Top News

How Confederation got on the referendum ballot


Past Imperfect Columnist Ed Roberts

Newfoundlanders — and Labradorians, who voted for the first time ever — went to the polls in June 1946 for the first time in 14 years. They elected 45 men to be the members of the National Convention. The Convention's mandate was set out in the statute passed by the Commission of Government:

"It shall be the duty and function of the Convention to consider and discuss among themselves ... [and] to make recommendations to His Majesty's Government of the United Kingdom as to possible forms of future government to be put before the people in a National Referendum."

It was clear from the outset that the British Government would decide the questions to be put to the voters. The Convention could only discuss and recommend.

The great national debate began in September 1946, when the Convention first met, and ran throughout all of 1947. On Friday, Jan. 23, 1948, members were asked to decide their recommendations. All 45 of them voted to put two choices on the ballot: "1. Responsible Government as it existed prior to 1934; [and] 2. Commission of Government."

A third choice

Joseph Smallwood, the leader of the Confederate forces, then moved that a third choice be added — "Confederation with Canada upon the basis submitted to the National Convention on Nov. 6, 1947 by the Prime Minister of Canada."

He used all the passion at his command in pleading with his fellow delegates:

"I call upon even the bitterest anti-confederate here to vote for my motion. Hate Confederation all you like. That is your privilege, but do not vote to deny our people of Newfoundland their rights to decide this matter. We here in this convention have not been given the right to decide what form of government this country shall have, the people have been given that right, and they will exercise their right in the referendum."

The debate ran on all that afternoon, for all of Monday's session and continued on Tuesday afternoon and into the evening. So many members spoke that the vote was not called until 5 a.m. on Wednesday. Smallwood and 15 other members stood in their place to support it. The other 29 members of the Convention voted "Nay." The convention was formally dissolved two days later, on Jan. 30, 1948.

Smallwood and Gordon Bradley were not dismayed by the defeat; indeed, they had expected it. They immediately called upon their fellow citizens to protest the Convention's decision to prevent them from voting for Confederation.

Canada's High Commissioner in Newfoundland reported to Ottawa on Feb. 3 that Smallwood claimed to have received some 500 supporting telegrams, signed by 11,000 citizens. The Evening Telegram, he added, "characterizes the situation as 'one of the most amazing outbursts of public opinion in this country's political history.'" Four days later, he reported, the Confederate office had been flooded by "1,550 telegrams from 670 outport communities, containing the signatures of approximately 44,000 voters," more than 25 per cent of all those on the voter's list. By Feb. 12, he told his superiors, 50,000 electors had signed petitions or sent telegrams.

Right to choose

But the truth of the story is that the British Government had already decided what was going to be done. Norman Robertson, Canada's High Commissioner in Britain, told Louis St. Laurent, Canada's Secretary of State for External Affairs, on Jan. 20, 1948 that the British Cabinet, collectively, "see no long-run solution of Newfoundland's problems outside Confederation ..."

On Feb. 3, Lord Addison, a member of the Cabinet, reported to Attlee that he had discussed the issue with Newfoundland's Governor, Sir Gordon Macdonald and with the Permanent Undersecretary [Deputy Minister] of the Commonwealth Relations office. Addison's advice was that the Cabinet should reject the Convention's conclusion, and add Confederation to the ballot paper, thereby giving Newfoundlanders the right to choose which of the three forms of government they wanted. A day later, the prime minister sent word formally that he accepted the advice.

There was just one hitch. Attlee stipulated that he would not add Confederation if the Canadian government did not want it on the ballot. His concern disappeared on Feb. 19, when the Canadian government officially told the British that the question was one "for the United Kingdom to decide."

Governor Macdonald announced in St. John's on March 11 that the third choice - "Confederation with Canada" - would appear on the ballot because "it would not be right to deprive the people of Newfoundland of an opportunity of considering the issue [of Confederation] at the Referendum."

The announcement went on to say that there would be "a second referendum should no one form of government get an absolute majority at the first vote."

Maddening wait

Those who think that the British decision was taken in cahoots with Smallwood were mistaken. The Confederate leader recounted in his autobiography, "I Chose Canada," that he had had "to live through an interminable, intolerable, maddening wait for word from London!"

Even then he learned about the British decision by a wink from his friend Dick O'Brien, an announcer, who was on his way to the studio to announce over VONF that Confederation would be on the ballot.

The historical record is clear. There can be no doubt that Britain wanted Newfoundland to become a province of Canada. Indeed, the British North America Act which created the Dominion of Canada in 1867 made specific provision for Newfoundland's entry into the Union.

The National Convention's refusal to put Confederation on the ballot came as no surprise to any astute observer. In turn, it should not have been a surprise to anybody that Britain would ensure that Newfoundlanders had an opportunity to say whether they wanted to become Canadian, or to remain as an independent country. That is why the Convention was given only the right to recommend possible choices, rather than to decide them.

The rest is history. Responsible Government got the most votes in the first round of balloting, in June 1948, but did not win the support of a majority. The "who shall," in July, gave a slim - but clear - majority to Confederation. We became Canadian a few short months later, on March 31, 1949.

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.

Recent Stories