How the baby bonus came to New­found­land

The Compass - - ORTHTE -

New­found­lan­ders joined Canada at the stroke of mid­night on April 30, 1949. Con­fed­er­a­tion came at the end of a long, hard-fought and bit­ter bat­tle, which be­gan when New­found­lan­ders (and Labrado­ri­ans, vot­ing for the first time in their his­tory) elected the Na­tional Con­ven­tion in June 1946 and con­tin­ued un­til July 1948, when the sec­ond ref­er­en­dum pro­duced a ma­jor­ity for Con­fed­er­a­tion.

The re­sult was clear, but the mar­gin was nar­row; Con­fed­er­a­tion won 52.34 per­cent of the vote, against the 47.66 per­cent for Re­spon­si­ble Gov­ern­ment.

In­deed, the vote was so close that Canada’s prime min­is­ter, Macken­zie King, won­dered whether New­found­lan­ders had made their de­ci­sion “clear and be­yond all pos­si­bil­ity of mis­un­der­stand­ing,” his pro­claimed stan­dard for ac­cep­tance of the re­sult. (King agreed that it was when Jack Pickersgill, his prin­ci­pal sec­re­tary, pointed out that Con­fed­er­a­tion had gained a larger share of the pop­u­lar vote than King had won in four of his five elec­tion vic­to­ries as prime min­is­ter. That was the first of Pickersgill’s many sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to New­found­land).

Even to­day, more than 60 years later, it is easy to touch off an ar­gu­ment as to why Con­fed­er­a­tion won. But there can be no doubt that the “baby bonus” was a pow­er­ful fac­tor in per­suad­ing many thou­sands of New­found­lan­ders to vote to join Canada. It was the star in the crown, Joseph Small­wood told au­di­ences throughout New­found­land over and over again, pas­sion­ately and with con­vic­tion.

Con­fed­er­a­tion won, and the baby bonus did come to New­found­land. The first cheques ar­rived in homes throughout the new prov­ince in April 1949 — just three weeks af­ter we be­came Cana­di­ans. Lib­eral politi­cians were quick to claim the credit; while the anti-Con­fed­er­ates who had called Small­wood a false prophet, a man who made “piein-the-sky” prom­ises that would not be ful­filled, were proven wrong. Small­wood and his Lib­er­als were tri­umphantly launched on what be­came the first of their six elec­tion vic­to­ries.

But the truth is that nei­ther Joey Small­wood nor the Lib­eral politi­cians in Ot­tawa got those cheques to the moth­ers in New­found­land. Here is what ac­tu­ally hap­pened.

The sec­ond ref­er­en­dum — the “who shall,” in the New­found­land phrase — was held on July 22, 1948. Eight days later, on July 30, prime min­is­ter King an­nounced that Canada had ac­cepted New­found­land’s de­ci­sion, and in­vited a del­e­ga­tion from New­found­land to come to Ot­tawa to ne­go­ti­ate the fi­nal Terms of Union.

The del­e­ga­tion ( led by Al­bert Walsh, who be­came the first Lieu­tenant-Gover­nor of the new prov­ince) took two months to pre­pare for the dis- cus­sions, which be­gan in Ot­tawa on Oct. 6. The fi­nal Terms of Union were signed two months af­ter that, on Dec. 11, 1948.

The terms promised clearly that New­found­lan­ders would be en­ti­tled to ev­ery one of the so­cial ben­e­fits pro­vided to ev­ery other Cana­dian and would be el­i­gi­ble for them from the very mo­ment that the new prov­ince joined the union. The first cheques were to go out in April. How was this to be ac­com­plished?

Less than a fort­night af­ter King’s July 30 an­nounce­ment, the se­nior Cana­dian pub­lic ser­vants told their min­is­ters that prepa­ra­tions must be­gin at once. The Cana­dian cab­i­net au­tho­rized the civil ser­vants to get on with the job on Aug. 11 — four months to the day be­fore the terms were signed.

The baby bonus — the fam­ily al­lowance, as it was known of­fi­cially — was the big­gest task of all. For­tu­nately, the men who de­vel­oped it in 1945 still worked for the gov­ern­ment. They knew what had to be done, and knew how to do it. The key step was to gather the names of chil­dren el­i­gi­ble to re­ceive the al­lowance. It had taken many months to do this four years ear­lier, when the first al­lowances were paid in Canada, and there were many de­lays and er­rors.

The prob­lems were com­pli­cated. The New­found­land gov­ern­ment had no list of the names of the chil­dren liv­ing in the about-to-be prov­ince. By mid-Oc­to­ber, Cana­dian of­fi­cials were in St. John’s to meet with their New­found­land coun­ter­parts to dis­cuss the best way to pre­pare one. The Cana­dian Bureau of Sta­tis­tics had al­ready made ar­range­ments to mi­cro­film New­found­land’s birth-reg­is­tra­tion records.

But time was run­ning out. “The reg­is­tra­tion process had to be flaw­less; any­thing less than that would amount to fail­ure,” in New­found­land his­to­rian Ray­mond Blake’s phrase. The of­fi­cials told Paul Martin, Canada’s min­is­ter of Na­tional Health and Wel­fare, that reg­is­tra­tion must be sub­stan­tially com­pleted by March 1 if New­found­land moth­ers were to get cheques in April. Martin acted quickly and de­ci­sively and in mid-Novem­ber 1948, a month be­fore the fi­nal terms were signed, told them to get on with the work. Reg­is­tra­tion forms were sent to ev­ery New­found­land fam­ily on Dec. 17 (six days af­ter the terms were signed).

And, to add ic­ing to the cake, leg­isla­tive changes also made it pos­si­ble to pay the baby bonus to the chil­dren of the 40,000 New­found­lan­ders who had lived in Canada for less than the three-year wait­ing pe­riod for­merly in place.

The sound ad­vice ten­dered by the civil ser­vants and their flaw­less ex­e­cu­tion suc­ceeded. The cheques ar­rived in St. John’s on April 20, 1949, and were de­liv­ered by the end of the month. New­found­lan­ders re­ceived them on the same day as did their fel­low Cana­di­ans.

The baby bonus was both pop­u­lar and ben­e­fi­cial. The records show that 50,051 moth­ers were paid nearly $10 mil­lion dur­ing the first year af­ter Con­fed­er­a­tion. That money came as a bless­ing to the chil­dren of those 50,000 moth­ers. Thou­sands upon thou­sands of New­found­lan­ders still alive can tes­tify to that.

Lib­eral politi­cians reaped the po­lit­i­cal ben­e­fits, of course. Joey Small­wood fre­quently claimed the credit for bring­ing it to New­found­land. He had good rea­son to do so. But it was the name­less civil ser­vants in the Depart­ment of Health and Wel­fare in Ot­tawa who made cer­tain that New­found­land’s moth­ers got their cheques in the very first month af­ter they be­came Cana­di­ans, and by do­ing so con­vinced them that Small­wood’s prom­ises would be kept. 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 lieu­tenant­gov­er­nor from 2002 to 2008. He can be reached by email at the fol­low­ing:


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