Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

Over a cliff in a clown car: Rethinking Confederation, while watching the chaos of Brexit

Seventy years after Newfoundland joined Canada, Edward Riche shares his notes on how confederations come together and are ripped apart.

70 years after Newfoundland joined Canada, Edward Riche thinks about what's gone wrong with the U.K.

Brexit — Britain's plan to leave the European Union — has all but captivated daily life in the United Kingdom. The original deadline had been Friday, but has been extended. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)

As the Brexit calamity unfolds across the pond it has often been remarked how risky are referendums.

People don't always vote on the question. They sometimes use their ballot to express general and inchoate discontent.

I've wondered if the last American presidential election wasn't, in this way, mass revenge on the system.

When "hope" and "change" turned out to have been empty promises did the electorate — on a subconscious level — punish the country by electing the worst candidate imaginable to its highest office?

A close result in a referendum doesn't resolve anything, in fact, it can deepen division. That's why the Chretien Government brought in the Clarity Act.

Shit-baked by the razor-thin rejection of the fuzzy sovereignty question in the 1995 Quebec referendum, forced to contemplate the chaos which would have ensued if it had tipped the other way, they established that only clear questions could be asked (none of that mandate-to-negotiate hooey) and high, though unspecified, thresholds for decision.

We crashed into a 'no deal' Confederation

Would the 1948 Newfoundland Confederation referendum result qualify as definitive under the Chretien rules? A historian, while there still is such a thing in Newfoundland, will have to be consulted. I have my doubts.

The CBC's Dominic Valitis reports from the streets of London, as thousands of people march to demand a say in Brexit negotiations. 2:28

The Brits are pulling a "reverse Newfoundland." They are exiting something very like a confederation on the basis of a narrow margin in a referendum for which almost no one asked.

Our National Convention didn't decide the question we got to answer in 1948.

In the case of Brexit, the British people were asked to vote on a proposition the proponents assumed they would reject. That was a bad bet.

In our case, without first returning to Responsible Government as promised, we ended up voting to join Canada before there were terms of union. We crashed into a "no deal" Confederation.

Today's 'Leavers' don't have a bloody clue

Perhaps there is karmic justice in a bunch of Dunning-Kruger Etonians using a compromised plebiscite to drive the U.K. off a cliff in a clown car. The British foisted the Confederation referendum on Newfoundland. The fix was in.

Their man, Lord Amulree, had already pronounced we weren't fit for self-government. Busted after the war, they couldn't pay back what they'd taken from our treasury, the Empire was unravelling, and they had bigger fish to fry in Greece and Palestine.

Besides wasn't there a sort of historical, geographic inevitability that Newfoundland would become part of Canada? Many Newfoundlanders knew what being a Canadian province looked like, did it really have to be spelled out in detail? Half of them were willing to become Canadians regardless.

A protester with a banner that plays on a famous line from the movie Jaws attended an anti-Brexit march in London earlier this month. Many are campaigning for a second referendum on the matter. (Neil Hall/EPA-EFE)

Even if batty old Mackenzie King didn't want to take the troublesome Newfies on board, C. D. Howe felt Canuck heavy industry (when there was such a thing) needed Labrador's iron ore.

The Brits would let Canada have the place for the price of their war debt to the former Dominion. "Tally-ho!"

We can take perverse satisfaction in the fact that while the Newfoundlanders had a reasonable idea what they were in for, today's British "leavers" don't have a bloody clue.

Freed from indenture to Water Street

Canada hauled us into the 20th century. Much of rural Newfoundland was freed from indenture to Water Street.

In return we provided Canada with a treasure trove of natural resources and human capital.

We introduced them to irony, which they still might someday grasp.

Broadcaster Joseph R. Smallwood turned to politics in the late 1940s, when he campaigned to have Newfoundland join Confederation. (The Canadian Press)

It hasn't all been roses. It's vexing to watch Quebec game Confederation. The mismanagement of our fisheries and ocean by Ottawa has been a cultural, economic and ecological catastrophe. We are in a grave demographic pickle from said transfer of human capital. But you won't find many today who would seriously question the decision to walk into the woods with the Canadian Wolf.

We talk about it less and less, we accept our fate.

We introduced them to irony, which they still might someday grasp.

Canada is a peaceful and prosperous place. Too many of our Provincial political leaders have been village idiots or swindlers from who Confederation has offered us some protection.

We never got a share of power in Canada. It remains firmly in the hands of the "Laurentian elite." 

We have survived but have not exactly thrived. The system isn't rigged against us; it's rigged for central Canada, where the votes and corporate headquarters reside.

Blindness to issues beyond the borders of Ontario and Quebec might cause the Confederation trouble in the future but it won't come from us, it'll come from the new Canadian west.

Smallwood permitted to attend Canada's Liberal party convention. 4:35

Who knows, the works might come undone and we'll find ourselves Canexited out on our own without having voted for "Responsible Government as it was in 1933".

I wonder, by what margin would the Norwegians agree to have us? Could we surrender to the French at St. Pierre? The Yanks have gone mad so they're out. Do you suppose the Portuguese are still interested in the place? Some arrangement with Iceland? The Basques?

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About the Author

Edward Riche


Edward Riche writes for the page, stage and screen. He lives in St. John's.


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