Newfoundland Confederation Essay

The Tenth Province: Newfoundland joins Canada, 1949

by

Melvin Baker (c)1987

(a version of this article was originally published in Horizon, vol. 10, Number 111 (1987), 2641-67.

"I never thought I'd see the day," Joseph R. Smallwood exclaimed in 1949 when Newfoundland, which proudly styled itself England's oldest colony, became Canada's newest province. Smallwood, who had led the campaign for Confederation, became the first premier of the tenth province. The decision to join Canada had not been an easy one for Newfoundlanders. It came after several years of debate on their political future, capped by two referendums in 1948. Since 1934, they had been ruled by a Commission of Government appointed by Britain. During the 15 years of the Commission's administration, Newfoundland experienced social and economic changes that raised the people's expectations of a higher standard of living, more public services and greater economic security in international trade. It was hoped that union with Canada would help to meet these expectations.

In a Hole
Newfoundland was in desperate straits in 1934 when the Commission of Government, replacing parliamentary democracy, was given the mission of digging the country out of its hole. The economy and public finances were on the rocks; conditions for the population in general, never cushy, were rendered even bleaker by the Depression.

It was predominantly a society of small fishing outports; there were 1,292 settlements strewn along the coast, only 100 of them with populations of more than 500. St. John's, the capital, had 39,886 inhabitants in 1935. Although the value of fish exports had declined steeply as a proportion of total exports - from 81 percent in 1910 to 25 percent in 1936 - the fishery employed 40 percent of the male labor force.

A large employer, the fishery offered a poor living. In normal times, fishermen could supplement their incomes through part-time work as loggers for the island's two pulp and paper mills, and as sealers in the spring. Some outport residents worked as sailors on the vessels that carried fish to the markets of southern Europe and the Caribbean.

Wage labor was found in the papermaking towns of Grand Falls and Corner Brook; in the mining centers of Bell Island, Buchans and St. Lawrence; and in St. John's where there was a small civil service, some secondary manufacturing, and a sizeable labor force involved in marine-related activities. A high birthrate was offset by a high mortality rate, a function of the island's poverty. In 1934, the death rate was 12.1 per thousand of population, compared with 9.5 in Canada. The island had only 450 hospital beds available; according to a health survey conducted in 1934 by the St. John's Rotary Club, this represented one bed for every 644 persons, whereas in the U.S., there was one bed for every 130 people.

The economy was completely dependent on the export of fish, minerals and forest products. The Depression, beginning in 1929, struck hard. Total exports fell in value from $40 million in 1930 to $23 million in 1933. The value of fishery exports alone fell from $16 million in 1928 to $6.5 million in 1932. The number of people receiving the dole, or able-bodied relief, of six cents a day rose sharply. During the winter of 1932-33, one-quarter of the population depended on the government for the necessities of tea, flour, pork and molasses.

Decreased revenues and increased expenditures on relief created a debt crisis for the government. In 1933, for instance, about 65 percent of government revenues went to pay the annual interest charge on the debt. The debt had grown rapidly since 1920 because of borrowings to finance public works and services. From $43 million in 1920-21, it had risen to $101 million in 1933.

The Liberal government of Sir Richard Squires, in 1931 and 1932, had attempted to meet the annual interest payments through retrenchment in the public service and loans from Canadian banks. On June 11, 1932, Squires' government was defeated by Frederick Alderdice and his United Newfoundland Party, who promised to appoint a committee to examine the feasibility of placing Newfoundland under a "form of commission government for a period of years."

Newfoundland avoided defaulting on its debt payments on Dec. 31, 1932, when Alderdice obtained a joint loan from the British and Canadian governments. In return, he consented to the establishment of a British royal commission whose role would be to suggest ways for the island to meet its debt obligations and to plan its economic reorganization.

The findings of this inquiry, reported to the British House of Commons on Oct. 4, 1933, were that Newfoundland politics were corrupt and that the island needed a respite from parliamentary politics until it was again self-supporting. Faced with the alternative of default, on Nov. 28, the Dominion of Newfoundland asked the British government to replace the existing elected government by an appointed commission.

