The Atlantic Colonies

From settlement to the Treaty of Utrecht (1713)

Environmental conditions and changing sea levels have erased most of the traces of ancient human life on the Atlantic coast of Canada; however, archeologists have determined that the region has been inhabited for at least 11,000 years. Evidence of European settlement dates back approximately 1,000 years, to when Norse explorers established a community at L'Anse aux Meadows, in present-day Newfoundland and Labrador.

Newfoundland captured Europe's attention after John Cabot's voyage in 1497. The island's unique geographical situation and resources continued to favour commercial ties with Europe long after neighbouring Maritime colonies had become provinces of Canada. Consequently, Newfoundland and Labrador is distinguished from the Maritime provinces, a term that usually signifies Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

Newfoundland and Labrador and the Maritime provinces have in common their experience of colonization and early commercial development. European fishing and trade with the Native peoples along the Atlantic and St. Lawrence coasts increased in the late 16th century. This relationship had a profound impact on Native culture; in Newfoundland the entire Beothuk population vanished as a result of disease and a shrinking land base.

By the mid-17th century, whaling and the Basques arrived regularly from England, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, while French and British settlements were established in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Acadia. The uncertain territorial distinction between Nova Scotia and Acadia was both a result and a source of decades of conflict between France and England. Beginning with the settlement of Port-Royal in 1605, Acadia evolved primarily as a French colonial population. In 1621, however, control of "New Scotland", or Nova Scotia, was conferred on Sir William Alexander by King James I of England (James VI of Scotland).

Following a series of ineffective treaties, war broke out between England and France in 1689 and again in 1702. Control of the Atlantic colonies was a central issue in both instances. During these years, the settlements in Acadia, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland endured devastating raids. Francis Nicholson's attack on Port-Royal in 1710 signaled the conquest of Acadia, as Nicholson subsequently proclaimed England's authority over the colony. The Treaty of Utrecht followed in 1713, when France officially ceded part of Acadia to Great Britain.

Conflict in Acadia and the first Treaty of Paris (1763)

The Treaty of Utrecht put the Acadian people in a difficult situation. Under the agreement, France retained control of Île Royale (Cape Breton Island), and Acadians were encouraged to relocate from Nova Scotia to this French territory. However, most of the Acadian population chose to remain in Nova Scotia, where they maintained a neutral position between the interests of the British and the French. When the new governor of Nova Scotia, Richard Philipps, demanded that the Acadians swear an oath of allegiance to the British crown in 1720, the Acadians refused.

This was not the last time such an oath would be rejected, though in this case the governor had little choice but to accept Acadian neutrality. The British were preoccupied with the Mi'kmaq and Abenaki populations who were attacking fishing vessels from New England. A treaty in 1725 failed to resolve the situation with the Mi'kmaq and hostilities continued for several decades.

In 1744, England and France declared war again. The French forces at Louisbourg on Île Royale were the first to learn of this development, and they immediately launched a surprise attack on Nova Scotia, achieving an easy victory at Canso. The subsequent siege of the British fortification at Annapolis Royal was far less successful, since the arrival of reinforcements from New England caused France's allied Mi'kmaq forces to retreat. In 1745 the British captured Louisbourg, and only returned the fort following a treaty with the French in 1748.

War broke out yet again in the 1750s, this time with tragic consequences for the Acadians. During the conflict, the neutral Acadians refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the British King. This, combined with the fact that they continued to provide supplies to the French, led Governor Charles Lawrence to approve a mass deportation. A decisive British victory at Beauséjour in 1755 was followed by the expulsion of thousands of Acadians. Their homes, possessions and the land that they had worked for generations were all confiscated. The Acadians were loaded onto ships and scattered along the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to the Caribbean. Although some Acadians escaped to parts of New Brunswick, Île Royale and Île Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island), many individuals were separated from their families, or did not survive the forced voyage. The expulsion of Acadians continued until 1762. The following year the first Treaty of Paris was signed, transferring control of all French lands in North America to Britain.

Acadian communities persisted in spite of the expulsion policy, poverty and discrimination, and contributed their unique identities to Maritime culture.

From the second Treaty of Paris (1783) to the war of 1812

The first Treaty of Paris enabled the British to take full control of colonial policies in former French territories. Consequently, Île Saint-Jean was renamed the Island of St. John in 1769 and then Prince Edward Island in 1799; Île Royale was renamed Cape Breton Island. The name New Brunswick was in use regionally in the 1750s, but it was not until after the second Treaty of Paris that this Maritime colony was identified formally.

The 1783 Treaty of Paris followed the American Revolution, which had generated violent conflict between New England and the neighbouring British colonies. Settlement in the Atlantic region had increased throughout the 1770s, and grew dramatically with the arrival of exiles and Loyalists from the American states. The incoming settlers included a sizeable Black population, even though slavery was not abolished in the Atlantic colonies for many more decades.

The Loyalist settlers had a profound influence on the political, commercial and cultural life of the Atlantic colonies. For example, the establishment of New Brunswick as a separate colony in 1784 was primarily the result of a Loyalist lobby effort. The Loyalist Thomas Carleton became the first governor of New Brunswick in 1784, in spite of protests against the division from the government at Halifax and Governor John Parr.

The 1790s and the first decade of the 1800s were anxious but prosperous times in the Atlantic region. Renewed war between England and France boosted the shipbuilding and timber markets, and commercial ties with England were further strengthened when the United States declared war on Britain in 1812. The prosperity of the war years was reflected in the growth of urban centers such as Halifax, Saint John and St. John's. However, the achievement of peace was equally momentous, as it brought a period of economic depression and a new wave of immigration from Ireland and Scotland. The colonies were entering into a new phase of profound social and political change.

Toward responsible government

As commercial, religious and cultural patterns became more complex in the Atlantic region, the political environment also gained complexity. Some of the key challenges were built into the local systems of government. For example, while New Brunswick's achievement of colonial status had represented a victory for its upper class -- mainly Loyalist officers and prosperous merchants -- the general population did not feel that their interests were represented in the Legislative Assembly.

In Nova Scotia, a similar divide between the urban and rural population had been growing since the Legislative Assembly was established in 1758. Prince Edward Island (then called the Island of St. John) achieved official colonial status in 1769, and within a decade its elite citizens had formed a Legislative Assembly, though the Island's population was only about 1,500. That population grew increasingly dissatisfied with absentee landlords and their associates, who ruled the Legislative Assembly. Like Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland had to struggle to free local government from the influence of European stakeholders, particularly in relation to the fishing industry, which remained subject to early treaties between the British and French.

Political reform movements gained momentum in the 1840s and 1850s, as individuals called for increased governmental accountability, improved voting and administrative practices, and more diverse official representation. Responsible government arrived in the Atlantic colonies, beginning in 1848 with Nova Scotia. Within a few years the other colonies followed Nova Scotia's example. Prince Edward Island achieved responsible government in 1851, New Brunswick in 1854, and Newfoundland in 1855.

Political accountability did not necessarily mean political stability, however. Volatile governments, the American Civil War, commercial risks and regional ambitions all served to guide the Atlantic colonies toward Confederation.


  • The Atlantic provinces in Confederation, edited by E. R. Forbes; D. A. Muise, Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1993, 628 p.
  • The Atlantic region to Confederation : a history, edited by Philip A. Buckner ; John G. Reid, Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1994, 491 p.
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