Island at the Crossroads

Newfoundlanders have sampled a new standard of living, because of the war. Will they order the complete meal at war's end?

MAXWELL COHEN March 1 1943

Island at the Crossroads

Newfoundlanders have sampled a new standard of living, because of the war. Will they order the complete meal at war's end?

MAXWELL COHEN March 1 1943

Island at the Crossroads


Newfoundlanders have sampled a new standard of living, because of the war. Will they order the complete meal at war's end?

ONE OF the most fascinating chapters—and one of the most important—which will some day be written into the Battle of the Atlantic will be the one dealing with the “invasion” of Newfoundland by the men, money and living standards of Canada and the United States. This invasion, of course, has been because of the island’s location as a natural bastion for the northeastern part of this continent. Thus, in three years the accident of geographical position has wrought a greater change in Newfoundland than the influences of peacetime trade and commerce had in half a century.

There are two Newfoundlands. There is the unchanging Newfoundland of yesterday and today, the challenging wilderness of what may be termed a subcontinent. Six thousand miles of steep-cliffed, deeply indented coastline are beaten by the sea, while behind and above are endless acres of forest, marsh, bog, rivers and rock. Three hundred thousand people, almost half of whom earn their living from fish, have their homes and their roots mostly in a thousand coves and inlets full round the Island. Only two or three communities hold a population large enough to be called a town and the organized life of the island, for something of a century or more, has centred in and about the city of St. John’s. In many ways Newfoundland sanitation, schools, communication, roads, seem to be almost a generation behind what we have cometo

expect as a matter of course in most North American communities.

In the News

SUDDENLY, AS the battle of the Atlantic began to hurt, and to take its toll in tankers and merchantmen, the world heard about Newfoundland. The Island was on the highroad to Britain, where ships and planes going to feed and to fight had to pass in its waters and through its skies. The Navies of Britain, the United States and Canada needed Newfoundland for bases. The R.C.A.F. and the United States Army Air Corps

had to have it for their northern patrols and to defend the shores of eastern North America from any Atlantic enemy. The Ferry Command had to use it to break the long jump to Britain for small bombers and even for the big ones.

Today Newfoundland is a great fortress, full of soldiers. The people of Newfoundland see little cities spring up out of the wilderness and turn into great stations from which the Atlantic is patrolled. They find in their ports evidence of a deadly “show.”

Americans and Canadians in Newfoundland get along very well together. They talk the same kind of North American language and feel that they are first cousins and neighbors away from home and doing a tour of duty together. But often it is not all quite so chummy with the British sailors who come to port. The American gobs have always felt a tough and traditional rival in the “limey” and a passing remark or a dirty look is enough to start a lovely brawl between them in almost any port where they meet. But underneath it all they know they are comrades-in-arms.

You get the feeling in Newfoundland that th’s is a fortress where air power is doing a big job and where it really will have the final say if Newfoundland ever were to be attacked.

Crews of the United Nations are usually happy to reach St. John’s. There they feel a warmth and hospitality which does not come quite as readily in most ports on the Atlantic seaboard. The Newfoundlanders in St. John’s are mostly of Irish descent and the soft accents of Cork and Dublin have filtered through into the common dialect of the people. It is an Irish friendliness that appeals to seamen dreary with days of sea routine.

Not much more than three years ago the typical Newfoundlander, in St. John’s or in the fishing villages, had troubles enough at home without worrying too much about the world outside. An average fisherman’s family might see no more than $300 in cash the year round and for those who didn’t fish there were unskilled jobs at fifteen or twenty

cents an hour, when you could find them. For the rest there was the dole at the rate of a few cents a day—small enough to discourage anyone from resting on the State’s bounty who could fish or cut down trees for pulp) or dig in the zinc and copper mines.

The war changed all that. It brought to Newfoundland strategic importance as well as Canadian airmen, American soldiers, British tars. It brought engineers, workmen, ships, planes, road-building machines, construction tools. It brought higher salaries, more wages, new living standards. It virtually wiped out unemployment, took thousands away from fishing and put them into construction and other wartime activities. In less than three years it changed Newfoundland from a great fishing ground with cod, minerals and pulp to export, to a key base for the Allies in the northwestern Atlantic.

Controlled By R.C.A.F.

HPODAY the greatest airport of its kind in North -iAmerica—perhaps in the world—is situated in Newfoundland. It is controlled by the Royal Canadian Air Force. Airport “N,” as the censors would have us call it, was just another barren tract in the Newfoundland wilderness until the British saw development possibilities there a few years ago. The British Government started building a landing field for Imperial Airways ships. An all-Empire air service was reaching fulfillment in those days one of the many projects interrupted by war—and the Newfoundland field was chosen as a station where land planes flying from Croydon to Montreal could be handled. Great runways had been laid by the start of the war, and the R.C.A.F. took over from there.

