COLUMN: Confederation campaign from the eyes of a pre-teen

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“I’ll vote for who I damn well like!” the woman shouted as she passed along the highroad, on her way to church.

Many of us reading this are old enough to have lived through the Confederation campaign of the 1940s and some of that group are lucky enough to remember details of that tumultuous time.

We had no television in those days, no computers, no phones, and only a few had radios.

But those who did have a radio — my family in Long Beach, Conception Bay North, was one of them — were crowded, night after night, with people listening to the National Convention (that continued on for two years), Joseph R. Smallwood charming everybody with his oratory, and Peter Cashin delivering, blow for blow, as good as he received.

My father was a Confederate. He had been “up to Canada” and had worked as a stevedore foreman on the docks in Halifax, and came to the conclusion, during his time there, that the Canadian way of life was superior to that offered to the common working man back home in Newfoundland.

And so, from 1946 to the final vote in the summer of 1948, he was adamant in his support for joining Canada, and so was my mother, though less vociferous than he.

The populace was deeply divided, with most of the support for the previous Newfoundland government, that went bankrupt in 1934, centered in St. John’s where the merchant class dominated. The rural areas, the outports, led by Smallwood, wanted, with some exceptions, union with Canada.

Once, leading up to the final vote in the summer of 1948, my father was verbally and physically attacked in one community, a little ways down the shore; the physical aspect of the altercation was minor, but the verbal animosity made him more resolute than ever to vote for Confederation when the time came.

As you can imagine, in all the hoopla, we children were involved. When you are 10, 11 and 12 years-of-age you adopt the beliefs and convictions of your parents; and so it was, in a debate in Corpus Christi school in Long Beach, I represented the pro-Confederation side in the spring of 1948, a couple of months before the two final referenda. My side lost the debate.

That summer, with all the frivolity of youth, and not realizing how the commotion around us all would end, we entered the final stages of the election campaign.

Each Sunday, before evening service at the church, we pre-teens gathered at a root cellar close by Will Johnston’s place, bordering the highroad. There, amongst other activities described by the priest as “devilment,” we shouted out our political affiliations to all in the world who would listen.

“VOTE CONFEDERATION, GUARANTEED,” we would shout to the people going up the road to the church.

Most of them, looking at a gaggle of 10 to 12 year-olds, ignored us, or laughed at us.

Not Nell. No, siree. Not Nellie.

She was from down the shore a little ways, a single lady, and was taking no guff from the Long Beach crowd.

“VOTE CONFEDERATION!! … JOEY’S THE MAN, THE BEST!!” we shouted to all and sundry.

The only one who responded was Nell.

“Joey, my arse! Shut yer friggin’ gobs!’’ and off she went, muttering about Long Beach “savages” and other phrases that were anything but complimentary.

On July 22, 1948, the day of the second referendum, the vote split half-and-half in our part of the North Shore, and we became Canadians the following spring.

Nell did very well for herself as a Canadian. She was judged to be eligible for a permanent disability pension, which was much more lucrative than the despised dole that she had lived on most of her life.

She lived on for years, attending church every Sunday and Holy Days, and had to be amazed that the “savages” who had shouted political banter at her from the side of the highroad, could now be seen, bedecked in soutanes and surplices, inside the altar rails, acolytes every one of us.

— William O'Flaherty worked a 40-year career as a country doctor in Newfoundland and New Brunswick. He was the country doctor in Western Bay, on the north shore of Conception Bay, from 1967 to 1989, and was born in the tiny fishing village of Long Beach, at the lower end Northern Bay. He writes from Moncton, NB.

Organizations: National Convention, Corpus Christi school

Geographic location: Long Beach, Canada, Newfoundland Halifax North Shore New Brunswick Western Bay Northern Bay Moncton

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