The Story of Labrador

Today we turn to another very well-known title: Bill Rompkey’s The Story of Labrador, published in 2003. Unfortunately, this is the first Book of the Week that isn’t freely available online, but it does remain in print and available from all your favourite bookstores.

Some time after I moved to Labrador in 2007, my grandfather wanted to learn more about the place I now called home.  I sent him Bill Rompkey’s book, since its title promised exactly what he was looking for: the history of Labrador, depicted in broad brushstrokes.  Twelve and a half years later, I can’t think of another single book that I’d sooner recommend for the same general purpose.  There may be many more quintessentially Labradorian books out there—but there aren’t too many that directly tackle the whole region’s history.

The idea of a truly comprehensive overview of Labrador has not been current since the early twentieth century.  Back then, two previous writers in particular tried to be absolutely encyclopedic on the subject: first, William Gilbert Gosling’s 1910 effort ran over 500 pages, and then Väinö Tanner outdid him in 1944 with over 900 pages in two volumes.  Rompkey had an additional sixty years of history to cover, so if had he been of the same persuasion, no doubt the book would have been well over a thousand pages, split across there’s no telling how many volumes.  Fortunately, his focus was not so much on exhaustive scholarship, but more on readability. As a result, The Story of Labrador is a much more pleasant companion with which to relax in an armchair!

Incidentally, the idea of “the story of Labrador” is not entirely original either.  In 1909, Patrick William Browne wrote a book entitled Where the Fishers Go: The Story of Labrador.  But “Labrador” to Browne meant basically just a fishing ground, whereas after a long career in Labrador education and politics, Rompkey had both the interest and the experience to develop a wide-ranging familiarity with many aspects of regional affairs.  His time in Labrador began with his appointment as school principal in North West River, but he is most well-known for winning 7 straight elections and spending 23 years as Member of Parliament for Labrador (originally Grand Falls-White Bay-Labrador) before his appointment to the Senate in 1995.

Given the vantage point afforded him by public office, Rompkey’s coverage of the twentieth-century changes in Labrador is especially attentive throughout The Story of Labrador, and his perspective on matters of public administration and governance from the 1970s through the 1990s in particular is undoubtedly extremely well-informed.  It should be noted, however, that his perspective and priorities reflect his own experiences and positions.

In particular, were the book to be rewritten today, one might expect a greater focus on Indigenous perspectives, culture, and priorities throughout, and perhaps more space at the beginning on Labrador’s earlier years—though Rompkey did make an effort on both counts.

Student Cheat Sheet

The Story of Labrador, by Bill Rompkey (2003)

Author. Bill Rompkey (1936-2017) was born in Fortune Bay, Newfoundland, but spent much of his adult life in Labrador, as school principal in North West River, school board superintendent, and finally Member of Parliament from 1972-1995.  He sat in Canada’s Senate from 1995 to his retirement in 2011. 
Summary. The Story of Labrador is a general-interest history of Labrador and broadly narrates the development of Labrador society over time, from pre-Contact Indigenous society up to the time of publication.  The book’s themes are diverse, but public administration is a special focus.
Origin.  As an educator of Labrador children and then a politician who represented Labrador to the rest of Canada, Rompkey spent decades evolving his views on the region. As early as 1970, he chaired a conference about “shaping the destiny” of Labrador.  He turned to writing as an older man, and produced several books of provincial history. The Story of Labrador was his most ambitious book. Rompkey also edited From the Coast to Far Inland: Collected Writings on Labrador, in 2006.
Legacy. The Story of Labrador is highly accessible, and it remains the authoritative book-length overview of Labrador history. Moreover, its notes, bibliography, index, and overall approach make it a useful reference work even for more serious study. Rompkey’s unique position in Labrador’s political history ensures that the book will always be relevant, even as time passes and perspectives and priorities continue to evolve.

Working on a book report for school?  Here’s how to cite this article:

Mills, Morgon. “Book of the Week: The Story of Labrador.” LILA Online. Labrador Institute, 15 May 2020, Accessed [today’s date].

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