Tom Mulcair got a nasty surprise in Newfoundland on Sunday, when he flew in to boost St. John's South-Mount Pearl candidate Ryan Cleary. A nearly 20-year-old exchange in Quebec's National Assembly, where he used the word "Newfie," came back to haunt him. 

Liberal candidate Nick Whalen suggested that the term had been used as a synonym for "stupid."

Mulcair was arguing with Parti Québécois members over the fairness of holding referendums until they get the result they want. He criticized "the separatists who hold two referendums in a row, who say 'that doesn't count, but when we win, then it will count.'"

A PQ member said the process was no different than the 1948 referendums by which Newfoundland joined Canada. 

"It's true that it's pretty Newfie, your business. You're correct to say it like that," Mulcair shot back.

Stupid people or dishonest process?

So, did Mulcair mean it was "stupid," as has been alleged? Not everyone heard it the same way as the Liberal candidate.

"Perhaps Mulcair was not being pejorative per se," wrote Colby Cosh in the National Post.

"The exact import of this exchange might be lost on Canadians in places where there is no longer a folk memory of the 1948 referendums which united the Dominion of Newfoundland with its larger neighbour."

Indeed, the context makes clear that Mulcair was not saying the PQ's referendum approach was unintelligent, but rather that it was dishonest and gamed to produce a certain result.

"Newfoundlanders let themselves be procedurally swindled in 1948, the old-model Mulcair seems to have been saying," wrote Cosh.

Many Newfoundlanders would agree that is a fair description of what happened to them.

Like the PQ in Quebec, the British Colonial Office also held two referendums in Newfoundland. Although an elected National Convention had voted 29-16 not to put Confederation with Canada on the ballot, they were overruled by the British government.


NDP Leader Tom Mulcair fishes for cod with MPs Ryan Cleary, left, and Jack Harris, right, in Petty Harbour, N.L., during a campaign stop on Sept. 20. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The cause of Confederation was defeated in the first vote, 45 per cent to 41 per cent. But Britain's Whitehall mandarins, who designed the process in consultation with Joey Smallwood and the Canadian government, were determined to achieve the result they wanted.

A second referendum was held. Most Newfoundlanders went to bed thinking independence had prevailed. The next day, the British government announced that 52 per cent of Newfoundlanders had voted to join Canada, and the British returning officers who had been sent out to conduct the referendum promptly burned the ballots in a hospital incinerator.

For most mainland Canadians, Confederation with Newfoundland is assumed to have been a happy event for which Newfoundlanders are grateful.

Few Canadians today know that the referendum in Newfoundland was a bitterly sectarian affair, with most Catholics and the entire Catholic hierarchy backing independence and most Protestants (and the Orange Order) opposed.

Few are aware that polls at the time showed that a large majority of Newfoundlanders of both persuasions preferred joining the United States, where almost every Newfoundlander had family members. (The pro-U.S. party was led by the father of John Crosbie.) But Winston Churchill was determined to keep Newfoundland in the Empire, and joining the U.S. was never an option on any ballot.

Newfoundland formally became part of Canada on April 1, 1949. My grandfather told his children at the dinner table: "This is a black day." Today, most Newfoundlanders are reconciled to the outcome, and many count themselves as proud Canadians. But the pain of Newfoundland's demotion from nation to province lingers.

'Anger and disgust'

Former premier Brian Peckford in his book The Past in the Present described his feelings toward Britain and Canada over the affair as a mix of "anger and disgust."

The bestselling non-fiction book of recent years in Newfoundland has been Greg Malone's Don't Tell the Newfoundlanders. "We went from being an international hub to a Canadian backwater overnight," wrote Malone in an angry and well-researched retelling of the whole sordid story.

For many, the book reopened the old wound. Rick Mercer wrote on the cover: "Malone uncovers threads that when pulled together could lead to the unravelling of our entire confederation. Reads like fiction but, sadly, is the shocking truth".

The bitter pill of the loss of nationhood was not made easier to swallow by condescending Newfie jokes and stereotypes. That's why in 2008, Premier Danny Williams marked Newfoundland's arrival as a "have" province by announcing "the days of the Newfie joke are over."

Why say sorry?

So, if Mulcair wasn't calling Newfoundlanders stupid, why not explain what he really meant, instead of "apologizing unreservedly" and allowing himself to be portrayed as another condescending mainlander?

Petty Harbour lawn sign and flag

A lawn sign supports NDP candidate Ryan Cleary in Petty Harbour. In the background, the pink, white and green tricolour known locally as the Republic of Newfoundland flag.

Mulcair — as that 1996 exchange with the PQ shows — has always been a staunch opponent of Quebec separation. But his promise to repeal the Clarity Act has left him vulnerable on the national unity issue.

Moreover, the candidate he came to support in Newfoundland has a track record of supporting Newfoundland independence.

Just months before Cleary first ran for the NDP in 2008, he wrote in his newspaper the Independent: "Now that we're rolling in the cash, it may be time to consider breaking away from the country of Canada. If we're teetering on the edge of economic independence, why not go all the way?"

In a live debate Tuesday night on CBC Radio, after telling his Liberal opponent, Seamus O'Regan, "I'm not going to question your patriotism," Cleary couldn't resist a shot at his rival, who returned to Newfoundland last year after 15 years away and is running in St. John's South-Mount Pearl.

"Are you representing Ottawa in Newfoundland and Labrador or Newfoundland and Labrador in Ottawa?" Cleary said.

"What are your priorities, Seamus? Jeez b'y, you spent too many years on the mainland."

Those comments don't hurt Cleary in his own riding. As Mulcair must have observed when he visited Petty Harbour on Sunday to go jigging for cod, the flag most flown there is neither the Maple Leaf nor the Union Jack-themed official flag of the province, but the pink-white-and-green tricolour known locally as the Republic of Newfoundland flag. In fact, Mulcair drove past entire buildings painted with those colours.

But those sentiments don't play very well in mainland Canada.

So perhaps this really was just a heedless insult fired from the hip and all of this history was the furthest thing from Mulcair's mind.

Or perhaps Mulcair faced a choice: apologize for an insult he never intended and hope Newfoundlanders forgive him, or appear soft on national unity and remind Canadians that their nation's Confederation with Newfoundland was not quite the happy marriage many think it was.

In the end, there's only one riding in play for the New Democrats in Newfoundland and Labrador, and about 160 in mainland Canada. So, the choice may not have been that hard, after all.