The four crucial decisions by Britain about Confederation
Most Newfoundlanders know that we surrendered our right to govern ourselves in 1933, when our country faced bankruptcy. And we all know that we didn’t regain our democratic freedom until 1949, when we voted — by a slim but nonetheless decisive majority — to become Canadians. But many of us don’t know about the four crucial decisions taken by the British Government in the process which led to Newfoundland becoming Canada’s 10th province.
Partisan political activities disappeared during the early years of the Commission’s rule, but Peter Cashin and others began to agitate for the return of Responsible Government in the latter years of the Second World War. Newfoundland, they argued, was self- supporting. Britain, herself verging on bankruptcy because of the cost of the war, was quite prepared to end financial assistance to Newfoundland.
Britain had promised, in 1933, to restore our self- government “on request from the people of Newfoundland,” once we had “become self-supporting.” But she did not keep her promise. Instead, on Dec. 11, 1 9 4 5 , P r i m e Mi n i s t e r A t t l e e announced that Newfoundlanders would be asked to elect a National Convention “to consider and discuss amongst themselves … Newfoundland’s financial and economic situation … and to make recommendations to His Majesty’s Government as to the possible forms of future government to be put before the people in a National Referendum.”
Far from restoring the pre- 1933 constitution, Britain set up a mechanism to enable Newfoundlanders to do no more than to review “all alternative courses open to the Island.” The National Convention could only make “recommendations,” not decisions. Atlee promised that such recommendations would “be considered,” and that there would then be “a referendum on which the issues could be put to the Newfoundland people for their decision.”
His Majesty’s Government had either forgotten or had deliberately broken the promise to return “selfgovernment” upon request. The alternate course was to restore the elected legislature, and to let its members decide our future. Britain’s choice
profoundly affected that future.
New residency rule
The British also moved to try to limit the political power of the St. John’sbased businessmen and lawyers who had largely dominated electoral politics in the early years of the 20th century. A very high proportion of all the men who served in the House of Assembly lived and worked in St. John’s, notwithstanding that they represented outport districts. (Helena, Lady Squires, the only woman to sit in the pre-confederation House, made her home in St. John’s, although she had been born in Little Bay Islands, a community in Lewisporte district, which she represented in the House).
Candidates for the Convention, Attlee announced, must run where they lived, and could seek election in other districts only if they had “been ordinarily and bona fide resident” in that district for a full year within the last two years. The result was that Newfoundland’s traditional political class was sparsely represented in the Convention — only six of its 46 members had sat in the pre-commission legislature. That was the second decisive intervention by the British.
The third was the decision to record the Convention’s daily debates, and to rebroadcast them throughout the island each evening. This gave men and women in every part of Newfoundland the opportunity to follow the debates in their own homes and thus enhanced their ability to make decisions as to what was best for their country. The British had a hand in this decision, too.
But it was the British government’s fourth decision which was the most important. In January 1948, 17 months after it first met, the National Convention came to an end. Its members decided unanimously at the end of that month that two choices would be on the referendum ballot — “Responsible Government as it existed prior to 1934,” and “Commission of Government.”
But then, after a heated debate, they rejected Joseph Smallwood’s motion that Newfoundlanders should also be given the choice to vote for Confederation with Canada. Twenty-nine of the Convention’s delegates said “no,” while 16 voted “yes.” All those in favour of offering Confederation as a choice represented districts off the Avalon Peninsula.
Smallwood, Gordon Bradley and other Confederates immediately launched a “Confederation crusade,” as they called it, to ask the British to intervene. Within a few days, more than 40,000 men and women sent telegrams and signed petitions to support him. The Confederates pressed their cam- paign for nearly a month, until March 11, when the British announced that “Confederation with Canada” would indeed appear on the ballot, together with the two choices recommended by the Convention itself.
Historians have since learned, from the British cabinet records, that Attlee had decided as early as Feb. 3 that Newfoundlanders would be allowed to choose among all three forms of government.
Britain did not control the National Convention, and there is no reasonable argument that the majority of the Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who voted in the final referendum did not choose Confederation. But that does not take away from the fact that the British government broke its promise to return Responsible Government to the people of Newfoundland, nor does it take away the effect of the four decisions upon the National Convention and the two referendums.
While there are arguments for and against what was done, there need be no doubt that Britain wanted us to join Canada.