Address to convocation by Dr. Patrick O'Flaherty
I'm honoured to be awarded this degree and I thank the university Senate for thinking me worthy of it. I also want to congratulate the graduates here today. I recall getting my own BA – at the old campus of the university in 1959. I was proud of it; and I'm sure you too are proud of what you've accomplished.
I've been recently been writing history; and during the past year or so I've had my head in the 1930s and '40s and the consequences flowing from those decades. I'm just going to make a couple of points about the meaning of what happened in 1948. Newfoundland was then a de-facto colony of Britain. It had been governed by an appointed Commission since 1934.
On July 22, 1948, Newfoundlanders voted in a referendum and made us what, politically, we are today. After a mostly vile confederate campaign, after years of being steered, and nudged, and elbowed in a certain direction by their bosses in London, latterly with the cooperation of Ottawa, Newfoundlanders decided against going back to what they'd had prior to 1933, responsible government, meaning self-government. They voted to join Canada. The confederate majority on July 22 was just under 7,000; the turnout was nearly 150,000 people, 85 per cent of eligible voters, men and women 21 and over. The confederates got 52.3 per cent of those who voted, a 4.7 per cent majority over those advocating self-government.
Now a few things had to happen. The Canadian Government had to decide if a 7,000 majority was big enough to allow Newfoundland in. They decided yes. Britain said 7,000 was okay too. The Commission government had to give its okay. Talks with Ottawa on the final terms of union had to carried on; they were signed Dec. 11, 1948. The Canadian Parliament had to admit Newfoundland. The bill received royal assent on Feb. 18, 1949.
Next, the final act, in Britain. Once Ottawa's decision was made, a bill to confirm the union of Canada and Newfoundland moved through the British Parliament. Debates were poorly attended; "only a handful" of members listened in. I'm going to quote from a few speeches. In the Commons Patrick Gordon-Walker, parliamentary undersecretary for the Dominions Office, the department in charge of the Newfoundland file, said "the right way of looking at this is to regard it as an ampler and fuller life which is being opened out for Newfoundland in the Commonwealth." Newfoundland had "decided between two sorts of self-government. It has decided to be a self-governing Province within ... Canada rather than to be a self-governing nation, and a very small one, in a dangerous and difficult world." In the House of Lords Viscount Swinton, for the Conservatives, and Viscount Addison, for Labour, made similar points. Swinton said "So far from giving up their freedom, the people of Newfoundland ... will find their freedom anew as one of the great historical provinces of Canada." Addison scoffed at those who talked of "Newfoundlanders being deprived of their independence." That was "just plain nonsense. The people of Newfoundland will enjoy a greater and a wider freedom" in the "great Federation" of Canada, he said. Moreover, "we must take a longer view. There can be no question that Newfoundland as a part of the great Confederation of Canada ... will be immensely stronger and much better able to reap the benefits and the rights of freedom than she would be if her people remained as a small isolated community."
I wonder how many other colonies had heard such rhetoric as this from the old imperial powers of Europe as they went about their geopolitical dickering and rearrangement of the globe. "Listen, what we've done is going to turn out really well for you. Yes, we're going to let France take Morocco, and you Egyptians are going to be under us; we may take a few memorabilia, mummies and such like, back to London to put in the British Museum; but you'll still have the pyramids. Ozymandias and King Tut will be safe. The right way to look at all this change is not to grumble about mummies but to see it as progress, remembering that we know what's best for you." The British and French were at this game of give and take in Newfoundland since the 17th century and if it hadn't been for a near-rebellion in St. John's in 1857, and stubborn resistance later by Bond and others, the French tri-colour would be flying today over the west coast of the island and the north coast as far as Cape St. John. In this case the players were Britain and Canada. Britain had already handed over 120 square miles of Newfoundland territory to Canada in 1945, namely the 99-year Goose Bay lease. That's ten times the size of Bell Island. Canada had wanted 160 square miles.
The parliamentary sweet-talk I've just quoted was an effort to justify the actions of the British government in their backroom dealings with Canada over Newfoundland..
This notion, that Newfoundlanders by becoming the province of another country would not lose their independence but instead have "greater and wider freedom" than they would have had if they'd held on to self-government is not just British self-justification. It has found its way into some recent historical scholarship. It has always struck me as a peculiar remark: give up your political independence, and you'll be freer. It's like saying: if you stop eating you'll get fatter. It's a paradox, to give it no stronger name. In any case it can't be proven, since we don't know what would have happened to Newfoundland if it had retained its independence instead of giving away most of its economic toolkit to another country. We do know that Newfoundland was in a fairly good economic position in 1948, having built up a surplus of $40 million, $10 million of which had been sent to Britain in interest free loans. It had been lifted out of Depression conditions by the war, just as Canada had. Newfoundland had paid its own bills since the fiscal year 1940-41. It had a public debt too, but if Newfoundland had reverted to self-government it would in 1949 have had an easily manageable debt of just over $10 million. There were other favourable economic signs. Its salt cod fishery, still the key to the economy, was doing well; the Commission government and the merchants had found a workable scheme to control marketing, under the direction of Raymond Gushue, who later became president of the University and was an internationally respected diplomat. They had learned, after the mistakes of the past, how to manage their salt fish industry; and one of the amazing aspects of the people's decision in 1948 was that they were handing over control of that industry to one of their main competitors. The fresh fish industry was also well underway; there were a dozen or so fish plants operating, using trawlers. The pulp and paper industry was prospering. Labrador mining was about to get started. I could point to other good indicators. There were some troubling areas too. What country doesn't have them? I lived in London in the early 1960s and Tottenham Court Road in the heart of the city and other parts of it were still bombed out. The economy was in desperate shape. But in 1948, here, the scene was far from dismal. If we had stayed in the ring, we could have been a contender.
British Parliamentarians and certain academics engaged in fudging and blunting the act that is at the essence of confederation – i.e., the adroitly finessed self-surrender of one country's sovereignty to another. There is no point in sugar-coating this pill. The map of the world changed in 1949. A country disappeared, a majority of its people gave up on it; it was absorbed into a much bigger entity. It was a giving up and letting go, and the process was a difficult one, painful for many. And it wasn't a case of that bigger entity, Canada, doing Newfoundland a big favour, of opening up an orphanage door for us. The debate in the House of Commons in Ottawa and elsewhere shows otherwise. If they didn't need what we had, they wouldn't have let us in. Of course they wanted Labrador and control of the fishery. They wanted to fulfil their dream of a nation from sea to sea. With the war over, they wanted the secure defence position that owning Newfoundland would give them. They got a lot, and they knew it. The debate in the Commons shows they knew it. Here's what Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau wrote in 1968, in a piece directed at the Newfoundland people. "We are lucky that 20 years ago you decided to allow Canada to join Newfoundland." And since we gave the gift of offshore oil and gas to Canadians too, I'd say they hit the jackpot.
And there in front of all you young Canadians, I think I'll leave it.