Where the Yanks Rule A Part of Canada

Americans at their Newfoundland bases can flout our courts, even seize our citizens. And deplorably — it’s quite legal

BLAIR FRASER November 15 1949

Where the Yanks Rule A Part of Canada

Americans at their Newfoundland bases can flout our courts, even seize our citizens. And deplorably — it’s quite legal

BLAIR FRASER November 15 1949

Where the Yanks Rule A Part of Canada


Americans at their Newfoundland bases can flout our courts, even seize our citizens. And deplorably — it’s quite legal


Maclean’s Ottawa Editor

LAST December a Newfoundlander was shot and wounded, in Newfoundland, by an American military policeman. His lawyer tells him he has no effective recourse to any court of law.

Two St. John’s citizens sued and got judgment in Newfoundland courts after collisions with U. S. military vehicles on city streets. Neither has been able to collect. One claim was disallowed in Washington despite the court judgment. The other has dragged on for months without settlement.

Last year a Newfoundland customs officer, now in the Canadian service, was stopped at pistol point by an American officer from carrying out his duty on a public highway. He was searching cars for smuggled goods. The American put him under arrest and threatened to shoot a colleague who tried to release him.

Later the American officer was sued in a Newfoundland court and found liable for $100 damages. The victory was somewhat hollow—-neither judgment nor costs have been paid, and Canada can’t do anything about it.

These are invasions of sovereignty at the most vital of all levels, the protection of the citizen by the law. They flout the elementary civic right of justice in courts of our own making, in our own country. They strike at the very root of independence. After a century of struggle for nationhood, Canada finds her right, to be master in her own house again challenged.

Why haven’t we heard more about these incidents? Because in most cases the place where they occurred and the people involved hadn’t yet become Canadian. They couldn’t happen anywhere else in Canada, because we have laws and agreements that prevent them.

In Newfoundland they could happen again tomorrow—a minor case cropped up just a month or so ago. Confederation made no difference.

These ugly miscarriages grew out of an international agreement that Canada inherited with the new province an agreement giving the United States three military bases in Newfoundland, and extraterritorial rights like those the imperial powers used to enjoy in China.

To a disquieting degree the Newfoundland Government was deprived of authority in its own territory. American soldiers became, in considerable measure, independent of any laws or courts other than their own. In spite of Canadian protests at the highest level in Washington, the system remains as it was in 1941 when the U. S. moved in.

Some change is coming. I learned in Washington that Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Defense Secretary Louis Johnson had both been told personally of the Newfoundland problem, and that both are sympathetic. U. S. officials, soldier as well as civilian, assure any enquirer that the terms of the agreement will be modified. As early as midSeptember Ottawa was told to expect a reply “any day now” to a Canadian note of last March, still unanswered. At the moment of writing it hadn’t arrived, but it’s still expected—any day now.

Whether it will meet all Canadian objections is another matter. The Newfoundland situation is peculiar.

There the Stars and Stripes fly over three little patches of territory—bits of Canada of which Canada, by treaty, has lost, control for at least, 91 years. These are the leased bases.

Fort Peppered, Air Force headquarters of the Newfoundland Base Command, lies just outside St. John’s like a garden suburbrow on row of administrative buildings and comfortable quarters.

Harmon Field at Stephenville on the west coast lies along a mile of the shore of St. George’s Bay and runs a little over a mile deep. It looks very like the U. S. military airports that dotted Germany at the end of the war, except that the airstrips are permanent asphalt. You see the same low, compact terminal building, the same cheerful young G.I.’s in service crews, the same coffee har and newsstand with American magazines and tax - free American cigarettes.

Flanking the airport itself is a bright new settlement. Two pleasant little hotels house officers, civilian staff and official transients. Clubs for officers, N.C.O.’s and privates are all nicely fitted out—plain enough by urban standards, luxurious by contrast with a Newfoundland outport village. The new base theatre, which looks like a neighborhood movie house in a good suburban district, is a social centre not only for U. S. personnel but for the villagers of Stephenville—everyone is welcome.

