"The Dominion of Newfoundland "
From Oldest Colony to Newest Province
by Richard Doody
Britain’s Oldest Colony
Norsemen were the first Europeans to attempt settlement of the world’s tenth largest island. According to the Icelandic sagas, the Vinland colony was established c. 985 and abandoned prior to 1000 A.D. Five centuries later, the Italian navigator Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) claimed the New founde lande for his patron, Henry VII of England. Generations of Newfoundlanders boasted that Cabot’s 1497 rediscovery made their island "Britain’s Oldest Colony".
In fact, there were few attempts to colonize the new found isle in the first three centuries after Cabot’s discovery. There was scant hope of establishing a successful agricultural colony given Newfoundland’s climate and rocky soil. The wealth and attraction of Newfoundland lay not on the land but in the waters of the broad continental shelf surrounding it. The Grand Banks cod fishery brought the West Country English and Irish fishermen to Newfoundland each summer. The catch was dried and a hasty retreat to the home islands begun in advance of the winter storms soon to sweep down from Labrador. England treated Newfoundland as a fish processing plant and training ground for the sailors of the Royal Navy. Wintering over was viewed as harmful to the fishery. It was discouraged and at times prohibited. Only in the wake of the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars did England come to see the value of a year round presence in Newfoundland.
Administration of English law was also transient in the Oldest Colony. Prior to 1730 the captain of the first ship in the fishing fleet to make port in Newfoundland at the start of each season was given the title of Fishing Admiral and empowered to judge and punish misdemeanors. Miscreants charged with more serious crimes were supposed to be returned to England for trial. The brand of justice dealt by the Fishing Admirals was oft times rough. Abuse led to protest and after 1730 decisions of the Fishing Admiral could be appealed to the commander of the Royal Navy force that accompanied the fishermen to the banks. Newfoundland’s first civil Governor was appointed in 1817 but did not remain in year round residence until 1825. Representative Government with an elective council to advise the Governor was introduced in 1832. Responsible Government wherein the legislature was empowered to enact law was inaugurated in 1855.
The Wolf at the Backdoor
The British North America Act of 1867 provided for the inclusion of Newfoundland in the newly established Canadian confederation. Sirs Frederick Carter and Ambrose Shea represented the island at most of the inter-colonial conferences that preceded the union of Britain’s North American colonies. They enthusiastically supported Newfoundland’s membership but found little enthusiasm for the idea. Merchants and bankers saw little benefit in placing the country behind a high tariff barrier designed to protect the manufacturers of central Canada. Newfoundland’s economy was entirely dependent on the export of cod in exchange for manufactured goods from Britain or the United States. Trade with Canada and the Maritimes was negligible. Half the colony’s population was Irish and they remembered union with Britain as the source of the old country’s troubles. They considered the introduction of Responsible Government a great victory under which they had received a fair share of the spoils. Now they were asked to place Newfoundland in the hands of a central government certain to be dominated by an Ontario they perceived to be virulently anti-Catholic. The debate raged on until the election of 1869 when anti-Confederates won 21 of 30 seats in the legislature. Talk of confederation ceased for three generations. The Antis celebrated in true Celtic fashion with a poem…
The Dominion of Newfoundland
The closing decades of the nineteenth century brought poor fishing and economic stagnation. Two of the largest banks on the island collapsed in 1894 but the event marked the end rather than the beginning of the economic downturn. Canadian banks stepped in to avert a panic and a program of economic diversification was undertaken with the aid of British capital. A railway linking Saint John’s with Port aux Basques was completed in 1898 opening the island’s interior for exploitation of its forest and mineral resources. Pulp and paper mills were established at Corner Brook and Grand Falls. Iron ore mines, most notably at Bell Island, further diminished the country’s dependence on spawning habits of cod. Heady times indeed for a country long used to eking a bare existence from the sea. The title of Dominion was formally adopted by the Government of Newfoundland in 1908.
The Great War
Newfoundlanders played a small but distinguished part in World War I. The now prosperous dominion supplied a regiment which served with the British Army at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. Five thousand islanders served in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, a thousand in the Royal Navy and still more in the forestry brigades. One day seared the horror of modern warfare into the collective conscience of Newfoundland, July 1st 1916. On that day 801 officers and men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment went over the top at Beaumont - Hamel on the Somme. When the fighting ended only 68 answered the roll call.
Newfoundland entered the post-war era in a mood of somber optimism. Prime Minister William Lloyd represented the Dominion at the January 1919 Paris Peace Conference as a member of the British delegation.
Aviators flocked to the island after the Daily Mail renewed its offer of 10,000 pounds to the pilot of the first plane to cross the Atlantic non-stop. John Alcock and Arthur Brown took off from Saint John’s on June 14th. Sixteen hours later they crash landed their Vickers Vimy in an Irish bog. Both survived to claim their prize and deliver the first pouch of transatlantic airmail. Newfoundland continued to play an important role in transatlantic aviation until the introduction of long range jet aircraft eliminated the necessity of refueling stops at Gander in the late 1950s.
Feats of international statesmanship and aviation heroics, uplifting as they were, could do nothing to halt the post-war rip tides that were about to pull the country’s economy into an abyss. A quarter century of unaccustomed prosperity came to a close with the end of the Great War. The decades that followed would be ones of unprecedented economic hardship, even by the standards of a people used to living close to the margins.
The causes of Newfoundland’s post-war economic problems were legion. The Mediterranean countries, traditional markets for Newfoundland cod, now favored the catch of Scandinavian trawlers operating off Iceland. Prewar diversification programs had succeeded in reducing the fishery’s share of Newfoundland’s GNP to about 25% but it still employed nearly half the work force. Demand for minerals and forest products also slumped as pre-war trading patterns reasserted themselves. The Government was forced to expend ever increasing sums to keep the unprofitable railway in operation. Eventually it was forced to take over from the private operators. Debts incurred to finance the war effort also added to the nation’s fiscal burden.
