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Peter Francis Neary

Oration | Address to Convocation

Dr. Peter Francis Neary


Dr. Peter Neary was born on Bell Island and educated at Memorial University where he earned a BA and MA in history. Dr. Neary earned his PhD from the University of London (London School of Economics) in 1965 and joined the faculty of the University of Western Ontario as assistant professor the same year.

Dr. Neary has written extensively on the history of Newfoundland with particular attention to the period of Commission of Government, party politics in Newfoundland and relations between the province and the governments of Quebec, Canada and Great Britain.

Dr. Neary has edited and contributed to nine books and dozens of scholarly articles, many in collaboration with faculty in Memorial's history department. Among them, he edited, introduced and contributed to The Political Economy of Newfoundland 1929-1972 (1973) and, with Dr. Patrick O'Flaherty, produced an anthology of historical writings, By Great Waters (1974). In 1980, with Dr. James K. Hiller, he edited and wrote for Newfoundland in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Drs. Neary and O'Flaherty published Part of the Main in 1983, an illustrated history of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Dr. Neary's 1988 work Newfoundland in the North Atlantic World 1929-49 was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award in Ontario and a runner-up for the Canadian Historical Association's John A. Macdonald prize.

In 1996, Dr. Neary edited and introduced White Tie and Decorations: Sir John and Lady Hope Simpson in Newfoundland, 1934-36.

Dr. Neary will receive an honorary doctor of letters degree.


Oration honouring Dr. Peter Francis Neary

James Greenlee, university orator

Memory! Bitter or sweet, photographic or impressionistic, unscrupulous trickster, or soothing companion: memory, in its sundry guises, is surely one of the most curious facilities of the human mind. It is also, Sir, one of the most potent. Indeed, as a crucible of identity, memory has always been a heady elixir and a powerful spur to action. In saying this, I advance to dry-as-dust academic proposition; still less any novel one. After all, it was Cicero, that worldly-wise Roman, who warned: “Not to know what has happened before you were born it so remain always a child.” As I read the ancient republican, he appears to argue that a mature society requires a mature sense of history, lest it stumble aimlessly about, or worse, fall easy prey to those who would concoct self-serving fantasies. It is wise, therefore, occasionally to laud the guardians, such as Peter Neary, who have done so much to preserve and clarify our collective memory.

It is, moreover, particularly appropriate that we salute a historian at this singular convocation, for we gather at an hour when our consciousness of the past is unusually keen. Thus, depending on whom one consults, we are, or we are not, virtually awash in any number of millennial moments. More concretely, all will remember the year of Cabot, just as we recently had cause to reflect on five decades of Confederation. Even closer to home, it was precisely half a century ago this month that the newly chartered Memorial University issued its first degrees. And, on a scale truly momentous, it was 25 years ago that a fledgling liberal arts college first took wing in Corner Brook. In short, Chancellor, if a poor pun be forgiven, the case for honouring a Newfoundland historian at this convocation would seen “Rock” solid!

That being obvious, the rest is equally clear, for, while many have done much, few have done more than Peter Neary to bring Newfoundland's past sharply into focus. Indeed, in a tide of learned publications, individually or jointly penned, he has been one of that select few who have subjected our history to a sustained professional gaze. In this, perhaps his signal contribution has been to recapture the lived reality of the era when, as a Grenfell history student put it in the current edition of Princeton's Wilson Quarterly: “The Davy Jones Index had crashed, leaving people to political incineration.” No doubt mindful of this, in works such a Newfoundland in the North Atlantic World, or his White Tie and Decorations, Professor Neary takes us back to a colorful time when debate was not and no mere prelude to some “inevitable” conclusion. Meanwhile, in concert with others, he has fashioned staple sources that will nourish generations of scholars to come. Distinguished author and prolific editor, he also acts as consultant to more publishers than could be named here, even as he serves as Dean of Social Science at the University of Western Ontario.

