The people of the Atlantic Provinces are historically of west European (Scottish, Irish, English, French (Acadians)) and First Nations heritage. The Mi'kmaq Nation's reserves throughout Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and eastern New Brunswick dominate aboriginal culture in the Maritimes region, while Newfoundland and Labrador has a unique history of Innu, Inuit, and Mi'kmaq groups. The first aboriginal group likely to have encountered Europeans in Newfoundland, the Beothuck, has long since disappeared.
Despite the region's strong Aboriginal and Acadian cultural heritage, it normally conjures up Celtic images for Canadian tourists, on account of the Scottish and Irish heritage of these provinces. A fragment of Gaelic culture remains in Nova Scotia but primarily on Cape Breton Island, where Gaelic is still a dominant language in some communities.
Historically, Acadia (in French 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 Acadians, were forcibly expelled from the region by the British. Famously, many of these expelled Acadians found their way to Louisiana, becoming known as Cajuns.
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. Recently, Canada celebrated 400 years of Acadia (although it also celebrated 500 years of the French presence on the island of Newfoundland).
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 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).
New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and PEI are collectively known as the Maritime Provinces or simply the Maritimes, while the terms Atlantic Provinces and Atlantic Canada include the Maritimes and Newfoundland and Labrador.
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.
Atlantic Canada is full of interesting places found outside of its urban centers. Check out:
While the people of the Atlantic Provinces predominantly speak English and French, it is worth noting that 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. A good glossary is available online.
Newfoundland English, French, and Irish
In Newfoundland, another dialect of English is found in combination with any number of local variations. However, for the most part, the Newfoundland English dialect is extremely similar to the dialects spoken in the counties of Dorset, Somerset, Devonshire and Cornwall in the south-west of England, know colloquially in the UK as the "West Country" dialect. This is unsurprising in some ways, since the original settlers lead by John Guy (from Bristol, England) founded the first ever English colony in Canada about an hour north of St. John's, in the beautiful coastal-town of Cupids. They were all from the "West Country". Tourists from these British counties will likely find the dialect both very familiar and rather fascinating. 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:
Unlike Newfoundland English, Newfoundland French and Irish are nearly extinct. Newfoundland French is distinct from other Canadian French dialects including Quebec French and Acadian French, and is generally found in the Port au Port Peninsula. The language was deliberately discouraged by the government in the 20th century. Newfoundland Irish is a dialect of the Irish language specific to the island of Newfoundland and was widely spoken until the mid-20th century. It is 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".
Halifax has the main international airport in the region (and it was recently listed as one of North America's best). Flights can also be made to Sydney in Cape Breton from Halifax, or periodically from Boston, Toronto, or other Maritime cities.
The whole region is famous for its seafood. The clam chowder is to die for and the mussels are legendary. PEI is famous for lobster, 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 vegtables).
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.
In Newfoundland the drink they try to force on tourists is 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!
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 (called "elk" in Europe) are the largest member of the deer family, 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.