If St. John’s has a grande dame, it may well be Grace Sparkes, a tiny, 91-year-old former schoolteacher with a laugh as gentle as wind chimes in a light breeze. Her position within the province’s Tory establishment is such that any time the party convenes she is invited to attend as a guest of honour. Newfoundlanders who know her well say that Sparkes “has a tongue on her.” But it still comes as something of a shock when, after offering a visitor a piece of fruitcake, the otherwise exquisitely mannered holder of honorary degrees from Memorial University in St. John’s and her alma mater, Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., sits back in her chair, blinks in the afternoon sunlight and says of Joey Smallwood, a man who many Newfoundlanders consider almost a saint: “I wish someone would have given him poison before the whole thing got started.” The thing was the raucous, heart-wrenching campaign that brought Newfoundland into Confederation a minute before midnight on March 31,1949. For Smallwood and the rest of the confederates, the lure of provincehood was worth the divisive battle that, literally, pitted sibling against sibling. But for others, something died when Britain’s oldest colony joined Canada. The very day that Prime Minister Louis SaintLaurent and Gordon Bradley, another stalwart of the confederate cause, carved the first strokes of Newfoundland’s coat of arms into a blank shield at the base of Parliament’s Peace Tower, some flags in St. John’s flew at half mast, men wore black ties and armbands and some homeowners draped their houses in black crêpe.
Fifty years later, the mourning continues. And not just among the participants in the great drama, like Sparkes, who travelled the outports campaigning against Confederation in the lead-up to the two
raucous referendums of 1948. No one can deny that union with Canada brought federal transfer payments, the security of a social safety net and, as a result, a level of prosperity to the outports—at least while the cod stocks flourished—that might have been unimaginable if Newfoundland had remained on its own. But among many Newfoundlanders there still lingers another version of the story— that Ottawa and the British government conspired to usher the island into Canada and that, since then, Confederation has bled away all of Newfoundland’s pride, spirit and resource riches. “The Confederation story,” stresses John FitzGerald, a history lecturer at Memorial who is writing a book on the subject, “for better or worse explains who we are.”
A sense of resentment over how Confederation has turned out echoes through Newfoundland’s popular culture. It resonates in feature films such as Secret Nation in 1992, with its allegations of outright fraud and manipulation, and the old and new Newfoundland patriotic songs that were gathered together in We Will Remain, a 1998 recording that has sold well across the island. It provides the focus for As Loved Our Fathers, a play by St. John’s playwright Tom Cahill, slated for performance this summer at the province’s Stephenville Theatre Festival. The play’s elegiac last lines, uttered by the staunchly anticonfederate hero, are: “She’s gone b’y, she’s gone.”
In part, that attitude is a harkening back to a romanticized past as a dominion. British navigator Sir Humphrey Gilbert took nominal possession of the island for the Queen of England in 1583. For the next two centuries, Newfoundland was a fishing station, ruled by the admiral of the British fishing fleet. Responsible government was finally
granted in 1855. But the prospect of joining Canada has divided Newfoundlanders ever since Lord Durham suggested it for the first time in his famous report published in 1839. The anti-confederates— inspired by a rousing song whose title, Come Near at Your Peril, Canadian Wolf, was itself a warning—won a decisive election on the issue in 1869. But the question of Confederation continued to surface in the decades that followed—and became particularly acute in 1934, after Britain suspended self-government when Newfoundland seemed on the verge of defaulting on its foreign debt. (The Commission of Government, made up of officials appointed by Britain, remained in power until Confederation.)
By the end of the Second World War, though, Newfoundland seemed again to be self-supporting: it had the world’s two busiest airports in Gander and Goose Bay, a booming fishery, a per capita debt that was a fraction of Canada’s and the promise of untold mineral riches in Labrador. And that is precisely why some Newfoundlanders are so incensed when they look at the state of their province today. The rest of Canada may feel they are keeping its youngest province afloat with their tax dollars. But Brian Tobin, the firebrand premier, says that Confederation transformed Newfoundland from a feudal fiefdom ruled by a few rich merchants into a true democracy where ordinary Newfoundlanders “are now the merchants, the doctors, the lawyers and the members of the House of Assembly.”
