The first part of North America to be discovered by Europeans, Canada’s four Atlantic provinces comprise a small group of islands and peninsulas on Canada’s eastern coast. Though low in population and economically weak, they possess a proud, centuries-old culture that combines a distinct mix of British, Scottish, Gaelic and French customs, creating a unique, tradition-oriented people. Almost everyone in Canada claims to find Atlantic Canada quaint and interesting — even if few are exactly scrambling to live there. Note: in most parts of Canada, it’s common to use the term “Maritime provinces” or “the Maritimes” to refer to Atlantic Canada. Within Atlantic Canada itself, however, the term “Maritime” is understood to exclude the province of Newfoundland, which has kind of a different culture and identity from the rest of the Atlantic provinces, as we shall see.
Atlantic Canada comprises a small collection of islands and peninsulas extending from Quebec and bordering — you guessed it — the Atlantic Ocean. Together, they form a crude crescent-shaped bay known as the Gulf of St. Lawrence that connects the ocean to Quebec’s St. Lawrence canal and serves as Canada’s busiest eastern trading port.
The Atlantic Canadian landscape is a distinct region all its own, with pine forests, hills and dangerous rocky cliffs that have spawned an iconic lighthouse industry. Since the region is surrounded by water, coastal areas can be particularly cool, wet and foggy with cold, stormy winters (raincoats are another proud Maritime icon) and mild, pleasant summers. Interior, or inland regions, in contrast, tend to be considerably drier, and in winter months receive some of the largest snowfalls in Canada.
In contrast to the other provinces, the four Atlantic Canadian provinces are small and densely populated, and can be driven across in only a few hours.
History of Atlantic Canada
Like much of eastern Canada, the Maritimes were originally French. Established in 1604, the French colony of Acadia encompassed all of the modern-day Atlantic provinces, and was one of the Empire’s most strategically useful outposts as the gateway to North America. Of this, the nearby British were extremely jealous, and the two powers fought back-and-forth over the colonies for most of the 17th century, before the Brits finally secured control of most of the area in 1713 following the Treaty of Utrecht. From there, they proceeded to kick all the French colonists — also known as Acadians — out, in what is still remembered as one of the great shameful episodes of Canadian history. Though some Acadians would later migrate back once things cooled down, a lot of the deported Frenchies wound up in Louisiana. The lovable term “Cajun” is descended from “Acadian,” in fact.
Now British, the Acadian colonies remained mostly vacant until the aftermath of the American Revolution (1775-1783) sent a vast migration of pro-British Loyalist refugees northward, who turned the region into a thriving community of loggers, fishermen and shipbuilders. By this point, the British colonial bureaucrats had divided and renamed the territory into the four regions we know today: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. Of these, it was Nova Scotia and New Brunswick that became the most populated and developed, while PEI and Newfoundland lagged far behind on both counts.
By the mid-19th century, all four colonies had won a high degree of self-government, but were also economically stagnant. The idea of forming a larger, self-governing federation with Ontario and Quebec as a path to greater prosperity was proposed, but the Maritime politicians were famously fickle. Initially, only Nova Scotia and New Brunswick hesitantly agreed to join, and formed two of Canada’s first four provinces in 1867. Bankrupt PEI jumped on in 1871, but Newfoundland refused, and remained an independent, self-governing British colony until after World War II (1939-1945).
Throughout the 20th century, all of the Atlantic provinces struggled with serious economic problems and remain the poorest regions of Canada to this day. The “root cause” of Maritime poverty is, of course, quite a controversial and much-debated topic, but it quite obviously has something to do with the decline of many of their traditional industries, such as fishing, forestry and shipbuilding, and, of course, generations of bad government policy.
The Provinces of Atlantic Canada
A large peninsula shaped like the lobster claws it’s famous for, Nova Scotia is the biggest and wealthiest of the four Maritime provinces. Home to Halifax Harbour, the main port of Atlantic Canada, Nova Scotia was originally known as a major hub for shipbuilding and naval bases, as well as a welcoming point for many European immigrants, embodied by its famous Pier 21. In the 20th century, the provincial economy was heavily based around two notoriously unstable natural resource industries — coal and fishing — but by the 1990s both had collapsed, and now most residents work in tourism or the “service” sector.
Today, about half of Nova Scotians live in the province’s two biggest cities: Halifax, which is located on the main peninsula, and Sydney, located on Cape Breton Island to the north. Nova Scotia’s geography is generally sloping, with the eastern half of the province being dominated by hills and forest-covered mountains, while the western half houses flat plains and farmland. The provincial coast features rocky beaches covered with massive grey stones, washed smooth after thousands of years of lapping waves.
Latin for “New Scotland,” Nova Scotia has been the historic home of a colourful Maritime culture spread by immigrants from England, Scotland and Ireland. Well into the 20th century, it was not uncommon to come across rural Nova Scotian families who spoke Gaelic as their first language, and musicians like Ashley MacIsaac (b. 1975) and Natalie MacMaster (b. 1972) have kept a distinctive Celtic tradition of aggressive fiddle-playing alive and popular.