At Argentia, some 65 miles southwest of St. John’s, the U. S. Air Force and Navy jointly occupy a bigger base that fills about four square miles. Each base employs several hundred Newfoundland civilians on construction jobs, etc.

they’re a major industry in their districts.

These huge installations cost hundreds of millions to build. Estimates of their operating cost run up to $30 millions a year, and an emergency would multiply that figure many times. They are vital way stations on the North Atlantic supply route. Last year they were busy servicing planes for the Berlin airlift. From Argentia the U. S. Navy ran the big exercise which revealed, among other things, how vulnerable a western navy is to the newest type of submarine. But like all military establishments, their main funct ion is simply to exist in readiness.

“Of a Military Nature”

All three sites were leased by Britain to the IJ. S. in 1941, the famous destroyers - for - bases deal between Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. For 99 years, here as in the West Indies, the U. S. got something very close to sovereign rights.

If they choose to exercise it, U. S. courts have “the absolute right” of jurisdiction over any offense whatever committed by a non-British subject within the leased area. If an American murders a Canadian inside the boundaries of the base, it’s a matter for an American court.

Outside the leased area, anywhere in Newfoundland, U. S. courts retain jurisdiction when an offense “of a military nature” is committed by a non-British subject. The text of the agreement indicates that this clause is intended to cover offenses against military security—treason, espionage and sabotage are the examples given in the treaty. In the great majority of cases these terms are observed and ordinary civil offenses by U. S. personnel are handled by the Newfoundland courts. However, some American officers tend to class any infraction of the U. S. Articles of War as an offense of a military nature.

At Stephenville an American soldier

was recently caught committing what is usually called a statutory offense. Newfoundland police handed him over to his military superiors to be held for trial. When trial day came, the military refused to give up the prisoner. Newfoundland courts had no jurisdiction, an American officer blandly explained, because the alleged offense was “of a military nature.”

Stephenville people see this incident as one in a rather long series of affronts to their pride and authority.

Another grievance, felt more by officials than by the ordinary citizen, is that duty-free goods are supplied to U. S. military and civilian personnel on the bases. The Post Exchange stores carry cigarettes at eight cents a package which cost 38 cents in a Newfoundland store. They also sell a wide variety of other goods, and in spite of strict orders, these tend to “leak” into the local population.

At Stephenville my taxi driver fished out a packet of Chesterfields—“They hand them out for tips,” he said. To the soldier, eight cents is a cheap enough tip for a 50-cent ride; to the driver it was worth nearly five times that amount.

No Canadian income or excise taxes may he levied either on U. S. soldiers or on their wives and dependents living on the base. More serious, no American contractor on the bases need pay any income tax nor “any tax in the nature of a license.” This means that employers on the bases pay no contributions to unemployment insurance or workmen’s compensation funds. About 600 Newfoundland workers were laid off last month, so the omission is no trifle—they can’t get unemployment insurance.

The Yanks Aren’t Rowdy

Every letter of the 1941 agreement, which neither Canada nor Newfoundland signed, is still in force, disputed by no one. Legally, Canada hasn’t a leg to stand on in requesting changes. Canada’s argument is based not on legal grounds, but on the overriding need for good relations between the two friendliest countries in the world.

In the everyday human sense, relations between soldiers and civilians in Newfoundland are excellent. Some Newfoundlanders may speak wryly of “the occupation,” but they admit that the behavior of the occupying troops has been good. There’s little resentment over the issue that traditionally divides civilians and foreign troops— women. There have been no rape cases and the U. S. officials deal with paternity claims promptly.

For each incident of friction hundreds of opposite examples could be cited, pleasant acts of friendship far beyond the letter of the treaty. American boats and planes are used in rescue operations, American tractors lent for Newfoundland construction jobs, American theatres and social clubs thrown open to Newfoundland villagers. Senior officers on the spot are popular with Newfoundland officials, and they seem to enjoy their assignment there.

With a very small percentage of exceptions in eight and a half years, the thousands of Americans in Newfoundland have been treated, and have themselves behaved, as welcome guests. The trouble is that out of the few incidents that do occur far too high a proportion lead to nasty trouble. This is true, not because American soldiers are ill-behaved, but because the sovereignty and the dignity of Canada are violated by the terms under which they live. When trouble does arise it leaves a sense of national shame in its wake.

