Raymond B. Blake is professor of history at the University of Regina and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He is author, with Melvin Baker, of Where Once They Stood: Newfoundland’s Rocky Road Towards Confederation.
Powerful forces were aligned against those who campaigned in 1948 to bring Newfoundland and Labrador into Canada. Many of the island’s leading elites opposed Confederation.
Yet, a slim majority of voters ignored the warnings of those who had managed their affairs for decades to stay clear of Confederation. More than 52 per cent voted for union with Canada.
The anger directed to the largely outport and rural voters who carried Newfoundland into Canada was merciless. The Monitor, the official publication of the Catholic Church, condemned them for falling prey to “cunning propagandists,” notably Confederate leader Joseph Smallwood. It charged that he “bamboozled an uninformed and inexperienced electorate” with the silly notion of a benevolent Ottawa distributing monthly cheques through family allowance, old age pension and other transfers. John Higgins, a Rhodes scholar and prominent St. John’s lawyer, similarly dismissed outport fishers. Such an ignorant and uneducated crowd should never have been allowed to vote on a matter as complicated and abstruse as Confederation, he fumed. “This is a matter for experts.” P.E. Outerbridge, a prominent businessman, denounced “the ignorant and avaricious outporters” for handing his country over to the Canadians. They had been bribed, he charged.
In the debate over Confederation, voters had been too often ignored, except to castigate them as emotional, irrational and incompetent participants in a process that they neither understood nor appreciated. Nothing could be further from the truth. To dismiss the majority for casting their ballots for Confederation is to ignore their hopes and aspirations, their fears and anxieties as they considered their future. Such criticisms, moreover, exhibit contempt for the voter and for democracy. Democracy is competitive; at its core is narrative and persuasion.
Literacy rates and the level of education in Newfoundland and Labrador had been among the lowest in all North America, but its citizens had always taken great interest in electoral campaigns. The 1948 campaigns, like many earlier, were loud, highly visible public events. Large crowds attended events to listen and learn. Moreover, voters had ample time to consider the issues. The debate on Newfoundland’s constitutional future began months before the first referendum when citizens elected delegates to a National Convention to consider their constitutional future. Beginning in 1946, they listened in large numbers and with considerable interest, to the taped radio broadcasts from the Convention, enthralled by the heated debates among their representatives, often over Confederation.
In the Convention, and in the two referendum campaigns that were necessary to establish a clear majority, voters were presented with two dominant narratives. One, constructed by the people who had ruled Newfoundland for decades, advocated a return to responsible government and preached the virtues of independence. The other, fashioned by Smallwood and his band of Confederates, promised a new relationship between state and citizen – a social citizenship in which an active and interventionist state would provide citizens a basic level of social and financial stability and look out for their well-being. For them, the past was appalling, a place from which to escape, not to seek a return. Voters were implored to consider their own situation and compare it with that of the elites who had always exacted the greatest share of the economic rents from their hard work and to their family members and friends living in Canada and the United States.
In a country where many struggled to achieve a meagre subsistence in a harsh and often unforgiving environment, the promise of a caring state through a variety of social-security measures and of new public services such as electrification, health care, improved schooling and a host of others, including a pledge to end their isolation, was attractive and held considerable appeal, especially since it included the return of political rights suspended in 1934 during imminent financial collapse in the midst of the Great Depression. Confederation promised the benefits of a modern social state. Smallwood claimed “never again would there be a hungry child in Newfoundland.”
The supporters of responsible government dismissed Canada’s social-security programs as immoral, admonished Newfoundlanders for betraying their native land, and instructed them to “be content with their station in life.”
Referendums are blunt instruments with which to gauge the will of the public, and citizens are, indeed, capable of irrationality in their ballot choices. Newfoundlanders were bitterly divided over Confederation but they were also engaged and informed. They wrestled with the important political, economic and social implications as they considered their constitutional options, and a small majority decided that Confederation offered the best assurance of a better life, especially for their children.
Newfoundlanders made their own decision on union and, on April 1, 1949, they also became Canadians.