Confederation as Conspiracy

Was Canada’s tenth province really strong-armed into the country?

When a book’s title advertises that it is “the true story,” I immediately suspect that it is not. Greg Malone’s account is, for the most part, not untrue. The government of the United Kingdom and the government of Canada decided that it would be best for all concerned if Newfoundland joined the Canadian confederation. The two governments did what they were able, behind the scenes, to encourage the voters of Newfoundland to join Canada. But when Malone claims that “that truth was kept from the Newfoundland and Canadian public for almost half a century, and it needs to be acknowledged—to change minds and to improve attitudes,” he is moving into an area of polemic, not truth.

What separates this book from the earlier histories of Newfoundland’s road to confederation is not the evidence it presents, but the tone it uses. The facts in this book are well known, despite its billing as an exposé, and there is little new evidence here that has not been published previously. Where it differs from other accounts of the period is in its single-minded effort to portray events of the time as a conspiracy, and in the lack of judiciousness in its presentation of the evidence.

Malone, a founding member of the satirical theatrical troupe CODCO, was sensational in his impersonation of Barbara Frum, and he is equally sensational in his presentation of history. Not just a comic, in recent years he has become a political activist. Through that work he befriended James Halley, who had been a young lawyer and an anti-confederate in the 1940s. Until his death, Halley was the most vocal of the old anti-confederates and a cranky commentator on the ways that Canada was mistreating Newfoundland. Halley handed the torch to his younger friend, and Malone has published the book that Halley wanted to write but did not live to finish.

Newfoundlanders in the 1940s, such as Halley, suspected that conversations were taking place between Ottawa and London behind closed doors, and in the 1980s historians confirmed it. When the government records were released to the public 50 years after the events, and especially when Paul Bridle published a large set of Canadian documents in 1984, the extent of Canadian and British efforts to make Newfoundland into a Canadian province became known. In fact, most of the evidence in this book is reproduced from Bridle’s two volumes. Malone seems to have done little of his own archival research, but relies heavily on the Bridle collection, so it is not surprising that he adds little to the account.

The fact that the UK and Canada favoured confederation is one thing. We have long known that Canadian and British governments gave the Newfoundland advocates of confederation every possible advantage, and placed obstacles in the way of those who wanted a return to responsible government. Malone is justified in feeling that this was unfair. But emotional reaction aside, ultimately the Newfoundland people decided the matter through the ballot box. Malone denies that, and thus dissents from the view taken by most historians. He provides some undocumented and unverifiable third-hand hearsay and gossip about vote rigging. But how can the reader evaluate the veracity of rumour?

Malone offers no evidence that the returning officer, Magistrate Nehemiah Short, faked the election returns, but he asserts it. Similarly, he repeats Halley’s accusations that Joey Smallwood was guilty of extortion and bribery in forcing Ches Crosbie to disband the Economic Union Party. You cannot libel the dead, and neither Short nor Smallwood is alive to defend himself against these charges.

Besides repeating rumour and character assassination, this book contains a series of nationalist shibboleths. It begins, for example, with fishing admirals flogging planters and burning their houses, not because such stories are relevant to the topic at hand or because historians accept such myths, but to establish that Newfoundlanders had always been victims of British policy. The Commission of Government, the appointed body that administered Newfoundland between 1934 and 1949, was, Malone tells us, brought about by bribery. Britain “chose to humiliate Newfoundland” he reports, and then went on to vandalize the legislative assembly building. Lester Pearson, readers may be surprised to know, gave Quebec the revenue from the Churchill Falls hydroelectric project. The Churchill Falls contract is a different topic, but it is an example of the pattern.

Part of the anti-confederate mythology was that Newfoundland was a prosperous country in the first part of the 20th century. Malone tells us that “we lost everything when we joined Canada.” Newfoundland had a budget surplus in 1948, but he does not mention that it also had a low per capita income and little prospect of maintaining a balanced budget if it was to improve services to anything like the North American average. And the country did have an accumulated debt. That hardly fits the definition of prosperous. Many Newfoundlanders were optimistic about their future after the Second World War, but many others thought that the economic security of being a Canadian province outweighed the intangible benefit of remaining alone. Many Newfoundlanders on the ideological right have suggested that it was wrong to allow the poor to vote to join Canada so they could get baby bonuses and old age pensions, rather than remaining independent and working. As Malone puts it, joining Canada meant embracing a “Swedish social welfare package” and “the Liberal culture of dependency.”

These views are familiar to students of Newfoundland’s history, but Malone also makes some curious judgements about what is important. As the possibility of a trans-Atlantic aviation industry became apparent, Malone suggests, the British decided to take democracy away from Newfoundland to secure their control of the atmosphere over the island. “Air supremacy was the fundamental consideration underlying all British policy in Newfoundland from at least the 1920s to the late 1940s.” It is not clear how this is so, or what that actually means, but, typically, it is stated with confidence.

As a literary device to emphasize the conspiratorial tone, Malone often reproduces the word “secret” at the beginning of his many extensive quotations—a word that prefaced diplomatic correspondence as a kind of boilerplate. Readers are expected to reach the same conclusion that Malone did. In what must have been intended to add to the reader’s excitement at reading confidential documents, he suggests that a 1943 document written by Lord Beaverbrook, which recommended resuming responsible government, was so inflammatory that it could only be released to the public in the winter of 2010. But Malone’s citation for the document shows it having been published by Bridle in 1984, and that was where Malone found it. The document is consistent with everything else we know about the British debating their policy options, so he does not really need to draw our attention to it. Not satisfied with shocking us with the content of what British and Canadian diplomats were writing to each other, he suggests that secrecy itself is evidence of criminality. “The conspiratorial tone of these communications indicates that all parties involved were aware that they were initiating confidential negotiations that were constitutionally, politically, democratically, and morally wrong.”