The Land God Gave Cain
Jacques Cartier explored the coast of the great peninsula dividing the waters of Hudson’s Bay from those of the Atlantic in 1535. He found a land so barren and devoid of prospects as to make a fitting place of banishment for history’s first murderer. He dubbed Labrador, "the land God gave to Cain."
Following the conquest of New France in 1763, a royal proclamation placed the coast of Labrador under the jurisdiction of the Governors of Newfoundland. Care of Labrador’s few scattered native bands was entrusted to the German speaking pastors of the Moravian Brethren and Newfoundland largely ignored its dependency for the next century and a half.
The limits of Newfoundland’s jurisdiction over Labrador first came into question in 1902. Quebec officials challenged the Grand River Pulp and Lumber Company’s right to harvest timber on the upper reaches of the Churchill River, a right granted by the Government of Newfoundland. The dispute hinged on the definition of the word "coast" as used in the proclamation. Canada held that Newfoundland was entitled only a small strip of shore extending inland no more than a mile and only as necessary for the operation of the fishery. Newfoundland defined the word "coast" to mean the entire watershed draining from the height of land into the Atlantic. Adjudication of disputes between dominions was the responsibility of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. After twenty years of legal and diplomatic maneuvering Canada and Newfoundland finally agreed on the wording of a question to be placed before the Committee. On November 2, 1922 the Committee was asked to determine, "What is the location and definition of the boundary as between Canada and Newfoundland on the Labrador peninsula…?"
The Committee spent the next four years pondering the evidence before rendering judgment in favor of Newfoundland on March 1, 1927. The boundary with Canada was fixed at, "… a line drawn north from the eastern boundary of the bay or harbour of Anse au Sablon as far as the fifty second degree of north latitude, and from thence westward along that parallel until it reaches the Romaine River, and then northward along the left or east bank of that river and its headwaters to the source and from thence due northward along the crest of the watershed of the rivers flowing into the Atlantic Ocean until it reaches Cape Chidley." Exhaustive research by Newfoundland’s advocate Sir Patrick McGrath and J.A. de Villers, the curator of the British Museum’s map collection, had paid off. Newfoundlander’s cheered news of the decision tripling the national territory. Ottawa accepted it gracefully but Quebec continues to publish official maps ignoring the ruling.
Newfoundland remained remarkably creditworthy throughout the 1920s. The Dominion’s old debts were rescheduled and its new ones covered. The Banks paid little heed to the country’s dubious fiscal policies and reputation for political corruption. The income tax was repealed in favor of higher tariffs and a sales tax on selected products. Ceaselessly shifting alliances of the needy and the greedy produced nine governments in as many years. Development schemes produced charges of graft and corruption but little else. Yet, Newfoundland’s ability to borrow seemed to grow in inverse proportion to its ability to repay.
The Great Depression brought an end to the free lending ways of the international financiers. The Bank of Montreal, Newfoundland’s bond broker, informed the Government that it was no longer able to raise funds in the market in May, 1931. The public debt had reached $100 million and interest payments were absorbing 65% of current revenues. Prime Minister Richard Squires traveled to Ottawa for a meeting with Prime Minister Bennett. He convinced his Canadian counterpart that a default by Newfoundland would have adverse consequences for the Canadian banking system. Newfoundland was able to secure a loan of $2,000,000 from the Canadian banks, thanks to Bennett’s intercession, and agreed to a study of the country’s finances by committee chaired by British financier Sir Percy Thompson. The committee’s recommendations for reform of Newfoundland’s fiscal policies were delivered in November, 1931 just as another economic crisis was coming to a head. The Government was not only unable to repay the Canadian loan but requested an additional $2,000,000 to avert a run on guaranteed savings bank deposits. Bennett intervened once again but this time the banks insisted on assuming control of Newfoundland’s expenditures as a condition of the loan. An austerity program was instituted. Government services and civil service salaries were cut. The desperate quest for funds continued. Newfoundland offered to sell Labrador to Canada or Quebec but neither government responded. The Imperial Oil Company stepped in as lender of last resort in the spring of 1932. It agreed to loan the Dominion $1,750,000 in exchange for a monopoly on the sale of petroleum products.
The creditors demands for further restraint in government expenditures came at a time when the private sector was in free fall and thirty thousand unemployed were trying to subsist on a Dickensian relief allotment of six cents a day. A powder keg of public discontent was ignited on February 11, 1932. Finance Minister Peter Cashin had resigned after charging Prime Minister Richard Squires with falsifying the minutes of cabinet meetings to conceal misuse of public funds. The charges became public knowledge and a largely unemployed mob of several thousand gathered in front of Squires’ offices. Distribution of emergency relief vouchers averted a riot and the mob disbursed for the moment. Squires, whose first administration ended with a 1923 arrest and tax evasion conviction, demanded an immediate investigation by the Governor and a committee of the Legislature. The investigation quickly cleared him of all charges but public suspicions remained strong. An aroused citizenry was further provoked by a March 23rd announcement of tariff increases and cuts in veterans pensions. The Legislature reconvened on April 5th. An angry mob gathered in front of the Colonial Building demanding a full inquiry into the charges against Squires. The demonstration’s leaders attempted to enter the building to present their demands but were rebuffed. Squires and the legislators managed to escape rough justice but dozens of policemen and demonstrators were injured in the ensuing riot. Damage to the building was extensive. Not a pane of window glass remained unshattered. The mayhem spread into Saint John’s business district and subsided only after members of the Great War Veterans Association began patrolling the streets. The legislature was immediately dissolved and a general election called for June 11th.
Newfoundland’s last election as an independent self-governing dominion resulted in a sweep for the United Newfoundland Party which won 24 of the 27 seats in the legislature. The new Prime Minister, Frederick Alderdice had promised little other than the appointment of a committee to investigate the possible advantages of, "placing the country under a form of commission for a period of years."
Alderdice took up the task of securing funds to make the country’s next loan payment which was due at the end of the year. A secret agreement to lease Labrador and its resources to a group of British financiers fell through. Default seemed inevitable until the British and Canadian Governments stepped into the breach once more. They agreed to lend two thirds of the funds necessary to meet Newfoundland’s current obligations. Newfoundland would have to raise the balance from its own resources and submit to a Royal Commission study of its governmental and financial future.
