Never forget

Bob Wakeham
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I guess most would consider it not altogether shocking that the anniversary of Newfoundland losing its independence in a shotgun wedding of convenience presided over by Canada and Britain appeared to slip relatively unnoticed under the public radar recently.

After all, 63 years under the Canadian flag is long enough, it could be argued, to let the event accumulate cobwebs in the pages of history books and in museum exhibits, to have the dust occasionally cleaned off and the material perused mostly by academics, researchers and archivists.

But ignoring the anniversary of the most significant day in our history, it seems to me, is shameful, almost embarrassing.

It's important, for one thing, that young people especially are constantly reminded that their grandparents and great-grandparents (and beyond) lived in a country called Newfoundland, that the spirited sense of place and independence that still thrives here is no accident, that we come by it naturally.

And those in the acne set should have their historical gene pools become a point of reflection on a regular basis; many of the younger crowd in Newfoundland have never heard of Joey Smallwood or Peter Cashin and can tell you more about Justin Bieber than they can about the Confederation combatants.

Not that such shallowness of memory is peculiar to the youth of Newfoundland; I heard or read recently that many North American teenagers were shocked during the recent 100th anniversary media pigout on the Titanic sinking to discover that James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster movie was actually based on a real-life event, that a ship called the Titanic really did hit an iceberg south of here and sank to the bottom of the ocean.

In any case, I'd be more upset with teenagers here forgetting the anniversary of Confederation than I would their ignorance of the real-life Titanic sinking. This is their history, a recent history, an occasion in which a sizeable proportion of the population still alive actually participated, campaigned and voted on the future of Newfoundland.

They should know that the political battle of 1948-49 was certainly not waged on an even playing field, that the vote was amazingly close, and Newfoundlanders were, at the very least, ambivalent about joining the crowd upalong and weren't grovelling around like a litter of puppies in search of the teat being tantalizingly offered by the Canadian wolf.

And, of course, they should also be told that the mixed marriage of Canada and Newfoundland has not been without its share of monumental rackets, some of which continue to this very day, and that it has been a union in which Newfoundlanders have been treated at times - as Rising Tide's Donna Butt told me in characteristically colourful and politically incorrect language a few years ago - like the "poor retarded uncle" who's told to sit in the corner and keep his mouth shut.

There are also a fair number of Canadians who have believed, and continue to believe, that we've been a drag on Confederation, that we've taken much, much more than we've been given, and that many of us remain unappreciative of the treasures Great Uncle Ottawa has delivered into our needy and begging hands.

I know full well there are readers who react to this sort of annual "remember when" on my part as nostalgic foolishness, that people like me who refuse to forget March 31, 1949 (or was it really and truly April Fool's Day?) should get a life, get over it and enjoy what being a Canadian is all about.

Well, in fact, I'm proud of being a Canadian. As Great Big Sea's Alan Doyle (continuing my name- dropping trend here) told me during an interview a couple of years back: when you size up all the countries Newfoundland could connect with, Canada was, and continues to be, a pretty decent choice (although this reactionary government running the country makes it more and more difficult to brag about the principles usually associated with this part of the world).

Nevertheless, even if Canada's is a relatively comfortable piece of turf to which Newfoundland has connected itself forever, our status certainly doesn't mean we should ever forget our roots, or how we came to be, or what we brought on board the big ship Canadiana in 1949.

There was letter to the editor in the Globe and Mail recently from someone who was making the case that Americans are unaware of the outcome of the War of 1812 because they ended up so much better than Canada did in the long run, and he cited, among a list of comparisons, that "they beat Japan, our troops were POWs," that "they had Faulkner, James and Williams and we have Margaret Atwood, Margaret Atwood and Margaret Atwood."

And sprinkled in among those lame-brain thoughts was this little doozy: "they have Hawaii; we have Newfoundland."

And, yes, I know, this nincompoop is only one letter-writer. But it's hard not to wonder just how many other Canadians whose perception he represents, those who think of us, at best, as the quaint crowd down east who are wildly entertaining, period.

The late James Halley, a lawyer who was directly involved in the 1949 event that altered our futures in the most dramatic way possible and went to his grave convinced we had been done in, told me shortly before he died that I should use this platform I have to periodically remind everyone that I could of that fateful day six decades ago, and its lasting repercussions (as Jim saw it).

He told me over a cup of coffee at his home that I had an obligation to do so.

So, here you are, Jim; the above is this year's contribution.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: North American, Great Big Sea, Globe and Mail

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, Britain Ottawa Japan Hawaii

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