Atlantic Canada, also known as the Atlantic Provinces, consists of Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada. The term the Maritimes is also used, but it does not include Newfoundland and Labrador since it originated before 1949 when Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada.
Generally rocky and forested with only relatively few small valleys and plains suitable for agriculture, this region was built on what could be pulled from the sea or the forest. This was true for the original indigenous inhabitants as well as the early European settlers, and right up to the twentieth century this was still a region of fisherman, lumberjacks, and miners. The communities that grew up here were small and isolated, and industrialization and urbanization only lightly touched most of the region, which meant that when the age of mass tourism arrived in the early-to- mid-20th century, there were plenty of "rustic" and "quaint" villages to see, but fewer good road or hotels. Today, however, tourism is one of the main industries here, which means that even in many very small towns quality accommodations and food are plentiful but also busy during high season (summer) and not as distinctly local as in years past, often being chain hotels and chain restaurants. And because of the climate, tourism here is based around a very short season indeed, with most visits happening in July and August.
Nevertheless, the region can be extremely rewarding to many kinds of visitors. Archeology and history buffs will find ancient indigenous sites, Viking settlements, early European outposts, huge reconstructed French fortresses and British citadels, tall ships still being built, and preserved historic fishing villages. Sport fishers and foodies will both have access to fresh daily catches of seafood pulled from cold, clean waters. Outdoor enthusiasts will find beaches and forests to explore, plenty of golfing, and some of the world's best whale watching. And for those interested in learning about authentic local cultures, this is perhaps North America's most interesting place because it is truly multicultural and varied. Although this region conjures up Celtic images for Canadians, on account of the Scottish and Irish heritage many people in this provinces, here each peninsula and valley has a distinct local heritage, drawing from indigenous (Mi'kmaq, Innu, and Inuit), European (English, French, Irish, Scottish and German), and even African-American and Jamaican sources.
This region is not very cohesive in terms of climate or landscapes: the warm, fruit-growing Annapolis Valley has little in common with the rocky coast of Nunatsiavut more than one thousand kilometers away . But two things make this region distinct from the rest of North America: the predominance of the sea and forests in the local culture and economy and a similar colonial history.
The term "Atlantic Canada" is still relatively new, having been adopted by Canadian bureaucrats following Newfoundland's entry into Canada in 1949. As such, there is an important distinction between the Atlantic Provinces, which include all four provinces, and the Maritimes: the Maritimes refer to the three Atlantic provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and PEI. Maritimers and Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will be quick to point this out if someone confuses the two, but are quite forgiving regarding this confusion.
The distinct cultures and ways of life here are layered one on top of the other because of the waves of settlements (not always peaceful) and that have arrived here over the centuries. Although these people were not always strictly segregated from each other, there was a certain amount of separateness, if only because transportation was poor, and the region is more of a typically Canadian "mosaic" rather than a U.S.-style "melting pot".
Ethnic and regional cultures
Indigenous cultures and Vikings
The Atlantic Provinces have been inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous peoples, the First Nations (formerly, but now rarely called "Indians") and the Inuit (formerly, but now rarely called "Eskimos"). When they Vikings arrived in "Vinland" (Newfoundland) around AD 1000 they encountered people they called Skraelings, but we do not know what they called themselves. When Europeans returned to Newfoundland 500 years later they found the Beothuk people, who later went extinct through a combination of European encroachment, disease, and the occasional bloodletting between the two populations.
The Mi'kmag (or "Micmac" in older spelling) are the confederacy (alliance of regional councils) that predominated in much of the Martimes when Europeans arrived, and who later also moved onto the island of Newfoundland.Their culture still survives today and they have separate communities called "reserves" across the three Maritime provinces and a presence in the cities and in Newfoundland as well. Places to learn about the Mi'kmaq include Membertou Heritage Park near Sydney and the Metepenagiag Heritage Park near Miramichi.
The Innu (a First Nation) and the unrelated Inuit both occupy much of Labrador, where they lived in relative isolation until recently. Though they were involved in the fur trade and were visited by missionaries (notably the Moravian church) their lands were not wanted for farming by European authorities and so they kept a nomadic hunting-and-gathering lifestyle until the 19th century. Today they continue to engage in hunting and fishing from permanent settlements and have an uneasy relationship with the mining and hydroelectric development going on in the area.
