Will Newfoundland Join Canada?
Voteless 12 years, Newfoundland now has a chance to chart her own course—back to independence or into union with Canada
THIS MONTH Newfoundlanders go to the polls for the first time in 14 years—the first step in a chain of political events which will give them a chance to replace their Britishappointed Commission of Government with either a return to self-government or union with Canada.
What course will they choose? As a native Newfoundlander currently commuting every six months between Montreal and St. John’s, the Newfoundland capital, I probably should know. But I get the question fired at me a dozen times a week, and all I can answer is: “I don’t know.” Nevertheless, I do know that during the past year or more the balance of Newfoundland opinion on the possibilities of confederation has radically changed.
The initiative now rests, as it always has, with the people of Newfoundland. Under the British North America Act, provision is made for the entry of Newfoundland into the Canadian federation “upon address to the Legislature by the Government of Newfoundland.” Mackenzie King was merely saying this another way when he declared in the House on July 12, 1943:
“If the people of Newfoundland should ever decide that they wish to enter the Canadian federation, and should make that decision clear beyond all possibility of misunderstanding, Canada would give most sympathetic consideration to the proposal.”
Nothing as simple as a may-we-come-in note to Ottawa is expected to come out of the June election. It may be a year or more before any gestures can be made to Canada—if that is the course chosen-—due to the involved plan the British Government has mapped out for Newfoundland’s return to democracy.
First, there’s the voting in June. It’s an islandwide ballot patterned after the general elections of the self-government era which ended in 1934, when Newfoundland went into receivership. The election will bring into being a 45-man National Convention empowered only to discuss the future of Newfoundland and make suggestions. This convention will meet in St. John’s, possibly in August, “to review the alternative courses open to the Island, and to make recommendations to His Majesty’s Government as to the basis for a national referendum.”
Whatever the Convention decides to be best for Newfoundland—a decision to be helped along by economic advisers sent out from England—must
first pass through British Parliament before it is put to the people of Newfoundland. The islanders then and it may take a year to reach this stage— will vote on the recommendations of the Convention, or what is left of them, to decide whether it will continue as a Commission-ruled colony, become a self-governing member of the British Commonwealth, as it was from 1855 to 1934, or become Canada’s 10th province.
Three years ago a British good will mission, headed by Lord Ammon, spent some months in Newfoundland, sounding out the people’s political aspirations. The only conclusion this mission was able to reach, after talking with hundreds of fishermen, miners, merchants, and housewives across the Island, was that the Newfoundlanders did not know what they wanted.
Today, on the eve of the most important election in the country’s history, the situation is almost as confused. There is little organized political activity to rally the people behind a definite program— nothing except an occasional formal debate and letters in the newspapers.
It takes only a short memory to recall that when Newfoundlanders really want something they make themselves heard. In the thirties, when some 70,000 of a total population of 300,000 were on the relief rolls, some Newfoundlanders went on the warpath, rioted and
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blocked trains. A few years before that a British warship was diverted to Newfoundland because a huge mob had demolished the Government buildings and were threatening to tear St. John’s apart. In the past, when times got bad, Newfoundlanders demanded, and usually got, changes of government.
Today everything is quiet and peaceful. The fisherman is getting $15 a hundredweight for his fish, and can keep his family clothed and fed in comfort. Most communities have cottage hospitals within safe distance. Movies are being brought to the villages by travelling projectionists. The fisherman has a little spare cash of his own, and he can’t help thinking about that tidy surplus of $28,669,000 the Government has tucked away. He may dislike the idea of not having a say in the affairs of his country, but he’s not inclined to run the risk of losing his present security for the sake of marking an X every four years.
JOHN B. McEVOY, LL.B., a prominent St. John’s lawyer, reflected this viewpoint in a much-discussed speech before the Newfoundland Rotary Club recently. Said he: “We must be realistic rather than idealistic. Prior to 1934 we tasted political freedom without economic security, and since 1934 we have had economic security without political freedom. I respectfully submit, therefore, that the deliberations and efforts of the proposed Convention should be designed to ensure that history shall not repeat itself in either way; that its recommendations . . . will ensure that we secure political freedom, yes, but within the limits of economic security.”
