Nova Scotia — History and Culture
Most of the people in this province named ‘New Scotland’ may have Gaelic ancestry, but Nova Scotia also contains strong Mi’kmaq, French Acadian, and even African cultural influences. All of Nova Scotia’s four founding cultures share a love of music, family, history, and celebration.
Native Mi’kmaq lived and fished in Nova Scotia’s rich waters for at least 5,000 years before John Cabot became the first documented European to sail along Nova Scotia’s coast in 1497. However, it was the French who established the first permanent European settlement, Port Royal, in 1605.
The French territory called Acadie extended into present-day New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Maine, and even parts of Québec. The British took control of Acadia in 1713 following nearly a century of fighting with the French over the territory.
Although Acadian settlers remained neutral during the decades of conflict, the British expelled them in 1755 and torched their homes. Most of the descendants of these deported civilians now live in New Brunswick, but some also managed to find their way back to Nova Scotia. The most accurate depiction of daily life of 18th century French-speaking settlers is found at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site (259 Park Service Road, Louisbourg), home to what was once New France’s most impressive fortress.
After Nova Scotia became British territory, general Edward Cornwallis established a settlement in present-day Halifax because of its large natural harbor and Citadel Hill. A small, but significant percentage of the 35,000 United Empire Loyalists who fled the United States after the American Revolution were black slaves promised freedom in the new northern land in exchange for loyalty to the Crown. Even more black refugees were sent to Nova Scotia after the War of 1812.
Nova Scotia became the first of all British colonies to establish responsible government in 1848, and became one of the Dominion of Canada’s first four provinces when the new country was established in 1867. The first railway between Nova Scotia and Québec City was built shortly afterwards, ushering in a new era of prosperity in this shipbuilding province.
Nova Scotia’s shipbuilding industry suffered after the wooden ‘tall ships’ era was replaced by modern metal vessels. Visitors can relive both the province’s golden era and two of the saddest moments in the province’s history at Halifax’s Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (1675 Lower Water Street, Halifax), which features exhibits from both the Titanic and the devastating 1917 explosion which destroyed much of Halifax and killed 2,000 people.
Nova Scotia started to regain its prosperity during WWII and is in the middle of another boom period. Tourism has become one of Nova Scotia’s most important industries alongside fishing and shipbuilding.
Nova Scotia’s original residents, the Mi’kmaq, have done a remarkable job of preserving their unique culture, language, art, music, and stories. The Acadian population may be far smaller than that of neighboring New Brunswick, but many of them still speak French and make traditional crafts such as hooked rugs. The descendants of Nova Scotia’s black Loyalists have overcome centuries of hardship and racism to proudly celebrate their own culture, which is most prominently displayed at the Black Loyalist Heritage Museum in Birchtown, once home to more free blacks than any other settlement on Earth outside of Africa.
However, Gaelic remains Nova Scotia’s most dominant culture as more than half of the province’s residents are descendants from the Irish and Scottish immigrants who arrived here during the 18th and 19th centuries. From the Gaelic still spoken in many rural communities to the fiddle music played at countless céilidhs and kitchen parties throughout the province, age-old traditions are everywhere. Visitors can even watch North America’s oldest highland games in Antigonish each July.