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Lost in the forties tonight


While writing this column, I listened for the umpteenth time to Ronnie Milsap's song, Lost in the fifties tonight. The only difference is that I'm "Lost in the forties tonight." I've been wondering about Newfoundland's Confederation with Canada in 1949. Born in 1957, I know about this event only from reading and listening to those who were alive back then.

Just wondering... -

While writing this column, I listened for the umpteenth time to Ronnie Milsap's song, Lost in the fifties tonight. The only difference is that I'm "Lost in the forties tonight."

I've been wondering about Newfoundland's Confederation with Canada in 1949. Born in 1957, I know about this event only from reading and listening to those who were alive back then.

A friend recently gave me a bundle of Newfoundland newspapers that he had salvaged from a house in Coley's Point before it was torn down. Among the collection is the March 31, 1949 souvenir edition of the St. John's Daily News. Reading this newspaper, I've been struck with a sense of immediacy. It's almost as though I'm there in person on the eventful day Newfoundland officially became part of Canada. "Tomorrow Mr. Smallwood will be sworn in as my first premier."

To join or not to join?

It could not have been an easy time for all parties concerned. Confederates, convinced of the benefits that would accrue to Newfoundland as a result of joining the Canadian Dominion, often had a hard time persuading family and friends.

Anti-confederates were equally heated in their case against union with Canada. Not surprisingly, the Confederation question was the cause of profound bitterness and division across virtually all lines.

I recall my late parents speaking in glowing terms about Confederation. Invariably, they would say, as they encouraged their children to pursue post-secondary education, "Confederation with Canada is the best thing that ever happened to Newfoundland. Mr. Smallwood fought long and hard to see his dream come true. Now, you children are reaping the benefits of what so many people thought was a lost cause."

Those must have been heady days. Feelings were intense; arguments were fierce. Both the naysayers and yeasayers were in their element, crafting and expressing their respective arguments for all and sundry to hear.

Letter to the editor

A Fanny Fiander Ryan of Harbour Grace sent a letter to the editor of The Daily News, leaving no doubt as to where she stood on the Confederation issue.

I personally know nothing about Ms. Ryan, although I would be interested in learning more. She is a well-spoken commentator on what was happening in the days leading up to the vote. It is instructive to read excerpts from her letter.

Ms. Ryan characterizes herself as "one of a proud, courageous and freedom-loving people." On the eve of what she considers to be her "last opportunity...to write you before our beloved country loses her independence," she expresses, "horror of the ways and means used to bring about this union." Now, she is making yet another attempt, "for the benefit of future generations," to save Newfoundland's heritage.

However, her efforts are "in vain, and the island is divided on the issue." As "the fatal hour" nears, she continues, "thousands look aghast at the heartless way in which our beloved country and ourselves are being disposed of."

More to the point, "a tragedy is being enacted, all because our political ignorance and simple trustfulness in England's promise was exploited. We were definitely promised that, when the island became self-supporting, our Constitution would be restored." Despite being solvent since 1941, Newfoundland is "drugged by a false security," hesitant "to ask for what properly belonged to us." As a result, "a black chapter in English history" is being written.

A "storm...rages in our hearts in this eventful hour," springing from, among other sources, "England's apparent indifference to our fate as an independent people." The "fanatically patriotic" Newfoundlander is "immeasurably shocked...that the British Government should, without any scruples whatsoever, use a loyal people as pawns in a nefarious diplomatic game." And, the island is being railroaded into Canadian union.

She rightly agrees that the "betrayal" must be left "to historians and, consequently, be judged by future generations. As many of us see it, our simpleness was our undoing. We trusted where we should have been watchful...we have much to answer for in the days that lie ahead."

Meanwhile, she is pragmatic enough to realize that Confederation of Newfoundland with Canada is a done deal. And, for the greater good of the island, she is willing to accept the inevitable.

"As for our own people," she writes, "I can only hope that there will emerge out of chaos a measure of prosperity and happiness for all of those who diligently seek it." To her credit, despite the tone of her anti-confederate rhetoric, she is "confident that we can, as a courageous, independent and colourful people, rise above our present sorry plight and make this island of ours sparkle like the rich gem she is.

"All Newfoundlanders love her and, whatever happens, we cannot let her down. My heart is 'thumping to beat the band' as I write this letter, my eyes are dimmed with tears; but I am resolved to help my country by every means in my power, to encourage its people, whenever opportunity offers, to endeavour to find the good in everything. I pray to God that he will assuage the bitterness and anger that boils up within one; and that, in this acid test, I may be the patriot I am accredited to be, and which I know I am."

Her concluding wish is that Newfoundlanders "may go forward into the new life with a quiet confidence, knowing that...justice will prevail." She counsels courage of her readers.

A generation that knew not Joey

In the twenty-first century, it is patently easy for me, along with others who were not even born when Newfoundland was brought into union with Canada, to characterize Ms. Ryan's letter as mere anti confederate bombast, archaic, combative for the sake of combat. However, we cannot, and perhaps must not-forget that, in those days, profound and long-term issues were at stake.

Confederation has personally affected my life. I agree with my parents who said it "was the best thing that ever happened to Newfoundland." However, it came with a fight. To quote Charles Dickens' immortal words, "it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair..." While there were valid and convincing arguments on both sides, only one side was destined to win.

I am a proud Newfoundlander and a proud Canadian. I enjoy a better standard of living today, as a result of the decisive actions taken by my parents and others on that portentous day. I cannot imagine life any other way.

At the same time, I wonder, do my children and I have an appreciation for the defining issues that were debated in those momentous days, for the battle lines that were drawn in the sand, for the battles that were fought, then won and lost? Without being unduly sentimental, may we never lose a positive and creative sense of the past while living in the present!

Burton K. Janes writes from Bay Roberts. While he appreciates hearing from readers, he would prefer it if those who write him would identify themselves so he may dialogue with them on the issues they raise. He can be reached at burtonj@nfld.net

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