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!
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
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.
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
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.
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!
1Greg Malone, Don’t Tell The Newfoundlanders, p.4
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
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
13Ibid., p.71. Originally from Clutterbuck Report, Oct. 19, 1945, in Bridle, Documents, vol. 2, pt. 1, pp.173-78
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