Take the case of Kenneth White, garage mechanic of Stephenville.

Last December 10, Kenneth White was a passenger in a truck at No. 2 Gate, Harmon Field. The truck backed into an oil drum. Nothing was damaged, but a U. S. military policeman named Raymond Samorra came out and ordered White and the driver into the gate house.

White told Samorra to go to hell—he was on the public road, he said, and no American M.P. was going to order him around. The driver did enter the gate house (coerced at pistol point, Newfoundland witnesses say, though Samorra denied this) while White stayed outside shouting insults and challenges at the whole U. S. Air Force.

Samorra came out again, revolver in hand. White was still talking, but didn’t actually lay a hand on him. Samorra fired two shots into the ground; one bounced off a rock and hit White in the leg.

Held Incommunicado

White was taken to the U. S. military hospital where he remained for 23 days. Two Newfoundland policemen came to see him next day; thereafter he was moved into a private room where no civilian, not even his own family, was allowed to see him for several days. He was questioned during this time by the U. S. provost marshal’s men.

Samorra was tried at court martial before White left hospital. White was the only civilian witness—U. S. officers say they couldn’t call any others because Newfoundland police wouldn’t serve their subpoenas, but in any case there was no one but White to challenge Samorra’s account of what happened.

Samorra was acquitted; the court found he’d acted in discharge of his duty. White got out of hospital in due course, but before he got around to laying a civil charge, he learned that Samorra had been transferred away from Harmon Field.

Note that U. S. authorities acted wholly within their legal rights. White was wrong in thinking he stood on the public road—actually he was 30 yards inside the boundary of the leased area. The military court, did have jurisdiction, a Newfoundland court none.

But the U. S. paid a stiff price in good will for the exercise of treaty rights. Stephenville people think Kenneth White got a raw deal. Worse, they

think the status and dignity of Newfoundland citizens in general were outraged.

Technically White has recourse against the U. S. Government. He can complain to the Foreign Claims Commission in Washington, hut his lawyer advised him not to bother. White is left, with a deep grudge and a bill for $49.50 from .Harmon Field military hospital. Fie has no intention of paying the charge, but it makes him madder than ever.

White’s lawyer was Gordon Higgins, Progressive Conservative M.P. for St. John’s East, and his advice to drop the case was founded on harsh experience. Two of his other clients, whose claims looked stronger than White’s, had tried the Foreign Claims Commission and got nowhere.

Gun Waving on the Highway

Both cases arose out of motor accidents. Both were accepted by U. S. authorities on the spot as the fault of the military drivers. Both were taken to Newfoundland courts, and judgments for damages awarded. Neither judgment has been honored by the Foreign Claims Commission and neither victim has collected a cent either of damages or of his heavy legal expenses.

An even more serious case was the customs incident which happened in July, 1948.

Michael Evans, a Newfoundland and now a Canadian customs officer, set up an inspection point along a road between two U. S. bases. This is routine practice, the only control over “leakage” of tax-free, duty-free goods out of the leased territory. Usually, as a matter of convenience and courtesy, an American military policeman goes along, but on this day all the M.P.’s were busy. Evans, instead of waiting until the morrow, went out to hold his customs inspection anyway.

He stopped and searched a number of cars, finding a few cartons of cigarettes but no contraband of any great importance. One, a light military truck, happened to be carrying a bag of U. S. Air Force mail. Evans didn’t touch the mail, and let the truck go after examination.

A few minutes later a jeep drove up at high speed with a U. S. captain and two armed military policemen. The captain told Evans he was under arrest. When Evans’ companion, Inspector Michael Cahill of the Newfoundland police, started over to see what the trouble was, the captain warned him off with a loaded revolver. Later, at a civil trial, the captain admitted he would have shot Cahill if the latter had not stopped.

