Thoughts and Opinions

Sometimes I share my thoughts and opinions on books, feminism, and history.

Books I Loved in 2015

In addition to my love of travel, I’m also a great lover of books! I read a whopping 50+ books last year and these are a few of my favourites:

On The Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

book4Let’s start with my favourite read of the year; I liked it so much I read it twice in a row! On the Jellicoe Road is the story of teenager Taylor Markham, who was abandoned on the Jellicoe Road by her mother when she was a child. She is picked up by a young woman named Hannah and grows up attending Jellicoe’s boarding school for troubled youth. During the first few weeks of every year, the Jellicoe school participates in the Territory Wars with the local Townies and the Cadets. The students secretly fight over school territory behind the backs of their teachers and in her senior year, Taylor is selected as the leader for the Jellicoe School.

Taylor has spent most of her life trying to forget her sad history, but when the leader of the Cadets turns out to be an enemy from her past and Hannah disappears, leaving behind an unfinished manuscript about 5 kids, she is forced to uncover secrets about her past that have been buried and forgotten. I’ll admit, the premise of the story seemed a little strange to me at first and the narrative is a little hard to follow at the beginning, but this is a wonderful book about friendship, family, love, and loss. The relationships in this book are so touching and real and watching all the friendships grow is what made this book a huge winner for me!

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

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A satirical novel set in Seattle about 15-year old Bee and her eccentric mother Bernadette. My book club selected this book as a “light read” after completing several heavy-themed books, and it did not disappoint! After Bee receives a glowing report card, she convinces her reluctant parents to take her to Antarctica for a family trip. Bee’s father is a high level executive at a tech company, so the trip planning falls mostly on Bee’s reclusive mother, Bernadette. After a number of unfortunate (and hilarious) incidents at Bee’s private school, Bernadette’s social anxiety begins to get the better of her and shortly before the trip, she disappears without a trace! The story is told through a series of emails and documents that Bee compiles in her attempt to track down her mother. This is a laugh-out-loud book about Seattle, private school, the tech industry, virtual living, and finding yourself; I would highly recommend it if you’re looking for a laugh!

Girl at War by Sara Novic

girl at warFinally, some historical fiction about Croatia! I travelled to Croatia in 2012 and aside from being totally enchanted by the beautiful landscapes; I was fascinated by Croatia’s turbulent recent history. My knowledge of the Bosnian War and the break-up of Yugoslavia was unfortunately quite incomplete when I travelled to Croatia. Since historical fiction is one of my favourite ways to learn about history, I looked for related books when I returned and had a hard time finding one about Croatia until now. Girl at War tells the story of Ana Juric’s life in Croatia as a young girl in the early 1990’s and later as a student in America. Ana escapes to America after a truly horrific experience and tries to move on by forgetting her former life. After being asked to speak at the UN about her experience during the war, Ana decides it is finally time to return to Croatia to face the ghosts of her past. This story is heart-breaking, but incredibly well written and moving.

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution by Laurie Penny

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As you may gather from this list, I like reading about women and I like challenging my thinking on gender equality and women’s issues. Unspeakable Things was definitely my favourite read on the topic this year. In this book, Laurie Penny talks about gender, power, and – the relatively new medium which makes things so much easier and yet so much more complicated – the internet. Feminism needs to be inclusive of all women – black, fat, lesbian, bi, transgender, poor, sick, or disabled – and Penny really challenged my thinking on women’s issues and “white feminism”. This book helped me push my thinking on intersectionality and I hope it has helped me be a better feminist!

The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

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This book is targeted at middle school age, but I really think anyone can enjoy this novel. When 12-year old Suzy is informed by her mother that her best friend Frannie has drowned just days before she starts 7th grade, she has no idea how to process her grief. Frannie was an excellent swimmer and Suzy can’t accept this simple account of how her friend was taken from her, especially after their unresolved fight at the end of 6th grade. Her feelings of guilt and of frustration at the adults in her life causes Suzy, a compulsive talker, to stop speaking entirely. But everything changes on a class field trip to the aquarium when Suzy learns about a rare jellyfish and becomes convinced that Frannie was killed by a jellyfish sting. She just has to prove it to everyone else. This novel is written in beautiful prose and tells a moving story of how Suzy comes to terms with the death of her friend.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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Big Little Lies focuses on the lives of three women whose children just started kindergarten at Pirriwee Public School. There’s charismatic Madeline and her talkative daughter who is placed in a class with her ex-husband’s child; wealthy Celeste and her energetic twin boys; and quiet, single mother Jane with her little boy Ziggy. When one of the other children is bullied and Ziggy is blamed, tensions escalate quickly. We know from the beginning of the story that a kindergarten parent has been murdered, and as the story unfolds it leaves you wondering who could have possibly been murdered and how! It’s a very lighthearted novel that deals with some pretty intense issues – murder, sexual violence, domestic abuse, playground bullies, and helicopter parents – but never feels dark or overwhelming. The characters are well written and believable; I liked that this was a fun, easy read, but that I feel better for having read it.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

fangirlI know Rainbow Rowell is super popular right now, but I was only introduced to her earlier this year when my book club read one of her other novels, Attachments. I really didn’t like Attachments, so I had trouble understanding Rowell’s appeal until I decided to give her another chance with Fangirl. Fangirl is about Cath Avery’s first year at college and how she struggles to leave behind the comforts of her childhood, namely her obsession with the popular Simon Snow fantasy series. The Simon Snow series represents the real-life Harry Potter series, and as a huge HP fangirl myself I was interested in the ‘fangirl’ storyline. Unfortunately, I think the fan aspect of this story was a little lacking and actually the weaker part of the story, but I loved the characters in this book and I loved reading about Cath’s struggles with her sister, boys, and with adjusting to college life. The characters and their struggles are so relatable and that was what made this book a win for me.