The Royal Commission chaired by Lord Amulree began its work on February 17, 1933. The other members were Charles Magrath, a banker, representing the Canadian Government and Sir William Stavert, another Canadian banker, representing the Government of Newfoundland. After studying the Dominion’s prospects for eight months the Commission recommended, "that until such time as Newfoundland may become self-supporting again, there should be substituted for this (Responsible Government) a form of Government under which full legislative and executive power would be vested in the Governor acting on behalf of a specially created Commission of Government over which his Excellency would preside." and further that Britain assume direct responsibility for the country’s finances. The two Canadians favored confederation with Canada but the Bennett government, now mired in economic problems of its own, refused to consider further financial aid, confederation or the purchase of Labrador.
On February 16, 1934 Newfoundland reverted to the status of a Crown Colony. Prime Minister Frederick Alderdice signed an Act suspending the constitution. The Legislature and the Executive Council were temporarily abolished and their powers surrendered to a Commission of Government consisting of the Governor, three British and three Newfoundland commissioners, all appointed by and directly responsible to Westminster. Seventy-nine years of democratic self -rule came to an end. The Saint John’s city council would be Newfoundland’s sole elected representative body for the next fifteen years.
The Commission’s efforts to fashion a self-supporting, creditworthy and efficient government from the ashes of the Dominion produced mixed results. The public debt was converted from Canadian dollars to Sterling thus lowering interest rates and demand on current funds. Tariff reductions were instituted in hopes of lowering living costs and stimulating commerce. A merit system replaced party patronage and denominational quotas as a basis for appointment to the Civil Service. The education system was the subject of detailed studies but the Commission failed to enact reforms for fear of arousing opposition from religious leaders. The Newfoundland Ranger Force, an elite organization modeled after the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, was formed to replace the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary in the policing the countryside beyond the city limits of Saint John’s. Enforcement of the criminal statutes was just a small part of a Ranger’s duties. He was often required to act as Customs Officer, Game Warden, Public Works Director, Coroner, Truancy Officer and Social Worker. Rangers were given broad discretionary power over relief funds and old age pensions. The Rangers became the chief point of contact between the Government and its subjects in the absence of elected representation. A system of cottage hospitals was established in the larger out-ports but relief payments were kept at six cents a day. Old age pensions were granted to persons over 70 years of age but paid a maximum of $50 a years. The climate and soil were enough to discourage the most skilled farmer but the Commission financed a scheme to resettle unemployed fisherman and city folk on farmsteads. It failed miserably and was quickly abandoned. Subsided fish freezing plants proved more successful and the switch from a salted to frozen product helped revive the fishery.
The Commission had provided more efficient government but had done so without an appreciable rise in the people’s standard of living. After five years of rule by Commission, British subsidies were still required to balance the country’s budget. Relief roles had nearly doubled to fifty-eight thousand. The dole remained at a six cents a day and the stipend was frequently paid with rations of tea or sugar rather than cash.
The Commission had ruled far longer than anyone had ever expected. The slow pace of economic recovery and the Commission’s failure to provide a forum for public debate was breeding discontent particularly in the capital The Saint John’s Board of Trade organized a citizens committee to work towards a return to Responsible Government in August, 1939 but within days of its formation, Newfoundland was at war. Serious consideration of change in the country’s constitutional status would have to be delayed until the end of the conflict.
Germany gambled once more on the irresolution of Britain and France. Poland was invaded in the predawn hours of September 1, 1939. The Allies had run out of room for vacillation and issued an ultimatum, withdrawal of German troops from Poland or war. The Commission reacted quickly. An Act for the Defence of Newfoundland granting the government broad powers over the country’s economic and social life was enacted that same day along with regulations governing navigation, aviation, espionage, firearms, enemy propaganda and the activities of aliens. Two days later at 8:30 on Sunday morn in the waning days of summer, Newfoundland entered the Second World War by virtue of Britain’s declaration.
Newfoundland was ill prepared either to defend itself or to contribute to the Allied cause. Aside from a small contingent of the Royal Naval Reserve, the island had been ungarrisoned since the mid-19th century and had few arms or fortifications. The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary took the lead in providing security at strategic locations such as the Bell Island iron ore mines, Gander airport and the Botwood seaplane base. The Constabulary also enlisted the aid of the Great War Veterans Association in forming air raid and coastal security alarms. Newfoundland’s first prize of war, the German freighter Christopher V. Doorman, was seized by the Constabulary on the first day of hostilities. The Newfoundland Militia was formed as a Home Guard in October, 1939. The Militia numbered 570 at peak strength and assumed responsibility for coastal defense in coordination with the Canadian Army.
The country was in no condition to assume the financial burden of raising and equipping a regiment as it had during the First World War. Instead, Newfoundlanders were encouraged to enlist in the forces of Great Britain and Canada. The Royal Navy enlisted some 3500 of those whom Churchill called, "the best small boat sailors in the world." The Royal Artillery raised two regiments, the 57th (later 166th) Newfoundland Field Regiment which saw action in North Africa and Italy and 59th Newfoundland Heavy Artillery which began service as coastal artillery unit in England and later participated in the campaigns in Normandy and northwestern Europe. Another 700 Newfoundlanders served in the Royal Air Force most notably with the 125th Newfoundland Squadron. In all some 15,000 Newfoundlanders saw active service and thousands more were engaged in the hazardous work of the Merchant Navy. Some nine hundred Newfoundlanders including at least 257 merchant mariners lost their lives in the conflict.
The civilian populace was also pressed into service. Eventually some 20,000 were engaged in the construction and operation of allied military bases and just as in the Great War, the skills of Newfoundland’s lumberjacks were in great demand. Some 3600 enlisted in the Newfoundland Overseas Forestry Unit and were sent to Scotland to cut timber.
