History of New Brunswick

New Brunswick is one of Canada’s three Maritime provinces (together with Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia) and is the only constitutionally bilingual (English–French) province. The principal cities are Fredericton, the capital, Greater Moncton, currently the largest metropolitan (CMA) area and the most populous city, and the port city of Saint John, which was the first incorporated city in Canada and largest in the province for 231 years until 2016.

In the Canada 2016 Census, Statistics Canada estimated the provincial population to have been 747,101, down very slightly from 751,171 in 2011, on an area of almost 73,000 km2. The majority of the population is English-speaking of Anglo and Celtic heritage, but there is also a large Francophone minority (33%), chiefly of Acadian origin. It was created as a result of the partitioning of the British colony of Nova Scotia in 1784 and was originally named New Ireland with the capital to be in Saint John. The name was soon replaced with New Brunswick by King George II. The provincial flag features a ship superimposed on a yellow background with a yellow lion passant guardant on red pennon above it.

The province is named for the city of Braunschweig, known in English and Low German (the language originally spoken in the area) as Brunswick, located in modern-day Lower Saxony in northern Germany (and also the former duchy of the same name). The then-colony was named in 1784 to honour the reigning British monarch, George III, who was concurrently Duke and prince-elector of Brunswick-Lüneburg (“Hanover”) in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

The original First Nations inhabitants of New Brunswick were members of three distinct tribes. The largest tribe was the Mi’kmaq, and they occupied the eastern and coastal areas of the province. They were responsible for the Augustine Mound, a burial ground built about 800 BCE near Metepnákiaq (Red Bank First Nation). The western portion of the province was the traditional home of the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) people. The smaller Passamaquoddy tribe occupied lands in the southwest of the province.

Although it is possible that Vikings may have reached as far south as New Brunswick, the first known European exploration of New Brunswick was that of French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1534, who discovered and named the Bay of Chaleur. The next French contact was in 1604, when a party led by Pierre du Gua de Monts and Samuel de Champlain set up camp for the winter on St. Croix Island, between present-day New Brunswick and Maine.

St. Croix Island

The colony relocated the following year across the Bay of Fundy to Port Royal, Nova Scotia. Over the next 150 years, a number of other French settlements and seigneuries were founded in the area occupied by present-day New Brunswick, including along the Saint John River, the upper Bay of Fundy region, in the Tantramar Marshes at Beaubassin, and finally at St. Pierre (site of present-day Bathurst). The whole maritime region (and parts of Maine) was at that time claimed by France and was designated as the colony of Acadia.

One of the provisions of the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 was the surrender of Acadia (or Nova Scotia as it was called by the British) to Queen Anne. The bulk of the Acadian population thus found themselves residing in the new British colony of Nova Scotia. The remainder of Acadia (including the New Brunswick region) was only lightly populated and the two European powers contended over this ill-defined territory. The Maliseet from their headquarters at Meductic on the Saint John River, participated with the French in numerous guerilla raids and battles against New England during Father Rale’s War and King William’s War.

About 1750, to protect his interests in New France, Louis XV caused three forts (Fort Beauséjour, Fort Menagoueche and Fort Gaspareaux) to be built along the Isthmus of Chignecto. This caused what is known to historians as Father Le Loutre’s War, because of the contended possession which had been in issue since before 1713. 

Fort Beauséjour

A major French fortification, the Fortress of Louisbourg, was also built on Île Royale (now Cape Breton Island) after Queen Anne’s War, but the function of this fort was mostly to defend the approaches to the colony of Canada, not the lost province of Acadia. 