Ipanema Turtles: A South American Adventure by Bike by Laura Mottram

book10I stumbled upon this book when I was looking for literature to read about Brazil before I went on my trip. It only has about a dozen reviews on goodreads, so I’m happy to recommend it to more people!  It’s a memoir about an English couple, Laura and Paddy, who take a year-long break from their lives to cycle around South America. They start on Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro and cycle more than 20,000 kms, through every country in South America, before returning (like turtles) back to the same beach where they began. The story is written by Laura using her travel diaries. It’s not the best travel writing I’ve read because Laura is not a writer and has never written a book before, but it’s personal and I really enjoyed traveling along with the couple on what must have been an incredible journey. Both characters are relatable – I didn’t feel like Laura or Paddy were so different from myself – which is what made their journey so believable and exciting!

The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women by Jessica Valenti

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I always knew America had a bit of an obsession with virginity, but I never realized how deeply ingrained the idea of sexual purity is in American culture. I was genuinely shocked by some of the things I learned from this book, such as the existence of “purity balls” where girls and their fathers attend a ball for the daughter to sign a pledge of abstinence to her father, who is viewed as the keeper of her virginity until marriage. Government funded abstinence-only education is incredibly prevalent in parts of America, where school curriculum includes comparing sexually active girls to a piece of tape that gets dirtier every time you re-use it (or have sex with a new partner). This was a really eye-opening book on how America fetishizes virginity, uses “sexual purity” to control, de-value, and shame women, and attempts to limit women’s sexual freedom and autonomy. (Follow this book with a reading of “Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights” by Katha Pollitt if you want to be really disgusted)

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

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This graphic novel is awesome! The story is great, the message is great, the artwork is great – it’s just fun all around. Nimona is a young shapeshifter who teams up with supervillain Lord Blackheart to take on Sir Goldenloin and his cronies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics. The Institution is supposed to protect the Kingdom, but when Nimona discovers that they’re actually lying to the peasants and putting them in danger, she wants to strike back! Nimona is impulsive, funny, and boy does she have character. If you love a book where the good guys are the bad guys, science is revered, and the hero is a chubby, red-headed girl – then this is the book for you. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and really enjoyable to read!

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

book2This story opens in the mid 1970’s when teenager Lydia Lee turns up dead in the local lake. The police chalk her death up to suicide by drowning, but Lydia’s parents can’t believe their beautiful, popular, and intelligent daughter would kill herself and suspect foul play. Lydia’s parents, Marilyn and James, are a mixed race couple with two other children, Nath and Hannah. When I picked this book up, I thought it might be a mystery or thriller, but it’s really a simple story about relationships. We get to experience the story from the point of view of each family member as their histories, personalities, fears, and dreams are revealed to us over the course of the novel. It’s not a fast paced book, but it’s well written and I really enjoyed the character development throughout the story.

Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella

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Everyone loves Sophie Kinsella, but after you’ve read so many of her books (like I have), it can start to get a little repetitive. Finding Audrey is her first young adult novel and was definitely a change of pace from her other material. After a bullying incident goes awry, 14-year old Audrey develops severe social anxiety and agoraphobia, refusing to leave the house, talk to anyone, or take off her dark sunglasses. This book is about Audrey’s family and her brother’s friend Linus and how they encourage Audrey as she deals with her anxiety. It’s a surprisingly funny book about family, relationships, and mental illness. It’s a sweet and simple story and I loved Audrey’s crazy and supportive family!

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Women in Leadership: You can’t be what you can’t see

As a female in a traditionally male-dominated industry, the presence of women in my workplace has always been important to me. I am fortunate to have graduated from a civil class with a female to male ratio of 40% and to work for an organization that hires a fairly large number of female engineers; yet I’ve still had very few opportunities to work with women in senior positions. The reality is that, while the number of women obtaining engineering degrees has been pretty steady in Canada at 17-18%, there are still very few women in senior engineering and management positions.

I’ve always been an advocate for more women in positions of leadership, but I recently had a little ‘aha!’ moment about WHY it’s so important for women to be represented at senior levels. I recently watched a great documentary on Netflix called ‘Miss Representation’. It’s about the way women are represented in the media, the effect this has on girls and women of all ages, and the importance of having female roles models and leaders in all industries to combat the misrepresentation of women. The film’s tagline, and my ‘aha!’ moment, is that you can’t be what you can’t see. It’s hard to see yourself in certain careers or positions of leadership if there are no female role models demonstrating that it’s possible.

Before I continue, I just want to acknowledge that I am writing this blog from a position of privilege. I am a white, straight, cisgender, thin, able-bodied, woman. This blog is about the importance of female roles models in leadership positions, but when I say ‘women’, I want to specifically include women of all race, size, class, and sexual orientation. I am privileged because the few female role models I do see generally look like me. I believe women of colour, fat women, transgendered women, and lesbian women (among others) face additional challenges in finding relatable female role models in their everyday lives. I hope I can draw some of these connections in how we are misrepresented in the media.

We’ve all been influenced by the media in some way or another. Magazines, tabloids, and advertisements constantly present us with these images of “perfect”, over sexualized, unattainable women. They’re designed to make us feel insecure about our bodies so that we rush out and spend money on clothing, hair products, make-up, diet plans, and even cosmetic surgery. The images we see on a daily basis create unrealistic expectations about what beauty is, negatively affecting the self-esteem and body image of young girls and women and normalizing boys and men to the sexual objectification of women.

