Why we sur­ren­dered self-gov­ern­ment in 1933


Most New­found­lan­ders and Labrado­ri­ans know that we sur­ren­dered our right to gov­ern our­selves in 1933 be­cause our own gov­ern­ment — the one elected by the vot­ers of the Do­min­ion — was on the verge of bank­ruptcy. In a phrase, we couldn’t pay our bills.

But most of us have no idea how that came to be, and what it meant to the or­di­nary man or woman and their fam­i­lies.

New­found­land’s econ­omy had known both ups and downs, but the years be­fore the First World War in 1914 and the war years them­selves were pros­per­ous. Gov­ern­ment’s rev­enues, drawn mostly from cus­toms du­ties, brought in more each year than it cost to op­er­ate the pub­lic ser­vices, the so-called cur­rent ac­count.

The 11 years be­tween 1909 and 1920 pro­duced an op­er­at­ing sur­plus of $7 mil­lion. That money was spent on cap­i­tal ac­count, to build har­bours and roads and pub­lic build­ings and the rail­way. But it was not enough to pay for all the projects thought to be nec­es­sary, and so suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments raised loans on New­found­land’s credit.

By 1920, the Colony-turnedDo­min­ion owed $43 mil­lion. Mean- while, the cost of op­er­at­ing pub­lic ser­vices rose steadily. Be­tween 1920 and the com­ing of Com­mis­sion at the end of 1933, an­other $20 mil­lion was added to the debt, sim­ply to cover day-to-day house­keep­ing costs. Other loans were used to pay for cap­i­tal projects. Still fur­ther monies had to be bor­rowed each year to pay in­ter­est on the debt.

The New­found­land Rail­way took the big­gest part of the money. It had cost close to $45 mil­lion by the early 30s, and a fur­ther $2 mil­lion was be­ing eaten up each year in op­er­at­ing losses.

The First World War was the sec­ond big­gest cost. The gov­ern­ment bor­rowed $ 13 mil­lion to main­tain the New­found­land Reg­i­ment be­tween 1914 and 1919, and in­curred obli­ga­tions to pay $700,000 a year in pen­sions to the men who had re­turned and to the sur­vivors of those who had died. These had cost $9 mil­lion by 1933.

Cap­i­tal projects, roads and wharves and the New­found­land Ho­tel (owned by the gov­ern­ment) and such added an­other $ 12 mil­lion.

The De­pres­sion hit New­found­land very hard. In­di­vid­ual New­found­lan­ders suf­fered, and many were un­able to earn enough money to pro­vide even the ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties to their fam­i­lies. The gov­ern­ment suf­fered, too as rev­enues fell well be­hind ex­pen­di­tures.

By the end of 1933, the New­found­land gov­ern­ment owed $98.5 mil­lion. In­ter­est costs alone were run­ning close to $ 5 mil­lion a year, and con­sumed more than half the gov­ern­ment’s to­tal rev­enue from all sources. Canada and Great Bri­tain both passed laws to re­duce the in­ter­est on their na­tional debts, but New­found­land did not.

Suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments strug­gled to deal with the sit­u­a­tion. (Richard Squires and the Lib­er­als were in of­fice un­til June 1932, when Fred­er­ick Alderdice and the Con­ser­va­tives won the gen­eral elec­tion). Both ad­min­is­tra­tions cut ex­penses to the bone, and then cut into the bone it­self.

Squires had re­duced the ed­u­ca­tion bud­get by sev­eral hun­dred thou- sand dol­lars, and in Septem­ber 1932, three months af­ter his elec­tion to vic­tory, Alderdice cut a fur­ther $200,000, which re­duced ex­pen­di­ture for schools and teach­ers to one-half of what it had been in 1930-31.

The re­lief as­sis­tance paid by the gov­ern­ment to des­ti­tute fam­i­lies — the hated dole — was set at “six cents a day.” But still the fi­nan­cial cri­sis grew, like a snow­ball rolling down a steep hill. The gov­ern­ment’s ef­forts to bor­row more money came to noth­ing.

The last gen­eral elec­tion, in June 1932, turned on the wide­spread and un­change­able de­ci­sion of the peo­ple of New­found­land to re­ject Richard Squires and his Lib­eral gov­ern­ment. Fred­er­ick Alderdice and his Con­ser­va­tives took 70 per cent of the pop­u­lar vote, a tally not to be equalled un­til Danny Wil­liams and the Con­ser­va­tives did so in the 2007 gen­eral elec­tion.

The Lib­er­als won only two of the 27 seats in the House, which had been re­duced from 40 seats to 27, as an econ­omy mea­sure. Alderdice un­der­took in his elec­tion man­i­festo to in­ves­ti­gate the ad­vis­abil­ity of es­tab­lish­ing a form of Com­mis­sion of Gov­ern­ment ( not the one that came to be in the end), and pledged that any pro­posal would be “sub­mit­ted to the elec­torate for fur­ther ap­proval,” adding that “ no ac­tion would be taken that does not first have the con­sent of the peo­ple.”

The end was in­evitable, and could not have been post­poned. Alderdice’s prom­ise to con­sult the peo­ple was over­whelmed by the fi­nan­cial prob­lems. New­found­land had no choice but to turn else­where for help, and nowhere to turn but to Bri­tain, “ the Mother Coun­try.”

Bri­tain grudg­ingly of­fered some as­sis­tance. The price to be paid for it was the sus­pen­sion of self-gov­ern­ment, with New­found­land’s pub­lic af­fairs be­ing run by a Com­mis­sion of Gov­ern­ment. The House of Assem­bly and the Leg­isla­tive Coun­cil agreed to pay that price in a session that took less than a week, at the end of Novem­ber and early in De­cem­ber 1933.

Gor­don Bradley and Harold Starkes, the two Lib­er­als, were the only mem­bers to op­pose the de­ci­sion to do so.

Ed­ward Roberts has had a life­long in­ter­est in the his­tory of New­found­land and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the prov­ince’s lieu­tenant-gov­er­nor from 2002 to 2008.

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