The rugged beauty of Newfoundland and Labrador drew him in, then its people captured his heart.
Story and photography by John Sylvester
The spire of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, built in 1892, graces the historic village of Trinity. My love affair with Newfoundland and Labrador began more than 25 years ago, when a friend and I spent a two-week -summer vacation exploring Canada’s easternmost province by car. Our journey began with a six-hour ferry trip from North Sydney, Nova Scotia, across the Strait of Canso to Port aux Basques on the island of Newfoundland.
On board we were immediately befriended by a crew of Newfoundland fishermen bound for home after several weeks at sea. They regaled us with stories of their life at sea and of their island home. It was a fitting introduction. This is a place of breathtaking natural beauty, from the soaring peaks of Labrador’s Torngat Mountains to the rugged coastline of the Avalon Peninsula. You’ll see drifting icebergs, breaching whales, and countless seabirds and picturesque fishing villages.
You’ll also meet extraordinarily warmhearted, friendly people who are quick of wit and always ready with a story. I soon learned that if I stopped to ask for directions, I should expect a lengthy, but always engaging, conversation. Newfoundland and Labrador is one province but two distinct places. About 98 percent of the province’s 510,000 people live on the island of Newfoundland, affectionately referred to as “The Rock” by residents. In addition to the main island, more than 5,000 smaller islands dot the province’s 18,020 miles of rocky coastline. The capital, St. John’s, is the easternmost city in North America.
Labrador is part of Canada’s mainland, separated from Newfoundland by the Strait of Belle Isle, a channel about 80 miles long and 12 miles wide that flows between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic Ocean. The province covers about 156,000 square miles, making it larger than all but three states in the U.S.Newfoundland and Labrador was a British colony until it joined Canada in 1949, and was called simply Newfoundland until 2001. But its remarkable human history dates back more than 9,000 years, when indigenous peoples roamed its land. Their descendants, the Inuit, inhabit Labrador’s northern territory, which they call Nunatsiavut—“Our Beautiful Land.”
The first Europeans arrived 1,000 years ago when Vikings attempted a settlement on the northern tip of the island. It didn’t last, however, and it wasn’t until French and British colonists arrived in the late 1500s that settlement finally took hold. Today’s residents can trace their lineage back to those early settlers, and accents of French, Irish and English can still be heard in their voices. In fact, the accents can be so strong that, depending on where you are, you might think you’re in Ireland, the west country of England, or listening to another language altogether! I’ve had many an embarrassing moment trying to decipher the dialect I was hearing. Newfoundland and Labrador is a place defined by the sea. It’s a place where “fish” meant cod: For more than 400 years the people relied on cod for their livelihood, venturing out in small boats from hundreds of tiny communities that hugged the coastline.
Click here to read more about Canada’s Newfoundland & Labrador.