Thanks to the good sense of Cahill and the two American M.P.’s, who ignored the captain’s order to arrest Evans by force, no shots were fired, nobody was hurt. A civil action for damages was eventually tried in the Newfoundland Supreme Court before Mr. Justice Dunfield, who found that the captain, Emil Prenoveau, had grossly exceeded his orders and authority. Prenoveau was asseased damages of $100 to Evans, the same to Cahill, and the United States Government formally apologized.

Nevertheless, the affair left a bad taste in Canadian mouths. For one thing neither damages nor costs have ever been paid, and there seems to he no way to collect—the U. S. Air Force has no appropriation for the payment of fines in foreign countries. So the Canadian court, though honored in gesture, is still flouted in fact.

For another thing, Prenoveau pleaded that since he was a member of “friendly forces in Newfoundland, and at all times was carrying out orders,” therefore “the matters complained of do not fall within the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and the defendant is exempt from such jurisdiction.”

Mr. Justice Dunfield, in a very wise and witty judgment, blew this contention sky-high. Washington’s apology indicates that the United States Government doesn’t hold to it either. Bui if any agreement is open to such gross misapprehension as that, it’s a had agreement.

Rubbing an Old Sore

There have been other cases, too, where it creaked a lot more than seems reasonable.

Last January there was a brawl at Boland’s Café in Stephenville between U. S. soldiers and Newfoundland civilians. Before it was over one civilian had been stabbed-—a passer-by who wasn’t there when the fight started and didn’t know what it was about. He wasn’t badly hurt, but the cut lay just below the heart; an inch or two deeper and it would have been a murder case.

The soldier was tried at court martial. He was acquitted of assault, convicted only of having been “off limits” by going to Boland’s Café at all. Sentence was nominal.

Local authorities were indignant, and pressed the matter at U. S. headquarters in St. John’s. Months later the case was retried before a magistrate; the soldier was defended by the Judge Advocate of the Newfoundland Base Command, in person, but he was convicted, fined $100 and assessed $100 damages.

The case itself, and the long delay, rubbed salt into an old sore in Newfoundland a sore that goes hack to the first days of “the occupation.”

“You should have been here in ’41, when they arrived,” one Stephenville man said. “Man, it. was like an invasion. They came in with their bulldozers, knocking people’s homes down almost before they’d time to get out. One harn was burnt with the horse still in itwe got the poor beast out, hut no thanks to them.

“Mind, they’d a right to all they

did, and they paid for it all. It was just the way they went about it. Made: people sore.”

A lot of that soreness is still there, more perhaps than U. S. senior officers have a chance to realize. They themselves are so charming, make Canadians so welcome and talk to them so frankly, that it seems rude to bring up these old grudges. Some of, t he grudges are unreasonable, too, rooted in envy and prejudice. But they are there, and they create a climate all too favorable for resentment over the occasional incidents that must, inevitably, recur.

The labor situation is an example. American civilians on the bases get American rates of pay. Newfoundlanders get Newfoundland rates, usually about half the American wage for the same work.

This arrangement was made at the outset with the Newfoundland Commission of Government. In 1941, with labor desperately scarce and inflation growing, Newfoundland authorities didn’t want a sudden doubling of money wages.

Today things are different. Premier Joseph Smallwood’s new Government has no knowledge of any such agreement and no sympathy with it. They’d like to see all the workers on the bases get the same scale.

But the American situation has also changed. The Army in 1942 would have paid any scale, with a bottomless war budget to draw on. The Air Force in 1949 is trying to economize—far from raising wages they’re laying off civilians altogether in large lots.

Stubbornness in the Pentagon

Meanwhile the difficulty has been soured by union trouble. In 1946 Newfoundland workers on the Argentin hases tried to form a union. A civilian superintendent, American, opposed the attempt. Workers were threatened, guards were posted at union halls, the union vice-president was fired on flimsy charges. After a few months of struggle the union folded and has not been revived.

Afterward the commanding general issued a directive which forbade everything the civilian superintendent had done as contrary to U. S. Air Force policy. But the policy hasn’t salved the grievance of the men who tried to build the union.