During the French and Indian War (1754–63), the British completed their displacement of the Acadians over all of present-day New Brunswick because they took up arms against them, when they had been requested repeatedly for decades not to do so. Fort Beauséjour (near Sackville), Fort Menagoueche and Fort Gaspareaux were captured with casualties on both sides by a British force commanded by Lt. Col. Robert Monckton in 1755. Inside Fort Beauséjour, the British forces found not only French regular troops, but also Acadian irregulars. Governor Charles Lawrence of Nova Scotia used the discovery of Acadians helping in the defence of the fort to order the expulsion of the Acadian population from Nova Scotia. The Acadians of the recently captured Beaubassin and Petitcodiac regions were included in the expulsion order. Some of the Acadians in the Petitcodiac and Memramcook region escaped, and under the leadership of Joseph Broussard continued to conduct guerrilla action against the British forces for a couple of years. Other actions in the war included British expeditions up the Saint John River in the St. John River Campaign. Fort Anne (Fredericton) fell during the 1759 campaign, and following this, the legal de jure status of Utretcht was settled and confirmed de facto by the Treaty of Paris 1763.

After the Seven Years’ War, most of present-day New Brunswick (and parts of Maine) were confirmed as part of the colony of Nova Scotia and designated as Sunbury County. New Brunswick’s relatively isolated location on the Bay of Fundy, away from the Atlantic coastline proper tended to discourage settlement during the postwar period. There were exceptions however, such as the coming of New England Planters to the Sackville region and the arrival of Pennsylvania Dutch settlers in Moncton in 1766. In both these cases, many of the new settlers took up land that had originally belonged to displaced Acadians before the deportation.

There were several actions on New Brunswick soil during the American Revolutionary War: the Maugerville Rebellion (1776), the Battle of Fort Cumberland (1776), the Siege of Saint John (1777) and the Battle at Miramichi (1779). The Battle of Fort Cumberland was the largest and most significant of these conflicts. Following the war, significant population growth finally came to the area, when 14,000 Loyalists, having lost the war, came from the newly created United States, arriving on the Saint John River in 1783. Influential Loyalists such as Harvard-educated Edward Winslow saw themselves as the natural leaders of their community and that they should be recognized for their rank and that their loyalty deserved special compensation. However they were not appreciated by the pre-loyalist population in Nova Scotia. As Colonel Thomas Dundas wrote from Saint John, “They [the loyalists] have experienced every possible injury from the old inhabitants of Nova Scotia.” Therefore, 55 prominent merchants and professionals petitioned for 5,000-acre (20 km2) grants each. Winslow pressed for the creation of a “Loyalist colony” – an asylum that could become “the envy of the American states”.

Nova Scotia was therefore partitioned. In 1784, Britain split the colony of Nova Scotia into three separate colonies: New Brunswick, Cape Breton Island, and present-day peninsular Nova Scotia, in addition to the adjacent colonies of St. John’s Island (renamed Prince Edward Island in 1798) and Newfoundland. The colony of New Brunswick was created in summer 1784; Sir Thomas Carleton was appointed as Lieutenant-Governor on 3 August 1784, and in 1785 a new legislative assembly was established with the first elections. The new colony was almost called New Ireland after a failed attempt to establish a colony of that name in Maine during the war. The province later gained control over its crown lands in 1837. 

Provincial Hall, the Legislative Building, burned in 1880 and was replaced by the current building. (Photo Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Miscellaneous Collection)

Even though the bulk of the Loyalist population was located in Parrtown (Saint John), the decision was made by the colonial authorities to place the new colonial capital at St. Anne’s Point (Fredericton), about 150 km up the Saint John River as it was felt that by placing the capital inland, it would be less vulnerable to American attack. The University of New Brunswick was founded at Fredericton at the same time (1785), making it the oldest English-language university in Canada and the first public university in North America. Local government at a rural level was accomplished through a county and parish structure, and the power to tax for the purpose of primary education was first granted by the province to the parishes in 1802. Grammar schools at the parish level followed in 1805 and again in 1816.

Initial Loyalist population growth in the new colony extended along the Fundy coastline from Saint Andrews to Saint Martins and up the Kennebecasis and lower Saint John River valleys.

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, some of the deported Acadians from Nova Scotia found their way back to “Acadie,” where they settled mostly along the eastern and northern shores of the new colony of New Brunswick. Here, they lived in relative (and in many ways, self-imposed) isolation.

