Over the years I’ve written a great many articles about Newfoundland and Labrador’s position, or lack of it, within Canada.
With that in mind and with countless examples of inequity having been presented to the Canadian public by countless individuals, groups and provincial leaders for years I find it amazing that there are still people, mostly from outside the Province, who either, fail to, or refuse to, come to terms with the Newfoundland and Labrador situation.
What they don’t seem to realize is that each of the inequities brought forward and many, many more are, no matter how small, of the greatest importance to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. This importance lies in the inescapable reality that each one helps to form a critical link in forging a long chain of national discontent that is growing with each passing day.
To those who still wonder why such deep rooted discontent exists all I can say is this:
Any house built on an unsteady foundation is bound to display cracks over time. The longer those cracks are left untended the weaker the entire house becomes until it eventually has no alternative but to collapse.
The manner in which Newfoundland and Labrador was brought into Canada has tainted everything and everyone that came after and it has guaranteed that an underlying anger and suspicion is deeply ingrained in the collective psyche of Newfoundland and Labrador’s citizens.
Remember, if you knew it in the first place, that at one time Newfoundland and Labrador was itself a fully independent Dominion, just like Canada.
During the dark days of the depression, in the 1930’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, like many others, found itself struggling under a crippling debt load. As a result the people agreed to place themselves under the direct stewardship of Great Britain, on a temporary basis, with the clear understanding that upon regaining their financial footing full independence would once again be restored.
The story of how Britain played an instrumental role in fostering Newfoundland and Labrador’s financial instability and suffering prior to actually taking control over the Dominion is itself a long and distasteful story, but one that will have to wait for another day.
In any event, during the 1940’s Newfoundland and Labrador’s financial situation had indeed reversed itself and the former Dominion was once again financially capable of managing its own affairs, yet the independence promised to it a few years before was now denied by Great Britain.
Instead, in December of 1945, the British government announced that a 45 member “National Convention” would be elected by the voters of Newfoundland to assist them in coming to a "free and informed decision as to their future form of government".
This so called “National Convention” was elected in June, 1946 and given the following terms of reference:
“To consider and discuss amongst themselves as elected representatives of the Newfoundland people, the changes that have taken place in the financial and economic situation of the Island since 1934 and, bearing in mind the extent to which high revenues of recent years have been due to wartime conditions, to examine the position of the country and to make recommendations to His Majesty's Government as to possible forms of future government to be put before the people at a national referendum.”
Later that year the delegation traveled to London to determine what financial relations might be expected under (a) continuation of Commission of Government as it existed, (b) a revised form of the Commission, or (c) responsible (independent) government.
The reply was simple. Under the first option the financial relationship would remain the same and Great Britain would be responsible for Newfoundland and Labrador’s financial dealings; the outcome of the second option would depend upon the form of revision undertaken; and under responsible government Newfoundland and Labrador would bear full responsibility for her own finances.
In February of 1947 the newly formed “National Convention” passed a resolution to send representatives to Ottawa. Their mandate was to ascertain "what fair and equitable basis might exist for federal union of Newfoundland and Canada ". A similar resolution, to send a group to the U.S., was defeated by a majority of the Convention’s members and as a result never took place.
Seven members were sent to Ottawa in June of that year and in October Canada’s Prime Minister responded with a statement of terms which the Government of Canada would be prepared to recommend to Parliament as a basis for union.
After reviewing and debating the Canadian terms the 45 member delegation resoundingly decided against Confederation with Canada and recommended to the British government on Jan. 29, 1948 that only two choices be placed before the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, the restoration of Responsible Government or continuation of the British Commission of Government.
It’s worthy of note that the motion to exclude Confederation from the referendum was agreed upon by a vote of 29 to 16.
The British government however, after reviewing the decision, refused to accept it and instead ordered the Canada option added to the ballot.
The official statement out of England pointed to Canada's offer being based on long discussion, it spoke of the support for Confederation shown within the “National Convention”, and to the fact that the issues had been sufficiently clarified to enable the people to decide whether Confederation would commend itself to them.