The media places a disproportionate importance on appearance and has a huge influence on how we determine our own self worth and value and the worth and value of those around us. We’re subconsciously taught about how to perceive sex and gender, about the role we can play in the world, and about what we can be expected to accomplish based on our gender. The way we report the news and the characters we write for movies and television reinforce dated ideas about what societal roles men and women can be expected to fill and the value that they can add to the world.

Let’s start by talking about the film industry. Major blockbuster movies and box office chart toppers generally feature male protagonists and supporting male-dominated casts. There might be a few women who either play love interests or serve some role in supporting or motivating the male protagonist, but they generally don’t have a large impact on the plot. For example, in the Batman Trilogy, Rachel spends most of the first movie playing the role of ‘damsel in distress’ and in the Dark Knight, she is pretty much the only female character in the movie. Even though her presence is important to the plot, she does little to progress the story in the first half of the movie and we soon discover that her real purpose is simply to serve as motivation for the acts that will be committed by the two men in love with her in the second half of the movie. Her role only serves to further the development of the male characters. Unfortunately, movies that feature female protagonists or larger female casts are more likely to be dismissed into the category of “chick flick”, where the storyline still often focuses on the pursuit of a man. Even movies with mixed casts can be deceiving about the importance of the female characters.

A useful tool I recently discovered for examining the disparity between the roles played by male and female characters when watching movies is to use the Bechdel Test. In order to pass the Bechdel Test, the movie must contain one scene where there are two women having a conversation about anything other than a man. It doesn’t have to be a long or important scene or add any value to the movie, but it’s surprising how many films fail the test. For example, I was surprised to discover that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, which has one of my favourite female characters, Hermione Granger, doesn’t even pass the Bechdel Test. I’m not saying it’s a good measure of what films have meaningful female characters (I still think Hermione is great), but it does highlight the absence of female to female relationships in a lot of films. It’s okay for there to be unequal numbers of men and women and movies, but over time, the number of movies featuring majority male casts has been largely disproportionate.

It seems that there is an assumption in Hollywood that both men and women are interested in watching movies about men, but only women are interested in watching movies about women. I find this sad because women are every bit as complex as men and are every bit as capable of leading a storyline that does not center on romance. It’s possible to write compelling female characters that are just as engaging as male characters and that are just as much of interest to male viewers as female viewers. Why are we only catering to half of the population when we write and produce movies?

I’m inclined to think that it might have something to do with the fact that the movie industry is almost completely dominated by men. For the majority, our film directors, producers, and writers are men and the number of meaningful (say Oscar-worthy) roles available for men far outweigh the number available for women. Men, understandably, don’t know how to write compelling female characters because they are not female. So it shouldn’t really be any great surprise that our movies and television shows are filled with male heroes in the form of doctors, lawyers, police officers, scientists, engineers, and politicians. Unfortunately, women are filling very different roles in movies and as such, we have a very different expectation about what our female characters, and by extension ourselves, can accomplish.

That’s not to say there aren’t movies and television shows with great female characters. Grey’s Anatomy has a diverse cast of female doctors, Parks and Rec has director and city council member Leslie Knope, Girls has four relatable female stars, and Orange is the New Black is a great example of the success a female creator, writer, and diverse cast of women can have. However, there is a tendency when trying to write these “strong” or “empowered” female characters to simply give them physical strengths or traditional male traits to demonstrate their power. We don’t need to adapt our female characters to the same traits as our male protagonists to create compelling and meaningful characters. Women need characters that they can relate to on television and in movies. The media has become a very important part of our culture and can influence how we relate to one another and interpret our experiences. We should be able to turn on the television and see characters that we can relate to.

We can draw a connection here by looking at the percentage of people of colour that are cast in movies. Similar to female roles, lots of movies may have one or two black actors/actresses, but the majority of the cast, and generally the protagonist, will be white. Producers love to write in that one stereotypical black, gay, or fat friend to pretend like they have a diverse cast and to get a few cheap laughs. What’s equally frustrating is that these characters are often added simply because they’re black, gay, or fat. That one quality that deviates from the norm becomes the entire essence of their character.

Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson are both popular, successful actresses. I won’t pretend like I’ve seen even a portion of their movies, but in many of their roles, being fat is an important part of their character. In Bridesmaids, McCarthy’s forward approach to romance is funny because as a fat woman, we assume her prospects for love are slim and in Pitch Perfect, Wilson’s character is literally called ‘Fat Amy’. Most of the laughs they generate in these roles are directly related to the fact that they’re overweight; it becomes the dominating feature of their personality. McCarthy and Wilson are both great actresses and their comedic value shouldn’t be limited to their size. That said, I was impressed that both these characters had a lot of self-love; they don’t try to change who they are and that makes you love them too.

In the same way, women of colour are not frequently featured in roles where being black isn’t an essential part of their character. Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Lupita Nyong’o are all great actresses that have been nominated for Oscars for their roles in The Help and 12 Years a Slave. But in all cases, being black was a requirement of the casting and necessary to the plot of the movie. That’s not to say the roles are bad, it’s just that we don’t see many people of colour leading movies where the character’s race is unimportant. If the protagonist’s race doesn’t matter, by default, the role generally goes to white actors.

