Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Wolastoqiyik (also known as Maliseet) were the primary inhabitants of the Saint John area. Other tribes, including the Mi’kmaq to the east and the Peskotomuhkati (Passamaquoddy) to the west, also lived in the region. During the summer, the Wolastoqiqik lived in villages along the Saint John River, living off bass, sturgeon, salmon and wild roots and berries. They also planted corn, harvesting it at the end of summer before their migratory winter hunt. During the colder months, the group travelled throughout New Brunswick, Maine and the Gaspé Peninsula in search of moose and bear. Birch tree bark was central to Wolastoqiyik culture, as they used it to cover wigwams and make canoes. To the Wolastoqiyik, the site of what would become Saint John was known as Menahkwesk.Today, Wolastoqiyik continue to live both in Saint John and the surrounding area. The closest reserve is Oromocto First Nation, about an hour drive north of Saint John. The Peskotomuhkati Nation at Skutik, a self-governing community, is an hour to the west.
Samuel de Champlain arrived at Saint John Harbour, at the mouth of the St. John River, on 24 June 1604 — the feast of St. John the Baptist. Champlain changed the name of the river, known to the Wolastoqiyik as Wolastoq, to St. John. However, the first permanent colonial settlement wasn’t attempted until 1631, when Charles de la Tour constructed Fort La Tour at the site of present-day Saint John.
In 1701, the governor of Acadia, Jacques-François de Brouillan, destroyed Fort La Tour and consolidated his forces across the Bay of Fundy at Port-Royal. It wasn’t until the 1730s that Acadians from other parts of the region began resettling along the St. John River. By 1749, the English and the French were fighting over who owned the region. The argument led the British to forcibly remove Acadians from the area. These deportations were carried out throughout the Maritimes from the mid-1750s to the early 1760s (see History of Acadia). In 1758, Fort La Tour was rebuilt by the English and renamed Fort Frederick, but it was destroyed in 1775 by the Americans.
Permanent English settlement began in the 1760s. In 1778, Fort Howe was built on the east side of Saint John Harbour. James Simonds and James White, merchants from Boston, established homes at the foot of present-day Fort Howe Hill. They traded with Indigenous peoples and the garrison, and formed ties with the British at Halifax.
In 1783, this harbour community greatly expanded when Loyalists settled on the east side of the harbour in Parr Town, on the west side in Carleton and on the north side in Portland. In 1785, Carleton and Parr Town were incorporated, taking the name Saint John — the first incorporated city in what is now Canada. Immigrants arriving at the port of the newly incorporated city were first detained on Partridge Island, just outside Saint John, to ensure they wouldn't bring disease to the rest of the population.
Many Black Loyalists were among the British supporters who settled in the area after the American Revolution. Like other Loyalists, they were promised land. However, the plots assigned to them were inadequate, or were never assigned at all. Saint John’s first municipal charter forbid Black people from practicing a trade, selling anything, fishing, and voting. As a result, many settled in Portland, which later amalgamated with Saint John and is known today as simply “the north end.”
In 1784, when New Brunswick separated from Halifax and became its own British colony, Saint John served briefly as the provincial capital. It later moved upriver to Fredericton.
The city's early economy emerged through the timber trade and shipbuilding. Saint John's lumberyards supplied square timber, and later sawn lumber, to Great Britain and the West Indies. As early as 1770, its shipyards produced vessels which transported forestry products. Eventually, the ships themselves were exported. Saint John became the shipbuilding hub of the Maritimes, and many of the city's ships, such as the Marco Polo, became famous. In addition, the waterfront produced the city's largest labour union, which was affiliated with the International Longshoremen's Association by 1911. The spirit of unionization runs strong in the city today.
By the mid-1800s, the city's timber and shipbuilding economy was challenged by the newer technology of steam engines and iron. From 1860 to 1880 Saint John was also deeply affected by the end of the protected British market for colonial timber. These conditions became worse when an international economic depression began in early 1874. In 1877, the Saint John suffered a disastrous fire that left the city's business district, most of its waterfront and much of its residential area in ashes. The fire all but put an end to the city’s economic chances as a burgeoning harbour town.
In 1876, the arrival of the Intercolonial Railway brought Saint John's manufacturers into competition with those from central Canada, to the long-term disadvantage of Saint John. That disadvantage continues into present day: after the final collapse of the city’s shipbuilding industry in 2000 many Saint Johners have little economic opportunity.
The cityscape is largely dominated by the harbour and the river. Saint John’s maze of one-way streets eventually merge together in the south end and slope down toward the mouth of the Bay. A 20-block stretch now known as Trinity Royal was given a heritage designation in the 1980s and as a result, much of Saint John’s historical buildings remain intact. This area and others in the city centre are home to many late Victorian-era buildings. These buildings have been restored to their past elegance and in recent years have contributed to Saint John's growing popularity as a cruise ship destination. The Saint John City Market is the country’s oldest purpose-built market. Every summer, tourists crowd its aisles as they hunt for lobster rolls and photograph the building’s roof, which is shaped, appropriately enough, like the hull of a ship.
