Confederation, from its very beginning, was conceived as the union of all the British colonies in North America — Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. The initiative came from the colony called Canada (today's Ontario and Quebec), which sent delegates to a meeting of the three Maritime colonies (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island), held in Charlottetown in September 1864.
Newfoundland was not represented at that meeting, but Prime Minister Hugh Hoyles agreed to send delegates to a second conference held in Quebec City a month later, in October. Frederick Carter, the Speaker of the House, and Ambrose Shea, the Leader of the Opposition, went there, under instructions to listen and to report to their colleagues at home, but not to make any commitment.
Nonetheless, they signed on to the resolutions that embodied the terms of a proposed union of all the British North American colonies. The British Parliament, in 1867, transformed these resolutions, with some modifications, into the British North America Act — the Dominion of Canada's Constitution.
The original BNA Act united Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick as the Dominion of Canada. But the British Parliament, acting on the advice of the Canadian delegates to the 1867 London Conference, made specific provision for the admission of Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and British Columbia into the union, along with the lands that now form Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Eighty years passed before Newfoundland became part of Canada. And it took three tries before they did so.
Carter and Shea came back to Newfoundland to face a firestorm of opposition. Carter, a committed Confederate, became prime minister in 1865. But he was unable to persuade the legislature to send delegates to the conference to develop the final terms of union, in London in 1866.
Three years later, in March 1869, both houses of the legislature voted to accept the terms of a union with Canada. By June, Newfoundland delegates had negotiated final terms in Ottawa. A heated debate broke out throughout the island. The issue was then put to the people, in a general election. Popular feeling was inflamed by rhetoric such as the famous taunt to Canada:
"[Our] face turns to Britain, [our] back to the Gulf,
Come near at your peril, Canadian wolf."
The anti-Confederates, led by Charles Fox Bennett, won an overwhelming majority.
There was no more talk of Confederation for nearly 40 years. But the financial crisis brought about by the failure of the two Newfoundland-owned banks in December 1894, combined with the political confusion in the aftermath of the 1893 general election, forced Newfoundland's leaders to revive the idea of uniting with Canada.
Sir William Whiteway, finally confirmed as prime minister in February 1895, was driven by Newfoundland's problems to seek help from Britain. The British government's refusal forced him to approach Canada. A high-powered delegation led by Robert Bond and Edward Morris (each of whom later became Prime Minister of Newfoundland) left St. John's at the end of March for Ottawa. None of the delegates was a committed confederate.
Dr. James Hiller, a leading Newfoundland historian, summed up what happened next: "The Canadian government was also not enthusiastic about the negotiations." Bond, in response, made it very clear " ... that the delegation was not begging for help on bended knee."
In the event, negotiations failed. Again, in Hiller's words, "the federal offer was inadequate." The talks ended when Mackenzie Bowell, the Canadian prime minister, flatly rejected Whiteway's demand that Canada assume Newfoundland's full debt and pay the cost of completing the railway across the island to Port aux Basques.
But the idea lived on. Judge D.W. Prowse, in his monumental history (1895), said that "Both from an Imperial and Colonial point, the union of the British North American Colonies is a consummation devoutly to be wished; it is all a question of terms."
Although there was talk of Confederation from time to time in succeeding years, there was no further serious move by Newfoundlanders to join Canada until after the end of the Second World War.
The British government had rescued Newfoundland from near-bankruptcy in 1933, forcing the Dominion to surrender self-government. At war's end, Britain asked Newfoundlanders (and Labradorians, who voted for the first time) to choose a National Convention to make recommendations for Newfoundland's political future.
Joseph Smallwood, whose career had been marked by several failures before he became a very well-known journalist as "The Barrelman," proclaimed himself a Confederate. The rest is history. Newfoundlanders became Canadians just before the stroke of midnight on March 31, 1949. The full dream of the men who had created Canada in 1867 became reality.
Edward Roberts has had a lifelong interest in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the province's lieutenant-governor from 2002 to 2008.