If we move on to politics, the story is, unfortunately, more or less the same. Men dominate the political scene, shaping most of our nation’s legislature and policy; policies that affect everyone, whether male or female, black or white. There just seems to me to be something so inherently wrong that governments can meet and draft legislature that will affect the entire population, when they’re often missing representation from half of it! Even more inconceivable, is the power (predominantly white male) politicians have to dictate policies on women’s issues. Here, more than anywhere else, I believe it’s imperative to have women not just participate in the discussion, but to shape and lead the discussion.

Unfortunately, the media does us few favours when it comes to augmenting the number of women in politics. Female politicians are fighting a completely different campaign during election time and an additional set of challenges if they are elected. When Sarah Palin was selected as the republican VP nominee in the 2008 election, the media quickly framed what the dialogue surrounding her campaign would be and highly influenced how Americans would view her as a political candidate. Her political platform was of little interest to the media, who instead focused on how she dressed, how she did her hair and make-up, and how running for election might impact her family. That’s not to say no one talked about Obama’s sex appeal, but when he talked, we at least stopped and listened to what he had to say. We never questioned Obama’s ability to be both a world leader and a good father.

I’m not saying the election result should have been any different, but Sarah Palin was certainly treated differently, and taken much less seriously, for being a woman. Our news outlets like to pretend that a female politician’s appearance is somehow relevant when they should be educating us on important voting issues. How can we encourage young women to pursue careers in politics or leadership by tearing them down on national television, for reasons completely unrelated to their political policies or views?

Today our society just doesn’t seem to value or respect the female voice. Any woman who has the courage to speak out about politics or inequality knows they’re up against a media industry that cares more about their appearance than their voice and social communities that just don’t respect them. When a young girl was raped in Steubenville, reporters lamented the lost future of her rapists rather than the trauma she was experiencing from being sexually violated and the ongoing emotional pain of having to relive that trauma throughout a trial. When female blogger Anita Sarkeesian speaks out about violence against women in video games, male gaming communities attempt to silence her through intimidation and threats of harassment. And when five black American, transgender women are murdered during the first 5 weeks of 2015, it gets virtually no media attention.

These actions demonstrate to young girls and boys precisely how little we value the voices of women. How can we expect girls and women to speak out with so many people screaming at them to be silent? If we can’t be what we can’t see, then what I see is a serious lack of female role models. It can be easy to think that women have progressed so far since the days when we were forced to fight for the right to work and vote, yet on average, women are still paid less than men, promoted less than men, and generally respected less in the workplace.

I’ve often heard the argument that women simply aren’t interested in the higher paying professions and leadership positions that men traditionally hold. I’m sorry, but I’m just not buying it. Yes, modern feminism respects that you have the right to choose whether you want to focus your time and energy on pursuing your career or follow the traditional path of being a mom and homemaker. There is no right or wrong choice and women should feel comfortable and secure in choosing either path. But I just don’t buy that women are not interested in these higher paying, management positions and I think there are other factors at play in why we typically see fewer women in these positions.

First of all, there’s the fact that we make women choose. Do you want to pursue a career or do you want to pursue a family? We generally don’t put this responsibility on men and it’s very unlikely that a man’s choice to become a father will ever have any effect on the trajectory of his career; it’s assumed a man can have both. However, even if a woman has no intention of having children, her employer is more likely to be prejudiced against her. Whether subconsciously or not, when hiring and promoting women, employers often take into consideration the likelihood of having to pay for maternity leave(s) and other family related benefits and anticipate that female employees may be less dedicated to the company once they have children.

Women tend to get stuck in middle management positions and get passed over again and again for leadership positions. We tend to favour working with those that are similar or like-minded to ourselves. Since men already dominate our boardrooms, it’s easier for companies to just keep promoting men. Men and women do think and act differently; but I’m of the opinion that it would greatly benefit companies to have both perspectives at the highest levels of management.

However, I think some of the biggest challenges in climbing the career ladder up to senior management are historically ingrained gender norms and the perceptions of gender the media has instilled in us. Men have always been assured of their value to society. They have traditionally been viewed as providers and the voice of authority in family, work, and politics. Media influence teaches boys and men that their voices are valuable and deserve to be heard, whereas our society is more likely to try and silence female voices. As a result, I do think that men are more confident. They’re more willing to speak up in meetings, to put forth ideas, or directly ask for a raise or promotion. Women bring immensely important viewpoints and ideas to the table, but they’re more likely to hesitate before sharing and be judged more harshly if they fail.

We also interpret the actions of men and women very differently. I recently saw a great comic illustrating the double standard between how we interpret the same action from a man and a woman. The comic features a man asking for a raise and his employer thinking “what a go-getter”, and then a woman asking for a raise and the employer thinking “what a pushy bitch”. We respect confidence in a man, but we view a confident woman as pushy and an unconfident woman as a pushover. Those women that have made it to a leadership positions face just as much of a struggle once they get there. From what I understand, it often involves having to make sacrifices in your personal life, working twice as hard, and having to adapt your attitude and personality to that which suits the man’s world you’re immersing yourself in.

We can’t be what we can’t see. It can be hard to relate to the female characters on television because there are no women writing relatable characters. Likewise, it’s hard to envision a future for yourself in management or politics when there are few role models demonstrating that you can have that future. Let’s not make excuses for why there are so few women in leadership and let’s not take our inspiration from the media. Instead, let’s look for the already amazing role models in our lives, build them up, and then become role models ourselves.

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Don’t Tell The Newfoundlanders

I recently decided to take a break from the copious amounts of fiction I usually read in favour of a little Newfoundland history. It might sound a bit dry, but Greg Malone’s book “Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders” turned out to be full of scandal and intrigue. The narrative tells the story of Newfoundland and Labrador’s (Newfoundland) confederation with Canada, or more accurately, the story of how Canada and Great Britain conspired to put Newfoundland into confederation with Canada.