The charge that Newfoundland politics were corrupt was highly unfair; they were no more so than Canadian politics. But in corruption, the inquiry had found an easy justification for the suspension of democracy. Had the inquiry focused more closely on the real cause of Newfoundland's economic problems - the international depression - its case for the abolition of representative government would have been harder to make out.

Efficient Government
The Commission, consisting of three Newfoundland and three British appointees plus the governor, assumed office on Feb.16, 1934. The Commissioners saw their main task to be the provision of efficient government. This meant, for instance, that they dropped old political and religious criteria in the hiring and promotion of civil servants. With the help of imported British functionaries, the Commission made merit the sole basis for promotion. Young Newfoundlanders with professional training were also encouraged to join the civil service.

The Commission made its greatest strides in the educational and public health fields. It established a summer school program at Memorial College for teachers and increased their salaries. It left the denominational school system unchanged, fearing that any tampering would provoke widespread disapproval. But it did make textbooks and school supplies available on loan to pupils, and tried to improve their health by providing free, nutritional cocomalt - a cocoa-milk powder.

Medical services were improved after 1935 through the creation of a cottage hospital system in the larger outports. By 1938, the government operated 10 cottage hospitals containing a total of 130 beds. This system was the first instance in North America of a government establishing a subsidized medical-care plan on a pre-payment basis. To help combat tuberculosis, a new wing was added to the St. John's Sanatorium in 1938, and a mobile Health Unit was formed to visit communities and check residents for the disease.

In its first few years, the Commission tried to implement an ambitious land- settlement scheme, emphasizing agricultural development as an alternative to the island's reliance on the fishery. This scheme was the creation of Thomas Lodge, a strong-willed English commissioner who imposed his idea of "social reorganization" on a reluctant Commission. By 1938, he had established 11 settlements involving 340 families, but the harsh climate, rocky soil, and inexperienced farmers meant that success was far from complete. The Commission therefore dropped this expensive program, and concentrated its efforts on the fishery.

The Commission encouraged fishermen to form cooperatives, and gave them financial assistance to enable them to purchase boats, engines and other supplies. In 1936, the Commission set up the Newfoundland Fisheries Board, which was given complete control over licensing, exporting and marketing.

Despite these improvements, the fishing industry continued to perform poorly during the 1930s, largely because of economic and political problems in some of the main export markets. In 1938, for instance, the value of salt cod exports was lower than at any other time during the century. Consequently, there was an increase in the number of people on the dole. Between 1934 and 1940, the average monthly number of people receiving the dole rose from 31,899 to 39,802, with 85,000 on the relief rolls during the winter of 1938.

Prosperity at Last
By 1939, public disillusionment with the Commission was strong. Government was more efficient, but hopes for economic development and a substantially higher standard of living had not been realized. The outbreak of war in Europe, however, changed all that. Strategically located in the North Atlantic, Newfoundland became an important defence base in the Allied war effort.

Through a series of defence agreements with the Commission, Canada established installations in Newfoundland at a total cost of over $65 million. These included air bases at Gander, Torbay and Goose Bay, and a naval base in St. John's for which the British Admiralty provided the funds. The number of Canadian garrison troops peaked at nearly 6,000 army personnel in 1943. This figure does not include the thousands of seamen serving on naval convoy duty, which operated out of St. John's. Nor does it include the airmen stationed at Gander and Goose Bay who were involved in the Atlantic Ferry Command.

Under agreements reached in 1940-41, the Americans were permitted to establish military bases in Newfoundland for a tenure of 99 years. The major facilities they built included an army base at St. John's, a naval base at Argentia, and an air force base at Stephenville. They also shared the use of the Gander and Goose Bay bases with the Canadians. By April 1943, American construction expenditures totaled $105 million.

At its height in September 1942, the American and Canadian construction boom employed 19,752 Newfoundlanders. They earned an average annual income of $1,500 - considerably more than the $333 to be had in the fishery in 1941. There were jobs now for all who wished to work. But the Newfoundland workers did not receive wage parity with their American civilian counterparts, because the Commission of Government did not wish to drive up wages in other industries.

