. The Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1783 by France and England, changed the boundaries of the French Shore, leaving the French access to the west coast between Cape St. John and Cape Ray.

Precarious situation and disparity of the Francophone community

Although seasonal fishing declined from the 1830s on, France remained determined to preserve its fishing rights and to maintain its presence in Newfoundland. The local population grew timidly, because the few French people who had settled in Newfoundland in isolated locations, in spite of the prohibition, lived in fear of having to return to France.

The Entente Cordiale of 1904 enabled old French and British rivalries to die down. Part of this new agreement concerned Newfoundland: France waived its territorial rights in exchange for fair access to the fish-bearing waters of the Grand Banks during the entire fishing season. Some French fishers, who primarily came from Saint-Malo, in Brittany, settled permanently on the Port au Port Peninsula. Their descendants now live in the communities of L’Anse-à-Canards (Black Duck Brook), Maison d’Hiver, Grand’Terre (Mainland) and Cape St. George. Acadians also settled nearby, in St. George’s Bay, Sandy Point, Stephenville and the Codroy Valley, increasing the population of Francophones on the island.

Another core of Francophones who live in the provincial capital, St. John’s, is very different from these historic populations, which were essentially made up of fishermen and former fishermen. This group is more recent and is made up of Franco-Newfoundlanders, Quebecers, Acadians, French people from Europe and Saint-Pierre, and Africans.

As for the Francophone population of Labrador, it is also very recent. A contingent of Quebec workers immigrated to this region in the early 1960s, attracted by the skilled jobs in the mining industry. These Francophones have little in common with the French-speaking communities of Newfoundland, which officially became Newfoundland and Labrador only in 2001. As a result of the different origins and realities of Francophones, not to mention their geographical isolation, their communities are poorly structured in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Francophone community of Newfoundland and Labrador today

Newfoundland and Labrador today has some 3,020 Francophones, primarily in St. John’s, on the Port au Port Peninsula and in Labrador City. Because of its tenacity, this small minority, which represents barely 0.6% of the provincial population, has succeeded in significantly improving rights to schooling and provincial services in French. The Réseau culturel francophone de Terre-Neuve-et-Labrador sees to the promotion and development of Francophone culture in the province.

It was at Grand’Terre (Mainland), on the Port au Port Peninsula, that the first Francophone school opened in 1984. The French Ancestors Route, which runs from Mainland to Cape St. Georges, was inaugurated in 1994. This heritage road strengthens the ties among the 750 or so Francophones who live on the peninsula.

Francophones in St. John’s have some schools and cultural facilities, the newspaper Le Gaboteur and a small number of other organizations. This city also has a concentration of 25,000 Anglophones who are able to speak French, thanks to the 6,000 to 8,000 young people of the capital who enrol in French immersion classes every year.

The 700 or so Franco-Labradoreans live primarily in Labrador City, in Wabush and on the Happy Valley-Goose Bay military base. Most of them come from Quebec, which is geographically close, and they thus maintain close ties with the Francophone majority of that province.

The Franco-Newfoundland and Labrador flag, which was adopted in 1986 but only raised for the first time on May 30, 1992, recalls the origins and history of the Francophones of this province. The blue, white and red design evokes France, while the two billowing sails recall the fishermen and the yellow reflects Acadia. The tamarack branch and the pitcher plant are emblems of the province. Since 1999, May 30 has been celebrated as Provincial Francophonie Day.