Not bad, Chancellor, not bad at all for a fellow from Bell Island who started academic life with (dare I say it) a B.Sc.! Still, that eclectic element may well help him feel right at home in this haven of liberal education. And if it does not, then the fact that he learned his schoolboy Latin from our own founding principal, Dr. Arthur Sullivan, surely will!

In any case, Chancellor, as today we remember those who have gone before, as we rejoice in those who now go forth, so let us honour one who reminds us that all are in memory connected. I, accordingly, present for the degree doctor of letters (honoris causa), one of Memorial's finest gifts to the Canadian academy: Peter Francis Neary.


Convocation address by Dr. Peter Francis Neary

I am very glad to have received this degree at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, which commands such an attractive site in the beautiful Humber Valley. I admire the many accomplishments of the college and in particular its dedication to the visual and performing arts (and now to environmental science and nursing). Being at Grenfell College reminds me of my days at the old Memorial University campus on Parade Street in St. John's. Like Grenfell College, the Parade Street campus was compact and companionable. It was also building for the future, while remembering the past.

Remembrance is, of course, at the core of the Memorial University of Newfoundland. When I was a student at Memorial in the 1950s, the calendar of the university included each year a poem by Robert Gear MacDonald (1875-1943) that explained in memorable lines why the institution had been founded: “Because they rest in grim Gallipoli; Because they sleep on Beaumont Hamel's plain.” Newfoundlanders and Labradorians remembered the sacrifice of the Great War (1914-18) in the best possible way — by founding an institution that would provide opportunities for future generations and that would dedicate itself to the never-ending quest for truth and knowledge, the foundation stone of peace.

The university has wonderfully realized the ambition of its founders and it exists above all as a memorial to those who served in the two world wars of the 20th century, in Korea, and in the many peacekeeping duties our country has so faithfully honoured throughout the world. When the remains of the Canadian unknown soldier, le soldat inconnu, are returned from France to Ottawa later this month, we will remember anew in the spirit that called Memorial University into existence.

At the end of the 1914-1918 war, there were high hopes in the allied countries for a golden future time. In reality, most of those hopes were dashed. In Newfoundland's case, while there were notable accomplishments like the founding of Memorial University College, the 1920s and 1930s turned out to be trying decades. Newfoundland was hit hard by the social and economic upheaval that followed the war, and it was devastated by the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Newfoundland was a small country in a world of big players and it lived on too narrow a financial margin. The Dominion of Newfoundland depended in the 1920s on the returns of three export industries — fishing, forestry and mining — and the terms of trade could obviously turn against the country with savage suddenness.

This is exactly what happened following the Wall Street crash of October 1929. The markets for what Newfoundland exported declined, prices fell, and a crisis in public finance quickly followed. By 1932-33 fully 63.2 per cent of the government's diminished revenue was going to interest payments on debt, and the country's leaders were faced with a stark choice between meeting obligations to creditors or feeding the growing army of the poor. At the bottom of the Great Depression of the 1930s, about one-third of the Newfoundland people depended on a miserable relief that was doled out in kind and that was not soon forgotten by those unfortunate enough to experience it. Vitamin deficiency disease was a fact of life in the 1930s as was tuberculosis and many other health scourges.

