January 8, 2005
It is June 3, 2008, and an overwhelming 71% of Newfoundlanders have today voted to separate from Canada. The province will now begin to negotiate its exit from Confederation.
Most Canadians in the other nine provinces treat this vote as yet more histrionics designed to wring yet more concessions from the federal government, just as they viewed the now infamous Flag Flap of Christmas, 2004. If push came to shove, they believe, Newfoundland would never abandon the safety net that Canada provides. They are sorely mistaken. While many Newfoundlanders value federal welfare – the 1948 referendum debate that brought the province into Confederation, in fact, was explicitly fought and won on the promise of federal welfare payments – Newfoundland has had an historic distaste for Canada and a strong streak of free trade and independence.
Although Britain wanted Newfoundland to join its other North American colonies in Confederation in 1867, and although Newfoundland sent delegates to both the Charlottetown and Quebec conferences of 1864, free-trade-oriented Newfoundlanders balked at the prospect of union with a Canada likely to tax them heavily and seize their resources. When the issue was put to a vote, in Newfoundland’s 1869 "Confederation Election," the anti-Confederates won a landslide. The very term "Confederates" was an epithet, as a Newfoundland ditty of the day made clear: "Our face towards Britain, our back to the gulf, Come near at your peril, Canadian wolf."
In subsequent decades, as Canada’s confederation spread across the continent, Newfoundlanders continued to keep their distance, becoming the sole British North American colony to shun Canadian Confederation.
Newfoundland’s suspicions about Canada’s intentions were, in fact, well founded. Canada had long had designs on Newfoundland’s resources, and had long interfered with Newfoundland’s affairs. When Newfoundland negotiated a trade pact with the U.S. in 1890 that threatened Canadian fishery interests, for example, John A. MacDonald, Canada’s prime minister, scuttled the agreement by convincing Britain to overrule its colony. But perhaps Canada’s biggest intrusions into Newfoundland affairs occurred during and after the Second World War.
Americans – always welcome in Newfoundland – had become especially so during the war, with U.S. military bases bringing unprecedented prosperity to the island and Newfoundlanders warming to Americans as never before. Trade and cultural ties were forming (thousands of Newfoundland lasses were marrying American servicemen) and the Canadian government was concerned. To discourage Newfoundland independence and warmer Newfoundland-U.S. ties, Prime Minister Mackenzie King in 1943 invited Newfoundland to join the Canadian federation and then lobbied Britain to coerce Newfoundland into Canada.
Canada especially did not want an independent Newfoundland with strong trade ties to the U.S. As described in a 1947 Canadian Department of External Affairs memo: "Newfoundland’s economic union with the United States would greatly weaken the competitive position of the eastern Canadian fishing industry, since the U.S. tariffs would no longer operate against Newfoundland fishery products. Under such circumstances, moreover, the Newfoundland industry would undoubtedly attract U.S. capital. American modernization of the Newfoundland fishery would jeopardize Canada’s position." To prevent this outcome, Canada not only offered Newfoundland lavish benefits if it joined Confederation, the Liberal Party of Canada intervened in the colony’s referendum debate by financing the pro-Confederation campaign of Joey Smallwood against the "Responsible Government" alternative, which would have seen Newfoundland a self-supporting member of the British Commonwealth.
It is no coincidence that today’s stunning anti-Confederate vote comes 60 years to the day after a previous referendum on Confederation, not the one that saw Newfoundland join Canada, but the referendum seven weeks earlier, June 3, 1948, in which a plurality of Newfoundlanders voted against Canadian Confederation and for economic union with the United States.
"Give Ches. Crosbie A Chance to negotiate Economic Union with the United States by voting Responsible Government on the ballot paper. It’s the chance of a lifetime for a brighter tomorrow," the posters argued. Chesley Crosbie, a pillar of Newfoundland society (and the father of John Crosbie, a future Canadian finance minister), had formed the Party for Economic Union with the United States in arguing against Confederation. But although he was well liked and respectable, he was inarticulate and his organization disorganized – no match for the fiery rhetoric of Joey Smallwood and his well-oiled organization, its treasure chest flush with $2-million from the Canadian Liberal party. While Crosbie urged Newfoundlanders to "have faith" in themselves and their country, and to reject high Canadian taxes and the welfare state, Smallwood exhorted Newfoundlanders to become "a modern society," and accept the government intervention then in vogue. The Confederate newspaper on May 31, 1948 appealed to voters to "give yourself a chance. Give the Children a chance. Give Newfoundland a chance. Vote for Confederation and a healthier, happier Newfoundland . . . Confederation would mean that NEVER AGAIN would there be a hungry child in Newfoundland. If you have children under the age of 16, you will receive EVERY MONTH a cash allowance for every child you have or may have."
The Confederate side lost that first referendum in a three-way vote (it received 64,066 votes, versus 69,400 Newfoundlanders who voted for independence and 22,311 who wanted Great Britain to administer the island as a colony). In the run-up referendum, in which the pro-Confederate side inflamed religious passions by casting the choice as between Catholics (anti-Confederate) and Protestants (pro-Confederate), the pro-Confederate side won, but Newfoundlanders never fully accepted the outcome.
Few Newfoundlanders today doubt that, had Canada not gained control over Newfoundland’s resources, Newfoundland would not only have protected its cod fisheries, it would have better protected its other resources as well. Newfoundland’s price to abandon its referendum and stay in Confederation: Full control of its offshore resources and free trade within Canada, to allow Newfoundland to ship its hydroelectric power through Quebec and to the United States, without Quebec keeping the lion’s share of the profits.
If Newfoundland doesn’t get its price, the province will follow through on its referendum mandate and secede from Canada. After all, Newfoundlanders are convinced that mainland Canada has for 60 years been plundering their fisheries, forests, and other resources. As Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams put the injustice once the referendum results became official: "With the province’s oil wealth for the first time making Newfoundland a ‘have’ province, we’ll be damned if we’re now also going to subsidize Canada’s poor provinces through equalization payments."
A reader responds
Letter to the Editor, Financial Post, January 17, 2005
Re: Lawrence Solomon, Free Newfoundland, Jan. 8.
Mr. Solomon has given an interesting account of the political winds that have buffeted Newfoundland and may yet change the fortunes of Newfoundland. Take heed: The flag lowering is not a true omen.
A fact few Canadians understand is that Newfoundland and Canada had a Confederation of equals, not a bargain basement provincial union.
Newfoundland has a right to their offshore mineral wealth, the right to control it, govern it and enjoy the benefits without big brother, Canada, taking control like a pimp.
Hurray for Premier Danny Williams! Boo on Paul Martin!
Arnold Murray, Calgary