Additional immigration to New Brunswick in the early part of the 19th century was from Scotland; western England; and Waterford, Ireland, often after first having come through (or having lived in) Newfoundland. A large influx of settlers arrived in New Brunswick after 1845 from Ireland as a result of the Potato Famine; many of these people settled in Saint John or Chatham. Both Saint John and the Miramichi region remain largely Irish today. 

Middle Island Irish Historical Park, Miramichi, NB

The northwestern border between Maine and New Brunswick had not been clearly defined by the Treaty of Paris (1783) that had ended the American Revolution. By the late 1830s, population growth and competing lumber interests in the upper Saint John River valley created the need for a definite boundary in the area. During the winter of 1838–39, the situation quickly deteriorated, with both Maine and New Brunswick calling out their respective militias. The “Aroostook War” was bloodless (but politically very tense), and the boundary was subsequently settled by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842.

The New Brunswick and Nova Scotia Land Company, a means of transferring land held by the Crown to individual owners, was chartered in New Brunswick in 1831. Financed by shares sold in England, this company purchased large areas of Canadian land at low prices, promising to develop roads, mills and towns. Although the province was largely rural, the colony, prior to the middle of the century, was not self-sufficient in wheat or flour and imports were thus necessary. In fact, Governor Douglas saw a silver lining in the great 1825 Miramichi Fire; he is recorded to have declared that the fire had positive aspects, in that it cleared the forest so that residents might dedicate themselves to farming, instead of relying on the sale of timber in order to purchase imported foodstuffs.

Throughout the mid 19th century, shipbuilding on the Bay of Fundy shore, on the Petitcodiac River, at Chatham on the Miramichi River, and at Bathurst in the Bay of Chaleur, became a dominant industry in New Brunswick. The Marco Polo, a clipper ship holding the round-trip speed record between Liverpool and Australia, was launched from Saint John in 1851.

Marco Polo

The Cunard family began to flourish here at that time. Resource-based industries such as logging and farming were also important components of the New Brunswick economy during this time and railways were constructed throughout the province to serve them and link the rural communities.

The Charlottetown Conference of 1864

New Brunswick, one of the four original provinces of Canada, entered the Canadian Confederation on July 1, 1867. The Charlottetown Conference of 1864, which ultimately led to the confederation movement, originally had been intended to discuss only a Maritime Union, but concerns over the American Civil War as well as Fenian activity along the border led to an interest in expanding the scope of the proposed union. This interest in an expanded union arose from the Province of Canada (formerly Upper and Lower Canada, later Ontario and Quebec), and a request was made by the Canadian political leaders to the organizers of the Maritime conference to have the meeting agenda altered.

Although the Maritime leaders were swayed by the arguments of the Canadians, many ordinary residents of the Maritimes wanted no part of this larger confederation for fear that their interests and concerns would be ignored in a wider national union. Many politicians who supported confederation, such as Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley (New Brunswick’s best-known Father of Confederation), found themselves without a seat after the next election; nevertheless, backers of the wider confederation eventually prevailed.

Following confederation, the fears of the anti-confederates were proven correct as new national policies and trade barriers were soon adopted by the central government, thus disrupting the historic trading relationship between the Maritime Provinces and New England. The situation in New Brunswick was exacerbated by both the Great Fire of 1877 in Saint John and the decline of the wooden shipbuilding industry; skilled workers were thus forced to move to other parts of Canada or to the United States to seek employment.

In his History of New Brunswick, Hannay observes that “The system of county government was as bad as possible, because the magistrates were not responsible to any person. The condition of the county accounts was never made public, and it was not until a comparatively late period in the history of the province that the Grand Jury obtained legislative authority to inspect the county accounts,” and by 1877 an act providing for compulsory municipal incorporation was put in force.

The province entered Confederation with a Legislative Council of 40 members holding their seats for life, a Legislative Assembly of 40 members and an Executive Council of nine members. Under its powers of changing the provincial constitution the Legislative Council was abolished by an act passed on April 16, 1891.