I saw many startling developments in Newfoundland, but “N” was the most amazing. You come upon it rather suddenly. Just when you have become reconciled to endless stretches of forest and rock, “N” bursts into view—enough buildings to

house a good-sized community, which is what the station really is—more buildings under construction, and great cleared spaces for still more buildings; and all these structures, all the cranes, roadbuilding machinery and the hundreds of bustling men are dwarfed by what seems miles of runways in front of them and the unbroken forest behind them.

There are several thousand men in “N.” The exact number must, of course, remain a secret. Here we meet the Americans, not as occupants of a formally leased base but rather as “guests” of the R.C.A.F. which retains control and command, but where the Americans share all the privileges and facilities with the Canadians.

However exciting “N” may be for the visitor, it has few attractions for the men who are stationed there. There are few girls to flirt or dance with and about the only entertainment is the odd movie which flickers away in a so-called theatre.

Since the arrival of girls of the R.C.A.F., Women’s Division, the boys have a little more feminine company. Until the Canadian girls reached the station there were only half a dozen Royal Air Force W.A.A.F.’s (who are enjoying the grand “rush” of their lives) and the wives of some of the Ferry Command aircrew.

The battle of the western Atlantic would be a much harder one to fight if the crews and the planes from “N,” from “S” and from “H”—and from the other stations in Newfoundland—were not doing their crucial job. Every day, with a routine that must become monotonous without the exhilaration and inspiration that come with contact with the enemy, pilots and crews cover the horizons and keep Nazi raiders from any too casual use of daytime seas or the countless inlets of Newfoundland and Labrador. The patrols by air and by sea that keep Newfoundland in the front line of the Atlantic battle are long and lonely beats up and down the highways that lead from North America to Britain.

The kindliness of Newfoundlanders, their hospitality, help to ease the loneliness and to make the few towns and villages livable.

But many Newfoundlanders are very suspicious of Canadians and Americans. They think we laugh at them, at St. John’s, their one important city with its dull unpainted homes, its high living costs, where a good average meal rates a dollar and a half, where an orange costs a dime, and six blocks in a taxi, seventy-five cents. They think we are amused at their Irish accent, their foggy climate, and their trouble in being able to work out self-government which they haven’t had since 1934. They are self-conscious and sensitive about many things—about the Newfoundland Railway that shakes along at about twenty miles an hour on single narrow gauge track with equipment that swings the passenger to sleep—but the road really is not a bit worse than some of the lines that run in northern Manitoba or even from Truro to Sydney, Nova Scotia. And most of all Newfoundlanders often suggest that Canada or the United States would like to take them over without guaranteeing them an even break with the rest of North America, politically or economically.

Meanwhile, Newfoundlanders eat better, have more cash in their pockets, are paid higher wages and deposit larger savings than ever before. Many thousands of their young men are in the British and Canadian forces and Merchant Marine. Newfoundlanders know they’re in the middle of a big fight with a crucial role in that fight, and they seem to enjoy the new strength the Island has drawn from its Canadian and American neighbors and the new prosperity that strength has brought.

A few years of such experience and Newfoundland workmen and fishermen, clerks and shopkeepers will not return willingly to the mode of life they struggled with up to 1940, when living standards were perhaps only one third to one half of those in English-speaking North America. Most Newfoundlanders nowrecognizethat their economic well-being, as well as strategic needs, require that the colony should become an integral part of English-speaking North America. In short, they are now beginning to admit that their best prospects lie in a union with Canada or the United States.

To those Newfoundlanders who think about these questions the problem is a realistic one of terms, not sentiment. For three generations Newfoundlanders have been politically suspicious of Canada, although individual Newfoundlanders and Canadians never have any difficulty in maintaining the friendliest relations and the closest of business ties. But for a long time “anti-federation,” with Canada, has been a good political platform in Newfoundland and even today it would get many votes. NewContinued on page 33

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Continued on page 33

Continued from page 20

foundlanders listen to the historic complaints of Nova Scotia and conclude that they would have no reason to expect better treatment.

For the United States Newfoundlanders have the giddy admiration of an economic orphan for a great and wealthy friend. The inpouring of United States dollars, the close observation of American living standards, have encouraged Newfoundland to think that perhaps their ultimate economic salvation is with Uncle Sam. But many Newfoundlanders are not sure that they would be accepted as the forty-ninth state, and they do not relish terms that would make them into another Puerto Rico.

The course of the war, and then the postwar settlement, will of necessity determine what is to happen to Newfoundland. But the seeds of social change planted with the American and Canadian “invasion” already have taken roots—deeply. It is to North American living standards—labor organization, transportation, school systems, welfare services—indeed to all of the offshoots of Canadian and American community growth that the Islanders now look for example and inspiration.

They may not forget that example even at the risk of new and basic realignments in their political relationships.