SPECIAL REPORT

ANNIVERSARY ON THE ROCK

NEWFOUNDLANDERS STILL HAVE MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT THEIR DECISION TO JOIN CANADA 40 YEARS AGO

GLEN ALLEN April 3 1989
SPECIAL REPORT

ANNIVERSARY ON THE ROCK

NEWFOUNDLANDERS STILL HAVE MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT THEIR DECISION TO JOIN CANADA 40 YEARS AGO

GLEN ALLEN April 3 1989

It was the start of the federal fiscal year, and the government of Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent had chosen April 1, 1949, as the official date for Newfoundland’s entry into Confederation. But an angry Joseph Smallwood, the Newfoundland firebrand who had shepherded his people into the Canadian family the year before after years of campaigning and two hotly contested referendums, demanded a change. As he was later to say, “I wasn’t going to celebrate Confederation on April Fools’ Day.” Ottawa capitulated—and the act creating the province of Newfoundland, Canada’s 10th, came into force at one minute to midnight the night before. Now, 40 years later, the fires still burn within Joey Smallwood, although at 88, the rhetoric has been silenced by a stroke suffered in 1984. Friends and family members interpret his silent, often impassioned reaction to the questions of the infrequent visitors to his home 75 km southwest of St. John’s, where the diminutive, bespectacled Smallwood sits surrounded by the books, photographs and personal papers that are a testament to the frequently rancorous Confederation fight and his 23 years as premier.

Smallwood was a fiercely partisan politician, but while his eloquence swung Newfoundland into Confederation, it could not save his party: he was the province’s first and last Liberal premier. He was followed by Progressive Conservative premiers Frank Moores in 1972 and Brian Peckford seven years later. Last week, former fisheries minister Thomas Rideout, 40, was sworn in as Peckford’s successor and premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, which, while still heavily dependent for its prosperity on the sea, bears scant resemblance to the little-known and chronically bankrupt British colony it had been for generations. But as the retiring Peckford yielded the reins of power to Rideout, the balance sheet of Newfoundland’s gains in the past decade was not inspiring.

Peckford’s single greatest achievement was last July’s signing of the federal-provincial tax-sharing agreement by which Newfoundland will benefit from offshore resources, including the giant $8.5-billion Hibernia oil project. Hibernia and related petroleum and gas ventures are seen by many Newfoundlanders as a talisman of future prosperity. Says Francis Patey, a 53-year-old former fisherman and schoolteacher who is now an airport security guard in the northern town of St. Anthony: “We were better off after Confederation, but we never caught up with the other provinces. With the onset of Hibernia, I am more hopeful than I have been in years.” However, as the March 31 deadline for signing the final agreement approached this week, there were indications that it might be delayed for at least a year. Some sources said that the banks were having doubts and Ottawa was reassessing its priorities.

There are many other problems besetting the province as well. Newfoundland remains locked into a 20-year-old contract that obliges it to sell Quebec electricity generated by the Labrador Churchill Falls power plant at a fraction of its true market value. And the fishery is troubled. Earlier this year, federal fisheries scientists reduced their estimates of the stock of northern cod off eastern Newfoundland and Labrador. The quota, or total allowable catch, for large Canadian companies pursuing the species that had first lured Basque and Breton fishermen to the fish-rich banks off Newfoundland 500 years ago was reduced by 20 per cent.

Dependent: And Newfoundland, although rich in its history, culture and family feeling, has the highest sales tax—12 per cent—the highest rate of unemployment—17 per cent in January—and the lowest per capita income in Canada. It remains heavily dependent on transfer payments and other money flowing from Ottawa. Memorial University political scientist Stephen Tomblin says, “Fifty cents of every dollar spent here is Ottawa’s money.” As well, one of Newfoundland’s greatest exports remains its people. The hemorrhage of young Newfoundlanders to Boston, Brooklyn and other points abroad that marked the pre-Confederation years continues. Last year alone, one of the best economically in the past decade, more than 4,000 more people left Newfoundland than moved to—or returned to—the province.

In southern Ontario alone, there are close to 500,000 Newfoundland émigrés, with their own monthly newspaper, The Downhomer, stores and businesses. Some of them are like Oakville entrepreneur Howard Hamilton, with seven consumer service companies in Newfoundland and the Toronto area. Says Hamilton,“The only thing that drove me out was the weather.” For most, however, it was an enduring lack of opportunity. Ann Bell, president of the provincial Advisory Council on the Status of Women, has five sons, four of whom she says “had to leave the province to get employment. That’s a reality of Newfoundland life.”