As the 20th century dawned, the province’s economy again began to expand. Manufacturing gained strength with the construction of textile mills such as the St. Croix Cotton Mill; and in the crucial forestry sector, the sawmills that had dotted inland sections of the province gave way to larger pulp and paper mills. The railway industry, meanwhile, provided for growth and prosperity in the Moncton region. Nevertheless, unemployment remained high throughout the province, and the Great Depression brought another setback. Two influential families, the Irvings and the McCains, emerged from the Depression to begin to modernise and vertically integrate the provincial economy—especially in the vital forestry, food processing, and energy sectors. In the mid-1960s, forestry practices changed from the controlled harvests of a commodity to the cultivation of the forests. New Brunswick changed from more than two-thirds rural before 1941 to predominantly urban by 1971. Education and health care were poorly funded, and in the 1940s and 1950s the rates of illiteracy and infant mortality were among the highest in Canada. During the period 1950–1980, 80% of New Brunswick’s small farms disappeared, as the agroindustry took root.

The Acadians in northern New Brunswick had long been geographically and linguistically isolated from the more numerous English speakers, who lived in the south of the province. The population of French origin grew dramatically after Confederation, from about 16 per cent in 1871 to 24 per cent in 1901 and 34 per cent in 1931. Government services were often not available in French, and the infrastructure in predominantly Francophone areas was noticeably less developed than in the rest of the province; this changed with the election of Premier Louis Robichaud in 1960. He embarked on the ambitious Equal Opportunity Plan, in which education, rural road maintenance, and health care fell under the sole jurisdiction of a provincial government that insisted on equal coverage throughout the province. County councils were abolished, and the rural areas came under direct provincial jurisdiction. The 1969 Official Languages Act made French an official language.

New Brunswick is bordered on the north by Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula and by Chaleur Bay. The eastern boundary is formed by the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and Northumberland Strait. The southeast corner of the province is connected to the Nova Scotia peninsula by the narrow Isthmus of Chignecto. The south of the province is bounded by the Bay of Fundy coast, (which with a rise of 16 m (52 ft), has amongst the highest tides in the world). The US state of Maine forms the western boundary.

New Brunswick differs from the other Maritime provinces physiographically, climatologically, and ethnoculturally. Both Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island are either surrounded by, or are almost completely surrounded by water. Oceanic effects therefore tend to define their climate, economy, and culture. On the other hand, New Brunswick, although having a significant seacoast, is sheltered from the Atlantic Ocean proper and has a large interior that is removed from oceanic influences. As a result, the climate tends to be more continental in character than maritime.

The major river systems of the province include the St. Croix River, Saint John River, Kennebecasis River, Petitcodiac River, Magaguadavic River, Miramichi River, Nepisiguit River, and the Restigouche River. Although smaller, the Bouctouche River, Richibucto River and Kouchibouguac River are also important. The settlement patterns and the economy of New Brunswick are based more on the province’s river systems than its seacoasts. Because of this, New Brunswick’s population centres tend to be less ‘centralized’ than in Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. Fredericton, Saint John, and Moncton all sit on rivers that have played a significant role in their economic history.

Northern New Brunswick is dominated by the Appalachian Mountains within the Eastern Canadian forests ecoregion, with the northwestern part of the province consisting of the remote and rugged Miramichi Highlands as well as the Chaleur Uplands and the Notre Dame Mountains, with a maximum elevation at Mount Carleton of 817 m (2,680 ft). The New Brunswick Lowlands form the eastern and central portions of the province and are part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence lowland forests ecoregion. Finally the Caledonia Highlands and St. Croix Highlands extend along the Bay of Fundy coast reaching elevations of more than 400 m (1,312 ft).

The total land and water area of the province is 72,908 km2 (28,150 sq mi), over 80 percent of which is forested. Agricultural lands are found mostly in the upper Saint John River valley, with lesser amounts of farmland in the southeast of the province, especially in the Kennebecasis and Petitcodiac river valleys. The three major urban centres are all in the southern third of the province. 

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