It is, above all, the searing experience of the 1930s that explains the political and constitutional choices that Newfoundlanders made in subsequent decades and this should not be forgotten. There are now voices that would deny the poverty and deprivation of this unimaginably brutal time in the history of Newfoundland but in truth there is no denying what happened. The depths of what the Newfoundland people endured in the 1930s has yet to be plumbed, but it would be folly to ignore the formative influence of the Depression experience. The decade of the 1930s was remembered by the Newfoundlanders who lived through it as an unforgiving time and so it was. Anyone who doubts this should read the published correspondence of Sir John and Lady Hope Simpson, or official reports from around Newfoundland and Labrador, or the numerous other sources on the period readily available in the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa, and the Public Record Office in Kew, England. On Feb. 17, 1934, the massive crisis that had overtaken the country led to the suspension of self-government in favour of administration by a British appointed Commission of Government, which had both executive and legislative powers, that is to say it could both make laws and carry them out. Under Commission of Government, there was a British appointed governor and six British appointed commissioners, three drawn from the United Kingdom and three drawn from Newfoundland. This was a startling constitutional change — a reversal of the colony to nation progress of the other Dominions of the British Empire — and it had profound political, social and psychological consequences. The ending of general elections and the introduction of commission administration was explained and defended at the time in the honeyed phrases of British imperial rhetoric, most notably in the report of the 1933 Newfoundland Royal Commission, but, various scapegoats notwithstanding, there was no covering up the fact that a quite shocking overturn had occurred. As a British Conservative member of parliament memorably wrote in June 1942, Newfoundland represented the “only failure in the history of the British Empire of our own people to govern themselves.” In September 1942, another British official wrote: “Newfoundland is now neither a Dominion not a Colony, but just a place.” These statements stick in the throat, but they are indicative of the corrosive effect that the loss of self-government had on the self-confidence and outlook of Newfoundlanders.

I was born under Commission of Government, in the last years of the British imperium. I was very fortunate to arrive on Bell Island, the youngest of seven children (all born at home), in 1938. I didn't know it at the time but I know now that Newfoundland was then in the last phase of the Great Depression. Thus, the war (eventually a world war) that began in September 1939 quickly put Newfoundland on the economic high road. The reason for this dramatic change was the realization in London, Ottawa and Washington that, in an age of air and submarine warfare, the defence of Canada and the United States depended on taking advantage of Newfoundland's strategic location. At Newfoundland's request and with the agreement of the United Kingdom, Canadian forces began arriving in Newfoundland in June 1940 to help defend vital installations. In time, Canada built an airbase at Torbay, took over the running of the Newfoundland Airport at Gander, and carved a big airbase out of rough terrain at Goose Bay, Labrador.

In September 1940, the United Kingdom promised the United States base sites in Newfoundland “freely and without consideration.” The Americans chose three sites — at Quidi Vidi, St. John's, at Argentia/Marquise and at Stephenville — and the terms of their occupancy were spelled out in the Anglo-American Leased Bases Agreement signed in London on March 27, 1941. The Americans were given 99 year leases and arrived in Newfoundland on much more generous terms than those accorded the visiting Canadians forces.

Recruitment for service abroad, together with Canadian and American base building, touched off a boom in the Newfoundland economy and by 1942 there was full employment in the country. From 1934 onwards Newfoundland had received an annual grant-in-aid from the British government to balance its books. The war reversed this relationship and Newfoundland began making interest free loans of Canadian dollars to the increasingly hard pressed British. Inevitably, the new prosperity and the changed relationships with Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom had political consequences. The British quickly understood that, in remarkably changed circumstances, the day of the Commission of Government would soon be done. They were, however, able to avoid fundamental change during the war itself with the argument that for the moment victory had to take precedence over everything else.

United Kingdom Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee visited Newfoundland in September 1942 and a British parliamentary delegation toured the country in 1943. In December 1943, the British publicly promised that at the end of the war in Europe they would provide Newfoundlanders with the means to decide their own constitutional future.

In 1945, in fulfilment of this commitment, the British government announced that a national convention would be elected in Newfoundland to advise on constitutional choices to be put before the people of Newfoundland to vote upon. The National Convention was duly returned and began meeting in St. John's in September 1946. In January 1948 the National Convention completed its work and recommended to London that, in the referendum to follow, the electorate be offered a choice between “Responsible Government as it existed prior to 1934” and “Commission of Government.” The British, who had carefully kept to themselves the final wording of the ballot, then announced in March 1948 that there would be three choices: “Commission of Government for a period of five years”; “Confederation With Canada”; and “Responsible Government as it existed in 1933.” They now also ruled, sensibly in my view, that the choice to be followed would need majority support. If a first referendum failed to produce this, there would be a second referendum which would offer a choice between the two options leading in the first vote. A second ballot was in fact needed and this was held on 22 July 1948 when “Confederation With Canada” outpolled “Responsible Government as it existed in 1933” by 78,323 to 71,334. The Commission of Government then appointed a delegation, chaired by Albert Walsh, to go to Ottawa to negotiate final terms of union. These were signed in Ottawa on Dec. 11, 1948, whereupon Newfoundland became a province of Canada “immediately before the expiration of the 31st day of March, 1949.”