Malone relies heavily on his friend Halley’s suspicions of skulduggery. Halley tells us his school chums at Dalhousie law school had knowledge of the conspiracy, as did his colleagues when he returned to St. John’s to practise law. Undoubtedly, Halley’s acquaintances knew things that are not part of the public record, but how can we weigh that testimony when we do not know the context of the information, or sometimes even the names of the people who made the claims? It is clear that the anti-confederates’ suspicions that the British favoured confederation have been subsequently proven correct by the release of government documents. But what are we to make of Halley’s other suspicions that do not have corroborating evidence?

One well-known rumour repeated here not only lacks corroboration, but is also inconsistent with the evidence. Malone tells the old story about Smallwood moving to the airport town of Gander in 1943 because he had foreknowledge of British plans. In 1933, the British had promised to reinstate responsible government in Newfoundland when the people requested it, and in 1943 they began considering appointing a national convention to investigate the economy and make recommendations of constitutional options to appear on the ballot in a referendum. Much later the British decided on an elected national convention, and the requirement that delegates to it would be residents of the districts in which they would stand for election. Halley surmises that Smallwood knew these things before they had been decided, and moved to Gander where he had a greater chance of getting elected than in St. John’s, and that the Canadians arranged for him to move. Malone ignores the documentary evidence that establishes the chronology of British decision making, and bases his belief upon an anti-confederate, Grace Sparkes, remembering looking out her window and seeing Smallwood visiting the Canadian high commissioner.

If true, this would have been prophetic. In 1943, the British had not firmly settled on having a national convention and the decision to require delegates to be residents of their districts had not yet been made. The national convention was not announced to the public until December of 1945. Malone suggests that Smallwood’s account that he moved to Gander two years earlier to pursue his lifelong interest in operating a piggery is “psychologically unconvincing—unless that move was part of some greater political strategy.” The book would have been better if Malone had applied the same level of skepticism toward Halley’s views that he applied to Smallwood’s motives.

Malone suggests that the 52 percent of Newfoundlanders who wanted to join with Canada had to be strong-armed. “Canada obviously felt it had to isolate and even punish Newfoundland before Confederation would be found palatable on the Island.” He suggests that no Newfoundlanders wanted a national convention in 1946, so how does he account for people running for election? People were bribed into participating, he claims. Meanwhile, qualified Newfoundlanders were not permitted to serve, he says, when the British unfairly required delegates to be residents of the district they represented. That sets Malone up to conclude that the convention was not qualified to discuss union with Canada, or to send a delegation to Ottawa to negotiate terms of union. He does find it qualified, however, to reject confederation being an option presented to voters in the referendum.

Malone believes that a delegation from an elected Newfoundland government could have negotiated with Canada “on an equal basis.” It could, he implies, have gotten a better deal since he suggests that the terms were not negotiated at all, but that Ottawa dictated them. He also asserts that the British-appointed Commission of Government was more concerned with satisfying Canada than getting good terms for Newfoundland. Yet the Newfoundland delegation was aware that the financial terms were inadequate, and worked hard to get a transitional grant and the appointment of a royal commission to re-evaluate the long-term fiscal relationship. That was not an insignificant achievement.

Would a delegation of Newfoundlanders appointed by an elected government have been more effective than the delegation appointed by the elected national convention? Maybe. The terms of union between Newfoundland and Canada still would have had to be consistent with the existing division of powers between the federal and provincial governments as set out in the British North America Act. Malone thinks that this argument is beside the point. Even if the terms of union were the same as they otherwise would have been, he feels that the way that British and Canadian governments manipulated the process to get the outcome they desired was unseemly. Most reasonable people would concur.

There are two counterfactual arguments in this book. One is that Newfoundland would have prospered more if it had been allowed to develop its resources on the continental shelf, in Labrador and in the airspace over the island. The British handed that wealth to Canada, and Newfoundlanders were left with welfare. The second argument is that had Newfoundlanders resumed responsible government an elected government could have appointed effective negotiators and shaped the terms of union between Canada and Newfoundland, so that Newfoundland would not have been a have-not province for more than 50 years.

Oral tradition and counterfactual reasoning can raise questions worth pursuing, but we can never know what might have been. A retired legislative librarian told Malone “it’s what’s not in the files that is interesting, Greg.” Malone and Halley were interested in the things that no one wrote down. But historians are in the business of weighing evidence, not speculating on what is not in the files.

Canadians may be shocked that Canada pursued a secret strategy of manipulating Newfoundland into confederation in the 1940s, but students of Newfoundland history have known that for years. Why does Malone take such a tone of moral indignation about what is in the historical record, and go further to give credence to the more outlandish of the conspiracy speculations? He tells us he is motivated by more recent slights. Malone recounts his own nationalist awakening when, in the early 1970s, he went to Toronto and was treated shabbily because he was from Newfoundland. CODCO challenged Canadian perceptions of Newfoundland, and this book attempts to do the same. The Churchill Falls agreement benefits Quebec and not Newfoundland and Labrador, and the government of Canada did not do a good job husbanding fish stocks. All history is contemporary history in the sense that recent slights shape the lens through which nationalists view history as much as does the evidence from the past.

Clearly British and Canadian policy makers were pursuing in secret what they could not do openly, and the governments were not honest brokers, but the writing of history is more than just stringing documents together; it is also about weighing evidence. Malone constantly uses words such as “subverted,” “treason,” “criminal,” “conspirators,” “plot,” “connivance,” “duplicity,” “mendacity,” “abuse” and “fraudulently.” Historians have an understanding of our past that has more nuance and sophistication than this inflammatory choice of language implies—but this book is informed by the feeling that Canada has been unfair to Newfoundland since 1949 as much as by the evidence from the 1940s.