Choosing Confederation

March 1, 1999 by Peter Black

There is no end to the What Ifs? that determined the shape and texture of this country. What if Champlain had no appetite for privation and retreated to France? What if Wolfe had not found his path up the slope? What if so many Americans had not been loyal? What if there had been no champagne at Charlottetown?

Here’s another one: What if 54 years ago a stubborn little man from Gambo, Nfld., had not had an epiphany during breakfast in a Montreal hotel and decided that Newfoundland and Labrador would be better off as a province of Canada than as an independent country?

On that morning, Joseph Roberts Smallwood, 45, reporter, broadcaster, historian, socialist, pig farmer, was in Montreal on a stopover after meetings in Toronto with grain suppliers for his Gander piggery. He picked up a copy of the Montreal Gazette newspaper that carried a story about Britain’s plan to hold a referendum asking Newfoundlanders what form of government they wanted. He was so excited he scarcely touched his breakfast.

Smallwood walked the streets of Montreal that morning, running over and over in his head the implications and opportunities the referendum presented for Newfoundland and Labrador. While he was not yet a Confederate, he was hell-bent to be involved in the campaign to decide the country’s future. Country may have been a bit of a stretch, for at that time Newfoundland was technically a British colony. It reverted to that status in 1934 after the Depression and gouging fish barons left the island bankrupt and with little choice but to seek British protection. Canada, coping with its own problems, rebuffed an overture for Confederation at that time. Great Britain replaced the responsible government the colony had won in 1855 with a Commission of Government, comprising a British governor, three British commissioners and three locals.

It’s not that there was a hue and cry in post-WW II Newfoundland to change the way the place was governed. In fact, most people, savouring a relatively high level of prosperity brought about by wartime activity, were content with the commission. Besides, the terms setting up the commission specified that responsible government would not be restored until the island could survive on its own.

But, as Richard Gwyn explains in his book Smallwood: The Unlikely Revolutionary, a combination of an aversion to colonialism on the part of the newly elected Labour Party in Britain plus the crushing financial burden imposed by the war hastened the mother country’s desire to liberate its expensive dependant, particularly when there was such a convenient adoptive parent available just across the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The would-be parent, however, was less than eager to have another querulous progeny on its hands despite Mackenzie King’s typically prudent suggestion in 1945 that “Canada would give her most sympathetic consideration” to Newfoundland’s desire to enter into Confederation, as long as that decision was “clear beyond all possibility of misunderstanding.” From the standpoint of some Canadians at the time, there was precious little to be gained by adding the island, which after all, had had its chance in 1867, but chose to remain under British hegemony.

During WW II, both Canada and the United States were, by necessity, brought closer to Newfoundland when they each established air bases and naval facilities there, primarily to counter the German threat to Allied shipping in the North Atlantic.

Which brings the story back to J.R. Smallwood, whom, at war’s end, found himself the proprietor of a pig farm supplying fresh meat for the huge air base at Gander. Pig farmer was the latest incarnation in a life that began in 1900. The end of the war, in short, found Smallwood as a worldly, energetic, middle-aged man, whose life’s best achievements could very well have been behind him. But destiny had other things in mind for Joey Smallwood.

While other characters played important roles, there’s little argument that the march to Confederation was led by Smallwood. Quite probably, had he not devoted his entire being to the cause, the island’s postwar history would have been quite different.

In 1946, Smallwood was elected to the Constitutional Convention that was responsible for laying the groundwork for a referendum on Newfoundland’s future. “A dynamic speaker with a populist touch, Smallwood campaigned hard for Confederation,” note historian Desmond Morton and sociologist Morton Weinfeld in their book Who Speaks For Canada? Words That Shape A Country. “…Smallwood was both a passionate Newfoundlander and a passionate Canadian.”

It was Smallwood who did the in-depth research on what Confederation would mean to Newfoundland and Labrador; he was the one who led the debates that were broadcast to every outport and every village; he was the one who unwittingly fulfilled Britain’s secret desire to have union with Canada as one of the options on the referendum ballot; and it was Smallwood who brought his message to dozens of outports, swooping in aboard a rickety single-engine seaplane.