The Friendly Invasion
Newfoundland’s lack of a trained defense force prompted Governor Sir Humphrey Walwyn to write the Dominions Office on September 15, 1939 to suggest that Canada be invited, "to take over for the duration of the war…Botwood seaplane base for the RCAF…". Sitzkreig was the order of the day in London. The Civil Service had yet to come to grips with the state of war. The Governor was informed that his suggestion was inadvisable given the importance of the Newfoundland airports in the future growth of transatlantic air transport. For the moment, safeguarding Newfoundland’s airfields from American competition was a greater concern than the threat of possible German attacks. The Dominions Office noted that the airports, "are such an important factor in our bargaining position vis a vis Pan American and the United States."
Paris fell to the Germans on June14, 1940. Later that day, Canada requested and was granted permission to station ground forces at Gander and Botwood. A week later Churchill told the Commons, "… the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin." The implications for Britain’s survival as an independent state were quite clear. Responsibility for the defense of Newfoundland was turned over to Canada. Nine hundred officers and men of the Black Watch of Canada arrived in Newfoundland at the end of the month. Subsequent agreements between Canada and the Commission provided for incorporation of the Newfoundland Militia into the Canadian command structure, formation of joint coastal defense battery, recruitment of Newfoundlanders into the Canadian forces and construction of Canadian airfields at Torbay and Goose Bay, Labrador. The Admiralty announced the selection of Saint John’s harbor to be home port for the Newfoundland Escort Force in June, 1941. The base was built and operated by the Canadians. It provided protection for transatlantic convoys between Halifax and the mid-ocean meeting point with the escort force based in Iceland. Canadian forces stationed in Newfoundland numbered some 6,000 at height of the war. The implications in regards to Newfoundland’s survival as an independent state would remain clouded for a while.
The American military presence in Newfoundland began on September 2, 1940 with the signing of an agreement under which the United States would lend fifty destroyers and other war material to Great Britain in exchange for 99 year leases on bases to be constructed in Newfoundland, Bermuda, the British West Indies and British Guiana. President Roosevelt was engaged in a campaign for an unprecedented third term and fighting against strong isolationist sentiment in the still neutral United States. Critics charged him with pushing the nation into war. The President replied that aiding Britain offered the best hope of avoiding direct involvement in the conflict. He compared Lend Lease to lending a garden hose to a neighbor whose house was on fire to keep it from spreading to one’s own. Roosevelt won a third term in November and pushed the agreement through Congress. The Lend Lease Act was signed into law on March 27, 1941.
Planning for the bases proceeded while the Lend Lease debate raged in Congress. A delegation headed by Admiral Greenslade and General Devers arrived in Saint John’s aboard the USS Saint Louis on September 16th. After meeting with Newfoundland and Canadian authorities, the Americans sailed on to Placentia Bay for an inspection of prospective base sites. They returned on September 21st to inform the Commission of Government that they intended to recommend construction of bases at Argentia (Argentia Naval Base and Fort McAndrew), Stephenville (Ernest E. Harmon Airfield), Saint John’s and Pleasantville (Fort Pepperell). Plans for the Saint John’s base were later abandoned in favor of joint use of the Canadian airfields at Torbay and Goose Bay, Labrador. American forces stationed in Newfoundland numbered 10,000 at peak strength.
Newfoundland’s importance to the Anglo-American alliance was informally acknowledged when it was chosen as the meeting place for the first of several wartime conferences held by the Allied leaders. The USS Augusta and HMS Prince of Wales anchored in Placentia Bay off Argentia in August, 1941. Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and the British and American chiefs of staff met aboard the vessels from August 9 - 12th. The conference concluded with the signing of the Atlantic Charter which outlined the principles which would guide the allies in the conduct of the war and the conclusion of the peace.
The alliance did not preclude a bit of national rivalry. The Americans gained favor with ordinary Newfoundlanders to the consternation of the island’s imperial minded British rulers. Governor Walwyn reported to the Dominions Office in 1943 that, "Newfoundlanders were so dazzled by American dollars, hygiene and efficiency that many of the public rather play up to the Americans in preference to Canada." There was little of the "overpaid, oversexed and over here" resentment common in Britain. Some 25,000 Newfoundlanders married American servicemen during the war. The circumstances under which many of the unions took place became a concern to officials of both countries. The United States Consul General in Saint John’s remarked that, "almost two thirds of the marriages are marriages of necessity, caused by misconduct of the parties before marriage, and which is a severe reflection upon the morals of the soldiers as well as the girls." Thereafter, such marriages required permission of a soldier’s commanding General. Walwyn’s final report as Governor in 1945 admitted that, "The conduct of United States forces outside the bases and in relation to Newfoundland citizens has been distinctly better than their Canadian friends and than the gangs of civilian toughs who were often at the bottom of international street fights for which the visitors were too readily blamed."
Action in the North Atlantic
U-boat attacks and the possibility of a German invasion were a very real concern to many living along Newfoundland’s 6000 miles of undefended coastline. The U-boat jitters calmed when Hitler, hoping to avoid a premature end to American neutrality, delayed the start of submarine warfare in the western Atlantic. The Battle of the Atlantic commenced with Germany’s declaration of war against the United States on December 10, 1941. Newfoundland was protected by effective anti-submarine warfare measures by that time and the wolf packs generally avoided island’s shores. The U-boat commanders preferred to wait until the convoy’s entered the so-called "black pit", a gap in Allied air defenses mid-way between Iceland and Newfoundland . There were two attacks by German submarines on North American shore installations during World War II and both were against Newfoundland targets but the island carried out its role as a forward staging area for men and materials moving from North America to Britain with little direct enemy interference.
The Newfoundland Escort Force was formed to provide convoy protection to Allied shipping between Halifax, Canada and the mid-ocean meeting point at 35 degrees West Longitude where the Iceland Escort Force took over. On May 31, 1941 Commodore Leonard Murray of the Royal Canadian Navy was appointed commandant of the Force reporting to the Royal Navy’s Commander in Chief for the Western Approaches. Construction of the NEF’s homeport facilities in Saint John’s harbour began in June, 1941.The NEF was initially comprised of 12 Canadian and British taskforce groups and eventually numbered 23 destroyers, 36 frigates and 52 corvettes. The NEF was placed under the coordinating supervision of the United States Navy in September, 1941 but after Pearl Harbor the Royal Canadian Navy assumed primary responsibility for the conduct of anti-submarine warfare in the Western Atlantic.
