How the baby bonus came to Newfoundland

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Past Imperfect Columnist Ed Roberts

Newfoundlanders joined Canada at the stroke of midnight on March 31, 1949. Confederation came at the end of a long, hard-fought and bitter battle, which began when Newfoundlanders (and Labradorians, voting for the first time in their history) elected the National Convention in June 1946 and continued until July 1948, when the second referendum produced a majority for Confederation.

The result was clear, but the margin was narrow; Confederation won 52.34 percent of the vote, against the 47.66 percent for Responsible Government.

Indeed, the vote was so close that Canada's prime minister, Mackenzie King, wondered whether Newfoundlanders had made their decision "clear and beyond all possibility of misunderstanding," his proclaimed standard for acceptance of the result. (King agreed that it was when Jack Pickersgill, his principal secretary, pointed out that Confederation had gained a larger share of the popular vote than King had won in four of his five election victories as prime minister. That was the first of Pickersgill's many significant contributions to Newfoundland).

Even today, more than 60 years later, it is easy to touch off an argument as to why Confederation won. But there can be no doubt that the "baby bonus" was a powerful factor in persuading many thousands of Newfoundlanders to vote to join Canada. It was the star in the crown, Joseph Smallwood told audiences throughout Newfoundland over and over again, passionately and with conviction.

Confederation won, and the baby bonus did come to Newfoundland. The first cheques arrived in homes throughout the new province in April 1949 - just three weeks after we became Canadians. Liberal politicians were quick to claim the credit; while the anti-Confederates who had called Smallwood a false prophet, a man who made "pie-in-the-sky" promises that would not be fulfilled, were proven wrong. Smallwood and his Liberals were triumphantly launched on what became the first of their six election victories.

But the truth is that neither Joey Smallwood nor the Liberal politicians in Ottawa got those cheques to the mothers in Newfoundland. Here is what actually happened.

The second referendum — the "who shall," in the Newfoundland phrase — was held on July 22, 1948. Eight days later, on July 30, prime minister King announced that Canada had accepted Newfoundland's decision, and invited a delegation from Newfoundland to come to Ottawa to negotiate the final Terms of Union.

The delegation (led by Albert Walsh, who became the first Lieutenant-Governor of the new province) took two months to prepare for the discussions, which began in Ottawa on Oct. 6. The final Terms of Union were signed two months after that, on Dec. 11, 1948.

The terms promised clearly that Newfoundlanders would be entitled to every one of the social benefits provided to every other Canadian and would be eligible for them from the very moment that the new province joined the union. The first cheques were to go out in April. How was this to be accomplished?

Less than a fortnight after King's July 30 announcement, the senior Canadian public servants told their ministers that preparations must begin at once. The Canadian cabinet authorized the civil servants to get on with the job on Aug. 11 — four months to the day before the terms were signed.

The baby bonus — the family allowance, as it was known officially — was the biggest task of all. Fortunately, the men who developed it in 1945 still worked for the government. They knew what had to be done, and knew how to do it. The key step was to gather the names of children eligible to receive the allowance. It had taken many months to do this four years earlier, when the first allowances were paid in Canada, and there were many delays and errors.

The problems were complicated. The Newfoundland government had no list of the names of the children living in the about-to-be province. By mid-October, Canadian officials were in St. John's to meet with their Newfoundland counterparts to discuss the best way to prepare one. The Canadian Bureau of Statistics had already made arrangements to microfilm Newfoundland's birth-registration records.

But time was running out. "The registration process had to be flawless; anything less than that would amount to failure," in Newfoundland historian Raymond Blake's phrase. The officials told Paul Martin, Canada's minister of National Health and Welfare, that registration must be substantially completed by March 1 if Newfoundland mothers were to get cheques in April. Martin acted quickly and decisively and in mid-November 1948, a month before the final terms were signed, told them to get on with the work. Registration forms were sent to every Newfoundland family on Dec. 17 (six days after the terms were signed).

And, to add icing to the cake, legislative changes also made it possible to pay the baby bonus to the children of the 40,000 Newfoundlanders who had lived in Canada for less than the three-year waiting period formerly in place.

The sound advice tendered by the civil servants and their flawless execution succeeded. The cheques arrived in St. John's on April 20, 1949, and were delivered by the end of the month. Newfoundlanders received them on the same day as did their fellow Canadians.

The baby bonus was both popular and beneficial. The records show that 50,051 mothers were paid nearly $10 million during the first year after Confederation. That money came as a blessing to the children of those 50,000 mothers. Thousands upon thousands of Newfoundlanders still alive can testify to that.

Liberal politicians reaped the political benefits, of course. Joey Smallwood frequently claimed the credit for bringing it to Newfoundland. He had good reason to do so. But it was the nameless civil servants in the Department of Health and Welfare in Ottawa who made certain that Newfoundland's mothers got their cheques in the very first month after they became Canadians, and by doing so convinced them that Smallwood's promises would be kept.

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. He can be reached by email at the following: edwardmroberts@gmail.com

Organizations: National Convention, Canadian Bureau of Statistics, Department of Health and Welfare

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, Ottawa Mackenzie King St. John's

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