“The choice is clear,” he said during one of his famous referendum campaign speeches, “responsible government as it existed in 1933, or Confederation with Canada. You make a last-minute decision between the two forms of government. You know what responsible government was like in 1933; the Depression, the destitution, the dole, the disease. You know all about the tuberculosis and the beriberi. You know all about the brown dole bread. I don’t have to remind you of the suffering under responsible government as it existed in 1933. There may be a few youngsters around who don’t remember anything about it–but you do. Even if you weren’t on the dole and didn’t have to eat the dole bread yourselves, your neighbours did, and you know all about it.”

Voting in the first referendum campaign took place June 3, 1948. When the tally showed responsible government had won, and even though his Confederation allies felt crushed, Smallwood knew the odds looked good for his side in the run-off referendum. He figured that a solid majority of the 23,000 people who voted for continued British rule would join the 64,000 backing Confederation and overcome the 69,400 tally won by responsible government. And, true enough, after another bitter six-week campaign, Confederation triumphed over responsible government in the July 22 referendum by a narrow margin of 78,323 votes to 71,334 votes.

“I never thought I’d see the day,” Smallwood recalled later. “From that December day in 1945 in Montreal to July 22, 1948, for 32 months, I had worked day and night to achieve this result. I had known insuperable obstacles, but I had not accepted them as insuperable.”

Newfoundland and Labrador officially became a Canadian province at midnight on March 31, 1949.

Fifty years after Newfoundland and Labrador joined Confederation, Smallwood’s name still inspires either venom or veneration in Newfoundlanders, and it’s not just because of his championship of Confederation. Once he became the province’s first premier, he set about to wean the new province from its historic dependency on the fishery and bring it into the modern industrial age.

With the transfer of the fishery to Ottawa, a shift that fit nicely with Smallwood’s industrializing ambitions, the outport life was in practical terms doomed. The outports, 1,300 sea-pounded villages, many literally anchored to bald rock, had been the essence of the New Founde Land since the first Basque, Portuguese, Spanish, French and English fishermen crossed the North Atlantic to help themselves to the boundless generosity of the island’s fishing, whaling and seal-hunting grounds.

In 1662, England imposed a century-long ban on settlement on the island. However, this didn’t stop the establishment of fishing villages which sprung up to form a network ringing the entire coast. Sustained by winter seal hunts, these outport settlers were Irish and English mostly, although on the island’s west or French coast, Jakatars could trace their roots back to the Basques, Spanish, French and native.

Life in the outports, from most accounts, was unimaginably hard by modern standards. Not only was the struggle with the sea for the day’s catch a brutal and frequently deadly exercise, providing other daily essentials for survival like firewood from the inland and vegetables from a small garden plot was an unceasing challenge to the outport family. If such hardships were not enough, until only this century fishermen in the outports were under the thumbs of the fishing admirals and merchants. The system of credit against future catches practically guaranteed that few fishermen were ever able to wrest free of virtual enslavement to the fish buyers.

As hard as life was in the outports, the people that evolved, Newfoundlanders, were remarkable for their great warmth, humour and dignity. These were people accustomed to providing support for their neighbours in times of need where no government welfare existed, indeed, where little government to speak of existed.

Jim Wellman, the retired host of CBC Radio’s Fisheries Broadcast and the son of a fishing schooner captain, recalls growing up in Port Anson in Notre Dame Bay on the island’s north coast. He says it never occurred to people there that they were not as well off as others. “It was nice knowing everyone lived alike. Everyone looked after one another and the community always pitched in to help.”

“Confederation gave Newfoundlanders a far higher standard of living but solved few underlying economic problems,” note Morton and Weinfeld in their book published by McClelland & Stewart Inc. “In recent years the weakness of the fisheries has led to high seasonal unemployment and rising welfare dependency in the province. But it is not clear how staying out of Confederation would have improved matters.”

Dominion Command Grand President and former senator Jack Marshall said Newfoundland and Labrador inherited a new quality of life that brought–among other things–old age pensions, the baby bonus and health insurance and unemployment insurance. “For thousands of students, it opened up a field of opportunity with improved and expanded educational facilities,” says Marshall who was member of Parliament for the federal riding of Humber-St. George’s-St. Barbe. “Another positive chapter of Newfoundland’s partnership with Canada was the extension of Canada’s defence structure which created thousands of career opportunities.”

