Newfoundland Joins Canada

When the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa were reconstructed after a fire during the First World War, stone plaques were erected over the entrance to the Peace Tower.

When the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa were reconstructed after a fire during the First World War, stone plaques were erected over the entrance to the Peace Tower. There were ten of them, nine bearing the coats of arms of the provinces and one left bare, to await the day when Newfoundland joined Canada.

On April 1, 1949, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent cut the first ceremonial chisel strokes onto the blank stone. At 11:59 the previous night, Newfoundland had become a Canadian province.

Accompanying St. Laurent was a Newfoundlander, F. Gordon Bradley, who had just been sworn in as a member of the Canadian Cabinet. "We are all Canadians now," he proclaimed.

Yet Newfoundlanders' decision to enter into a union with Canada contradicted their history. They were a proud people who many decades before had chosen a destiny alongside Canada, rather than as part of it. The two countries grew to self-government under the British crown, Newfoundland watching Canada warily, even as ties between the two increased. Newfoundlanders lived dangerously and alone, in the memorable phrase of historian Peter Neary, with a small and scattered population and a highly vulnerable resource economy.

The Great Depression of the 1930s hit hard. Newfoundland was forced to go to Britain cap in hand. In return for economic guarantees, Newfoundland gave up its independence to a British-controlled administration, the Commission of Government.

This state of affairs was hardly tolerable for long, particularly when Newfoundland prospered and spirits picked up as a result of the Second World War.

Newfoundlanders would have to decide their future - was it to be on their own, with Britain, or in Confederation with Canada? From June 1946 to January 1948, an elected National Convention heatedly debated the possibilities.

The British were in no mood for more empire, and Canada had decided that it wanted Confederation. The two countries worked together closely behind the scenes to bring Newfoundland into Canada.

Canadian-British aims were not necessarily the aims of Newfoundlanders. Two political camps emerged: the pro-Canada Confederates, led by Bradley and Joseph Smallwood, and a disparate coalition favouring the return of self-government, which included Peter Cashin, who denounced union with Canada as a "Judas act," and Chesley Crosbie, the supporter of an economic union with the United States.

A referendum was held on June 3, 1948, with three choices on the ballot: Confederation, self-government, and Commission rule. The first two options split 85 percent of the vote, with self-government just over 4 points in the lead.

Since none of the camps had the required majority support, Confederation confronted self-government in a run-off referendum on 22 July. Winning over most of those who had backed the Commission on the first ballot, the Confederates inched ahead of their self-government opponents, obtaining 78,323 votes (52.34 percent) to 71, 344 (47.66 percent).

The close relationship that Newfoundland had built up with Canada during the war was one of the Confederates' great assets. "It is surprising," wrote journalist Ewart Young, "just how 'Canadianized' this island community already is."

Prime Minister Louis S. St. Laurent and Hon. A.J. Walsh shake hands following the signing of the agreement (courtesy National Archives of Canada).

Confederation's salesman-in-chief, Joey Smallwood, nevertheless had to overcome a deep-seated prejudice against political union. It aroused violent reactions, Young reported, to "break out like leprous sores."

An experienced radio broadcaster and mesmerizing orator, Smallwood ran a people's campaign, promising that Canadian social benefits would put an end to the economic uncertainty of Newfoundlanders. "If you are not a millionaire," he exhorted, "vote for Confederation."

Smallwood's imperishable achievement, asserts his biographer Richard Gwyn, was that he persuaded a country to surrender its nationhood, voluntarily and democratically.

Newfoundlanders became Canadians in April 1949 with calm, acceptance and no overabundance of expectations. There were small celebrations in the outports, pro-Canada strongholds, while in the capital of St. John's, which had voted 2-1 for self-government, black ties and a few black flags at half-staff quietly signalled the end of hopes for an independent Newfoundland.

With the addition of Newfoundland and massive Labrador, Canada now covered more territory than all of Europe. The dream of the country's founders, of a nation from sea to sea, had been fulfilled at last.

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