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.

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