How Con­fed­er­a­tion got on the ref­er­en­dum bal­lot

The Compass - - OPINION -

New­found­lan­ders — and Labrado­ri­ans, who voted for the first time ever — went to the polls in June 1946 for the first time in 14 years. They elected 45 men to be the mem­bers of the Na­tional Con­ven­tion. The Con­ven­tion’s man­date was set out in the statute passed by the Com­mis­sion of Govern­ment:

“It shall be the duty and func­tion of the Con­ven­tion to con­sider and dis­cuss among them­selves … [and] to make rec­om­men­da­tions to His Majesty’s Govern­ment of the United King­dom as to pos­si­ble forms of fu­ture govern­ment to be put be­fore the peo­ple in a Na­tional Ref­er­en­dum.”

It was clear from the out­set that the Bri­tish Govern­ment would de­cide the ques­tions to be put to the vot­ers. The Con­ven­tion could only dis­cuss and rec­om­mend.

The great na­tional de­bate be­gan in Septem­ber 1946, when the Con­ven­tion first met, and ran through­out all of 1947. On Fri­day, Jan. 23, 1948, mem­bers were asked to de­cide their rec­om­men­da­tions. All 45 of them voted to put two choices on the bal­lot: “1. Re­spon­si­ble Govern­ment as it ex­isted prior to 1934; [and] 2. Com­mis­sion of Govern­ment.”

A third choice

Joseph Small­wood, the leader of the Con­fed­er­ate forces, then moved that a third choice be added — “Con­fed­er­a­tion with Canada upon the ba­sis sub­mit­ted to the Na­tional Con­ven­tion on Nov. 6, 1947 by the Prime Min­is­ter of Canada.”

He used all the pas­sion at his com­mand in plead­ing with his fel­low del­e­gates:

“I call upon even the bit­ter­est anti-con­fed­er­ate here to vote for my mo­tion. Hate Con­fed­er­a­tion all you like. That is your priv­i­lege, but do not vote to deny our peo­ple of New­found­land their rights to de­cide this mat­ter. We here in this con­ven­tion have not been given the right to de­cide what form of govern­ment this coun­try shall have, the peo­ple have been given that right, and they will ex­er­cise their right in the ref­er­en­dum.”

The de­bate ran on all that af­ter­noon, for all of Mon­day’s ses­sion and con­tin­ued on Tues­day af­ter­noon and into the evening. So many mem­bers spoke that the vote was not called un­til 5 a.m. on Wed­nes­day. Small­wood and 15 other mem­bers stood in their place to sup­port it. The other 29 mem­bers of the Con­ven­tion voted “Nay.” The con­ven­tion was for­mally dis­solved two days later, on Jan. 30, 1948.

Small­wood and Gor­don Bradley were not dis­mayed by the de­feat; in­deed, they had ex­pected it. They im­me­di­ately called upon their fel­low cit­i­zens to protest the Con­ven­tion’s de­ci­sion to pre­vent them from vot­ing for Con­fed­er­a­tion.

Canada’s High Com­mis­sioner in New­found­land re­ported to Ottawa on Feb. 3 that Small­wood claimed to have re­ceived some 500 sup­port­ing tele­grams, signed by 11,000 cit­i­zens. The Evening Tele­gram, he added, “char­ac­ter­izes the sit­u­a­tion as ‘one of the most amaz­ing out­bursts of pub­lic opin­ion in this coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal his­tory.’” Four days later, he re­ported, the Con­fed­er­ate of­fice had been flooded by “1,550 tele­grams from 670 out­port com­mu­ni­ties, con­tain­ing the sig­na­tures of ap­prox­i­mately 44,000 vot­ers,” more than 25 per cent of all those on the voter’s list. By Feb. 12, he told his su­pe­ri­ors, 50,000 elec­tors had signed pe­ti­tions or sent tele­grams.

Right to choose

But the truth of the story is that the Bri­tish Govern­ment had al­ready de­cided what was go­ing to be done. Nor­man Robert­son, Canada’s High Com­mis­sioner in Bri­tain, told Louis St. Lau­rent, Canada’s Sec­re­tary of State for Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs, on Jan. 20, 1948 that the Bri­tish Cab­i­net, col­lec­tively, “see no lon­grun so­lu­tion of New­found­land’s prob­lems out­side Con­fed­er­a­tion ...”

On Feb. 3, Lord Ad­di­son, a mem­ber of the Cab­i­net, re­ported to At­tlee that he had dis­cussed the is­sue with New­found­land’s Gov­er­nor, Sir Gor­don Mac­don­ald and with the Per­ma­nent Un­der­sec­re­tary [Deputy Min­is­ter] of the Com­mon­wealth Re­la­tions of­fice. Ad­di­son’s ad­vice was that the Cab­i­net should re­ject the Con­ven­tion’s con­clu­sion, and add Con­fed­er­a­tion to the bal­lot pa­per, thereby giv­ing New­found­lan­ders the right to choose which of the three forms of govern­ment they wanted. A day later, the prime min­is­ter sent word for­mally that he ac­cepted the ad­vice.

There was just one hitch. At­tlee stip­u­lated that he would not add Con­fed­er­a­tion if the Cana­dian govern­ment did not want it on the bal­lot. His con­cern dis­ap­peared on Feb. 19, when the Cana­dian govern­ment of­fi­cially told the Bri­tish that the ques­tion was one “for the United King­dom to de­cide.”

Gov­er­nor Mac­don­ald an­nounced in St. John’s on March 11 that the third choice — “Con­fed­er­a­tion with Canada” — would ap­pear on the bal­lot be­cause “it would not be right to de­prive the peo­ple of New­found­land of an op­por­tu­nity of con­sid­er­ing the is­sue [of Con­fed­er­a­tion] at the Ref­er­en­dum.”

The an­nounce­ment went on to say that there would be “a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum should no one form of govern­ment get an ab­so­lute ma­jor­ity at the first vote.”

Mad­den­ing wait

Those who think that the Bri­tish de­ci­sion was taken in ca­hoots with Small­wood were mis­taken. The Con­fed­er­ate leader re­counted in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, “I Chose Canada,” that he had had “to live through an in­ter­minable, in­tol­er­a­ble, mad­den­ing wait for word from Lon­don!”

Even then he learned about the Bri­tish de­ci­sion by a wink from his friend Dick O’Brien, an an­nouncer, who was on his way to the stu­dio to an­nounce over VONF that Con­fed­er­a­tion would be on the bal­lot.

The his­tor­i­cal record is clear. There can be no doubt that Bri­tain wanted New­found­land to be­come a prov­ince of Canada. In­deed, the Bri­tish North Amer­ica Act which cre­ated the Do­min­ion of Canada in 1867 made spe­cific pro­vi­sion for New­found­land’s en­try into the Union.

The Na­tional Con­ven­tion’s re­fusal to put Con­fed­er­a­tion on the bal­lot came as no sur­prise to any as­tute ob­server. In turn, it should not have been a sur­prise to any­body that Bri­tain would en­sure that New- found­lan­ders had an op­por­tu­nity to say whether they wanted to be­come Cana­dian, or to re­main as an in­de­pen­dent coun­try. That is why the Con­ven­tion was given only the right to rec­om­mend pos­si­ble choices, rather than to de­cide them.

The rest is his­tory. Re­spon­si­ble Govern­ment got the most votes in the first round of bal­lot­ing, in June 1948, but did not win the sup­port of a ma­jor­ity. The “who shall,” in July, gave a slim — but clear — ma­jor­ity to Con­fed­er­a­tion. We be­came Cana­dian a few short months later, on March 31, 1949. 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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