Increased exports and foreign military expenditures during the early 1940s finally ended the Commission's budget deficits, which peaked at $4.8 million in the 1939-40 fiscal year. Thereafter, budget surpluses enabled the government to make $12.3 million in interest-free loans to Britain while continuing to make improvements at home, notably in the fields of education, health, housing and local government.

Getting Together
In the face of the large American presence in Newfoundland, the Canadian government kept a close watch on its economic and military interests there, appointing a High Commissioner in 1941. But if the links between Canada and Newfoundland were strengthened during the war, the idea of a political union aroused little public interest. Reporting on Newfoundland public affairs to the Dominions Office in London in 1943, Gov. Humphrey Walwyn observed that the people were "so dazzled by American dollars, hygiene and efficiency that many of the public rather play up to America in preference to Canada."

In planning for the postwar restoration of democracy to Newfoundland, Britain was concerned that the island Dominion would regain its political independence only to slip back into a state of economic dependence. Britain therefore proposed to fund a 10-year economic development program in Newfoundland, while keeping a tight rein on the island's finances.

That plan fell apart, however, when the British government found in 1944 that it could not afford to pay for Newfoundland's development. By 1945, it was clear to Britain that under the circumstances, Newfoundland's best hope lay in union with Canada. The Canadian government, concerned at the prospect of growing U.S. influence in Newfoundland, easily saw eye to eye with Britain. Britain wished to divest itself of the financial and administrative responsibility for Newfoundland, and confederation was an attractive alternative. On Dec. 11, the Labor government of Clement Atlee announced that a "National Convention" of 45 delegates, elected from all parts of Newfoundland and Labrador, would be held the following year to consider the economic and political situation and to recommend constitutional alternatives that might be submitted to the public in a referendum.

Joey Smallwood, a journalist, former popular radio host and delegate from Bonavista Center, was the leader of the confederate cause. He saw union with Canada as a means of giving the people "a half decent chance in life," through the introduction of "North American standards of public services" and social welfare. As part of the larger Canadian trading bloc, Newfoundland would also benefit in international trade.

Anti-confederates favored a return to the pre-1934 system of responsible government. Supported by the St. John's mercantile community and led by Maj. Peter Cashin, a former member of the legislature, they appealed to local patriotism, and warned their fellow countrymen that confederation would mean selling their birthright for the Canadian "Baby Bonus." Newfoundlanders would also have to "take on a burden of taxation, the like of which they nor their fathers have never known."

In pursuit of a common policy with Canada, London kept pointing Newfoundland towards Canada by repeatedly warning that Britain had no financial help to give. Canada's role was simply to open its arms. When the National Convention urged that Newfoundlanders be asked to choose in a referendum between responsible government and commission government, Britain tacked on a third possibility - confederation with Canada - even though the convention itself had voted down a motion to place confederation on the referendum ballot.

In the referendum of June 3, 1948, 44.6 percent of voters supported the restoration of responsible government, 41.1 percent voted for confederation with Canada, and 14.3 percent opted for the existing system of government by commission. A second referendum was held July 22 to settle the issue, whereupon 52.3 percent voted for confederation, versus 47.7 percent for a return to the pre-1934 system. On March 31, 1949, Newfoundland officially became part of Canada, and on the following day, Smallwood was sworn in as the first premier.

What follows is a personal essay I wrote more than a year ago now. I shopped it around to a few places, but it failed to find a home. I’m putting it up here as it’s partly a news item, covering some events from the fall of 2012, so if it sits much longer it’ll be too stale to do much of anything with.

FREE NFLD

I spotted it on the side of a trash can on Yonge Street, Toronto, midnight on Halloween, a night for mischief, a night when the boundaries between worlds are supposed to be thinner. FREE NFLD.

I stopped and said “hold on.” My friend, a thirty-something fellow of good Ontario upbringing, stopped and turned.

“Free Newfoundland,” I said, pointing at the trashcan. I was delighted and I wanted him to share my delight. He didn’t understand why this small, crude graffiti, this Sharpie scrawl, should cause me joy, though. In fact, he seemed a little offended.

“We’ve spent so much money on you. You’re not going anywhere. We own you now.” That’s more or less what he said.