This was taken by many people to be a veiled suggestion that the only way Newfoundland can have political freedom within the limits of economic security is by joining up with Canada. Whether Mr. McEvoy intended that meaning to be read into his words or not, there has been in recent months a marked swing toward this viewpoint in Newfoundland. Opinion is divided, but the antis are far less prejudiced than they used to be. Fifty years ago, when federation first was discussed, Newfoundland’s coves and villages echoed to the words of the anticonfederationists’ hymn of hate:
“Ye brave Newfoundlanders that plow the salt sea,
With hearts like the eagle so bold and so free. The time is at hand when ye’ll have to say If Confederation will carry the day.
“Men, hurrah for our own native isle, Newfoundland,
Not a stranger shall hold one inch of her strand; Her face turns to Britain, her back to the Gulf. Come near at your peril, Canadian wolf!”
If this song still gets an occasional airing on the squid-jigging ground and on the village green, it’s only because the words and the tune are familiar, and Newfoundlanders like to sing anyway. Gone are the prejudices fanned into this flaming folklore by the old-time political opponents of union—fears that union with Canada would mean taxation of boats and houses and pigs and fowl, control of the fisheries by Canadian interests, and complete domination by “foreigners.”
Many factors have contributed to this change of feeling toward Canada. Commercial and cultural ties between the two countries have grown steadily stronger through the years. Almost all the life insurance written in Newfoundland is handled by Canadian companies. All the banks in Newfoundland, except the Newfoundland Savings Bank, are branches of Canadian banking houses.
Newfoundlanders in Sops Arm and Bay L’Argent and Hearts Delight and all the other 1,300 or so settlements scattered around the 6,000-mile coastline, able now to get the facts for themselves by radio, were impressed by the stature Canada achieved through her war effort. Control of prices, child welfare allowances, the veteran re-establishment program—these things Continued on page 68
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Will Newfoundland Join Canada?
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had considerable effect on the “outport” Newfoundlander who, faced with a constant struggle for existence, can well appreciate the difference even a few cents can make in the family budget.
In the past any Newfoundlander who publicly advocated a political tie-up with Canada was considered a crank and something of a traitor. When the matter of union was put to a vote in Newfoundland in 18(39, five years after two Newfoundland delegates discussed the question with the Canadian Fathers of Confederation, it was overwhelmingly defeated. Since that time few Newfoundlanders with political ambitions have risked their careers by advocating it.
That’s a thing of the past too. Consider the case of versatile, dapper Joe Smallwood, prominent St. John’s author, lecturer and historian, who once walked the 547 miles from St. John’s to Port aux Basques via the railway track, and recently switched from runnings daily radio program to raising pigs near Gander airport. Figuring that the best course for Newfoundland is to join up with Canada, Joe proceeded to tell the people why in a series of 11 letters published in the Daily News of St. John’s.
His letters covered every question a Newfoundlander might ask, like these:
“Newfoundlanders wouldn’t have any voice in the Canadian Government? Yes, they W'ould have a loud voice. They would have a number
of prominent Newfoundlanders appointed to the Senate for life. They would elect a number of able Newfoundlanders to the House of Commons at Ottawa. A Newfoundlander would always be in the Canadian Cabinet—perhaps more than one. A Newfoundlander would be Minister of Fisheries.
“The Government of Canada would tax us to death? Nonsense. The Canadian people pay a smaller share of their money to their Government than we pay to our Government. A married man with two children would have to make $112 a month cash before he would have to pay any income tax at all, and then he would pay only $1.26 per month.”
Pros and Cons
A popular impression in Canada is that the business community of Newfoundland, particularly the Water Street merchants of St. John’s, are solidly against union with Canada. But that is largely a hang-over from the past. Walking down that so-called stronghold of independence some weeks ago, I was accosted by a commission agent and challenged to use my influence to “bring us into the confederation, where we belong.”
