Was the ref­er­en­dum re­sult the truth?

The Compass - - EDITORIAL OPINION -

Most of us know that our de­ci­sion to be­come Cana­di­ans was “a damned near-run thing” in the fa­mous phrase used by the Duke of Welling­ton to de­scribe his vic­tory at the Battle of Water­loo.

We made our de­ci­sion in 1948. Ev­ery New­found­lan­der and ev­ery Labradorian 21 years and older had the right to help to de­cide the ques­tion, by cast­ing their votes in a se­cret bal­lot.

Al­most all of them did so. Two ref­er­enda were re­quired to get a clear re­sult. Re­spon­si­ble Gov­ern­ment got more votes than ei­ther of the other two choices — Con­fed­er­a­tion and the con­tin­u­a­tion of Com­mis­sion — in the first vote, on June 3, but failed to win a ma­jor­ity.

The runoff, on July 22, of­fered only two choices — “Con­fed­er­a­tion with Canada” or “Re­spon­si­ble Gov­ern­ment as it ex­isted in 1933.” Just un­der 85 per cent of the elec­torate voted. Con­fed­er­a­tion re­ceived 78,323 votes and Re­spon­si­ble Gov­ern­ment 71,434. The re­sult may have been close, but both Bri­tain and Canada took it as be­ing de­ci­sive. We be­came Cana­di­ans just be­fore the stroke of mid­night on March 31, 1949.

But there are those who be­lieve to this day that the “of­fi­cial” re­sults were not the true ones. Fraud and chi­canery tainted the count, they say. Re­spon­si­ble Gov­ern­ment was the true win­ner, but the authorities — in Bri­tain and here in New­found­land — ei­ther al­lowed the bal­lot boxes to be stuffed or threw away many of the bal­lots marked for the Re­spon­si­ble cause.

Some have long be­lieved this was so, and many more came to do so af­ter see­ing the 1992 movie “Se­cret Nation.” The fact that not a shred nor scin­tilla of tan­gi­ble ev­i­dence has ever come for­ward to sup­port the no­tion means noth­ing to such folks.

The clos­est any­body has ever come to ev­i­dence that vic­tory had been stolen from Re­spon­si­ble Gov­ern­ment was put for­ward by Harold Pad­dock, a well-known and highly re­garded pro­fes­sor of lin­guis­tics at Me­mo­rial Univer­sity. He told his story in an ar­ti­cle pub­lished by The New­found­land Quar­terly in the spring of 1978.

In the 1960’s, while a grad­u­ate stu­dent liv­ing in Lon­don, Eng­land, Pad­dock met “a for­mer Bri­tish gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial at the BBC.”

The man had a trou­bled con­science. When he re­al­ized that Pad­dock was a New­found­lan­der, he “con­fessed” to him that he had been one of those who brought about the fraud. An English­man, the man had worked in New­found­land as a civil ser­vant dur­ing the time of Com­mis­sion. He solemnly as­sured Pad­dock that he had been told by his su­pe­ri­ors “that he must an­nounce that New­found­land had voted to join Canada re­gard­less of the ac­tual bal­lot count.”

He added that he did as he was or­dered, and had suf­fered from a tor­tured con­science ever af­ter­wards.

The story might be com­pelling were it not for the cir­cum­stance that Pad­dock was un­able to re­call his in­for­mant’s name. Mar­got Davies, a New­found­lan­der who for many years was the host of Call­ing New­found­land from Bri­tain on BBC Ra­dio, had in­tro­duced the two of them, Pad­dock re­called, but for what­ever rea­son the man’s name had not fixed it­self in his mem­ory. There was no way, then, to ver­ify the star­tling rev­e­la­tion.

There is no rea­son to doubt Harold Pad­dock’s hon­esty, or his be­lief in what he wrote. But it is both ex­traor­di­nar­ily strange and very com­pelling that he for­got the name of the per­son who gave him what was in all like­li­hood the most im­por­tant piece of in­for­ma­tion he en­coun­tered dur­ing his en­tire life. No­body else has ever come for­ward to con­firm the story, nor has any doc­u­ment of any sort ever been found in any archive or gov­ern­ment record of­fice in New­found­land, Canada or Bri­tain.

Some still ar­gue that the fact that no ev­i­dence — let alone con­vinc­ing proof — has ever be­come pub­lic sim­ply proves how clev­erly the elec­tion was stolen. But it is all but im­pos­si­ble to ac­cept that stuff­ing a bal­lot box or fail­ing to count votes dur­ing an event as pub­lic and as con­tro­ver­sial as the fi­nal Ref­er­en­dum — the “who-shall” vote — in 1948 has been kept se­cret for more than 60 years.

The votes were counted sep­a­rately in each of the 25 dis­tricts (24 on the Is­land and one in Labrador) into which New­found­land and Labrador had been di­vided for elec­toral pur­poses. At a min­i­mum, six or seven or eight men and women would have been present at any count. Given that the elec­tion was hotly, even bit­terly, con­tested and the im­por­tance of the vote to the fu­ture of New­found­land, it stretches rea­son to ar­gue that ev­ery one of those men and women have kept such an im­por­tant se­cret for 60 years.

But, then again, we are all free to be­lieve what­ever we wish.

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