U.S. Navy Hudson bombers from the Argentia Naval Base won the first anti-U-boat victories in the Newfoundland theater sinking U-656 on March 1, 1942 and U-503 on March 15. The Germans struck back attacking Bell Island’s iron ore loading facilities on September 2, 1942. U-513 sank the Canadian ore freighters Saganaga, Lord Strathcona and Rose Castle. The Royal Canadian Air Force evened the score on October 30, 1942 when planes from the 145th Bomber Reconnaissance Squadron sank U-658, 290 miles NE of Torbay. The Germans returned to Bell Island on November 2nd. U-518 sank the Free French ship PLM 27. A torpedo aimed at the freighter Flyingdale missed the ship but hit a crowded loading pier with murderous effect. Sixty nine people died in the two raids against Bell Island.
The deadliest U-boat attack in Newfoundland waters came on October 14, 1942 when the Newfoundland Railway ferry SS Caribou was sunk by U-69. The ship went down in Cabot Straight less than 40 miles from its landing at Port aux Basques. One thirty seven passengers and crew perished and 101 were rescued by the Royal Canadian Navy.
U-630 was sunk NW of Newfoundland by HMS Vidette on May 6, 1943.
The last known instance of a German shore party landing in Newfoundland came on October 22, 1943 when crewmen from U-537 went ashore at Cape Chidley at the northernmost tip of Labrador. They set up a remote weather transmitter which stopped functioning two weeks later.
Newfoundland’s U-boat war ended of May 11, 1945 with the surrender of U-190 to the Royal Canadian Navy at a point 500 miles east of Cape Race. The U-190 which had sunk HMCS Esquimalt at the entrance to Halifax Harbour a month earlier was towed into Bull’s Bay on May 14th.
Newfoundland’s rocky shore and foggy weather was often as deadly as the U-boats. The worst such incident occurred on February 18, 1942. The American destroyers Wilkes and Truxton and the supply ship Pollux ran aground beneath the cliffs of the Burin Peninsula. The Captain of the Wilkes managed to free his ship but the Truxton and Pollux were a total loss. One hundred ninety three officers and men drowned in the freezing waters. Their life jackets which were not equipped with crotch straps and many slid off on impact with the water. Residents of nearby Saint Lawrence and Lawn managed to rescue 186 survivors.
The Atlantic Ferry Service transported some 12,000 aircraft from North America to Britain via Newfoundland airbases and countless anti-submarine patrols were flown from the same fields. Scores of planes and dozens of airmen were lost in accidents caused by foul weather, navigation problems and mechanical breakdowns. The Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery near Gander Airport stands in testimony to the dangers faced by those who dared Newfoundland’s stormy skies. The most renown of those so lost was Major Sir Frederick Banting RCAF, the Nobel Prize winning discoverer of insulin. A Hudson bomber carrying Banting disappeared somewhere over the Atlantic while en route from Gander to Prestwick, Scotland.
Foreign foe and the natural elements were not the only dangers faced by Newfoundland’s defenders. An arsonist’s match ignited the Knights of Columbus hostel in Saint John’s on December 12, 1942 killing 99 people many of whom were off duty servicemen.
The war transformed Newfoundland swiftly and thoroughly. British influences waned and the country was drawn firmly into the cultural, defense and economic orbit of mainland North America.
The United States spent $105 million to build and operate its Newfoundland bases. Canada spent $65 million on its. Civilian unemployment disappeared. Nearly 20,000 Newfoundlanders were employed on the bases and several thousand others left to take jobs on the mainland. Price stabilization policies enacted by the Commission of Government kept the wages of islanders well below those of American workers. Still, the $1500 per year earned by those employed in base construction was almost five times the $333 earned by the average fisherman in 1941.
Revenues poured into Newfoundland’s once barren treasury. British subsidies were no longer needed to balance the country’s budget after 1941. The national debt which stood at $100 million in 1934 was paid off and surpluses totaling $29 million accumulated by the end of the war. The country was able to afford improved schools and hospitals, grants to eighteen newly established municipal councils as well as interest free loans to Britain totaling $12.3 million.
War postponed public debate of Newfoundland’s constitutional future but the issue remained a source of concern to policy-makers in London and Ottawa throughout the conflict. British and Canadian fortunes were moving in opposite directions but while each was moving along a separate path in development of a Newfoundland policy for the post-war era they eventually reached the same conclusion. The experts agreed that the only hope for Newfoundland’s long term economic viability lay in confederation of with Canada. The trick would be to find a mechanism for bringing it about and getting Newfoundlanders to accept it.
The British came to realize early on that even in victory they would be forced into a reduced presence on the world stage. A people and economy battered and exhausted by six years of war would have to devote the bulk of its resources to its own revitalization. There would be precious little to spare for far off outposts like Newfoundland.
American and Canadian expenditures on construction and operation of military bases and increased demand for country’s fish, forest and mineral products restored Newfoundland’s fiscal solvency. Under terms of the 1934 agreement, Newfoundlanders could demand a restoration of Responsible Government and the British would be compelled to grant it. But were they so desirous and could the country remain "self-supporting" in peacetime?
Dominions Secretary, Clement Attlee visited Newfoundland in September, 1942. He found a society divided by social class, religious denomination and rivalry between Saint John’s and the out-ports. Many Newfoundlanders feared restoration of Responsible Government would bring a return to the hunger, destitution and disease of the thirties. Confederation with Canada was regarded with antipathy by most. Canadian attitudes were viewed as condescending at best and often insulting. The Commission’s secretive ways and the absence of a forum for public debate had nearly extinguished the people’s interest in political affairs. Furthermore, Attlee found little cause for optimism in regards to the country’s long term prospects. The Secretary concluded that in the absence of "some great discovery of minerals… the island is unlikely to afford but a modest standard of living to its inhabitants".