For a number of Newfoundlanders, this book tells the story of what they have long suspected, but never understood, about Newfoundland’s union with Canada in 1949. After a 15-year absence of responsible government, Newfoundlanders went to the polls in 1948 to vote for either independence or confederation with Canada. The result of the referendum in favour of confederation came as a disappointment and a surprise to many Newfoundlanders and for years they could only speculate about how confederation had really come to be.

However, in the 1980s and 1990s, a series of documents and secret memos between British and Canadian officials from the 1940’s were released. The documents were compiled by Paul Bridle (the Bridle Documents) and revealed the whole sordid story of how Great Britain conspired with Canada to bring Newfoundland into Confederation. Greg Malone’s book takes us through the series of event that led to confederation in 1949 and shines a light on the extensive scheming that occurred to delay the return of responsible government in Newfoundland and instead, sway public opinion in favour of union with Canada. While this is old history for some, it was a completely new story for me and I was quickly drawn into the unbelievable sequence of events that took place in Newfoundland in the 1940’s. I don’t think many of my generation have put much time or thought into how Newfoundland ended up in Canada and I just had to share this story. I hope you’ll join me for a little journey back in time into Newfoundland’s scandalous history!

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Let me set the scene for you, beginning in 1933. It’s been more than a decade since the conclusion of World War I, but many countries have been left with an extensive amount of debt and after the bank crash of 1929, the world has been plunged into the Great Depression. “World markets for Newfoundland fish collapsed, and successive administrations struggled to pay the growing national debt.”1 By 1933, Newfoundland debt was more than $100 million. As a small and undeveloped country, Newfoundland “simply did not have the credit base of large federations such as Canada or the United Kingdom to withstand a deep and sustained financial crisis.”2 When Canada declined a request to assist Newfoundland with financial support, the island was left completely dependent on Great Britain.

Due to Newfoundland’s considerable contribution to the war effort in World War I – where The Royal Newfoundland Regiment was obliterated at Beaumont Hamel during the Battle of the Somme – Newfoundland hoped to receive reasonable financial support from Great Britain. In order to address the country’s debt, “[finance minister] Major Peter Cashin … proposed rescheduling a portion of [Newfoundland’s] debt from 5 percent interest to 3 percent. The United Kingdom [had] already struck such an agreement with the United States for its own enormous war debt.”3 However, even though the United States had allowed the British to reschedule a portion of their debt, Great Britain rejected the similar proposal in Newfoundland. Great Britain decided instead to “appoint a royal commission to assess Newfoundland’s financial and political situation, and Newfoundland would be obliged to accept its findings.”4

In their report, the commission concluded that Newfoundland’s financial situation was a result of extravagant spending by Newfoundland’s responsible government rather than a result of the worldwide depression. The commission advised removing Newfoundland’s responsible government in favour of a special Commission of Government from Great Britain. The commission’s report ended with the stipulation that, “as soon as the Island’s difficulties are overcome and Newfoundland is again self-supporting, responsible government on request from the people of Newfoundland would be restored.”5

Even though it’s early in the story, this was one of the most shocking discoveries for me. I found it unbelievable that even after having their own debt rescheduled; Great Britain decided against rewarding Newfoundland’s voluntary war contribution with a similar debt rescheduling and instead decided to punish the island by removing governance and democracy from the people. In the Cambridge History of the British Empire, The Royal Newfoundland Regiment is described as adaptable and disciplined, stating that “nothing but praise was accorded to the Fleet.”6 Malone goes on to observe that during World War I, Newfoundland “suffered some of the heaviest losses per capita of any country in the British Empire. Of the 5,482 Newfoundlanders who went to war in 1914, 1,500 died, 2,314 were wounded, and 234 were decorated. By 1933 the portion of the Newfoundland debt dating from the First World War was approximately $40 million. Certainly Newfoundland had a strong case for honourable default, and if Britain had allowed the country to reschedule just that portion of the debt, it would have enabled the island to carry on until better times.”7

What I find even more unbelievable than Great Britain’s audacity in removing Newfoundland’s responsible government, is that they even had the authority to do so! Great Britain’s actions are best summarized in the following article, found in the 2003 edition of International Economy, where David Hale shares this perspective when writing about the International Monetary Fund (IMF):

“The most extraordinary debt restructuring of the pre-1945 era was not in Latin America. It was in a dominion of the British Empire, the country of Newfoundland. During the early 1930s Newfoundland experienced a form of political punishment and national humiliation for its debt problems which is unsurpassed by any other country since the emergence of government debt markets in the 17th century.

… The notion that a self-governing community of 280,000 English-speaking people should give up both democracy and independence in order to avoid debt and default was unprecedented.

… If the IMF had existed in 1933 it would have granted emergency debt relief to Newfoundland and the country would have never given up democracy or independence.”8

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Moving on, let’s fast forward now to the late 1930’s. As the threat of another war loomed over Europe and the aviation industry leaped forward, the British, Canadians, and Americans quickly realized the unique position of Newfoundland and Labrador as a military line of defence and stepping stone between Europe and North America. Things began to change on the island; Gander became a major hub for air traffic between the Europe and North America and the Americans set up military bases at Goose Bay and Placentia. By the start of World War II, Newfoundland was boasting a surplus and even began lending money to the British Government throughout the war. Following the conditions set out by the Royal Commission in 1933, Newfoundland was once again eligible for responsible government. However, as a result of the war in Europe, any discussion of returning responsible government was delayed and Newfoundland again sent many soldiers overseas to fight.