Regardless of the position taken by the British government, the fact remains that the “National Convention” in reality did not support Confederation with Canada and the voting public was never actually informed or educated on what the terms of union with Canada would include until long after the vote was over and their futures had already been decided.
At the first referendum held on June 3, 1948, more than 88% of the 176,297 registered voters went to the polls. Responsible Government (a return to independence) won. It received 69,400 votes, Confederation 64,066 and continuation of Commission of Government (British rule) 22,311 votes.
In spite of the fact that a return to independence had triumphed, it was decided that since no single option was a resounding winner a second referendum was to be conducted and only the two top vote getters would be included this time around. One of those two options was Confederation with Canada, an option that the “National Assembly”, instituted by Britain itself and elected by the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, had already rejected for inclusion on the original ballot but which Britain had ensured was there.
This meant that one of the options approved by the elected members of the National Convention would not appear on the second ballot and one that they had rejected after review and debate would remain.
In the second referendum held on July 22, 1948, approximately 85% of voters turned out. Stories of vote tampering, ballot box stuffing and physically pressuring or threatening voters were rampant throughout the entire referendum process. The well funded pro-Confederation side, the financing of which would make an interesting story in and of it self, claimed victory with 78,323 votes against 71,334 for independence.
On July 30, 1948, the Prime Minister of Canada who had long been in discussion with Britain over “the Newfoundland issue” proudly announced that the result of the referendum was "clear and beyond all possibility of misunderstanding".
Yet clearly it wasn’t.
There are several key points that this history lesson imparts to us.
The decision by England, to create a “National Convention” in the first place, rather than actually re-instating full independence to Newfoundland and Labrador, flies in the face of Britain’s mandate to ensure independence once the financial situation had been stabilized.
Only after independence from Britain had been attained should the citizens have been tasked with deciding if a referendum was warranted or what options should be included if there was one.
Once the “National Convention” delegation had been foisted on the people of Newfoundland and Labrador it should have been permitted to carry out its duties in an independent manner, free from interference by the British government.
When the Convention passed a resolution to send a fact finding delegation to Canada and rejected a similar plan to send one to the U.S. the decision was agreed to by Britain. That particular event might not raise any red flags however…when the Convention informed Britain that upon reviewing the Canadian position and after debating the option freely it had voted to strongly reject Confederation with Canada the “National Convention” was overruled and Confederation was placed on the ballot anyway.
In the end the second referendum saw a return of the delegation’s original plan for only two clear options but it was not the two decided upon by the elected delegation, in fact one of the choices was Britain’s pre-ordained solution.
Why was a decision by the delegation to reject a U.S. union acceptable to England yet the decision to reject a Canadian one not acceptable?
Whether the so called “National Convention” should have existed or not, once the people of Newfoundland and Labrador voted for a group of delegates that had been forced on them by Britain you have to believe that those voters had every right to expect the delegates they elected to make the appropriate decisions about their future, not the British government.
When the first vote was conducted the result was a win for a return to freedom for Newfoundland and Labrador. It won by more than 5,300 votes, yet it was rejected in favor of a second ballot.
The second ballot saw Confederation win by just over 7000 votes, by no means a landslide, yet this particular outcome, for a twice rejected choice (once by the Convention delegates and once by the people themselves), that had been forced on the public by the British government, was immediately applauded in England and hailed in Canada as a decision that was, “…clear and beyond all possibility of misunderstanding".
For anyone who has not come to understand why such deep-rooted problems have existed between Canada and Newfoundland & Labrador even after 60 years perhaps this little history lesson will help you see things a little more clearly.
None of us wants to live in the past, nor should we. Most of us would love nothing better than to move beyond it. For this reason we often speak instead of new issues, slights and neglect that arrive on the Province’s doorstep and which continue to color Newfoundland and Labrador’s perception of Canada as a ruling nation.
Yet even as those new assaults are discussed we do not forget the events outlined here. Though historical in nature they are still fresh in many memories and they continue to serve as the extremely shaky foundation upon which Newfoundland and Labrador’s entire relationship with Canada so precariously rests.