But when critics consider the legacy of Confederation, they point
Some Newfoundlanders regret the decision to join Canada
to the 1984 Supreme Court of Canada decision that gave Ottawa control over the Hibernia oilfield and whatever other natural resources lie buried under the ocean floor off the coast of Newfoundland. And they steadfastly maintain that Ottawa’s control over the fishery had much to do with the demise of the cod stocks, which devastated the entire province. “It took Ottawa just 50 years to destroy a cod fishery that had been the island’s lifeblood for more than 400 years,” laments Eric Miller, 57, a fisherman from Grand Bank, one of Newfoundland’s most storied fishing communities.
No wonder the five-decade-old events are still being replayed.
Walter Carter, a former Newfoundland MP and member of the Newfoundland House of Assembly, recently wrote in the St. John’s Telegram that the terms of union, under which Canada assumed Newfoundland’s debt but also ultimate control over the fishery, were so one-sided that Ottawa and St. John’s needed to go back to the bargaining table and come up with a new arrangement. Even blunter is media magnate Harry Steele, the chairman and chief executive officer of Newfoundland Capital Corp. Ltd., which owns newspapers and radio stations throughout the country. The son of a rabid confederate, he was just 20 when Newfoundland joined Canada. “If I could have foreseen then what it was going to do to us I would never have voted yes,” he now declares.
For many, the anger burns over the process rather than the end result. James Halley was a young lawyer practising in St. John’s in 1946 when Newfoundland held its first election since 1932—not to select a government, but to elect delegates for a national convention that the British government had called to consider Newfoundland’s political future. Newfoundlanders themselves would decide their fate in a national referendum, but the question was which options would be on the ballot. It took two years of wrangling, but in the end, the delegates voted to include two possibilities: a return to responsible government, or maintaining the status quo of having their affairs run by the commission. It took the intervention of the commission to get Confederation on the ballot—a point that rankles
confederates to this day. “It was a shotgun marriage,” recalls Halley, now 76 and retired in St. John’s. ‘The fix was in.”
The campaign for votes featured everything: high drama and low cunning; even hints of corruption on the part of the confederate campaign, which was said to have been bankrolled, clandestinely, by the federal Liberal party. In his recent book Confederation: Deciding Newfoundland’s Future, James Hiller, a history professor at Memorial University, called the campaign “an exercise in blunt realpolitik which caused widespread, lingering and justifiable offence.” On one side were the forces of Confederation, led by Smallwood, the silvertongued journalist and labour organizer who crisscrossed the province and blanketed the radio airwaves with his promises of family allowances and better pensions.
Their opponents included the powerful Roman Catholic Church and wealthy St. John’s merchants, most of whom were anxious to see Newfoundland regain its own elected government. Adding to the drama and confusion was a splinter group, led by prominent St. John’s businessman Chesley Crosbie—whose son John would be a powerful provincial and federal Tory cabinet minister—urging economic union with the United States. When the vote was finally held on June 3, 1948, Confederation finished second to responsible government by about 5,300 votes, with the existing British governance a distant third. Without a clear majority, a second referendum, offering only Confederation or independence, was held on July 22, 1948. Confederation won by less than 7,000 votes.
Gordon Winter, arguably the last living Father of Confederation, remembers feeling pride and excitement when he stood inside Government House in St. John’s on April 1,1949—the day after Newfoundland became Canada’s 10th province. Four months earlier, he had been part of the Newfoundland team who negotiated the terms of union with Ottawa. As he and eight others were sworn in as Smallwood’s first cabinet, Winter remembers feeling good about the deal they had struck. But he also recalls being saddened by the funereal air that enveloped parts of the city that day. Even his own father had lowered the Union Jack in front of his home to half-staff in mourning. “It is hard to convey the passions people felt that day,” Winter, 86, now says. Except for those who still feel the same ache of loss, as if 50 years ago was just yesterday.
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