Waterfront redevelopment was a major focus in the city throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, with the goal of creating a tourist destination. Much of it was unusable due to the presence of raw sewage, and “harbour cleanup” was a big part of the municipal agenda. The process was completed in 2014, and a number of new businesses and higher-end residential units soon followed.
The well-known Reversing Falls are located about 1 km from the centre of town on the city’s west side. At high tide the ocean waters surge upstream through a narrow chasm, reversing the rush of river water through the gorge at low tide.
Saint John has struggled to maintain its population for more than 150 years. By the 1860s the city’s population was no longer growing, and during the 1870s and 1880s it began to decline. Many residents migrated to the nearby United States in search of better economic opportunity. In addition, the city was largely bypassed by the huge influx of late-19th-century immigrants to Canada. However, some of the new arrivals, notably eastern European Jews and Lebanese, did choose to remain in Saint John, enriching the city's cultural profile.
In 1901, there was a modest reversal to the trend of people leaving Saint John, due in part to residents from communities along the Saint John River moving to the city. But by then, the question of whether to stay or leave was ingrained in many Maritimers. The exodus continues to this day, with young people leaving Saint John and New Brunswick more generally for jobs in Quebec, Ontario, and the western provinces.
The tides are slowly turning, though, with more immigrants arriving from China, Syria, Lebanon, South Korea, the Philippines, and other countries. As a result, Saint John’s population has shown a modest increasein the years since a decline was reported in the 2016 census.
Though the ethnic make-up of the city is changing, Saint John remains a predominantly Anglophone city. According to the 2016 census, 90.5 per cent of city residents speak English as their mother tongue. Similarly, the most commonly-cited ethnic origins were Canadian, English, and Irish. Those who identify as visible minorities account for 5 per cent of the population, with Black, Chinese, and Arab people being the largest communities within this group.
Economy and Labour Force
After the Second World War, Saint John’s economy continued to focus on traditional industries. Efforts were made to diversify the goods that were shipped and received at the port, expand the pulp and paper mills, and revitalize the shipbuilding industry. While the shipbuilding industry couldn’t be saved, pulp and paper, run by Irving Group, is still a major industry in the city today. The Irving Group of companies has played a significant role in the city and province since the 1920s. They also own, under the subsidiary Brunswick News, the province’s English language daily newspaper The Telegraph-Journal. In the mid-2000s, it was estimated that 8 per cent of the workforce was employed by an Irving company.
More recently, tourism is growing in the city, with cruise ships arriving throughout the summer and fall. Thanks in part to funding for new businesses, the uptown area is being revitalized for the first time since the 1990s.
The service-sector is also an important part of Saint John's economy. In the 1990s, call centres were attracted to the city through the co-operative efforts of the provincial and municipal governments. A changing retail pattern began in the mid-1950s, with the construction of Lansdowne Place in the North End. With newer big box stores opening in East Saint John, the city is bidding to become the regional shopping destination in southern New Brunswick.
The University of New Brunswick is also a significant employer. The Saint John campus is located in the city’s north end, and many students come to study business and later work for Irving.
In the 1970s, the various sections of Saint John became more cohesive when a highway system was built. The system incorporated the Harbour Bridge for easier access to and from the city’s west side. Nonetheless, Saint John is a rather sprawling city, with new industrial parks and retail zones tacked onto historic neighbourhoods. The Courtney Bay causeway extends over the mud flats where ships used to be constructed, drawing together the east with the south and north sides of the city and paving the way to the mall. To navigate through this, most people rely on their own cars. Many people commute to work in Saint John from the neighbouring suburbs of Rothesay, Quispamsis, and Grand Bay-Westfield.
The city’s public transportation system extends to its suburbs and can be relied upon for fairly frequent and convenient service. The Maritime Bus comes in and out of the city’s North end, with service to the rest of the Maritime provinces and through to Quebec. The small Saint John Airport offers mostly local destinations including the other Atlantic provinces, Ontario, Quebec and the Eastern U.S.
Government and Politics
In 1967, Saint John expanded to include the city of Lancaster, the parish of Lancaster and part of the parish of Simonds. Saint John’s city council is composed of a mayor and ten councillors. There are two councillors representing the city at large, and eight who represent the city’s four wards — two to each ward. Each member serves a four-year term once elected. Municipal elections are held the second Monday in May.
The Saint John City Market is the oldest purpose-built market in Canada.
Saint John’s culture is, for the most part, a proud working class one. Being a relatively small community, the city sees large turnouts for its special events. The city’s recent growth has included initiatives like night markets with vendors and performers, street parties, and farmers markets into the mainstream. The streets are flooded with people of all ages when these events take place.
Food is a big deal on sthe east coast, and Saint John is no exception. The pubs and restaurants uptown are usually busy on any given night. Major events take place at either the Imperial Theatre or Harbour Station, both part of earlier revitalization efforts in the 1990s. Harbour Station was originally built as the home of the Saint John Flames, a now defunct team in the American Hockey League. The arena now serves the same purpose for the Saint John Seadogs, a team in the Quebec Major-Junior Hockey League, and which the community actively supports.