The inimitable former provincial Liberal and federal Tory cabinet minister John Crosbie is an ardent defender of Confederation. “No one but a complete dolt could have come to the conclusion that we haven’t been treated well” since joining Canada.

Still, out-migration from Newfoundland, from the cities as well as the outports, remains a deeply troubling problem. Despite new employment prospects generated by oil, nickel and hydro projects, some 50,000 people–mostly younger ones with some skills–have fled the Rock in the past decade, seeking jobs elsewhere in Canada and the U.S. Wellman says the sad cases are the people in their 50s who find they are too old to be retrained or to move from the outports or towns, but too young to retire from an active working life.

Crosbie says the major criticism of how well Newfoundland has fared since 1949 has been on the fishery. “Our provincial government would have been no more capable” of preventing a calamity in the fisheries than the Canadian government. As far as handling job and community dislocation caused by the cod moratorium, the former fisheries minister said: “No other country would have produced a more generous program of support.”

Difficulties aside, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador have been gearing up for Soiree ‘99, the official program for the 50th anniversary. “It is not only the celebration of a pride of Canada and a commitment to Canadian unity, but also the celebration of a unique pride of Newfoundland and Labrador,” states a news release from the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Recreation. “It is a celebration of our pride in being part of Canada, and of Newfoundland and Labrador’s unique culture and rich heritage.”

The province is inviting all Canadians to share in a huge anniversary celebration. More than 200 festivals and events are planned for throughout the year, including the Soiree Provincial Tour that will visit 18 communities in July and August and feature musical performances, dramatic interpretations and displays of cultural heritage. “The exhibit will present our 50-year history as Canadians, while professional actors and musicians stage memorable performances to honour our anniversary.”

Among the special events is the opening of the Smallwood Interpretation Centre in Gambo. The museum will display the memorabilia of Smallwood’s life as a journalist, union organizer, entrepreneur and political leader. Gambo is located approximately 30 kilometres southeast of Gander.

For further information on Soiree ‘99 events contact: Soiree ‘99, Box 1997, Crosbie Building, 1 Crosbie Place,St. John’s, NF, AIC 5R4. Phone (709) 729-1999 or Fax (709) 579-2067.

As the debate over Confederation fades from living memory, the time will come when few will be able to imagine Canada without Newfoundland and Labrador. And few would deny that Canada has been immeasurably enriched by having the remarkable people of Newfoundland and Labrador in the family.

In the end, despite their small numbers, Newfoundlanders have unquestionably left more of an impression on the rest of the country than vice-versa. Without a doubt, Newfoundlanders have become engrained in Canadian culture. Indeed, it’s hard to express what cultural value a country attaches to people like Gordon Pinsent, Rick Mercer, Mary Walsh or Rex Murphy; how much Canadian letters are enhanced by poet E.J. Pratt, authors Harold Horwood, Percy Janes, Kevin Major or Wayne Johnston.

It is, of course, the people themselves who are the greatest blessing of Confederation. Though the exodus from the island is sad for many, it has brought thousands of Newfoundlanders out among the rest of the Canadian people where we are in awe of their relentless good humour, pride in their roots and reverence for their history of survival on a forbidding, but magnificent rock.

“As we head into the 50th anniversary celebration,” adds Marshall, a life member of Corner Brook, Nfld., Branch, “there is no doubt in my mind that the people of Newfoundland and Labrador will again offer their friendship with pride and good will to those who will visit the province. Newfoundlanders are very proud of who they are. They are proud to be Canadian.”

In 1937, years before Confederation and years before the cod were gone, Joey Smallwood wrote something that is as true today on the 50th anniversary as it was back then. “The economic blizzard has strewn the scene with considerable wreckage, but the spirit of the people is invincible,” he wrote. “The wreckage will be cleared away. It is being cleared away. Newfoundlanders are the most tenacious and patriotic people in the world, and it takes more than a storm to destroy their pride.”

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