“You can marry a trophy wife, but that doesn’t mean you own her!” My hasty, awkward response. I let it go. We walked on for the moment.

At that point I’d been living in Toronto for three years, but the place never felt more alien to me than it did when I spotted that graffiti. I’d never felt so dépaysé—so outside of my country. That little eight-letter scrawl, F-R-E-E N-F-L-D, it was like a secret message. It was a piece of enchanted writing, enchanted so only some folk can read it. Don’t you get it? I wanted to ask my walking companion. The homeland is speaking to me! Via a trashcan on Yonge street! On Halloween night! A message from the other side! Some half-forgotten ember in me flared to life, if briefly.

FREE NFLD!

*

FREE NFLD. I have a shirt from Living Planet, an independent clothing and design shop in downtown St. John’s, that says the same thing. I don’t wear it much up here in Ontario, though. Sometimes I break it out when I want to be a bit of an arse (on the first day of a Canadian literature class, for example). Other times I wear it when it’s entirely appropriate (attending a public lecture on Newfoundland English, say). Most of the time, though, I wear it when I’m homesick. It’s a solace, a comfort, a signifier small and strange, special to me.

“Free NFLD?” a clerk in a bookstore once asked, spotting my shirt. “Free it from what?”

I couldn’t think of a way to answer her. “You know.” But she didn’t know, and I couldn’t tell her. I couldn’t say “free it from you,” because it’s more than that (and less than that). Besides, she seemed nice. It was like the shirt slightly wounded her, and I felt a little bad about that. It was like her thought was: why would you want to be free?

*


Many people in Ontario don’t know that Newfoundland wasn’t part of Canada before 1949. Many of them don’t know that Newfoundland used to be more-or-less an independent nation (as independent as Canada was at the time). Many of them, to my shock, don’t even know that Newfoundland is an island—and that’s fact #1 about Newfoundland. They don’t know that you can only get there by boat or by plane. If they do know that, they sometimes think the ferry only takes half an hour, or maybe an hour. I tell them the length of the Cape Breton–Argentia crossing (14 hours, not counting boarding and disembarking) and they don’t believe me. I tell them it’s about the same distance as the crow flies from Toronto to St. John’s as it is from Toronto to Cuba. That Moncton NB is only half-way to my home-town.

Quick: which is further south? Victoria BC or St. John’s NL? It’s St. John’s, but you couldn’t tell it from looking at most maps of Canada. We’re so deep into the margins that they squish us up into the corner. 

They aren’t used to thinking about how we (do or don’t) fit in.

*

Sometimes, here in Ontario, I get this question. Well, this observation; it only feels like a question because I feel like some response is expected: “You’re from Newfoundland. But you don’t have an accent.”

“And why do you think that is?”

This tends to bring the conversation up short. Like it has never occurred to them that, if you want to be taken seriously outside of Newfoundland, you have to learn how to shed your accent at strategic moments—or, worse, you had it trained out of you at an age too young to even understand what you were being robbed of.

I do have an accent, though. Sometimes it is very thick. But it usually hides when I’m on the mainland. I don’t want it to. The fact that it disappears against my bidding makes me wonder if some shame about my heritage is still lurking in my subconscious. But if I consciously coax it out, if I put it on, it feels like cheating. It’s hammy, over the top, fake. Faking it makes me feel more estranged, not less. I shouldn’t have to fake it.

*

“I’LL TAKE IT”

FREE NFLD. I’ve always liked the grammatical ambiguity of the phrase. It’s not a sentence, like Vive le Québec Libre! You could read ‘free’ as an adjective, not a verb. It could be a descriptive statement, not an imperative command. It could mean “Newfoundland is free,” not “Newfoundland is in need of freeing.”

That’s a tough sell, though. I’m sure most people intend FREE NFLD as an anti-Canada sentiment, if maybe a half-hearted one, if maybe not one to be taken too seriously. More an uncomfortable shrug against the steady and pervasive soft weight of cultural homogeneity than a proper political agitation. To me, though, it’s a reminder of how arbitrary it is that Newfoundland is now a part of Canada.