President of that union was a young man named Greg Power. He is now executive assistant to Premier Joseph Smallwood, a post of considerable influence. In future dealings with U. S. authorities his attitude may well be colored by his experience as a union organizer. Indeed, for this and other reasons, there is some anti-American sentiment in the ranks of the new Newfoundland Government and the Americans in Newfoundland know it. They hint that this is one ground for their reluctance to see any change in the present agreement governing the bases.

However, that excuse is a trifle belated. Canada first raised the matter of changing the agreement in Washington just, a year ago, when negotiations for the entry of Newfoundland into the Dominion were concluded. Ambassador Hume Wrong took it up with the State Department. He was cordially received, but nothing happened.

On March 31 when Newfoundland entered Confederation the request was put in writing. Officially, the note is still unanswered. Unofficially, Canadians learned that the reaction among the colonels at Washington’s Pentagon Building was decidedly chilly.

Last July Louis Johnson, U. S. Secretary of Defense, visited Ottawa with senior members of his staff. Brooke Claxton, Canadian Defense Minister, talked to them frankly and bluntly about the Newfoundland situation, which he regards as intolerable.

Mr. Johnson was taken aback; neither he nor his senior advisers had ever heard of the matter. When he got back to Washington there was a brisk stirring up of the Newfoundland files, and it seemed for a while that things were about to move.

So far, however, the motion hasn’t become visible to the naked eye. Ottawa finds the State Department entirely sympathetic, and some individuals in the armed services equally so. But most of the U. S. military men concerned seem intensely reluctant to permit any change.

Ottawa is confident that change of some kind will come. Possibly by the

time this article appears, Washington will have answered the Canadian note of last March with some proposals. Ottawa will make counterproposals; bit by bit, over the next few months, a compromise may be worked out.

What does Canada want?

Canada would like the same relations in Newfoundland as exist in Churchill or any other military base in Canada. There, visiting U. S. forces are simply guests of Canada. Under the Visiting Forces Act of 1947 they retain full rights of military discipline over their own personnel. They may also, when Canada is willing, try their own men for violations of Canadian law. But if Canada wants to take the case, Canada has the prior right. The basic sovereignty of Canadian courts, which is the sovereignty of Canada as a nation, remains unchallenged.

The Visiting Forces Act has worked with perfect harmony from the point of view of both countries. Not a single case has led to any sort of trouble; co-operation has been perfect.

Program for Peace

Admittedly, the situation in Newfoundland is not the same. Canada owns Churchill, and every other base on Canadian soil. Canada bought out all American military establishments in this country after the war for $77 millions cash. The Newfoundland bases, on the other hand, are exclusively American establishments run at American cost.

To buy out the Newfoundland bases, even if the Americans were willing to sell, would be a major commitment which the Canadian Government has no wish to undertake. Ottawa definitely does not want the Americans to pull out of Newfoundland.

Another alternative would be joint operation. Let the United States carry part of the load, preferably a major part, but let Canada take a share. The American services don’t want this (they prefer to run their own show when it’s as big and important as the Newfoundland bases) and so far Canada hasn’t suggested it either. Even a share in an operation of this size might expand, in an emergency, into a huge bite out of what Canada spends on defense. Moreover, there would be occasions, such as the Berlin airlift, when the United States would be using the bases for an operation in which Canada has no direct part.

There are Canadians who strenuously disagree with the Government’s point of view and believe that joint operation of some kind is the only solution which will adequately safeguard Canadian sovereignty.

Ottawa, on the other hand, seems to be merely hoping for continuation of the present far as ownership and operation are concerned, but with a better deal in three respects :

1. Jurisdiction the same kind of shared authority that we have in the rest of the country, with the basic sovereignty of Canada untouched.

2. Customs some tighter control to block the leakage of duty-free, tax-free goods into ordinary Newfoundland trade.

3. Taxation—other American civilians in Canada pay Canadian taxes, with their U. S. payments deductible; why not civilians on the Newfoundland


To the ordinary citizen the details don’t matter. The important thing to Canadians, surely, is their status as free citizens and their right to be masters in their own house. That right hasn’t been seriously challenged in 50 years or more. Under the strict terms of an agreement that Canada never signed, it’s being challenged now'. ★