Attlee’s visit was followed up with visit by an all party parliamentary Goodwill Mission. C.G. Ammon represented Labour and Sir Derek Gunston, the Conservatives. A.P. Herbert an Independent rounded out the delegation. The MPs spent the summer of 1943 touring the island and investigating its economy and political climate. The members delivered separate reports but all reached the same glum conclusion as Attlee. Lord Cranbourne, Attlee’s successor at the Dominions Office, summed up the situation in a December, 1943 report… "What most Newfoundlanders want would be some form of self government which while leaving the island free to manage its own affairs would provide for the retention by the United Kingdom of general supervision over its finances. In other words, they would like both to eat their cake and have it."
Given the opposition to continued rule by Commission or confederation with Canada, the Secretary felt it necessary to develop a reconstruction plan which would assure the country’s long term financial stability once it returned to self-governance. The program envisaged by the Dominions Office called for an expenditure of $100 million; $39 million for economic development, $30 million for communications, $26 million for social welfare programs and $4 for new government buildings. It was completed in September,1944 but shelved by opposition from the Treasury. The Exchequer argued that it would be difficult to find $100 million for Newfoundland at a time when Britain was planning on borrowing heavily for its own needs.
The American military presence revived Canadian interest in Newfoundland affairs. Neither country had bothered to inform the Commission of Government when President Roosevelt and Prime Minister King agreed to establish a Permanent Joint Defense Board for North America during the August, 1940 Ogdensburg Conference. News of the decision reached Saint John’s a month later while Pentagon officials were touring prospective base sites in Newfoundland. The mainlanders were embarrassed for a brief moment. Thereafter, Ottawa took great pains to show deference for Newfoundland sovereignty and maintaining friendly diplomatic relations became a top priority for Canada’s External Affairs Department. A Canadian High Commissioner to Newfoundland was appointed in July, 1941.
Prime Minister King addressed the issue of confederation in July, 1943 stating, "if the people of Newfoundland should ever decide they wish to enter the Canadian federation, and should make that decision clear beyond all possibility of misunderstanding Canada would give would give most sympathetic consideration to the proposal." King’s implication was clear. Canada was ready but Newfoundland would have to take the initiative.
The External Affairs Department was more anxious than the Prime Minister. R.A. MacKay, the department’s Newfoundland specialist, believed that the island was vital to Canada’s post-war defense and commercial interests and that confederation should be persued despite the financial costs and political difficulties. A November, 1943 MacKay memo urged the government to inform the British that Canada was ready to, "consider seriously the incorporation of Newfoundland…if and when it should become clear that there was very general agreement among Newfoundland people to join Canada, but that we do not think public opinion in Newfoundland will be crystallized without a return to responsible government." Informed, that Britain was preparing a reconstruction program for Newfoundland, MacKay suggested that perhaps it would now be appropriate for Ottawa to initiate talks rather than wait on Saint John’s.
The Dominions Office attempted to revive the reconstruction plan in September, 1945. Peter Clutterbuck was dispatched to Ottawa to procure financial assistance for the program. The Canadians feigned disinterest in Newfoundland’s future. Clutterbuck was told that Canadian participation was out of the question. He was taken aback but persisted until the Canadians suggested that perhaps confederation might be the best means of ensuring Newfoundland’s future fiscal stability. Ottawa was agreeable if confederation could be achieved without having to negotiate with a restored Responsible Government and outside the framework of Newfoundland party politics. Both parties agreed that the initiative must be made to appear as if it had come from the people of Newfoundland.
The Dominions Secretary, Lord Addison, accepted that the reconstruction program was dead and the cabinet agreed. Confederation became the objective of British Newfoundland policy. The mechanism by which confederation would be brought about was announced on December 11, 1945. A National Convention would be convened, "To consider and discuss… the changes that have taken place in the financial and economic situation of the island since 1934, and bearing in mind the extent to which the high revenues of recent years have been due to wartime conditions, to examine the condition of the country and to make recommendations to the Government as to the possible future forms of government to be put to the people in a national referendum." The assembly’s 45 delegates would be elected from 39 districts and candidates would be required to have resided in their districts for two years prior to the election.
The first public figure to denounce the Anglo-Canadian subterfuge was Major Peter Cashin, the former Finance Minister who’s corruption charges against the Squires administration had helped trigger the collapse of Responsible Government. The beefy and belligerent veteran of the British machine gun corps delivered a radio address on January 12, 1946 in which he pointed out that the 1934 agreement had provided for a return to Responsible Government when the country was once again self-supporting. It said nothing about consideration of other forms of governance. He declared the Convention "illegal, unconstitutional, a sham and a red herring". Cashin was elected to represent a Saint John’s district and led the Anti-Confederates throughout the Convention’s proceedings.
Confederation found its champion in Joseph R. Smallwood, a former journalist, labor organizer, broadcaster and pig farmer best known to his fellow Newfoundlanders by his radio persona "the Barrelman". Smallwood aimed to "drag Newfoundland kicking and screaming into the twentieth century" and extend the benefits of Canada’s social welfare programs to the island’s unfortunates. Smallwood traveled to Bonavista where he met with retired Liberal Party leader F. Gordon Bradley. Bradley opposed the suspension of responsible government in 1934, had been critical of the Commission and had written favorably of Confederation. He agreed to stand for election and play the role of elder statesman if Smallwood would play the rabble-rouser and lead the Confederates on the Convention floor. They were elected to represent neighboring districts in the Bonavista region on June 21, 1946.
The National Convention
The National Convention’s inaugural session convened on September 11, 1946. Wartime military spending had erased the country’s deficit and produced a $29,000,000 surplus (that grew to $45 million by 1949). The local establishment was ready to reassume power. Conventional wisdom presumed that a return to Responsible Government would precede any further change in the country’s political structure.
The Convention was organized into nine committees. Each would investigate and report on various aspects of Newfoundland’s social, economic and political structure. At the time most delegates assumed that a majority of the Convention’s work would take place in the committees. Their mood and presumptions were soon shaken.