I never understand Canadians who get up in arms at the idea of Newfoundland leaving Canada, as if this would deeply damage the Canadian national fabric. Do these people think Canada was incomplete, a flawed and partial entity, prior to 1949? That was the line the mainland papers took, back when Newfoundland joined. There were many editorials written to that effect. It was depicted as a “finally, the country is complete! The dream of the Fathers of Confederation has been realized!” moment. It was an expression of manifest destiny. Newfoundland always belonged to Canada, even if Newfoundlanders didn’t know it, even if some of them refused to accept it.

But you know, if our joining up was so important, why isn’t April 1 a national holiday in Canada? They could call it National Unity Day or something like that. The Day of Doneness. But April 1 is not recognized at all, not even as a fake holiday that no one gets off from work. It’s not worth a mention on the calendars.

It’d probably be difficult to keep a lid on the damnable Newfie jokes, though, even if the anniversary was officially moved, like the moment of union itself, from April Fools to the final infinitesimal moment between March 31 and April 1.

*

As November progressed I started seeing more and more of them. FREE NFLDs in downtown Toronto. Written on doorframes, on walls, in corners and alleyways. The city was alive with reminders. “Don’t forget! Newfoundlanders are all around you!

The press back home picked up on the rash of FREE NFLDs in Toronto. There was a story in St. John’s largest and most important daily paper, The Telegram, about it. They interviewed a woman from Stephenville who now lives in my neighbourhood of Toronto. She had the same surprised and happy reaction I did when she first spotted the FREE NFLDs. We’re everywhere up here, she said. We’re taking the place over. Tongue in cheek. This sort of Newfoundland nationalism is a nationalism that hurts no one, makes no uncomfortable claims, has no violence or threat behind it. Sure, we can take over Toronto, and be mistaken for Ontarians after we do it. Like the poet Agnes Walsh wrote, in her poem “The Time That Passes”: we “can get jobs on the mainland / or at radio stations / our voices do sound so homogenous now.”

My father has told me about the Newfoundland clubs that used to exist all over the mainland, clubs where expatriot Newfoundlanders could congregate. Back when a majority of Newfoundland-Canadians were made, by act of legislation, rather than born, like my generation was. These Newfoundland clubs would create a piece of Newfoundland in a room far from the island. They acted as unofficial embassies of a non-nation.

Do we have that now? So many of my friends—young, intelligent, ambitious people—have left Newfoundland, and most have landed up here in Toronto. I go to a party in Roncesvalles, a hip west-end neighbourhood of Toronto, and the room is full of us. Our accents come out. No coaxing, no faking. We create Newfoundland for each other. To comfort each other. We confound the few mainlanders in attendance, make cultural references they have no way of being familiar with, jokes they have no way of getting. It is a little cruel, but having to abandon our homeland to have a career is also a little cruel.

*

It’s getting colder outside. I attend the launch of Greg Malone’s new book Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders. The book alleges that Confederation in 1949 was a con job, a dirty deal between London and Ottawa. The launch is in a bar on College Street, in Toronto’s Little Portugal district.

(The Portuguese White Fleet in St. John’s Harbour. My father, a pharmacist on Water Street, his first job. Selling the just-landed Portuguese sailors—so polite, my father says; so likeable—soap, aftershave, contraceptives. For use in that order, I imagine. The long, quiet connections between our nations, Portugal and Newfoundland. And now here we both are on College Street).

The rash of FREE NFLD graffiti in Toronto’s downtown core has continued. I’ve counted fifteen examples of it, from Bloor to College, from Bay to Jarvis. Who are they for? What are they saying?

Greg Malone, ranting about how our nation was taken away from us via years of secret negotiations, backroom power-plays. The right of national self-determination for the world was agreed upon when Churchill and Roosevelt met in secret shortly after the start of World War II, in the labyrinthine waters of our own Placentia Bay. Less than a decade later the right of national self-determination was ironically suspended in Newfoundland’s case. The referenda were a sham, he says. He’s got the documents to prove it, he says. This stuff will make any Newfoundlanders’ blood boil, he says. Our nation was taken from us, he says.

