Canada

Scratching the 30-year itch

Robert Plaskin July 30 1979
Canada

Scratching the 30-year itch

Robert Plaskin July 30 1979

Scratching the 30-year itch

Newfoundland

The tenor of the next first ministers’ conference, whenever Prime Minister Joe Clark decides to hold it, will largely dictate whether Newfoundland becomes part of the vanguard of constitutional change or instead takes the next progressive step on its own road to self-determination. While the rest of Canada might be paying little attention to Newfoundland’s contemporary political evolution, it is becoming increasingly apparent within the province that the dawn of change has broken. Even its new premier, Brian Peckford, who still insists his idea of “selfdetermination” is not synonymous with “Newfoundland nationalism,” expects that “over the next few months a lot of people will have their ears picked up when they hear what we have to say.”

Appropriately, the surfacing sentiments and ideas are being channelled through the Tory party, which, in the 1940s, was the driving force behind an anti-Confederation campaign and the argument that favored a Dominion of Newfoundland maintaining its political autonomy. “The generation of that day,” according to former Conservative industrial development minister John Lundrigan, who left politics prior to the June election to join former premier Frank Moores in an investment counselling business, “eventually became submerged and assimilated. Union was forced on them. It took two referendums, and the second barely passed. There’s still talk that the voting was somehow fixed. The Newfoundlander of today is starting to realize we aren’t

only on the receiving end, that we have been making a contribution to Confederation, but it has not been recognized.”

Many of these Newfoundlanders are idealistic, and Peckford hopes there’s a place for them in his party. “We can’t go on the way we have been,” the premier says. “The principles at stake are too important. Hopefully, we can capture the imagination and commitment of those individuals who are highly nationalistic and who want some political expression.”

Peckford’s idea of self-determination is based on the belief that Newfoundland has made too many deals with the federal government and has “fallen into the trap of always being in an either-or situation. We can have a railway or a Trans-Canada Highway. That’s not good enough. We want both. We need both. We are going to have both.”

The railway question is a festering sore in the province that broke out in 1968 when CN announced the abolishment of the venerable Newfie Bullet, the trans-island passenger train that had become an institution. Less than a week after this month’s speech from the

throne decried “paternalistic centralized federalism” and promised to “build an economically and culturally vibrant society,” the province gave notice that regardless of the thinking of CN or the federal government “the permanence of a railway across this island is not for five years, not for three years, but forever.” Peckford’s railway committee will include transportation experts who will help Newfoundland “tell” CN how the railway, pledged to serve in perpetuity under the terms of Confederation, will be run. Other tender spots include the lack of adequate services to communities across the island—a problem Lundrigan says would cost $2.5 billion to correct—a lack of control by the province over the fishery, and the dispute about whether the province or the federal government has jurisdiction over off-shore resources, primarily oil and natural gas.

So far, the heart of Newfoundland’s arguments revolve around the terms of Confederation promises that Lundrigan insists are not being honored. One of the most important, he believes, is Term 29, under which Ottawa currently provides $8 million annually as a grant to offset the economic consequences of Newfoundland having joined Canada. “Another $30 or $40 million would make a hell of a difference. It’s the difference between a budget of restraint, such as we have, or a budget which provides stimulus,” Lundrigan says. He suggested two years ago that Term 29 be reexamined and that whatever steps necessary be taken to renegotiate it. The former Tory premier, Frank Moores, suggested a year ago that it might be advantageous to set up a body to study what economic benefits there were, if any, in Newfoundland’s continued par-

ticipation in Confederation. Peckford has set up a committee that will carry out that study and propose, on paper, exactly what it is Newfoundland expects to get and what constitutional changes would be required.

The recent speech from the throne, while asking whether Newfoundlanders are ready to move forward, to move out of the ’40s and the “economic and political crisis that cost them their hardwon democratic institutions and control over their social and economic destiny,” does not ask whether they are ready to accept the status quo for the sake of national unity. Peckford hopes the process won’t come to the crunch that created secessionist thinking in Quebec.* “We have a lot of clout. Term 29 is one of the levers. The transfer of jurisdiction which the Clark government is committed to is another. The power in our fishery gives us clout there in demanding we have self-determination and control in that field,” says Peckford. “The fishery and the off-shore [oil wells], these are places where there has to be structural change. The others— culture, social services, developmentcan be handled through non-constitutional changes. What we’re talking about is decentralization.” Peckford promises, however, that the stand he is taking is not an idle dream, and if his optimism about the flexibility of the Clark government proves to be unfounded Ottawa will discover there is more than one way to decentralize a nation. Robert Plaskin

*Newfoundland aped Quebec in one way last week by introduciny a tar on media advertisiny. Newfoundland’s rate of four per cent on all advertisiny costiny more than $20 is double that of Quebec, which levies its two-per-cent tar on broadcast commercials only. They are the only two jurisdictions in North America that tar advertisiny, and by week’s end media protests were already mountiny.