On October 27 the delegate from Bonavista Centre addressed the Convention on behalf of those whom fellow Confederate William Keogh would later personify as "the last forgotten fisherman on the bill of Cape Saint George". Smallwood delivered a stinging rebuke of the island’s past and expressed the fears many held regarding a "return to Responsible Government as it existed in 1934".
The next day Smallwood moved, that a delegation be sent to Ottawa to ascertain on what terms the Canadians might agree to confederation. The frontal assault failed. His words had fallen on deaf ears. The motion failed. There were only 17 votes in its favor. Fate intervened. The Convention’s chairman, Judge Fox, died suddenly on November 16th. His successor was the esteemed elder statesman F. Gordon Bradley. The Convention eventually reconsidered the motion and delegations were sent to both Britain and Canada to investigate the future of relations between those governments and Newfoundland.
The London delegation, headed by Peter Cashin, departed Saint John’s on April 25, 1947. They were given a rude reception by British representatives who told them bluntly, that if Newfoundland insisted on a return to Responsible Government it could expect no further assistance from Britain. The British further stated that there was no reason to expect the Americans to re-negotiate the Leased Bases Agreement on terms more favorable to Newfoundland, that the country would be responsible for a third of Gander airport’s operating deficit and that the Treasury could not contemplate the payment of interest on the $12 million war loan Britain had received from the Commission of Government. The Dominions Secretary, Lord Addison, bid the Newfoundlanders adieu and expressed the hope, "… that you will think of us as kindly as you can when you get back."
The Ottawa delegation, headed by Bradley and Smallwood, left for Canada on June 19th telling the Convention they would return within the month. The Confederate leaders had no intention of returning within the month. They had decided to stay until they could reach an agreement with the Canadians as to the terms of union and hoped the bargaining would go on long enough to delay the referendum until the spring of 1948. The delegation, draft in hand, finally returned to Saint John’s on October 30th. Bradley was forced to resign as Convention chairman in the ensuing uproar but his replacement was another Confederate. The debates dragged on for another three months.
Cashin delivered the final argument for the Antis on January 26, 1948. He began by questioning the financial terms of the Canadian proposal. The former finance minister told the assembly that under confederation Newfoundlanders would have to pay at least $80 million in additional taxes. He then launched into a vitriolic attack on Smallwood, branding the Confederate leader’s rhetorical assaults on the country’s business establishment as Trotskyite, demagogic and traitorous. Smallwood objected and mutual threats of defenestration followed before order was restored. Cashin continued, warning of; a coming depression in Canada, a threat to Newfoundland’s denominational school system and possible conscription of young men into the Canadian forces. He concluded by stating that, "irrespective of any of the reasons which I have named, my main reason for being against it (confederation) is because it is a violation of the 1933 agreement, and I refuse to be a party to the violation of that agreement."
The next day Smallwood moved that the Convention recommend that confederation with Canada be placed on the referendum ballot. The motion failed by a vote of 29 to 16. Sixteen months of debate had failed to sway a single vote. The Convention adjourned on January 30, 1948.
The Convention adjourned but the debate was far from finished. Gordon Bradley took to the airwaves the following day to deliver a speech denouncing those who had refused confederation a place on the ballot as "the 29 dictators". The Confederate Association, backed by a $2 million grant from Canada’s Liberal Party, was launched on February 21st. The Confederates launched a petition drive demanding that confederation be placed on the ballot. It collected almost fifty thousand signatures a number slightly higher than the total vote cast in the election for convention delegates. Westminster overturned the Convention’s decree three weeks later.
The Responsible Government League was launched in February, 1947 to campaign for a restoration of self-government as it existed prior to 1934. It had the support of the Water Street merchants, Catholics and most of the country’s upper class and many of its most prominent and powerful figures. Unfortunately, they often as not had little in common beyond opposition to confederation and failed to unite behind a forceful leader. Peter Cashin was persona non grata with many in the RGL who worried about his quick and often unpredictable temperament.
Albert B. Perlin, the editor of the Daily News, was the most articulate defender of Responsible Government. He was annoyed by the Confederates emphasis on "as it existed in 1934" whenever they spoke of Responsible Government. He further resented their insinuation that Newfoundland’s troubles had been the result of its form of government rather than of a worldwide economic depression which had been beyond its control. Perlin championed Responsible Government because, "It gives us, the people of Newfoundland, the means to suit our policies to our needs and even to change the form of government to suit those needs…"
Edward Patrick Roche, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Saint John’s, was the most controversial of the Anti-Confederates. His Eminence used the editorial page of the diocesan newspaper The Monitor to urge that, "the material attractions of Confederation should be subordinated to other values." Roche believed that Canada’s consumer society, divorce laws and education system threatened the souls of Newfoundland’s faithful and their ability, "To live decently, soberly and honestly, continuing to recognize that there has grown up with us during the past four and a half centuries a simple, God-fearing way of life which our forebears handed down to us, and which must pass untarnished to posterity." To his critics Roche was an autocrat more worried by the thought that the Primate of All Newfoundland might be reduced to the status of a mere Canadian bishop than by any moral threat confederation might pose to his flock. His stance was more than a mere quest for personal power. Roche was a man of the nineteenth century born in 1874 to a generation Newfoundland Irish Catholics who remembered the grant of Responsible Government as great victory. Roche believed Newfoundland’s independence from Canada was a legacy not to be relinquished lightly. The Archbishop’s view was upheld by John M. O’Niell, the Bishop of Harbour Grace but Michael O’Rielly, the Bishop of Saint George’s, openly campaigned in favor of confederation. Several predominately Catholic districts on the west coast returned confederate majorities.
The lackluster and poorly financed campaign conducted by the Responsible Government League convinced many of its younger members that unless they could offer Newfoundlanders something more than simple opposition to confederation, defeat was certain. They launched the Economic Union (with the United States) Party on March 20, 1948. The EUP was led by Saint John’s businessman Chesley Crosbie and called for a restoration of Responsible Government and economic union or free trade with the United States.