Following World War II, Great Britain once again found themselves in a significant amount of debt. By this time, both Canada and America were starting to develop an interest in Newfoundland as a strategic military and aviation base and rumors were growing of Labrador’s untapped iron ore deposits. In a secret memo from future Prime Minister Clement Atlee to Governor Walwyn, Altee acknowledged that “[if] there were a general demand in Newfoundland for the restoration of self-government, it would be not practicable to refuse it.”9 Great Britain recognized that they would soon be obligated to remove the Commission of Government, but did not want to see Newfoundland fall into the hands of the powerful Americans. It was at this point that Great Britain developed the idea of initiating a union between Newfoundland and Canada as a strategy to pay off their war debts.

Over the next several years, Britain began scheming to bring Newfoundland into confederation. Walwyn’s reply to Atlee stated that, “Canada’s present and growing interest in this country, her fear of an increase of United States influence, her desire to acquire the Labrador, are all powerful factors. At no time has our bargaining position been so favourable.”10 Great Britain was not much concerned with the interests and opinions of Newfoundlanders, and as Malone observes, “Walwyn’s casual reference to the British ‘bargaining position’ in relation to Newfoundland suggests the true British perspective. Fully one hundred years after self-government had been granted, Britain still regarded Newfoundland as its own, to possess or dispose of at will.”11

In post World War II, most Newfoundlanders had no interest in confederation with Canada, where they knew they would be a second-rate and ‘have-not’ province. There was also little interest in Newfoundland from Canadian provincial governments, who believed that Newfoundland would be a financial drain on the tax money of their provinces and would make few contributions to Canada. However, Prime Minister Mackenzie King and the Federal Government in Ottawa quickly developed an interest in the resource-rich, Labrador. Unfortunately, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador knew little about the large quantities of iron ore in Labrador; it was only select British and Canadian officials that really understood the extent of the natural resources that could be reaped from a union with Newfoundland.

The majority of Malone’s book is told mostly through excerpts from top secret memos (the Bridal Documents) that passed between Canadian and British officials as a discussion was initiated to begin the process of bringing Newfoundland into confederation without the knowledge of the people of Newfoundland. It was at this point in Malone’s book that the actions of the officials from both countries began to get increasingly sketchy and infinitely more secret. As the story progresses, the line of ethicality grows very murky and it becomes evident that the actions of the British officials were highly unconstitutional. Malone comments that, “the conspiratorial tone of these communications indicates that all parties involved were aware that they were initiating confidential negotiations that were constitutionally, politically, democratically, and morally wrong. They were also contrary to the vaunted Atlantic Charter, asserting the rights of all peoples to self-determination, which the British had proclaimed with such fanfare in 1941.”12

The timing of the question of Newfoundland’s future is ironic because as Malone points out, it was only several years previously that the Atlantic Charter had been signed off the coast of Newfoundland by Churchill, King, and Roosevelt, affording all peoples the right to self-govern. The question of whether to join Canada should never have been initiated or arranged by Great Britain. According to the conditions set at the institution of the Commission of Government, responsible government should have been returned to the people of Newfoundland. The choice of confederation could then have been posed or abandoned by the Newfoundland Government. Great Britain was never in a position to pose this question; however, officials suspected, that left in the hands of the locals, Newfoundland was very unlikely to choose confederation.

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I have to say, one of the things I found most disappointing about Malone’s book was that the voices of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians were completely absent (although I don’t blame Malone for this). Almost the entire narrative is conducted between British and Canadian officials and because of the secrecy of the entire affair, very few locals were ever consulted on the future of their country. The only glimpse we get of public opinion is through select excerpts from The Telegram, which were generally unfavourable.

Regardless of public opinion, Great Britain and Canada forged ahead in recruiting a number of prominent Newfoundlanders in favour of confederation and set to work on the process of swaying public opinion to ensure a majority vote for confederation in a national referendum. One of the most notable recruits is that of Joey Smallwood, Newfoundland’s first premier, who campaigned endlessly for confederation.

While the Newfoundland confederates were campaigning, British and Canadian officials spent a lot of time discussing the particulars of how to sway public opinion. British official Clutterbuck writes of these discussions, “it would be essential that the initiative should clearly be seen to come from [Canada], and both we and Canada would have to be very careful to say and do nothing which might look like ‘bouncing’ [the Newfoundlanders], or give rise to suspicions that we were engaged in a conspiracy to achieve this result.”13 Some were also of the opinion that Great British should reduce financial support to the island so as to paint Canada in a more favourable light for Newfoundlanders.

The first referendum was conducted in 1948 and had three options: return to Responsible Government, continue with the Commission of Government, or join Canada. As anticipated, though the result still came as a disappointment, Responsible Government won with 45% of the vote and confederation received 41%. In reality, this referendum accomplished little and served only to eliminate the option of continuing the Commission of Government from the ballot. Canada and Great Britain now had more time to continue their attempt to sway public opinion before conducting a second referendum.

Following the first referendum, Newfoundland’s confederate representatives continued campaigning, placing Canada’s social programs, such as the Family Allowance and the Old Age Pension, at the centre of their campaign. These programs were popular among poor Newfoundlanders who had no idea of the extent of Newfoundland and Labrador’s natural resources. The fishery would eventually be devastated as a result of overfishing, but large deposits of iron ore in Labrador could easily have boosted Newfoundland’s economy. Today there are also huge oil reservoirs in development offshore and it is only within the last few years that the province began construction on a hydroelectric development on the lower part of the Churchill River.