These pivotal events are now poured over by historians. My own contribution is mainly in my 1988 book Newfoundland in the North Atlantic World, 1929-1949, which is based on sources in St. John's, Ottawa, London and Washington. Three points of debate have arisen about the events leading to confederation. Were Newfoundlanders really given a choice? My answer to this question is an unequivocal yes. It was the United Kingdom that put the option of Confederation on the referendum ballot (this had been rejected by the National Convention) but only after Canada had produced draft terms of union and the matter had been debated in Newfoundland. The British undoubtedly wanted Newfoundland to join Canada but they could not dictate this outcome. In the end, only Newfoundlanders and Labradorians could vote, and cast ballots they did in large numbers. They had real choices before them that were well understood and they made a democratic decision.

Recently, it has been suggested that the counting of the ballots in the decisive July 22, 1948, referendum was somehow rigged. This is a big claim indeed but I have yet to see the evidence behind it. Unless sound and sustainable evidence is produced, I trust that this version of events will not go into the history books as truth. That would be a great disservice to young Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, who need to be told the facts of history and nothing but the facts of history. More subtly, it is sometimes suggested that the right thing — Confederation — happened but in the wrong way. In this version of events, the resumption of self-government by Newfoundland would have quickly led to union with Canada in happier circumstances. All of this is, of course, highly speculative. It also flies in the face of the strong anti-Canadian rhetoric of many of the advocates of “Responsible Government as it existed in 1933” and the nervousness of the Government of Canada about making a deal with Newfoundland that would stir the envy of established provinces. In my view (again speculative), Newfoundland could not have become part of Canada in any circumstances without a big political fight, so the battle that occurred and the scars that it left should not surprise.

On Dec. 24, 2000, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians will be remembering the 100th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Roberts Smallwood, who led the fight for union with Canada. Smallwood had been in Newfoundland in the 1930s and his case for confederation highlighted the shameful record of that haunting time. “I have dug deep into my country's history,” he proclaimed, “and in so doing I have paid attention to the story of our people's labours, their battles against nature and against injustice, the story of their endless search for a square deal.” Confederation, he believed, offered a way forward for Newfoundlanders. It promised the people “a half-decent chance of life,” the “opportunity, by the toil of their hand, to earn an honest living,” and “a new hope for the common man.” Union with Canada would bring “the dawn of a new day for Newfoundland.” That was a powerful argument, rooted in experience, and it was, above all else, the argument that prevailed.

Newfoundlanders had bitter first-hand experience of what it could mean to be small and isolated in the world and they wanted something better. Confederation offered them that opportunity and it was the only such offer on the table. For Smallwood, who was a deep Newfoundland patriot, the loose framework of the Canadian confederation would allow Newfoundlanders to cultivate their distinctiveness while sharing their economic risks across a continental domain.

From the perspective of the year 2000, this seems to me very much how things have worked out. In the main — there are, alas, notable and distressing exceptions — Confederation really has given the people of Newfoundland and Labrador the square deal that Smallwood promised. No doubt, Canada has its flaws as a country, and the federal government has certainly made its share of mistakes in Newfoundland and Labrador (so too for that matter has the provincial government). But at its core Canada is a good, decent and democratic country and a land that values fairness, seeks accommodation of difference, and shares wealth. These are notable virtues and they are exemplified in the commitment of the country to national health and social welfare programs and to the principle of equalization, which since 1982 has been enshrined in the constitution. Newfoundland and Labrador have both benefited from and contributed to the best that is in the Canadian way. Long may this be so.

