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A look back at attempts to sell Labrador


Past Imperfect Columnist Ed Roberts

Great victories are often won in unexpected places, and happen quietly.

On March 1, 1927, five elderly British lawyers (the youngest of them was 68) gathered in a small committee room at the House of Lords in London to give their answer to the question asked of them by the governments of the two British Dominions in North America - Canada and Newfoundland. The men were the most senior British judges, sitting as the Judicial Committee of the (British) Privy Council.

They were asked to decide: "What is the location and definition of the boundary as between Canada and Newfoundland in the Labrador Peninsula under the Statutes, Orders in Council and Proclamations?" Their answer has become known as the Labrador Boundary Decision — the final definitive and unassailable delineation of the border between the two independent Dominions.

The decision was a long time coming. The roots of the dispute went back more than 150 years, to the day in 1763 when Great Britain's ownership of mainland North America was formally acknowledged by France in the Treaty of Paris. Control of Labrador had passed back and forth between Newfoundland and the other North American Colonies several times since then. An argument over who had the right to issue licences to harvest the timber resources of Lake Melville led the two governments eventually to ask the Privy Council, the highest court in the British Empire and Commonwealth, to settle the issue. That was in November 1920, six and one-half years before the council judgment was made public.

Outstanding lawyers

The fight, in form, was between Canada on one hand and Newfoundland on the other, but in reality it was between the province of Quebec and Newfoundland.

Each side had outstanding lawyers. The lead counsel for Canada was Charles J. Doherty, a judge of the Quebec Superior Court from 1891 to 1906 and the Minister of Justice and Attorney General for Canada between 1911 and 1921. His co-counsel included Charles Lanctot, the Assistant Attorney General of Quebec.

John Simon, an eminent British barrister who later became Lord Chancellor of England, led Newfoundland's legal team, with W.J. Higgins, Newfoundland's Minister of Justice between 1924 and 1928, by his side. Sir Patrick McGrath, a prominent Newfoundland journalist, was instrumental in preparing Newfoundland's case, and ensured it was bolstered by and soundly based on the complete documentary record.

The Privy Council decision was a great victory for Newfoundland, and was celebrated as such. Newfoundlanders, rightly, believed that Labrador was a great treasure house, but they didn't know quite what to do with it; the prime minister, Walter S. Monroe, told the House of Assembly three months later that he doubted whether "this country will ever be able to develop it."

Monroe's admission was not a surprise. The bald truth was that Newfoundland had previously made at least three separate attempts to sell Labrador to Canada. The only reason that there was no deal was that Canada would not pay the price Newfoundland asked.

The first offer was made in 1922, during Richard Squires's first term as prime minister. A year later, in 1923, William Warren, a few months into his very short term as prime minister, made another approach to Canada. Although there was little public debate, the offer was not a secret.

The Daily News, on Dec. 27, 1923, said that the sale of Labrador "may be worth considering." The price was rumoured to be $60 million.

Nor was that the end of the tale. Less than two years later, Monroe's Conservative administration tried again, without success. An editorial in The Evening Telegram in April 1925 said that "it will be admitted by all that the blame [for failure] does not rest with our delegates."

Desperate for money

Squires became prime minister again in 1928. Newfoundland's financial position was deteriorating rapidly, as the gap between revenue and expenditure grew relentlessly and greatly. Squires and his colleagues, desperate for money, turned again to Ottawa late in 1931.

The finance minister, Peter Cashin, and H.M. Mosdell, his cabinet colleague, met R.B. Bennett, the Canadian prime minister, late in 1931. He told them that he was sympathetic to Newfoundland's plight. Joined by Sir William Coaker and Arthur Barnes, two of their fellow ministers, they met again with Bennett, and made him a formal offer to sell Labrador for $110 million.

Cashin, in an hitherto-unpublished memoir written many years later, said the price was "much greater than the price offered to the province of Quebec by a Monroe delegation in 1925," which he said was $15 million. He recalled that "Mr. Bennett was really interested in this proposition," and promised an early answer.

Unfortunately, Bennett told them in a letter a week or so later, the financial problems caused by the Depression made it impossible for Canada to do the deal. Again, there was no secret about either the offer or its rejection; Coaker described it in an article published in The Fishermen's Advocate, his newspaper, on Oct. 26, 1932.

One of the more intriguing types of historical writing is so-called counter-factual history — history that begins with "what if ... a given event" had not happened when it did. What if, for example, Napoleon had beaten Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo?

But it's not difficult to imagine the consequence if Canada had accepted any of the Newfoundland offers and bought Labrador. The immense natural resources of Labrador — including the hydroelectric energy at Churchill Falls and on the Lower Churchill River, and the vast mineral deposits in western Labrador and at Voisey's Bay - would have become the property of Canada and the Province of Quebec.

Some may consider the idea unthinkable, but the historical truth is that this nearly happened. Canada's refusal to pay Newfoundland's price was the only reason it did not come to pass.

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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