Acadia (in French l'Acadie) was the name given by the French to a territory in northeastern North America, including parts of eastern Quebec, the Atlantic Provinces of Canada and modern-day New England stretching as far south as Philadelphia. Later, the territory was divided into the British colonies which were to become American states and Canadian provinces. The main base of operations in the later years of French military presence was at Louisbourg, where the government of Canada has reconstructed the fortress. The Acadians were expelled from the region by the British in 1755 during the French and Indian War. Many of these expelled Acadians found their way to Louisiana, becoming known as Cajuns, while others returned to their homeland. Acadians also re-settled on the Western Shore of Newfoundland and the town of Stephenville was still majority French-speaking in 1941 when an American military base was built there, completely changing the demographics of the place.
Today, Acadia refers to regions of Atlantic Canada with French roots, language, and culture. In the abstract, Acadia refers to the existence of a French culture on Canada’s east coast. Acadians have clung fiercely to their identity since their ancestors' return, and there are numerous historic sites and museums that will attest to this, such as the Acadian Museum of PEI near Summerside, and including two separate places named le Village historique Acadien ("the Historic Acadian Village") one in New Brunswick and one in Nova Scotia, as well as the National Historic Site at Grand-Pré.
the French and German protestants
Starting in 1750, around 2000 Protestant settlers from Germany and France landed in Halifax. They settled there in and nearby small villages, the most famous of which is Lunenburg, which developed into a prosperous fishing town and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
the New England Planters, the Loyalists, and the British veterans
After the French-speaking Acadians were expelled from most of Nova Scotia, there area was repopulated with settlers from the New England colonies to the South. At first they came just for the economic opportunity that came from the land (the Planters) but later many more came fleeing the American Revolutionary War (the Loyalists). They basis of much of the culture of southern Nova Scotia and southern New Brunswick is this "new" New England culture. Important historic related places relate to the Loyalists include Loyalist House in Saint John, Tilley House in Gagetown and the Loyalist habitations at Kings Landing near Fredericton.
The Loyalist were later joined by settlers from Britain and Ireland, often ex-sailors and soldiers. Their lifestyle is preserved at places such as Ross Farm in the centre of Nova Scotia between Chester (Nova Scotia) and Wolfville.
the Black settlers
A small number of the Loyalists fleeing the U.S.A. brought Black slaves with them to the Loyal colonies. Black slaves who helped the British side during the American Revolutionary War were given freedom and evacuated with other Loyalists. And some Black freemen sided with the royal cause during the rebellion. As well, around 500 Jamaican Maroons were exiled to Nova Scotia in 1796. While many of these Black settlers later left (including to Sierra Leone) enough stayed to form the basis of distinct Black culture in parts of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. There is a Black Cultural Centre near Halifax and a Black Loyalist Heritage Site in Shelburne (Nova Scotia).
the Scottish Highlanders
When poor farmers across the Scottish Highlands were ejected from their leased lands, many went to this region, and in particular Prince Edward Island and northern Nova Scotia including the island of Cape Breton. The first ship, the Hector, famously landed 200 of them on 15 September 1773 in Truro (Nova Scotia) in what would become a major wave into the area. Today Cape Breton is especially proud of its Gaelic roots and is home to the Highland Village museum and hosts the Celtic Colours festival each autumn. Gaels from Cape Breton also further spread this culture to Newfoundland, settling in the Codroy Valley in Western Newfoundland.
The West Country English and the Wexford Irish
Newfoundland's coastal culture is in large measure derived from England's West Country and County Wexford in Ireland, where many of the early settlers came from. Trepassey and the Irish Loop is, as the name suggests, one of the more Irish regions.
The Atlantic region is famous for its traditional music, heavily influenced by the folk traditions of Western Europe, but with a distinctive local twist. Music is one of the main carriers of local ethnic cultures here, and it is possible to hear both French and Scots Gaelic songs sung, on Cape Breton Island for example, despite the overwhelming use of English in daily life.
Although Celtic influences are seen throughout the region, Newfoundland's music is distinct, incorporating much of the traditions of Irish and British sailors' and fishermen's sea shanties. Newfoundland's traditional music industry is at least as strong as that of Ireland, and groups like Great Big Sea have found mainstream success on "the mainland" (Canada).
|Newfoundland and Labrador (NL) |
The northernmost and most sparsely populated of the Atlantic provinces. It includes island of Newfoundland, otherwise known as "the Rock" for its harsh geography and "the other Ireland" for its Irish-infused culture. To the north lies Labrador, "the Big Land", with its indigenous traditions and vast open spaces.
