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Was the referendum result the truth?


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Transcontinental Media columnist Ed Roberts

Most of us know that our decision to become Canadians was "a damned near-run thing" in the famous phrase used by the Duke of Wellington to describe his victory at the Battle of Waterloo.

We made our decision in 1948. Every Newfoundlander and every Labradorian 21 years and older had the right to help to decide the question, by casting their votes in a secret ballot.

Almost all of them did so. Two referenda were required to get a clear result. Responsible Government got more votes than either of the other two choices - Confederation and the continuation of Commission - in the first vote, on June 3, but failed to win a majority.

The runoff, on July 22, offered only two choices - "Confederation with Canada" or "Responsible Government as it existed in 1933." Just under 85 per cent of the electorate voted. Confederation received 78,323 votes and Responsible Government 71,434. The result may have been close, but both Britain and Canada took it as being decisive. We became Canadians just before the stroke of midnight on March 31, 1949.

But there are those who believe to this day that the "official" results were not the true ones. Fraud and chicanery tainted the count, they say. Responsible Government was the true winner, but the authorities - in Britain and here in Newfoundland - either allowed the ballot boxes to be stuffed or threw away many of the ballots marked for the Responsible cause.

Some have long believed this was so, and many more came to do so after seeing the 1992 movie "Secret Nation." The fact that not a shred nor scintilla of tangible evidence has ever come forward to support the notion means nothing to such folks.

The closest anybody has ever come to evidence that victory had been stolen from Responsible Government was put forward by Harold Paddock, a well-known and highly regarded professor of linguistics at Memorial University. He told his story in an article published by The Newfoundland Quarterly in the spring of 1978.

In the 1960's, while a graduate student living in London, England, Paddock met "a former British government official at the BBC."

The man had a troubled conscience. When he realized that Paddock was a Newfoundlander, he "confessed" to him that he had been one of those who brought about the fraud. An Englishman, the man had worked in Newfoundland as a civil servant during the time of Commission. He solemnly assured Paddock that he had been told by his superiors "that he must announce that Newfoundland had voted to join Canada regardless of the actual ballot count."

He added that he did as he was ordered, and had suffered from a tortured conscience ever afterwards.

The story might be compelling were it not for the circumstance that Paddock was unable to recall his informant's name. Margot Davies, a Newfoundlander who for many years was the host of Calling Newfoundland from Britain on BBC Radio, had introduced the two of them, Paddock recalled, but for whatever reason the man's name had not fixed itself in his memory. There was no way, then, to verify the startling revelation.

There is no reason to doubt Harold Paddock's honesty, or his belief in what he wrote. But it is both extraordinarily strange and very compelling that he forgot the name of the person who gave him what was in all likelihood the most important piece of information he encountered during his entire life. Nobody else has ever come forward to confirm the story, nor has any document of any sort ever been found in any archive or government record office in Newfoundland, Canada or Britain.

Some still argue that the fact that no evidence - let alone convincing proof - has ever become public simply proves how cleverly the election was stolen. But it is all but impossible to accept that stuffing a ballot box or failing to count votes during an event as public and as controversial as the final Referendum - the "who-shall" vote - in 1948 has been kept secret for more than 60 years.

The votes were counted separately in each of the 25 districts (24 on the Island and one in Labrador) into which Newfoundland and Labrador had been divided for electoral purposes. At a minimum, six or seven or eight men and women would have been present at any count. Given that the election was hotly, even bitterly, contested and the importance of the vote to the future of Newfoundland, it stretches reason to argue that every one of those men and women have kept such an important secret for 60 years.

But, then again, we are all free to believe whatever we wish.

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.

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