As preparations commenced for the second referendum, Great Britain initiated a discussion on the size of the majority that would be required from the referendum to bring Newfoundland into confederation. “Governor Macdonald had stated that a two-thirds majority would be necessary to transfer sovereignty, and the Canadians, especially Prime Minister Mackenzie King, felt the same way. But in July 1948, as they prepared for the possibility of a small majority in the second referendum, the British and the Canadian officials had to decide exactly how small that majority could be.”14 It was highly doubted by the British that confederation would ever receive a two-thirds majority and British official Norman Robertson wrote that, “on the United Kingdom side it has been made clear that they would regard any majority for confederation, however small, as binding.”15

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The second referendum was held on July 22, 1948. I have to admit that it was at this point that the story began to get a little unbelievable for me. Most of the book is supported by direct quotes from the Bridle Documents, but following the second referendum, Malone’s references get (in my opinion) less reliable and he moves more into speculation. After Newfoundlanders went to the polls, a very hasty vote count was conducted and it was announced that Newfoundland had voted 52% in favour of confederation. Great Britain finally had the majority they needed and the Newfoundland confederate representatives were rushed into negotiations with Canada.

At this point Malone launches into a discussion about the legitimacy of the referendum that I don’t think we’ll ever know the truth about. There was indeed some sketchy behaviour associated with the referendum, the most damning of which is that a re-count was never completed and that many of the ballots were quickly burned after the poll and thus could never be re-counted. One voter wrote to the Responsible Government League, “I may be wrong, but I have a feeling votes were illegally marked in stations where poll officials were both confederates and where no Responsible Government agent was present.”16

Malone definitely insinuates that there was some deceit involved in the referendum results and includes a testimony from an unnamed Englishman who prior to his death, supposedly shared that the Commission of Government falsified the results. However, I personally choose to believe that the referendum results were legitimate. I find it shocking that the British were able to punish Newfoundland with the removal of responsible government in 1933 and frustrating the lengths Great Britain went to conspire to bring Newfoundland into confederation, but I can’t believe the British would actually falsify the referendum results or that Newfoundland is really some fake province that was cheated out of her independence.

I think that responsible government should first have been restored to the people of Newfoundland and the decision to join Canada put back in their hands. But I choose to believe what history tells us, that 52% of Newfoundlander’s voted in favour of confederation. Even if responsible government had been returned prior to the referendum, I think it’s reasonably likely that Newfoundland would have ended up as Canada’s tenth province in the future either way (not that this would excuse the actions of those involved). I’m certainly not sorry we ended up in Canada and in many ways I think the union has had a happy ending. However, please bear with me as I finish the story because for many years following confederation, it did not have a very happy ending.

Following the referendum, the group of confederate Newfoundlanders, our future leaders, travelled to Ottawa to negotiate the terms of confederation. The confederates had first travelled to Ottawa in 1947 to discuss a future union with Canada, where Prime Minister King had outlined the Terms of Union. Unfortunately, the delegation to Ottawa quickly discovered some glaring errors in the Terms of Union. “The problem with all the financial figures in the proposed Terms of Union, apart from the Canadian underestimates of revenues collected, was that they were based on Smallwood’s overly optimistic hypothetical budget from the summer of 1947.”17

The delegation observed that “there [was] a wide gap between prospective revenue and expenditure”18 and realized that what Canada was offering in the Terms of Union would quickly lead Newfoundland into deficit. Unfortunately for Newfoundland, the Canadians held all the power in the negotiations. The confederates had no knowledge of the magnitude of Labrador’s iron ore deposits that Canada was planning to exploit and could hardly reject the Terms of Union after such extensive campaigning for confederation. The Newfoundlanders had few bargaining chips.

After receiving another secret memo detailing the extent and quality of Labrador’s iron ore, Canada did increase the financial terms of the union, but not enough to prevent a deficit. However, at this point the delegates were under a lot of pressure and had little choice but to accept the negotiations. The only exception was prominent Newfoundlander and responsible government advocate, Ches Crosbie, who refused to sign and left town. “Crosbie made his projections on the actual figures offered in the new terms and concluded that they would lead the province into financial catastrophe.”19 On March 31, 1949, the union was signed in Ottawa and Newfoundland became Canada’s newest province.

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Malone called his last chapter, “To The Victors Go The Spoils”, which unfortunately I found to be very true. “Ches Crosbie’s fears proved only too accurate. Once the resources and the revenues were pouring out of the province to central Canada, Newfoundland was mired in debt after only eight years of confederation.”20 As predicted, Newfoundland’s economy plummeted and her resources were exploited and divided among Canada’s ‘have’ provinces.