The campaign became a contest of fear versus faith; Confederate fear of a return to the ills of the past, fear that the restoration of Responsible Government "as is it existed in 1934" would mean a return to destitution, disease and despair as it existed in 1934 versus the faith of Responsible Government proponents in restoration of Newfoundland’s independence as the best hope for future prosperity. Confederates urged Newfoundlanders to embrace the security of Canadian baby bonuses and old age pensions. Antis urged them to "have faith" in themselves and their country, to protect its economy from Canadian taxes and competition.
The faithful had no use for heretics and to the inquisitors of the Responsible Government League there was no greater apostate than Joseph Roberts Smallwood. An anonymous letter published in The Independent expressed their loathing for the Confederate leader in no uncertain terms, "…years ago I had a great respect for him. I thought that he was a real Newfoundlander, up right and down straight, but today he is lower in my estimation than the traditional yellow dog. I’ve listened to him as Barrelman, telling us to have more respect for our country and for ourselves. One night in particular stands out in my memory: he was telling us to forget our inferiority complex and stand up to the Americans and Canadians (then on our shores), as man to man and equals. By the time his fifteen minutes were up, I was six inches taller, and shouted good for you, Joey Smallwood, would to God there were more Newfoundlanders like you. But, apparently, Sir, the impossible has happened. The Leopard has changed his spots, and he who taught us to have respect for our country now advises us to crawl on our bellies like snakes and cry to Canada to take us in and look after us."
Newfoundlanders cast their ballots on June 3, 1948. Responsible Government garnered 69,400 votes, a healthy plurality (44.6%) but not a majority. Confederation finished a strong second with 64,066 votes (41.1%). Continuation of the Commission’s rule was supported by only 22,311 voters (14.3%). A second referendum was scheduled. This time, the only choices would responsible government or confederation.
The Confederate leaders analyzed the results and concluded that victory was within their reach. To grasp it Commission voters, mostly Protestant out-porters, would have to be swung into the Confederate camp en-masse. Bradley was a past Grand Master of Newfoundland’s influential Loyal Orange Association. His urging prompted Orange leaders to circulate a letter amongst their members denouncing the role of the Catholic Church in the referendum as an, "effort at sectional domination." It further noted that referendum had been the first Newfoundland election in which members of Catholic religious orders had exercised their franchise. The response of the Catholic dominated Responsible Government forces was a surreal appeal to Protestant fears of political domination by Catholics in this instance the French Canadian Catholics of Quebec. Saint John’s was plastered with posters urging "NO BRITISH UNION WITH FRENCH CANADA". A chorus of the Anti-confederate anthem the Heroes of ’48 recalled the long fight for control of Labrador:
The Economic Union Party was also targeted by the Confederates who condemned it as disloyal, republican and anti-British. The bitterness and division aroused by the Confederate strategy lingered long after the election was over but it worked. On July 22, 1948 Newfoundlanders cast 78,323 votes for confederation versus 71,334 in favor of restoration of "Responsible Government as it existed prior to 1934".
The British and Canadian governments were satisfied that a majority vote however slim was sufficient evidence beyond misunderstanding of Newfoundlanders’ desire to enter into confederation with Canada. All that remained was for their respective parliaments to pass the enabling acts. A seven man delegation including Smallwood and Bradley was appointed by Newfoundland’s British Governor to negotiate the final pact with the Canadians. An agreement based on the 1947 draft proposal was reached on December 11, 1948.
Back in Saint John’s members of the Responsible Government League were busy gathering 50,000 signatures on a petition to Westminster demanding the restoration of Newfoundland’s legislature. Their appeal was delivered to Parliament by A.P. Herbert, a member of the 1943 Goodwill Mission. A private Newfoundland Liberation Bill was filed by Herbert in the Commons and Lord Sempill in the House of Lords in early 1949 but the measure was refused a hearing in either chamber.
Six members of the last Newfoundland legislature filed a writ asking the courts asking to declare both the National Convention Act and the Referendum Act unconstitutional and that only an elected Newfoundland legislature could enact a valid confederation measure. The attempt was quashed on December 13, 1948 when Justice Dunfield ruled that Newfoundland had reverted to the status of a Crown Colony in 1934 and therefore Westminster was free to act as it saw fit. His ruling was upheld by the Court of Appeal and petitioners decided not to pursue the matter in the Privy Council.
The path to confederation had been cleared of legal challenges. The Canadian Parliament passed the Newfoundland Act on February 17, 1949. The Commission of Government gave its assent on February 21st. The British Parliament passed the necessary amendments to the British North America Act the following day.
Joseph Smallwood signed the final act making Newfoundland a province of Canada at 11:56 p.m. on March 31, 1949. The union was to have been consummated at midnight on April 1 in coincidence with the beginning of Canada’s fiscal year but the only living Father of Confederation was not about to let history record that the relationship had begun on April Fool’s Day.
The long acrimonious campaign for confederation had left Newfoundlanders bitterly divided and dampened any sense of celebration. Prime Minister St. Laurent and the federal cabinet canceled plans for a visit to Saint John’s. The Prime Minister issued a perfunctory statement of good wishes for the future from Ottawa. Gordon Bradley, Newfoundland’s representative in the federal cabinet, addressed a small gathering. He spoke of MacDonald and Cartier, the founding fathers of the Canadian confederation, of Newfoundland’s representatives to the 19th century conferences that preceded the Canadian nation’s founding, Sirs Frederick Carter and Ambrose Shea. Bradley imagined them gazing down from the heavens and pronouncing, "now we are all Canadians."
The usual gray mist enveloped Saint John’s on its first morn as seat of provincial government. Atop the homes of the city’s anti-confederates fluttered black banners made from discarded flour sacks, over others the unofficial Newfoundland green, white and pink tri-color. Another Anti left his staff empty and at its foot placed a simple hand lettered lament, "we let the old flag fall." Albert Perlin expressed the sorrow of Newfoundland nationalists with a poem published in the Daily News.
by Richard DoodySee also...
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