Though named after a British duchy, New Brunswick was the historic home of the French-speaking Acadian farmer community, who first settled the province in the early 17th century. Unlike their compatriots in the other Maritime regions, however, many New Brunswick Acadians were allowed to return to their homes following Britain’s mass deportation of French settlers in the 1750s, and to this day, northern New Brunswick retains a significant population of French-speakers. Acknowledging this fact, in 1969 New Brunswick declared itself Canada’s first officially bilingual province.
New Brunswick is a square, mountainous province best-known for its iconic southern coast, the Bay of Fundy, which is home to the highest tides in the world, the iconic “flowerpot rocks,” and thriving communities of humpback whales and dolphins. Farther inland, most New Brunswickers live in the cities of Saint John (not to be confused with Saint John‘s, in Newfoundland) or Moncton, with the provincial capital of Fredericton, unusually, being a somewhat distant third.
With upwards of 85 per cent of the province covered by forest, logging and shipbuilding have been the traditional backbone of the New Brunswick economy, though both have steadily declined in recent decades. Today, the New Brunswick economy is best known for being significantly dominated by the J.D. Irving corporation, which has come to control a vast array of industries, including lumber mills, gas stations, convenience stores, newspapers and TV stations.
By far the smallest province in Canada, Prince Edward Island contains only 140 000 people and occupies a mere 5 700 square kilometers of land, making it literally 200 times smaller than Quebec or Ontario. The place has long struggled to achieve national attention as a result, beyond the inevitable punchlines about its size and comparable lack of relevance.
A vaguely crescent-shaped island located in the small gulf between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, PEI (as it’s known) was originally little more than a floating plantation owned by absentee British landlords, who drove property values up so high no one could afford to live there. This single issue dominated the island’s early history, with the colony first refusing (1867) and then agreeing (1873) to join Canada as a way to get Britain to solve the problem. Though a loan was eventually granted to the provincial government to buy up all the land, the population continued to remain low into the 20th century, due to a general lack of industry beyond potato farming and fishing.
Due to its small geography, virtually all of PEI is developed and inhabited, with about a quarter of all residents living in the capital city of Charlottetown and the rest scattered about in small villages all across the island. Sprawling green plains, red sandstone cliffs, deciduous forests and old-fashioned clapboard houses have helped turn the province into a tourist mecca for those seeking quaint Atlantic charm — which has, in turn, helped keep the provincial economy afloat in the wake of the decline of most other industries.
It’s impossible to say anything about Prince Edward Island without also mentioning Anne of Green Gables (1908), a bestselling novel by local author Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942) that continues to define the island’s identity to this day. The book told the story of spunky Lil’ Anne and her stereotypically Atlantic Canadian farm family, and later spawned many sequels and merchandise and look-alike contests and so on. So much of PEI’s tourism industry remains bound up in the Lil’ Anne mythology that it’s estimated that at least a third of all tourism revenue flows from Anne-themed attractions.
Links About Prince Edward Island:
Canada’s newest province, Newfoundland (formally called Newfoundland and Labrador) actually spent much of the 20th century as an independent country in its own right before agreeing to join Confederation in 1949. Despite its small size, this history has resulted in a highly distinctive, defensive, independent-minded culture unlike anywhere else in Canada (aside from, of course, Quebec) and has given Newfoundland a disproportionately large role in the Canadian imagination.
Newfoundland traces its official founding all the way back to 1583, when the British explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1537-1583) claimed the rocky island in the name of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), making it Britain’s first overseas colony. Ironically, the British proceeded to go to great lengths to prevent people from actually living there, preferring to use their colony as a powerful base through which they could control much of the lucrative American fishing industry. Only in the 19th century did full-scale settlement truly begin, and as the colony’s population of British settlers steadily grew, Newfoundland gradually gained political independence from Britain, in much the same way Canada itself did. Consistently refusing to join its much larger neighbour, Newfoundland spent the years from 1855 to 1934 as a self-governing dominion of the Crown, with its own parliament, prime ministers, national anthem, flag, and all the rest of it.
Hit particularly hard by the Great Depression, Newfoundland gave up its independence in 1934 and agreed to once again be directly administered by the British for 15 years, before finally voting to join Canada in 1949. In the postwar era, a depletion of fish stocks and a failure to develop other industries doomed the new province to a seemingly perpetual state of recession, with high unemployment, poverty and welfare dependency. Only in recent years, with the discovery of oil off the provincial coast, has Newfoundland finally begun to escape from its long shadow of economic dysfunction.
Despite having recently celebrated their 60th anniversary as a province of Canada, Newfoundlanders (or “Newfies” as they are affectionately, or sometimes insultingly, known) still retain a number of unique cultural traditions from their long history of independence. They speak with different accents, use different slang, celebrate different holidays and eat many different foods than other Canadians, and retain a population that has far fewer immigrants and minorities than the rest of the country. Despite controversial government efforts to promote city living, the province’s small population remains scattered around the island, with a very small minority of residents living in Labrador, a resource-rich chunk of northern Quebec that Newfoundland has long fought to keep under its control.