A few weeks ago the Methodist College Literary Institute, St. John’s, whose membership is composed largely of business and professional men, held a mock National Convention through four weekly sessions. After heated and prolonged debate the discussions boiled down to confederation versus self-government. Final vote was confederation 80, self-government 79.
Which brings us to Major Peter Cashin, a former Cabinet Minister
of the old regime. Major Cashin has been agitating for the restoration of self-rule in Newfoundland for quite some time, by radio and pamphlet and more recently through a petition addressed to the King. The former Finance Minister would do away with the convention machinery and take the shortest cut to Responsible Government, because “the Convention is simply a political booby trap, a craftily laid plot to distract and divide the voices of the plain people of this country.”
Major Cashin is reported to have quite a following in the outports. But he has not got anywhere with the press. His outpourings have been almost completely ignored by the editors; this despite the unanimity of support given to the move toward democratic government by those same editors. The inference is that the press wants self-government or something akin to it, but it doesn’t want former politicians to regain control.
In this the press seems to be reflecting the views of a large body of people in the Island. Under selfgovernment in the 50 years preceding the Commission era, the country frequently found itself in financial difficulties. The memory of bankruptcy in 1933, which resulted in the suspension of Dominion status and the appointment of the seven-man Commission to run the country, is still fresh.
Money in the Till
If Newfoundland delegates go to Ottawa in 1946, it will not be for the compromising purpose of seeking a loan to avert a national crisis, as was the case in 1895, when the Island tried unsuccessfully to make a deal with Ottawa.
Today Newfoundland’s finances are in a healthy state. The national debt is something like $85 millions, but that is only a drop in the bucket compared with Canada’s own debt. On a per capita basis each Newfoundlander owes $283; each Canadian about $1,400.
Canadians who know Newfoundland casually are apt to think of it in terms of codfish and icebergs, and the narrow-gauge railway that meanders across marsh and mountain as the only link between east and west coasts. Those who know the country ntimately carry away memories of a warmly hospitable people, ruggedly picturesque scenery, salmon rivers that are the answer to a sportsman’s dream, and potential resources that challenge the imagination.
Not all Newfoundlanders fish for a living. Thirty thousand do, on the Grand Banks, up the Labrador coast, and on nearby grounds off the Newfoundland shore. About 10,000 others find employment in the pulp and paper industry centred around the two great paper mills at Grand Falls and Corner Brook. Mining, principally at Bell Island, reputedly site of the largest iron ore deposits in the British Empire, and at Buchans, inland on Red Indian Lake, occupies a couple of thousand others. Farms are few and far between, although almost every homestead boasts a kitchen garden.
When you come into the Island
from the air you see vast stretches of uninhabited woodland and muskeg interlaced with innumerable lakes and streams. Here and there you spot a few houses clinging to t he seashore, and maybe you remember from your schoolbooks how pioneering fishermen from England and Ireland settled on the shores of the newfound land in days gone by, perching their homes as closely as possible to waters that “teemed with codfish”— as reported John Cabot, the discoverer, in 1497.
When you land you see that Newfoundland is still largely a fishing station. Industrially, the centre of gravity is on the indented coastline and its myriad coves and villages. But there are tremendous possibilities in the untapped hinterland— and in the changes that would come with the building of a highway to open up the rich farming areas of the west coast and to bring within easy range of airports the famous salmon pools on the Humber, Serpentine and Gander Rivers.
Does Canada want Newfoundland? There is no definite answer to that question either.
But, officially, Canada is committed to Mackenzie King’s opendoor policy, and there is much evidence that Canada’s interest in Newfoundland goes beyond the good neighbor stage. First garrison stop overseas for the Black Watch was at Botwood, Newfoundland, in 1940. The Royal Canadian Navy came of age shepherding convoys and chasing U-boats in Newfoundland waters. For the RCAF the Atlantic Island was a giant base from which the approaches to Canada could be guarded and the North Atlantic sea lanes patrolled.