As a result, some Newfoundlanders still entertain strong misgivings about joining Canada. In a March 11 letter in the St. John’s Evening Telegram, Ronald J. Brown of Portugal Cove Road in St. John’s wrote that the 40th anniversary might be “time to call off the marriage.” Said Brown: “We have lost our pride in ourselves and our country, given our fish to Ottawa and any pirate who will fight for it, accepted welfare as a national policy, seen our unemployment rate soar at double the national average.” However, a new generation of Newfoundlanders is reaching adulthood in a province that, although still Canada’s poorest, has always had a firm sense of identity and cultural vigor and now shows signs of economic strength and political maturity (page 19).

Feeling: For the most part, these young people feel comfortable within the Canadian family. Says 22-year-old Victoria Stavely, just chosen a Rhodes Scholar, and a former member of the production crew of the hugely successful Newfoundland-based commercial satirical television series Codeo : “I am a Newfoundlander first and then a Canadian. But I think I have more the feeling of being Canadian than the generation before.” Bound for Oxford University in the fall, she says: “If I hadn’t been going to England I might just as well have gone to Toronto. But you can’t live in this place and not get a sense of it. I will miss it. Newfoundlanders are different: they have a great sense of humor and they won’t put up with anything from anybody.” Said Ed Smith, assistant superintendent of the Green Bay school district in the north coast community of Springdale: “The kids see themselves as Canadians and Newfoundlanders both. Confederation brought a lot of social good, especially financially.”

Forty years ago, Confederation also brought a chorus of congratulations and good wishes from mainland Canada and abroad. In an April 1 editorial, Toronto’s Globe and Mail said: “As morning broke in Newfoundland, its people woke to find themselves Canadian. They will put Canadian stamps on the letters they post. Their children will be walking to schools on roads that are part of Canada. Their fathers, Canadian fishermen, will be catching Canadian fish from Canadian boats. Having lost nothing they have surely gained a great deal.” In London, the news columns of The Times said, “The union will bring to fruition the vision of the Fathers of Confederation of a nation extending from sea to sea which incorporates into a single entity all British North America north of the United States.”

Daffodils: Others celebrated the occasion in different ways. Percy George, the mayor of Victoria, B.C., dispatched a load of Vancouver Island daffodils on a Trans-Canada Airlines (now Air Canada) propeller-driven North Star airliner to Newfoundland’s new lieutenant-governor, lawyer Albert Walsh. From Parliament Hill in Ottawa, where, at noon on April 1, Prime Minister St. Laurent carved the first stroke of the Newfoundland coat of arms into the base of the Peace Tower, came a 19-gun salute and a peal of the tower’s carillon.

In some parts of the newly minted province, however, jubilation was more restrained. The St. John’s Daily News reported that “quite a number of prominent citizens” failed to attend a gathering at Government House in St. John’s, the venerable and hilly capital city whose citizens had voted nearly 3 to 1 against Confederation. Though many Newfoundlanders had long lived on the cutting edge of poverty, and union with Canada promised ready economic remedies, Confederation was widely lamented elsewhere, too, dividing communities and even families. Says Ann Bell: “My mother was for, and my father was against. My father stopped smoking. He said he’d never be able to afford it again.”

Mourning: Ed Smith was only nine, “but I remember the day. My father, a United Church minister, was pro-Confederation, but for many it was a day of mourning. There were flags at half-mast, and some people wore black armbands.” Memorial University professor of philosophy F. Lin Jackson says that the feeling toward Canada “was very flat, to put it mildly. I just lost an aunt who right to the end was sitting in her flat still moping about 1949.”

Meanwhile, Smallwood, because of his stroke, is unable to defend the legacy of his achievement. But he still receives old friends like Gregory Power who, as minister of finance, was second in influence only to Smallwood himself in the premier’s heady first decade in office. “Confederation has had its faults,” said Power last week, “but it brought great boons with it. You have to remember how things were. For instance, we built 6,400 km of roads in those first 10 years.” Roads were only one of an array of material benefits that were to include an enhanced educational system, pensions, family allowances, transfer payments, unemployment insurance and medical care. Says Power: “Yes, there is still some bitterness, but I suppose when people lose a bitter campaign they remember it longer.”

