Rocky road to Canada

Peter Jackson
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Confederation may have been a conspiracy, but does that mean it was a fraud?

Second in a two-part series

Newfoundland is a land of story-tellers. In that, our cup overfloweth.

For most of its 500-plus years, it has also been a colony in some form, and a staunch contingent of its citizens still feel it is today.

Despite a long history of colonial and mercantile rule, however, Newfoundlanders still had the taste of sovereignty in their mouths when a National Convention was elected in 1946 to consider its future path. It had been an independent country from 1855-1934.

It was actually the British who decided a discussion must take place.

And, as Greg Malone amply demonstrates in his book “Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders,” British and Canadian authorities pulled a lot of strings to make sure of the outcome.

The fact that the Confederation question was largely steered by higher powers has coloured the rhetoric of many in this province ever since.

It doesn’t matter that a vote was held and won, Malone asserts. The Brits and Canucks wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Malone’s writing is rife with anti-confederate language.

He writes about Newfoundland giving up one “dictatorship” for another, and how our destiny was usurped by the “shady underworld of international intrigue.”

That sort of talk gets conspiratorial juices flowing.

“There are people who still believe that the ballots in the second referendum … were either counted inaccurately or were reported inaccurately,” former lieutenant-governor Ed Roberts said in an interview this week. “Now, there’s not a shred or scintilla of anything amounting to substantial evidence, but people believe it.”

Roberts has publicly questioned Malone’s claims to exclusive information, but he doesn’t dispute the book’s central thesis. In fact, he says Malone has presented his case quite well.

“There’s no doubt at all that the British wanted to be rid of Newfoundland,” he said. “They did what they probably could to help that to happen.”

The Confederation story has produced a strange mix of truth and fiction that’s difficult to navigate without spurring angry reactions on either side of the fence.

Author Ed Riche has felt the sting.

Riche wrote the screenplay for the 1992 fictional film “Secret Nation.” It was a low-budget endeavour, but garnered considerable controversy because the plot revolved around the premise that Confederation ballots were rigged.

“In the years since, people have taken me to task for promoting this conspiracy,” Riche said Wednesday.

“My God, it’s part of a fictional premise. And it makes for a good story.

“It’s very worrisome … people’s capacity to judge what they read or what they see on TV,” he said. “People are missing some fundamental critical faculty in terms of assessing things.”

Riche said he found Malone’s book “striking,” and harbours strong nationalist sentiments himself. He doesn’t “beat the drum” for independence, he said, but has always trumpeted Newfoundland’s need to crawl out from under patriarchal rule of any sort.

So, was Confederation a conspiracy? Yes, and no.

Malone has certainly proven that British and Canadian overlords can be a pompous and callous lot. And London did ignore the recommendations of the National Convention by including Confederation on the final ballot.

But Malone wasn’t the first author to point this out. Paul Bridle and Peter Neary, among others, chronicled the truth behind Confederation after the British and Canadian governments released relevant records in the 1980s.

As MUN historian Jeff Webb pointed out in a 1998 paper titled “Confederation, Conspiracy and Choice,” the new information undercut Smallwood’s own portrayal of his fight as a one-man crusade.

“The Smallwood orthodoxy had been overturned,” Webb wrote. “The record shows that Ottawa and London were working toward union in the background just as the anti-confederates had sensed they were.”

Nonetheless, the most contentious theory, that the referendum itself was rigged, has no basis in fact other than a couple of cases of hearsay from unnamed sources.

As Roberts says, it’s “improbable in the extreme” that the result was altered when scrutineers were on site and the numbers for each station were reported in the media.

In a previous Telegram interview, Malone contended that whether the vote was rigged or not, the independence option “would not be allowed to win.”

He’s not alone in that opinion.

More than half a century later, Confederation remains an unhealed wound for many, and that may explain why diverging speculation about what might have been still dominates the local narrative.

For Newfoundlanders of a certain generation, there is also the residual stigma of having been unfairly stereotyped as simpletons. Most have learned to rise above it, but it still sticks in the craw.

Roberts has a new book out himself. “How Newfoundlanders Got the Baby Bonus” is a compendium of historical vignettes, many of which clear up common local myths.

To what does Roberts attribute the enduring attraction of conspiracy theories?

“I think that conspiracy beliefs are something that are endemic in most of us in one way or another,” he said.

“We believe what we want to believe. We’re very selective in our evidence. That doesn’t mean people are being dishonest. … It’s part of human nature.”

Organizations: National Convention, Canucks

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Canada, London Ottawa

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Recent comments

  • don smith
    November 23, 2013 - 13:32

    poor Ed calls himself a writer , poor Mr Malone calls himself a writer even tobin has the audacity to call himself a writer.........the three of them, as Oscar Wilde ,might put it, are rather vulgar in wanting to be a dentist when they are not, indeed it produces a false impression ,

  • DON II
    November 23, 2013 - 12:54

    Ed Roberts is quoted: "We believe what we want to believe. We're very selective in our evidence. That doesn't mean people are being dishonest...It's part of human nature." I agree that is how many people think but I completely disagree that people are not being dishonest if they ignore facts, edit documented versions of history or create a propaganda based version of history. There is no place for personal bias or prejudice by so called professional historians, expert researchers or investigators in compiling what should be a fact based historical account. If you are writing a fictional account of history, say so clearly, do not try to pass your work off as a factual or as an authentic version of history. In some cases it appears that even personal gain drives some people to ignore, fabricate or willfully misinterpret historical facts. Much of Newfoundland history that is considered to be factual and true is anything but. Much of the history is fabricated or misinterpreted completely. The nefarious and corrupt influence of Government, political and religion driven propaganda is considerable. The use of threats, coercion, bribery, deceit, creative editing of historical documents to leave out pivotal references and important evidence that may have been used to form public opinion, an historical narrative or achieve a goal is ignored. Propaganda and doctored history is not acceptable when it is promoted to form the basis of the historical record of a Province or a people as is the case with much of the so called history of Newfoundland and Labrador!