Exhilarated, I write a facebook status about it. “Be careful,” a friend comments. “Malone isn’t a historian.”

Greg Malone? “He basically found evidence for what our dads always told us,” another Newfoundland-to-Toronto transplant says to me, at the launch itself.

“Yes, but I like having all of my teeth and a University education,” I respond. It’s my dumb, sideways way of saying I like the material benefits of being a Canadian. I like the social welfare and the prosperity. (Yet here both of us are in Toronto, me in academia and my friend in publishing, because such careers are very scarce at home). “But maybe I’d have them anyway?” My teeth and my diplomas, I mean.

Let’s say it’s true. Let’s say Greg Malone is totally correct, that Newfoundland has had a gross injustice perpetrated against it. Lead astray in the dense fog of the global post-World War II shakedown, lost amongst the de-colonial/re-colonial realignment of the world. It’s much more difficult to rally and rail against this muddle of events, where no shots were fired, no dissidents imprisoned, where the so-called victims now enjoy an extremely high level of freedom and prosperity.

But, again, let’s say it’s true. What then? What is the next course of action? Do we sue Westminster and Ottawa? Do we campaign for separation? Do we ask for an official apology? Do we ask for a nice-but-meaningless declaration of nation-within-a-nation status? What about all the Newfoundlanders who consider themselves Canadians now? The youngest people born in pre-Confederation Newfoundland will start to collect their old age pensions soon. There are still people living who once held Newfoundland passports, but this won’t be true for much longer.

All this just brings it back to the bookstore clerk who asked me about my shirt. FREE NFLD. Free it from what? If FREE NFLD is a call to action, what is it asking us to do?

*

“WHY”

December 2012. I took a camera with me when I left the house. The more FREE NFLDs that appeared around Yonge and Wellesley, the more I grew afraid for their survival. I wanted to document them before they were wiped clean.

Maybe my fears weren’t well-founded. Only Newfoundland-based media had reported on the graffiti. Toronto-based alternative urban news outlets like Spacing and The Torontoist either didn’t know or didn’t care. This made me wonder: who is the intended audience for these FREE NFLDs? From my first sighting, back on Halloween night, I thought it was immediately clear. It was like the secret codes hobos would scratch on fence-posts, signs meant for other hobos, signs understood by other hobos. FREE NFLD is a signal left by a diasporic Newfoundlander, meant for other diasporic Newfoundlanders, something only ‘we’ will notice, a complicated signal that only ‘we’ will comprehend. A reminder that there are a lot of us walking around Toronto, that we can pass unnoticed but still carry within us the seeds of an irreconcilable otherness. A reminder that we are members of a secret, second nation, or an un-nation, maybe. A balm to the homesick and the despairing: you’re still one of us, and there is still an ‘us’ to be one of.

But maybe the intent was more like the original FREE NFLD, a famous piece of graffiti in downtown St. John’s, a six-foot silhouette of the island with the slogan in ragged red across it. It’s been gone for a decade now. I always understood that particular FREE NFLD as an earnest, genuine protest, part of the cultural nationalism of the 1970s. Maybe these smaller, hastier, cruder FREE NFLDs are meant to smack ignorant, complacent Toronto in its face, to get its attention. To make people who’ve never thought of Newfoundland and its claim to difference actually think of it for once in their lives. This unknown someone, writing FREE NFLD again and again, in the heart of empire, reminding the colonizer of the people they’ve colonized?

And there it is, behind it all: the old, original FREE NFLD. Pre–t-shirt sloganization. Before you could buy it and wear it. The big colourful mural on the steps at the east end of George Street in St. John’s. On a wall in a basement in rural Southeast Placentia there’s a picture of me next to it. It was taken shortly before the paint became too faded to see, before it was erased. I’m sixteen in the photo. Scrawny, hair too long. Behind me is the Great Northern Peninsula. The Burin, the Bonavista. The Avalon. All of the peninsulas like so many grasping arms, reaching out. And then there are Placentia, Trinity, Conception, Fortune, the rest of our countless bays, themselves curling, carving, reaching into.

A decade left to this younger self before he leaves for Toronto. FREE NFLD. Yes, I look fairly free.

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