Goose Bay airport in Newfoundland-owned Labrador, leased by Canada “for military purposes” for 99 years, dominates the northern air routes and protects the Dominion’s back door. In any future war, as in the last, Newfoundland would be Canada’s first eastern line of defense. Tbis is clearly shown by the agreement which returns Gander airport to Newfoundland control— except in emergency, when Canada may once more operate it. Canada retains commercial control of St. John’s Torbay airport, may also use it for military purposes.
Canada lost no opportunity to build good will in Newfoundland. When the town of Harbour Grace was practically wiped out by fire whole convoys of Canadian military vehicles loaded with supplies and building materials were dispatched from St. John’s. Bonavista Bay settlements, menaced by a raging forest fire, found protection and assistance from Canadian warships ordered to the scene. The huge new RCN hospital, just outside the capital, was presented as a gift to Newfoundland after the Navy pulled out. Newfoundland was impressed.
Early in the war Canada opened a High Commissioner’s office in St. John’s by Charles J. Burchell, who has since returned to his law practice in Halifax. Dr. Hugh L. Keenleyside followed him for a short period, then
was replaced by J. S. MacDonald, the present High Commissioner. It is generally known that Ottawa’s policy toward Newfoundland is largely determined by the reactions recorded at this advance listening post. Also, the Department of Trade and Commerce extended its Trade Commissioner service to Newfoundland, posting Dick Bower to St. John’s.
At first these appointments were regarded with some suspicion in certain Newfoundland circles; it was thought that Canada was getting set for something big in Newfoundland, that the offices on Circular Hoad in St. John’s were the thin end of the wedge. But Burchell and Bower soon dispelled the fears that they were the agents of sinister Ottawa plotters. Today J. C. “Bobs” Britton, the present Trade Commissioner, enjoys the full confidence of the business community, and has shown St. John’s merchants many times that the advantages of his office are mutual.
Jack Canuck Favors Union
How does the average Canadian feel about the question?
Except in the Maritimes, where mention of Canadian Confederation still is apt to turn conversation rather sour, I have yet to meet a Canadian who is dead set against the idea. Most people are definitely in favor of it. And even the Maritimer who said to me: “If Newfoundland knows where she is well off, she will stay out of Confederation,” agreed that it would be a logical move for Canada. His concern was for Newfoundland. Would the Island not get the same shabby deal some Maritimere feel they got?
Frequently mentioned as prejudicial to union, from a Canadian viewpoint, is the string of military bases in Newfoundland held by the United States on 99-year leases, at St. John’s, Argentia and Stephen-
ville. It is well known that all the U. S. wartime establishments and facilities in Canada, including Labrador’s Goose Bay airport, were taken over by the Dominion after the war. But the Yanks have already put their Newfoundland bases on peacetime garrison strength, and no one would expect them to abandon such choice defense posts easily—especially since the bases were given to the United States by Britain as outright gifts.
Another obstacle to union, from Canada’s point of view, would be the additional costs of running Newfoundland as a Canadian province. It is estimated that something like $15 millions per year would be required to provide Newfoundland with family allowances and old-age pensions. Since it costs Newfoundland about $25 millions annually to maintain its present limited public services, out of a peak total income of $30 millions, obviously the money to make up the difference would have to be found outside Newfoundland, at least at the beginning.
Against this, however, Canada would be getting Labrador with its vast resources of water power and minerals; free rights to ports close to the finest fishing grounds in the world; immediate control of great airports—as well as 300,000 or so citizens. Furthermore, with Newfoundland and Labrador as a tenth province, Canada’s position asa world power would be greatly strengthened.
For Newfoundland, union with Canada would bring security, higher standards of living at lower cost, the benefits of world-wide trade representation, unrestricted travel throughout the Dominion, and the many other advantages of being part of a respected nation—all at the price of a long-cherished independence.
It remains to be seen whether Newfoundland is prepared to pay that price.