Despite managing to appear outgoing, I’m actually a fairly shy person and one thing I never do is go up and talk to strangers. Well, almost never. At Field House the other night I saw a man reading Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders and after I had finished my walk on the track I went up to him as I was leaving the building and said, “So, what do you think? Has he convinced you it was a conspiracy?”
The man said, “It makes my blood boil! Two or three times I nearly threw the book across the room!”
It quickly became clear that his anger was directed not at Greg Malone’s book but at the story it tells: the behind-the-scenes negotiations that brought Newfoundland into Canada as its tenth province in 1949. Malone contends that rather than being the result of a free, if narrow, vote of the Newfoundland public, the deal was actually fixed between Britain and Canada long before, and Newfoundland never had any real choice in the matter. His argument is backed up by scores of documents showing correspondence between British and Canadian officials, secret at the time but open to the public now, many bearing warnings not to let any of this get out in Newfoundland, where most of the population was strongly opposed to union with Canada.
Any Newfoundlander who knows anything about their own history will not be able to go beyond the title page of this book without hearing in their head the famous recorded words of Major Peter Cashin during the Confederation debates: ”I say to you, that there is in operation at the present time a conspiracy to sell, and I use the word sell advisedly, this country to the Dominion of Canada.” Britain was, of course, the seller, having regained Newfoundland as a colony after we lost our dominion status in 1933. Cashin’s quote makes it clear, as do many of the excerpts from Newfoundland politicians and newspapers quoted in Malone’s book, that Newfoundlanders knew at the time that they were being pushed and manipulated into joining Canada. All the book does is reveal documents that make it explicit just how deep that manipulation went.
While it may be going too far to say that Malone’s book “proves” that our country was “sold” to its larger neighbour, he certainly makes a strong case that the entire process was flawed from the start. When Newfoundland’s financial difficulties forced it to accept Commission of Government in 1933, the condition was that independent, democratic government would be returned to Newfoundland as soon as its finances were stable. By the end of World War Two, this condition had been more than met — thanks to American military spending, Newfoundland actually had a budget surplus — yet instead of automatically giving Newfoundland back its parliament, Britain instead put in place a “National Convention,” elected by Newfoundlanders but empowered only to explore the options for the future. Then, as the documents reprinted in this book make clear, Britain did everything possible behind the scenes to ensure that the option it preferred — Newfoundland joining Canada — would win.
Whether or not you are convinced by some of the more extreme claims in this book — like the possibility that the vote was actually rigged and pro-independence ballots destroyed to ensure a victory for Confederation — certainly the broad outlines are clear (as indeed they have been for 60+ years, though it’s helpful to have this additional documentation to support them). Neither the British government nor the Canadian had any respect for Newfoundland independence and democracy; both preferred that Newfoundland retain its dependent, colonial status until the transfer of power to Canada was made. Whether you believe that Newfoundland should have remained independent and in control of its own natural resources, whether you think we should have pursued economic or perhaps political union with our great and good friend at the time, the U.S., or whether you think that Confederation with Canada was inevitable for Newfoundland sooner or later (which Malone concedes may well have been the case) — it’s hard to disagree that the process as it unfolded was badly done.
It’s at least possible that a fully independent Newfoundland with its own elected government could have negotiated better Terms of Union for itself with Canada than the terms we ended up with, perhaps terms that would have given us more control of and more income from our natural resources. That’s what many people argued at the time — bring back our Responsible Government and then let us negotiate for whatever deal we wanted to make with whomever we wanted to make it in the future. Who knows what the results would have been? However it might have turned it, it would at least have been our own future, openly decided upon, rather than a backroom deal brokered between Britain and Canada. It’s hard, after reading the documents contained in this book, to conclude that it wasn’t the latter.
The book is highly readable; Malone does some editorializing but for the most part lets the documents tell their own story. It’s a story that every Newfoundlander should be aware of.