|New Brunswick (NB) |
Perhaps the most "Canadian" part of Canada in it's scrupulous recognition of its local language communities and ethnic cultures. This is Canada's only officially bilingual province with a distinctly French-speaking North, an English-speaking South, and a truly bilingual middle and at the same time also home to indigenous reserves and Canada's main Irish festival. It's also home to natural wonders like the Appalachian Mountains and the world's highest tides along the Bay of Fundy.
|Nova Scotia (NS) |
Latin for "New Scotland" but also home to French, indigenous and Black cultures. A rocky peninsula in the Atlantic together with mountainous Cape Breton Island, it includes some of the main historic sites related to European settlement and colonization as well as the historic hub of the entire region, the port city of Halifax.
|Prince Edward Island (PEI) |
Canada's smallest province by land area and population is still a big draw. One of the first provinces to be settled by Europeans, it has plenty of history. But many come for the (relatively) warm waters of Northumberland Straight, the mussels and fries that rival those of Belgium, or the compact capital city of Charlottetown.
While Atlantic Canada has been mostly a rural place steeped in natural resource economies, it is home to a number of historic cities that are central to the cultural life of the region.
- 1 Halifax -- the largest city in the Atlantic Provinces, a historic port city that serves as the region's economic centre on the eastern coast of Nova Scotia.
- 2 Sydney -- the most populated city in Cape Breton Island, a part of Nova Scotia.
- 3 Saint John -- the oldest incorporated city in Canada, as well as the second-largest city in New Brunswick.
- 4 Moncton -- New Brunswick's largest city and the only officially bilingual city in Canada, notable for its Franglais dialect and Acadian history (it was a centre in New Brunswick for Acadian Deportation by the British).
- 5 Fredericton is the capital city of New Brunswick. It is situated on the St. John River and is a very clean and beautiful city.
- 6 Charlottetown -- the capital city of Prince Edward Island and the city where the Confederation of Canada was negotiated. The area also has Acadian history across the harbour in the settlement on Port La Joye.
- 7 St. John's -- one of the oldest cities in North America and the historic capital of the New World on the island of Newfoundland.
Atlantic Canada is full of interesting places found outside of its urban centers. Check out:
- 1 Bay of Fundy — separating New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, boasts the World's highest tides
- 2 Gros Morne National Park — UNESCO World Heritage Site, north of Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador
- 3 L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site — Site of an ancient Viking settlement, the earliest European settlement in North America, dating from 1000 A.D., in the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland and Labrador
- 4 Peggy's Cove — a scenic and historic Nova Scotia fishing community with picturesque ocean views and the world's most photographed lighthouse. Look for the metallic plaques melded into the rocks warning all who walk on the rocks that danger is imminent from crashing waves. There is a souvenir shop near the lighthouse for the usual run-of-the-mill mementos. The township of Peggy's Cove is a delight for photographers - even amateurs will have an easy time taking poster-worthy pictures.
- 5 Saint John River Valley — historic wooden covered bridges, river ferries, falls, as well as artist studios and historic sites
- 6 Kejimkujik National Park — petroglyphs, canoeing, sandy beaches, and many species of birds
- 7 Prince Edward Island National Park — covers much of the central north coast around Cavendish and area, including "Green Gables" and other sites related to the Anne of Green Gables books and their author, Lucy Maud Montgomery
While the people of the Atlantic Provinces predominantly speak English and French, there are regional dialects of these languages that can throw off the average Central Canadian tourist, not to mention those from abroad.
Some rural communities in the Maritime Provinces have unique vernacular expressions unfamiliar to tourists. For example, "some fine" means "very good". Such expressions will not hamper a tourist's understanding of locals, but it may be a noticeable feature in certain areas. Not limited to Atlantic Canada, some of these expressions can be found in neighbouring US states.
Acadian French (le français acadien) is a dialect of French spoken by the Acadians in the Canadian Maritimes provinces. Like other Canadian French dialects, it diverged from the French of France about 400 years ago at the time of the French colonization of the Americas, and sounds different to visiting Francophones. Acadians and francophones from Quebec can understand each other with little difficulty.
Newfoundland English, French, and Irish
In Newfoundland, another dialect of English is found in combination with any number of local variations. It is often noted that a Newfoundlander can give away his or her home town simply by speaking. In some areas, an Irish lilt can be heard, while in other areas it may not be present.
A few Newfoundland English expressions you may encounter:
- Where you to?: Where are you? (also used to ask 'How are you?')
- Stay where you're to.: Don't leave.
