This concise monograph aims to offer a comprehensive history of the Quebec coast of the Labrador Peninsula, east of Anticosti, the region usually known as the Lower North Shore. It begins with a nice summary of the natural setting, followed by a narrative of Amerindian and Paleo-Eskimo settlement, in prehistoric times. The thread of settlement history is then carried through the book, tracing the development of seasonal posts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the inflow of Acadian and Newfoundland fisher folk in the nineteenth century, with the subsequent growth of population, until the economic woes of the post-war years culminated in the cod moratorium of 1992. From about 1700, the author also offers a kind of business history, as an economic context for settlement. When we reach the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he summarizes the development of religious, educational, and municipal institutions – as these forms of social organization reached this isolated coast.
As Belvin points out, this is the first history of the Lower North Shore, or at least the first to incorporate a substantial amount of documentary research. In this sense, Forgotten Labrador is a success, providing the regional history the author promises. That said, this history is limited in some ways. Although Forgotten Labrador is a handsome volume, with a good index and some interesting illustrations, the editors at McGill-Queen’s University Press did not take the [End Page 294] time to catch some longish stretches of passive prose, as well as a few misspellings, grammatical lapses, and small errors of fact. At a broader level, the author is too fond of undocumented journalistic sources, which he seems to be afraid to evaluate critically. He mentions, for example, that ‘some historians’ put Basques on this coast in the 1480s. If he is thinking of Mark Kurlansky, he is quoting a journalist; no reputable historian makes this claim. His history of the coast would be better if he had evaluated conflicting sources and developed for himself a single narrative thread, leaving speculation unsupported by primary sources to the footnotes, perhaps. His use of early modern documents leads the reader to suspect that he may not really be comfortable with the period. For example, the British administrative body usually known as the Board of Trade is referred to by three different names in four pages (51–4). Although Belvin is careful to define (and defend) his use of Labrador as a toponym for the Lower North Shore, he is sometimes careless in using the term and at several points leaves the reader wondering whether he means ‘Labrador’ in his personal narrow sense or ‘Labrador’ in one or other of the more usual senses: the geographic peninsula north of the St Lawrence or the northern part of the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Finally, and this a more pervasive weakness of Forgotten Labrador, this regional history is offered virtually without context outside the region. This pattern emerges early in the book when the Dorset Paleo-Eskimos are treated almost as if they were a culture unique to the Lower North Shore, though one of the most interesting things about them is that they occupied a vast territory from the Arctic to the coasts of Newfoundland. Migratory European crews engaged in the shore-based salt-cod fishery get the same close-focus treatment, which Belvin applies in turn to sealers, long-liners, the cod moratorium, and so on. This is really too bad, as without contextualization and comparison, a regional history can veer into the kind of chronicle that heritage groups like to publish to mark auspicious anniversaries and away from the kind of historical analysis that sparks further discussion. But there is much useful work in this solid old-fashioned history, particularly on the exploitation of the Lower North Shore by Quebec merchants in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It will be useful to those who want to know more about the region, even if it was not written to attract those with broader interests. [End Page 295]