Like all really good political arrangements, Confederation served the best interest of both parties, in this case Canada and Newfoundland. Canada added to its population stock the people of Newfoundland and Labrador with their many talents and rich culture and heritage. Canada also added to its store of natural resources the fabulous marine and land endowment of Newfoundland and Labrador. Though it was not known at the time, this endowment included the oil and gas riches off the coast of Newfoundland. Canada was also able to ease its defence administration in Newfoundland by making this a matter of domestic policy rather than international relations. Lastly, Canada was able to head off the United States and prevent the possibility of Newfoundland becoming more closely linked than it was already to Washington. In sum, Canada gained much from the union of 1949, though this fact is not always sufficiently understood by Canadians in other provinces.

Happily, Newfoundland was also a winner. Newfoundland received the many benefits of the developing Canadian welfare state and, as already suggested, found a gaurantor in Ottawa to ease its financial passage. Union with Canada also enabled Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to enlarge their economic space and to enjoy the employment and investment opportunities that flow from a common citizenship across a great swath of the North American continent.

Through provincial status, Newfoundland retained power and influence which have allowed it to set a distinctive course in many important matters.

In the 1950s Newfoundland shared in the general postwar prosperity of Canada and confederation therefore got off to a great start. Newfoundland politicians also proved adept at learning the federal-provincial game. Over the years, the province has had a distinguished set of ministers in Ottawa who have held major portfolios in the Government of Canada. Jack Pickersgill, who was recruited by the astute Joey Smallwood in the 1950s, set the standard and he has had worthy successors in Don Jamieson, John Crosbie, Brian Tobin, George Baker and others. In the referendum campaigns of 1948, Chesley C. Crosbie, John Crosbie's father, campaigned unsuccessfully for economic union with the United States. As a senior minister in the Government of Canada, John Crosbie had the satisfaction, through the North American Free Trade agreement, of helping to achieve for the whole of Canada what his father had been unable to obtain for Newfoundland.

History does indeed keep its secrets for a long time. Newfoundland's success in Ottawa has depended on the alternation of Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments. Thus when John Crosbie was Progressive Conservative minister, Brian Tobin was Newfoundland's Liberal dauphin. This system has worked well, but it now faces the emergence of the Canadian Alliance. If the Alliance should achieve a minority government and Newfoundland and Labrador had no Alliance MPs or senators, a difficult moment would have arrived for the province. This is because the position of Newfoundland minister in Ottawa rivals in importance that of premier of the province. I cannot predict how such a situation would resolve itself, but I have great faith in the ingenuity of Newfoundland and Labrador politicians, who now aspire to the highest offices in the land, to find a way out.

In the foreword to The Magic Mountain, the German writer Thomas Mann asks this intriguing question: “Is not the pastness of the past the profounder, the completer, the more legendary, the more immediately before the present it falls?” In the case of Newfoundland and Labrador, the year 1949 marked a divide that invites a positive response to this query.

A remarkable new time began in Newfoundland and Labrador with confederation, and an old Newfoundland and Labrador, the country of the Great Depression and Commission of Government, quickly faded away. The class of 2000 at the Sir Wilfred Grenfell College of the Memorial University of Newfoundland are the heirs of the generation that made the momentous decision to join Canada, and it will be up to you to build on their achievements. I wish you good health and prosperity in your many roles as citizens of a developing Newfoundland and Labrador, a multicultural Canada, and an interconnected world. In the words of the Psalmist, may you live to see your children's children.


Honorary Degree Recipients: Spring Convocation 2000

Dr. Michel Chrétien
Jean Chrétien
Monique Bégin
Andy Jones
Cathy Jones
Mary Walsh
Greg Malone
William Hubert Rompkey
John David Allison Widdowson
Craig Laurence Dobbin Dr. Peter Francis Neary