In Depth

Historic signals: BCN broadcasts the National Convention

Live radio broadcasts of the debate on Newfoundland's political future played a profound role in an important episode of our history, writes professor Jeff Webb.

67 years ago, radio began carrying the most important debates in our history

"I didn't think very much of the chance that I would live to see the day, even in local broadcasting, when public affairs, discussion of public affairs, would come ahead of Superman or any of the popular radio programs." — Joseph Smallwood, District of Bonavista Centre

By Jeff Webb, Memorial University

From September 1946 to January 1948, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians listened on their radios to their elected representatives debate the constitutional future of their country. At stake was what options would appear on the ballot in a referendum — confederation with Canada, continuation of the Commission of Government, or a return to Responsible Government.

It's easy to forget how remarkable that was. We are now used to seeing televised debates from the House of Commons and House of Assembly, but in the 1940s the radio broadcast of debates in the people's house was something new.

The National Convention was an elected assembly tasked with investigating the state of the country and making constitutional recommendations. Since the British wanted an informed democratic decision, it asked the media to publicize the convention's deliberations.

During the first six weeks that the National Convention met, newspapers and radio broadcasters summarized the daily discussions — something which was both difficult to do and which resulted in boring coverage.

William Galgay, the general manager of the Broadcasting Corporation of Newfoundland (BCN), decided to record each day's debates and broadcast them in the evening. With the microphones in place on Oct. 28, 1946, Joseph Smallwood rose to his feet to move sending a delegation to Ottawa to discuss union with Canada.

The passionate debate that followed was heard by families across the island and made many of the voices of the delegates well known in outports across the country.

Many people have wondered if the British government decided to broadcast the convention proceedings to give Smallwood an advantage, since his sympathies for confederation were well known as was his experience as a radio broadcaster.

He may have had some advance knowledge that the microphones were to be installed, but there's no evidence that the British ordered the broadcast to help him. In either case, Smallwood used the radio to promote the idea of confederation and himself as the cause's undisputed leader.

Smallwood did a masterful job explaining how confederation would benefit families, and some of his allies, such as William Keough, made dramatic and memorable speeches.

Passionate speeches

On the other side, advocates of a return to Responsible Government, such as Peter Cashin, also made passionate speeches that appealed to people's love for their country. Cashin and other anti-confederates condemned British policy, and demanded that Responsible Government be returned as had been promised in 1934.

Jeff Webb is an associate professor in the Department of History at Memorial University. He is the author of The Voice of Newfoundland: A Social History of the Broadcasting Corporation of Newfoundland 1939-1949.

Then, they believed, an elected government could choose to negotiate confederation or not.

In the end, the delegates to the convention voted to not place confederation on the ballot in the referendum, but the broadcasts had made union with Canada into an option that was popular with many voters.

Smallwood revealed that this was his strategy when he commented that he was speaking to the listeners at home through the radio, not to his fellow members of the convention.

Despite the view of the majority of the convention, the British government placed confederation on the ballot, and in the end, voters went to the ballot box well informed as to the consequences of their decision thanks to the broadcasts made by the Broadcasting Corporation of Newfoundland.

Voices of the National Convention

Some of the participants in the National Convention became household names, and went on to have important careers in politics and business.

Here are some notable quotes from the great debate.

"We are all who are gathered here little men sent here to serve a great purpose. But because the purpose is great, if we serve it worthily, some of the greatness will descend upon us. But if we serve this purpose unworthily, our names will stand forever cursed in the annals of our land."  (William Keough, District of St. George's, Oct. 17, 1947)

"Who are we? Are we masters or are we servants? I was sent here to this convention to find out what could I do for my country — not me to say to my people, 'here, here's what I say' ... As far as I can see it, we can recommend any form of government, supposing if we go to Timbuktu." (David Jackman, District of Bell Island, April 11, 1947) 

"Who are self-supporting those days? Is Great Britain self-supporting? Not at all. Canada? Not at all. Why put the burden on top of us, gentlemen? … We are the only people who must pay cash for democracy; the rest can have it charged." (Pierce Fudge, District of Humber, May 20, 1947) 

"Miss Newfoundland seems to be in a position, Mr. Chairman, of a wealthy heiress...who is being wooed for her money.  And the matrimony business seems to be a matter of money.  Let us look a little closer at John Canuck's proposal. Let us see if he can keep Miss Newfoundland in the style to which she is accustomed." (Peter Cashin, District of St. John's City West, Jan. 6, 1948)

"This is the country [Canada] that the anticonfederates would liken unto a housewife haggling over a basket of potatoes. Don't they realize that confederation is not the making of a merely commercial bargain between a couple of private businessmen? Confederation is a proposal for political union - a partnership between Newfoundland and Canada." (F. Gordon Bradley, District of Bonavista East, Jan. 27, 1948)

"It remains now for the people to speak their will. We have got the facts. We have given the facts. Let us make our recommendations with confidence that in the hands of the people of this country, our future is in the best hands there are. And let the people speak." (Isaac Newell, District of White Bay, Jan. 26, 1948)

Quotes compiled by Christine Davies