Turbulent: Indeed, memories are long on the rock-ribbed, resource-rich island with an 8,000-km coastline of coves, fjords, inlets and bays, which sits like a huge stony hand off the mouth of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The 1949 marriage with Canada is only a footnote to a rich but turbulent recorded history that reaches back to the Vikings. A preserve of European fishermen well before it was claimed as a British possession by Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1583, the first formal settlement was at Cupids on Conception Bay in 1610 with, according to an account of the time, “30 honest persons well accommodated with all the necessaryes . . . Duks, henns, Conneyes [rabbits], Goats, swyne and kyne.” The leader of the expedition, and governor of Britain’s first formal colony in the New World, was Sir John Guy, who on an earlier trip had been impressed with Cupids’ harbor, timber, fresh water and apparently fertile soil. The experiment soon failed: scurvy-stricken settlers, disheartened by the cold, complained bitterly that the thin soil cover yielded only root vegetables and that, when supplies fell short, they were forced to dilute their beer with water.

But Cupids survived and is the home now of families like that of Harold Akerman, the 40-year-old manager of a grocery distribution business founded by his father, William. Akerman’s own children are the seventh generation of the family in the rough but postcard-pretty Conception Bay community. Interviewed in the office of a warehouse brimming with boxes of gelatin dessert powder and ketchup, Akerman talked of the possibility of equipping his office with a computer system and then recalled a great-great-grandfather who died after being flogged by the mariners of a visiting British ship. Says Memorial’s Jackson: “What people on the mainland may not realize is that history here has been burned into people’s souls.”

In fact, says Anne Hart, director of Memorial University’s Centre for Newfoundland Studies, the island “was settled in defiance of the British colonial office, which wanted it for a summer fishery and a nursery for seamen.” The prevailing view among Newfoundlanders, says Hart, has been “that nobody should really have lived here at all. It’s a feeling that we are here in spite of ourselves.” But its people, predominantly descendants of Irish and West Country English settlers (and still with few immigrants from elsewhere), clung to the outports and made a living from the sea. And having survived, says Hart, Newfoundlanders found a sense of cohesiveness and singularity in their land and culture that has engendered a blossoming of the arts and folklore studies. Says Hart: “There is no identity crisis here.”

But in politics, crisis has long been a way of life. In 1855, Britain granted the colony internal self-government and, with the 1931 Statute of Westminster, dominion status along with neighboring Canada. Independence was to last only three years. In 1934, brought to its knees by the Depression—amid conditions of near-starvation and with half the workforce unemployed—Newfoundlanders asked Britain for help. The response: one of Britain’s first colonies once again found itself a colony. For the next 15 years it was to be ruled by a British governmental commission. But the construction of U.S. air and naval bases during the Second World War brought a measure of prosperity, and in 1943, Prime Minister Mackenzie King openly invited Newfoundland to reconsider joining the Confederation it had rejected once before in the 1860s.

Brilliant: It was an alternative that sparked the interest and support of journalist and pig farmer Joseph Smallwood, then so ignorant of Canada, reports biographer Richard Gwyn in Smallwood: The Unlikely Revolutionary, that he did not know the capitals of the provinces west of Quebec. A brilliant speaker, Smallwood toured the island in a campaign so bitter that at one point he carried a gun and had two bodyguards. His message was that “under Confederation we would be better off in pocket, in stomach and in health.” The first of two referendums took place on June 3, 1948, and Newfoundlanders were offered three choices: responsible government, Confederation with Canada—opposed by the Roman Catholic Church, much of the business community and Newfoundland nationalists—or the existing commission government. When the votes were counted, Confederation came second with 64,006 votes. Independence drew 69,400 votes, and 22,311 opted for commission government by Britain. Without a clear majority, a second vote was called for July 22, one with only two options available: Confederation or responsible government. The final vote was 78,323 to 71,334 for union with Canada, a slim margin of less than 7,000 votes.

Now, the reflections upon those tumultuous days are as bluntly individualistic as the fishermen who have for centuries challenged—and often perished in—the raging North Atlantic. Newton Morgan, a retired teacher living in the Avalon Peninsula community of Kelligrews, says: “Confederation was shoved down our throats. I didn’t vote. I stayed clear of it.” But Cupids resident Arch Wells, 83, says that the issue did not make anyone less a Newfoundlander. He added: “What you did then was total up a lot of things, pros and cons. The advantages seemed better than disadvantages. I was born here and I want to be buried here. Home is home.” From Green Island Cove on the island’s wild north coast to Heart’s Delight in the southeast, that is the timeless conviction that, in the end, unites Newfoundlanders.