After reading Greg Malone’s fascinating and thought-provoking book, “Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders,” I couldn’t help but think of a story I’ve told in this space on a couple of occasions about a poignant conversation my mother had with her father after Newfoundland had decided by the slimmest of margins to join Canada.
When my grandfather heard Mom admit she had voted for Confederation, tears glistened in his eyes: “Ah, Eileen,” lamented Joe Judge, a native of Point Verde, a Grand Falls mill worker and a First World War veteran, “you gave her away.”
And I know for sure that my grandfather would have pounded the kitchen table in anger and disgust and a sense of betrayal if he had had the opportunity to read “Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders,” and would have agreed with Malone’s conclusion that Canada and Britain conspired, through “concealment and deception,” to ensure that Newfoundland would join Canada instead of returning to Responsible Government.
Conspiratorial theories about Confederation have long been dismissed by, among others, academics with a lot of time on their hands, Smallwood apologists and defenders and those who fervently believe Canada did Newfoundland a gigantic favour in 1949 by allowing its impoverished and starving birdies to find a cosy spot in her inviting and generous nest.
And if you dare to wonder or write or discuss what might have happened if Newfoundland had been accorded a fair and honourable opportunity to choose its destiny and had become, once again, a country, you’d be lazily dismissed as an incurable romantic by those who unequivocally accept and embrace the 1948 verdict that attached us permanently to our neighbour to the west.
I’m sure that’s how some of those same defenders of the process that led to Confederation viewed St. John’s lawyer Jim Halley during his lifelong campaign to convince Newfoundlanders that they had been duped and tricked into joining Canada.
Halley had a front-row seat to the events that led up to the fight over Newfoundland’s future; in fact, he was in the arena itself for much of the battle. And it was Halley who inspired Malone’s book, sending the actor, comedian and writer in the direction of the evidence — and providing him with much of the documentation — that makes the case for the conspiracy concocted between Great Britain and Canada in the 1940s.
I knew Halley fairly well myself, on both a professional and personal basis, and was aware, as was anyone who spent any time in his company, how strongly was his belief about the immoral, illegal and unconstitutional way in which Newfoundland entered Confederation.
So it was with a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction to see Malone carry out Halley’s wishes to inform as many people as possible about why it was that a proud and independent people opted for Confederation and not Responsible Government.
Plenty to read
I‘m obviously not going to even try and summarize the mounds of documentation in Malone’s book (some parts are as dry as unbuttered toast, others unexpectedly entertaining, while still other sections, memos between London and Ottawa, will make your pee hot and cause your patriotic blood, if that’s what flows in your veins, to reach the boiling point).
Suffice to say the paperwork, and Malone’s accompanying prose, will reinforce (depending on your perspective) the idea that there was no legitimate reason in the first place for Newfoundland to have temporarily given up its independence in 1934 and relegated the running of its affairs to a commission appointed by London.
If Newfoundland was in such a dire state of financial affairs, it had plenty of worldwide company.
More importantly, though, Newfoundlanders weren’t asked if this was a decision they agreed with.
It was an arbitrary decision, window-dressed by a royal commission that knew what it was ordained to do.
And the most pertinent fact about that shameful time in 1934 — and this is made clear time and again in Malone’s book — is that Newfoundland was promised at the time that it would be ruled again by Responsible Government once its finances were in the black.
It would be a matter of course, not the subject of a vote.
But that wasn’t to be
Britain wanted to rid itself of its “problem child.” (The patronizing, paternalistic and condescending language used by both Canadian and English politicians and bureaucrats to describe Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders was as cruel and nasty as any “Newfie” joke.)
Britain’s war debt to Canada was written off. And Canada knew what it could gain from Newfoundland.
The die was cast.
As Malone puts it: “Canada had the dollars; it was the buyer and would set the terms; Britain was
the vendor and would deliver the goods: Newfoundland.”
You can read the book and draw your own conclusions — and it’s not too hard to find alternative opinions (you might want to read, for instance, the views of a MUN professor named Jeff Webb online, as I did).
I happen to come down decidedly on Malone’s side.
But I’ll tell you what I found awfully disconcerting: last week on CBC’s “Radio Noon,” during a discussion of Malone’s book, a couple of callers expressed the view that it was quite OK if a conspiracy took place to lead us into Confederation because we were “tricked into a better way of life,” as one of the program’s participants put it.
Another caller from Grand Falls — I can’t recall his name — said his father had volunteered to drive Joe Smallwood around in his cab during the referendum campaign. Fair enough. But this caller also advertised the fact that his father had taken names off headstones and given them to Smallwood to be used as pro-Confederation votes.
What shocked me was that this man was bragging.
He acknowledged there was a conspiracy, and he implied that Joey and people like his father were part of it.
But it was a worthwhile and wonderful conspiracy because Newfoundland became part of Canada.
In other words, the end justifies the means.
I almost lost my lunch.
Well, I’m grateful there are people like Greg Malone and the late Jim Halley, individuals with an aversion to that sort of bizarre thought process.
And fortunately, all people in Grand Falls weren’t like the above-mentioned CBC caller.
There were people like my grandfather.
He believed to his dying breath that Newfoundland had been “sold.”
And he never wanted it forgotten.
Pop would have appreciated a book like “Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders.”
Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.