Newfoundland Decides its Future
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Newfoundland Decides its Future
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Newfoundland Decides its Future
Joey Smallwood is at the centre of a political storm as Newfoundland decides whether to join Canada or go it alone
Joey Smallwood, a diminative, bespectacled man with an iron will, was at the centre of a political storm in the late 1940s as Newfoundlanders bitterly debated their future.
In post-war Newfoundland, incomes were a third of those in Canada and the economy depended on primary industries such as fishing. Pictured here, codfish caught off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, 1949. (National Archives of Canada, PA-110814)
In post-war Newfoundland, incomes were a third of those in Canada and the economy depended on primary industries such as fishing. Pictured here, codfish caught off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, 1949. (National Archives of Canada, PA-110814)

"We all love this land," Smallwood told a Newfoundland convention in 1946. "It has a charm, it warms our hearts, go where we will, a charm, a magic, a mystical tug on our emotions that never dies. With all her faults we love her. We take for granted our lower standards, our poverty. We can resolutely decide to be poor and proud."

Poor and proud is what Newfoundlanders had been for hundreds of years. During the Great Depression, the sovereign nation faced the shame of reverting back to colonial status with Britain after it suffered bankruptcy and government collapse.

Although the Second World War eased Newfoundlands poverty, incomes were still a third of those in Canada.

After the war, Newfoundland had little choice but to tackle the question of its future. Britain was financially drained by the war and looking for every possible cost-cutting measure. Reducing its colonial obligations would provide much-needed savings.

In September 1946, the official debate over Newfoundland's future began at convention in St. John's. Delegates representing various regions discussed options to be recommended to the British government and eventually put to a public referendum.

Most of the delegates wanted Newfoundland regain independence, but Smallwood had another suggestion - confederation with Canada.

"Under Confederation, we would be better off in pocket, in stomach, and in health. For the first time in Newfoundlands history, Newfoundlands people would get a chance to live."

Smallwood's proposal was defeated but it launched his long battle to convince Newfoundlanders that Canada was their best choice. The convention debates continued for two years, all broadcast on the radio.

Smallwood, a former journalist, union organizer and pig farmer, was a brilliant orator and he began to dominate the discussions and become the mouthpiece for confederation with Canada.

He was part of a delegation that visited Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who saw the opportunity to become a latter day Father of Confederation. King offered Newfoundland $15 million in new capital and the absorption of most of Newfoundland's debt if the colony joined Canada.

Smallwood was elated.

"Let no man dare to crush that hope that has arisen in our people's hearts."

But most men did, and at the National Convention on January 29, 1948, the option of joining Canada wasn't even on the referendum; the only two options were independence or remaining under the rule of the British commission.

Smallwood drew up a petition, asking that Canada be added as a third option and got 50,000 signatures. On the June 3 referendum, it was included on the ballot.
In the late 1940s, a former pig farmer and radio broadcaster named Joey Smallwood helped convince Newfoundlanders to join Canadian confederation. Pictured here, Smallwood signing the confederation agreement in Ottawa, Dec. 11, 1948 (National Archives of C
In the late 1940s, a former pig farmer and radio broadcaster named Joey Smallwood helped convince Newfoundlanders to join Canadian confederation. Pictured here, Smallwood signing the confederation agreement in Ottawa, Dec. 11, 1948 (National Archives of Canada, PA-128080)

During the referendum campaign, Smallwood flew from town to town in an old seaplane, tirelessly arguing the merits of joining Canada, and launched a newspaper, The Confederate that supported the cause.

Smallwood was both the most and least popular man in Newfoundland, cheered and encouraged at one stop, threatened with violence at the next. He hired two bodyguards and carried a gun.

At a rally in St. John's, he escaped a mob by hanging onto the top of a car that drove him to safety.

Many in the outports supported confederation. But Fanny Ryan Liander of Harbour Grace was not among them. The mother and poet was almost 60 and bed-ridden, when she gave her first speech on radio.

"I had to give my lip support to strengthen it, as it was temporarily paralyzed. But I persevered; no surrender. The freedom of our land comes before everything else. Newfoundland is still our own dear land; and, we are, as yet Newfoundlanders, and not Canadians."

It is a choice between the old Newfoundland and the 20th century, Smallwood told his island.

"We are not a nation. We are a medium-sized municipality. We can, of course, persist in isolation, a dot on the shore of North America. By our isolation from the throbbing vitality and expansion of the continent, we have been left far behind in the march of time, the sport of historic misfortune, the Cinderella of Empire."

On July 22, 1948, the option to join Canada won by the narrow margin of 7,000 votes - 52% voting for confederation with Canada and 47% for responsible government. (The count was protested by the losing side for a generation)

On March 31, 1949, Newfoundland entered Canada as the tenth province.

In the newest province of Canada, black drapes were hung in mourning. Black flags were raised in a mute elegy for the lost nation.

The next day, Joey Smallwood - the singular, stubborn political force - became the new provinces first premier, a position he would hold for 23 years.

"We are not archangels and we are not supermen," he said. "I think I can say we are a bunch of Newfoundlanders determined to do their best for the toiling masses of Newfoundland, to make Newfoundland fit for Newfoundlanders."


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