- Stay where you're to 'til I comes where you're at.: Wait there for me.
- Flat on the back with that!: An expression of approval, male speaker
- Flat on the back for that!: An expression of approval, female speaker
- b'y (pronounced bye): boy, guy, man, friend (sometimes used in a general way to include males and females)
Though Newfoundland English is alive and well, Newfoundland Irish is extinct and Newfoundland French very nearly so. Newfoundland Irish was a dialect of the Irish language specific to the island of Newfoundland and was widely spoken until the mid-20th century. It was very similar to the accent heard in the southeast of Ireland, due to mass immigration from the counties Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford and Cork. Newfoundland is the only place outside Europe with its own distinctive name in the Irish language, Talamh an Éisc, literally "Land of Fish". Newfoundland French is distinct from other Canadian dialects including Quebec French and Acadian French and was deliberately discouraged by the government through the 20th century; today it holds on for dear life with a few hundred speakers clustered in the Port au Port Peninsula.
Largest airports in the region:
- Halifax (main international airport in the region)
- Saint John
- St. John's
- VIA Rail Canada, toll-free: . Operates trains routes across Canada. Operates The Ocean service connecting Halifax and Montreal, Quebec with three trips per direction per week. The trip takes 22 hours.
- DRL-LR, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. Operates daily in Newfoundland between St. John's and Port aux Basques (ferry location to North Sydney, Nova Scotia).
- Maritime Bus, toll-free: , email@example.com. Operates an intercity bus service between destinations in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island.
- Historical recreations at the Halifax Citadel or Fortress Louisbourg
- World's highest tides at Fundy National Park on the Bay of Fundy
- Anne of Green Gables' house at Prince Edward Island National Park on PEI
- Alexander Graham Bell's house at Baddeck, Nova Scotia
- A coal mine under the ocean floor at Sydney, Nova Scotia
- The Viking archeological site of L'anse Aux Meadows, NL
- The iconic Hopewell Rocks outside of Moncton, NB
- A total solar eclipse on Monday 8 April 2024 crosses this area from about 4:30PM ADT. The track of totality is northeast from Mexico and Texas to Ohio, straddling the Canada–New England border, then across Maine, central New Brunswick, the north end of Prince Edward Island and finally Newfoundland.
- Eat a "church basement lobster supper" in PEI
- Join the "Order of Good Cheer" in Annapolis Royal, NS
- Golf the historic course at St. Andrews, NB
- Watch a production of Anne of Green Gables in Charlottetown, PEI
- Go to the Ripley's Believe it or Not Odditorium in Cavendish, PEI
- Go deep-sea cod fishing just about anywhere in the region
- Go whale watching just about anywhere
- Go iceberg hunting off Newfoundland
- Drive the scenic Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island, NS
- Go fly fishing on the Miramichi River upriver from Miramichi, NB
The whole region is famous for its seafood. The clam chowder is to die for and the mussels are legendary. Nova Scotia is famous for its scallops and lobsters; PEI for mussels, oysters and lobsters; Newfoundland for "fish" (always refers to cod) and seal-flipper pie (yes, made from flippers of seals). The local cuisine is marked by the origins of the population, French for the Acadians (e.g. scallops severed "coquille St. Jacques"), and British and Irish for the English-speakers (e.g. hodge-podged vegetables).
When out at a pub enjoying the scene, the usual Canadian mass-market beers are available, but local specialties may be found as well. In Nova Scotia try an Alexander Keith's India Pale Ale and in New Brunswick reach for Moosehead Lager. All four provinces in the region each have several excellent craft breweries: for example, PEI has 5 independent craft breweries from tip-to-tip with a total population of 150,000.
In Newfoundland the drink they try to force on tourists in called "screech". This is a high-proof rum from Jamaica that is the province's unofficial national drink. The drink goes back the days of the British Empire, when sailing ships full of salted codfish from Newfoundland would sail down to Jamaica and return home with a cargo of rum. Be careful when trying this, it is very strong!
Fruit wines are made in all four provinces (e.g., blueberry, strawberry), while Nova Scotia and New Brunswick also make grape wines.
Since most tourist destinations in the region are rural, crime is less of a threat than getting lost. The weather can turn ugly quickly, so be prepared. Moose are a huge member of the deer family (called "elk" in Europe), and are a common hazard on the roads.
The neighbouring province of Quebec offers an immersion in a unique French-speaking culture, while just to the south there is the charm of the New England region of the United States. Both are accessible by ferry or road.