Malone writes, “[Liberal cabinet minister] C.D. Howe quietly extracted the billions of dollars’ worth of the iron ore out of Labrador West for the Canadian heartland – Ontario and Quebec – with virtually no residual benefit for Newfoundland. Lester Pearson later gave the revenues from the Upper Churchill to Quebec when he refused to require Quebec to allow Newfoundland to transport its power from the Upper Churchill Power Project in Labrador through Quebec to markets in the United States. Instead, Newfoundland was forced to sell its power to Quebec at fixed 1960s’ prices… As a result, Quebec earns from $2 to $4 billion annually from the power it resells from Newfoundland and Labrador to the US market. Newfoundland gets enough to maintain the facility to keep it operating for Quebec’s advantage.”21

Though I had little knowledge of most of this story, the last chapter was very familiar. Even though it was 60+ years ago that Newfoundland joined confederation, many of these problems still affect my province. The fishery that so many Newfoundlanders made their living from, my grandfather included, collapsed in the 1990s and power from the upper Churchill River is still exported through Quebec at those fixed 1960’s prices. Many people grow up knowing Newfoundland to be a “have-not” province, an often forgotten island on Canada’s far east coast. As Malone points out, “substantial material change did not come to the Island until Premier Danny Williams was driven on December 23, 2004, to take down the Canadian flag in the Newfoundland legislative building in his fight with Ottawa to give the province more of its offshore revenues.”22

That said, Newfoundland has changed a great deal in the last ten years in a way I don’t think many Canadians are aware of. We’ve reached a point in time when it’s finally economically feasible to develop our oil reserves offshore and to harness the hydroelectric potential of the lower Churchill River. There are more opportunities for Newfoundlanders to stay at home for work rather than having to relocate to Alberta and there’s certainly a lot more money in St. John’s these days (which can have pros and cons). Unfortunately it’s a bit of a different story in Newfoundland’s outport communities, which have a hard time retaining their young people, but it’s nice to at least see some parts of the province prosper.

Fortunately, Newfoundlanders haven’t changed all that much and are still some of the nicest, funniest, kind-hearted, and welcoming people you’ll ever meet. I think we deal with our hardships in the same way that we deal with our weather; we know there’ll be rain and snow and wind and fog, but they only make us appreciate the sunny days that much more. Nothing can dampen the spirit of Newfoundlanders and challenges only serve to increase our sense of community. I’m glad we ended up in Canada, which also has some of the most progressive, open-minded, and welcoming people. I love all of the freedoms that I’m afforded as a Canadian citizen and that I don’t have to identify as just one thing. I’m a Newfoundlander and I’m a Canadian and I can readily access and belong within either of those identities. I’m proud of where I’ve come from and I’m equally proud of where I am.

Malone’s book was at times a very frustrating read and it opened my eyes in many ways. I’m sure it has mixed reviews and there are some opinions shared in the book that you have to take with a grain of salt. Overall though, there’s a lot of solid history in here. You can make up your own mind on the referendum results and in deciding to what extent Great Britain’s influence actually impacted the results, but it’s harder to argue for Great Britain’s forced Commission of Government and the length of which it lasted on the island. Hopefully we can all agree, in light of the release of the Bridle Documents, that at the very least, the affair could have been a lot more transparent on behalf of all parties involved.

To finish off, I just wanted to share that this was a very challenging blog for me to write. It’s a hard story to tell without sounding bitter or angry. Reading Malone’s book certainly evokes many of these feelings, but I don’t want to paint a picture of doom and gloom or of angry, self-pitying Newfoundlanders. Before reading this book, I’d never really considered that there was any other future that Newfoundland could have had and I know the majority of Newfoundlanders are extremely proud to be Canadian. Like any other Canadian, we love our province and we love our country. It’s important to know about the past and to try and understand it, but fortunately, it doesn’t have to define our future. So cheers to my beautiful home on the east coast – long may your big jib draw!

 

Disclaimer: All quotations have come from Greg Malone’s book, though some of them are directly referenced from other sources. I have done my best to summarize what I learned in Malone’s book, but I’m not a history expert and it’s very likely that I got some of the facts wrong. I apologize if that is the case; please (kindly) correct me of any errors you may notice. For the most accurate information, I’d recommend picking up a copy of Malone’s book for yourself!

 

Bibliography

1Greg Malone, Don’t Tell The Newfoundlanders, p.4
2Ibid., p.5
3Ibid., p.5
4Ibid., p.6
5Ibid., p.8. Originally from The Report of the Newfoundland Royal Commission, chaired by Baron Amulree (Amulree Report) 1933, pp. 223-224
6Ibid., p.12. Originally from J. Holland Rose, A.P. Newton and E.A. Benians, The Cambridge history of the British Empire, vol. 6, p. 683
7Ibid., p.12
8Ibid., pp.14-15. Originally from David Hale, “The Newfoundland Lesson”, International Economy Magazine, April 28, 2003. Available at www.international-economy.com
9Ibid., p.36. Originally from C. Atlee to Gov. Walwyn, Nov. 25, 1942, in Paul A. Bridle, ed., Documents on Relations between Canada and Newfoundland, vol. 2, pt. 1, pp.42-43
10Ibid., p.37. Originally from Gov. Walwyn to C. Atlee, Jan 7, 1943, in Paul A. Bridle, ed., Documents on Relations between Canada and Newfoundland, vol. 2, pt. 1, pp.53-54
11Ibid., p.37
12Ibid., p.68
13Ibid., p.71. Originally from Clutterbuck Report, Oct. 19, 1945, in Bridle, Documents, vol. 2, pt. 1, pp.173-78
14Ibid., p.180
15Ibid., p.180. Originally from N.A. Robertson to Louis St. Laurent, July 2, 1948, in Bridle, Documents, Vol. 2, pt. 1, pp.918-919
16Ibid., p.186. Originally from H. Porter to F.M. O’Leary, July 29, 1948, in FitzGerald, “Confederation,” pp. 253-54 17Ibid., p.198
18Ibid., p.198. Originally from Extracts from Memorandum by Delegation of Newfoundland to Meeting with Cabinet Committee, Oct. 13, 1948, Bridle, Documents, vol. 2, pt. 2, p.1130
19Ibid., p.203
20Ibid., p.232
21Ibid., p.230
22Ibid., p.233

 

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