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Debate over Confederation still lively in Newfoundland 75 years later

Sunday marks 75 years since Newfoundland officially became part of Canada, a moment that continues to generate debate everywhere from the bars of George Street to the halls of political power.

Ever since the controversial referendum made the island part of Confederation, Newfoundlanders have simultaneously questioned and celebrated the union over the ensuing decades.

The Newfoundland and Labrador government is marking the occasion in 2024 with special community grants, awards, and scholarships. It’s also offering commemorative license plates with the Confederation 75 logo to people registering vehicles for the first time in the province this year.

In The Rooms, Newfoundland and Labrador’s provincial archives and museum, visitors and residents alike can visit the “Here We Made a Home” exhibition in the Elinor Gill Ratcliffe Gallery to see images and artifacts detailing what led up to the historic final vote and its aftermath.

“It just brought in so many social changes, financial changes, major changes to how we operate as a place,” says Maureen Peters, curator of history at The Rooms.

“Because of course, before then, we were under a Commission of Government, where our government was suspended, and before that we were our own country under the Dominion,” she explains.

The 1934 Commission of Government ended responsible government on the island and was made up of seven men appointed by Britain.  (The Commission of Government, 1934-1949 (heritage.nf.ca))

Sinking under enormous debt from the cost of the Newfoundland war effort during the First World War, and the subsequent arrival of the Great Depression, officials were looking for relief, and giving up self-government was pitched as the only way to put the East Coast island’s financial house back in order.  (Collapse of Responsible Government, 1929-1934 (heritage.nf.ca))

“People in the post-war period feared a return to the uncertainty and the hardship of the Great Depression and what Canada offered was a kind of economic safety net,” explains Jeff Webb, head of the History Department of Memorial University in St. John’s.

Joey Smallwood is now seen as “The Father of Confederation,” as campaign manager for the Confederate Association. The bow tied, bespectacled newspaper man would eventually become the tenth province’s first premier.

Two other political factions had campaigned for other options – one, for establishment of responsible government and the other, for Newfoundland to operate under Commission of Government once again.

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Two referendums were scheduled for the summer of 1948.

The first, held in June, offered three choices: responsible government, union with Canada under Confederation, or operation under British authority as a Commission of Government.

Confederation received 41 per cent of the vote, while responsible government won 44.6 per cent. ( The 1948 Referendums (heritage.nf.ca)

The third option received 14 per cent of the vote.

With the results so split, a second vote was held the next month with the Commission option dropped from the ballot.

In the end, Confederation squeaked by with 52.3 per cent.

The Terms of Union with Canada were signed that December to take effect the following March 31, 1949.

“We got Canadian citizenship,” says Peters, “and they just gave one big certificate for the entire province.”

But the result of the vote was contentious and conspiracy theories were passed down through generations.

“I remember being told by one of my parents, that everybody in the graveyard voted to join Canada,” she recalls, “There was always a debate of whether or not it was actually something that happened or was it something that was forced upon us.”

“The relationships between Newfoundland and Ottawa and Newfoundland and other provinces, always colors people’s sense of ‘there was an alternative possibility,’” adds Webb.

Well-known Newfoundland actor, comedian, writer and former politician Greg Malone decided to explore and challenge the Confederation narrative in his 2012 book, “Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders.”

“There’s a lot of players in this game,” he says, “Newfoundland was very strategic during the war…. because of its position in the North Atlantic.”

He says his research, which included examining documents at Library and Archives Canada, proved as intriguing as any spy novel.

“All of the correspondence between Canada and Britain trying to make this happen, and trying to get the result they wanted, were all marked ‘top secret,’ says Malone.

“There was a huge controversy about having a referendum for an issue of sovereignty, and how much the majority should be for transfer of sovereignty,” he adds.

According to his book, in the end, potential American interest in the island pushed the two parties to carry out the vote.

Malone says money was also at play.

“Britain was in temporary control…. And they needed to trade Newfoundland against their war debt to Canada, which was $5.2 billion,” he explains.

“It was the British who had to make the whole thing appear democratic, so the governor here was sent here to do that deal, and make that happen, and he was the only one to have access to that final vote,” he adds.

For Malone, the result set the stage for decades of tense relations with Ottawa over everything from fisheries to offshore oil.

He says the union would have been better off if Newfoundland had been able to negotiate the Terms of Union on its own terms.

“It’s not the problem that we joined Canada, I think that’s fine, it’s the way it was done,” he says, adding he feels an apology from Canada for that would go a long way.

Webb says the final verdict on whether Newfoundland was better off post-Confederation than it would have been otherwise remains up to interpretation.

“In some respects, Newfoundlanders are free to move to other Canadian provinces for education, for work, Canadians are free to move here, so there’s a lot more mobility and a lot more security,” he says.

“Some of the promises of prosperity [however] didn’t pan out,” he adds.

“Every generation brings their own experiences to this,” he says, ““People wonder, ‘well, how would our lives be different if we had made that other choice,’” he says.

The answer, Webb adds, is truly “unknowable,” even as the debate is likely to linger for years to come.


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