Never to Forget

A new look at the lingering legacy of Newfoundland’s climb to prosperity.

Newfoundland came into Confeder­ation with no familiarity of federalism. The new province had experienced bankruptcy and a loss of responsible government in 1934, suffering the humiliation of being just one of two British colonies to do so (the other being Malta in 1933). In lieu of Newfoundland governing itself, its leaders opted for rule-by-committee in the form of a British-appointed commission. This state of affairs persisted until March 31, 1949, the day Newfoundland became a province on the slimmest of margins—a 52 to 48 split in the last of two bitterly contested referendums the previous year.

In socioeconomic terms, the new province was in a class of its own. Less than 50 percent of Newfoundland households (26 percent in rural communities) had electricity, while comparable rates in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were 79 percent and 74 percent. Similar discrepancies were found in household access to running water, indoor plumbing and medical facilities. The mainstay of the provincial economy was still fishing, an occupation that, on average, paid one sixth of what the average worker made in Ontario. Compounding all that was an uneven population distribution: hundreds of small communities, many with no more than a few dozen residents, located along some 10,000 kilometres of coastline, making service delivery costly.

The cumulative effect meant that the provincial government faced a major hurdle in providing modern public services that could come even close to matching those in the Maritimes, which themselves were low relative to the national average. Governments from the time of Louis St. Laurent incessantly compared Newfoundland with Maritimes standards, making the stark differences all that more obvious. So it is no surprise that all Newfoundland premiers, from Joey Smallwood onward, have fought for recognition that the province required some form of transitory allowance—be it monetary, constitutional or political—to allow it to build the institutional and financial capacity necessary to provide for its residents.

The public spats between Newfoundland and Labrador premiers and Canadian prime ministers have produced some of the most vivid, passionate moments in this country’s political history. From Joey Smallwood’s clash with John Diefenbaker over financial assistance, or Brian Peckford’s showdown with Pierre Trudeau on the control of offshore oil, to Clyde Wells’s scuttling of Brian Mulroney’s cherished Meech Lake Accord, Canada’s youngest province has affected Canadian federalism in ways out of all proportion to its half-a-million souls.

And the pyrotechnics have not ended. Non-Newfoundlanders might mistakenly think that theatrics such as Danny Williams’s hauling down of the Canadian flag in 2005 were designed solely for domestic consumption—as nothing more than a crass appeal to Newfoundlanders’ nationalist heartstrings in the face of low public approval ratings. While one cannot completely discount the possibility of such electoral calculations, it is important to note, as Raymond D. Blake does in his newest book, Lions or Jellyfish: Newfoundland-Ottawa Relations Since 1957, that underneath it all has been a continuous drive, for better or for worse, by Newfoundland’s premiers to make the Canadian federation work for a province that until recently was one of its poorest members.

In Blake’s view, the combination of population by representation and a lack of institutional reform in our parliament has given disproportionate influence to the larger provinces in governing the affairs of the country. Consequently, “the interests of smaller and weaker provinces in the federation have been ignored.” In short, it illustrates how embedded inequity is in Canadian federalism.

Blake, who is originally from Newfoundland and is now a historian at the University of Regina, makes the argument that we cannot understand Newfoundland-Ottawa relations without looking at how they have been shaped by a combination of elites, political culture and history. In his view, scholarship on Canadian federalism, especially that on the provinces outside of Quebec, fails to incorporate these elements into its analyses. And Blake would know. His 1992 book, Canadians at Last: Canada Integrates Newfoundland as a Province, examined the role individuals and policies played in overcoming the challenges of transforming Newfoundland from a colony, in 1949, into a full member of the Canadian federation by 1957.

In Lions or Jellyfish the past is always present. Blake contends that understanding Newfoundland’s pre-Confederation history helps one to conceptualize the province’s political culture and the arguments its premiers have taken on intergovernmental matters. The perennial hope of many a premier has been ending the “legacy of colonialism and prosper[ing] with the federal framework.”

The most egregious example of this has to be the Churchill Falls hydroelectric project—what Blake refers to as “a low, dishonest episode in the annals of Canadian federalism.” Between 1963 and 1968, Prime Minister Lester Pearson, not wanting to antagonize Quebec nationalists and risk Liberal seats, refused to invoke the federal constitutional power that would allow Labrador hydroelectricity to pass unhindered across Quebec’s borders and onto North American markets. Notably, Alberta had benefitted from such an invocation when Saskatchewan opposed the transmission of gas across its borders several years previously. In order to ensure the dam could be built, Newfoundland was left having to enter into agreement with Hydro-Québec. In what arguably remains one of the most unjust commercial contracts of its kind anywhere, Newfoundland agreed to a deal that saw it earn just $63 million in 2010 in comparison to $1.7 billion for Quebec. The contract is not set to expire until 2041—69 years after it came into effect. To say that Newfoundland paid a price for Canadian unity would be perhaps the only generous interpretation of this calamity.

But this is only part of Newfoundland’s post-Confederation story, and if there is one flaw in what is otherwise a thoroughly researched and argued book it is in Blake’s lack of turning the lens inward. Blake appears to saddle most of the blame for Newfoundland’s state of affairs on federal officials and perhaps that is because his intended audience is Canadians outside the province (he rightly takes numerous swipes at the national media’s failure to understand Newfoundland’s position). But yet Ottawa cannot take the blame for the failings of Newfoundland’s own democratic institutions. Its elected members sit far fewer days than any of their provincial cousins, with the exception of Prince Edward Island. Likewise, legislative committees, which are meant to be a check on power, often exist only on paper, rarely meeting and only then to ­rubber-stamp bills the governing party intends to pass anyway. Moreover, highly publicized fights with Ottawa, such as those between Joey Smallwood and John Diefenbaker in 1959, or between Danny Williams and Paul Martin in 2005, and again with Stephen Harper in 2007–08, have revealed a darker side to the province’s political culture: the browbeating of those who dare to disagree with the government’s stance and a questioning of their loyalty.

Still, for all of the criticisms by Lions or Jellyfish of official Ottawa’s handling of Newfoundland relations, Blake admits that there is no doubt that “union with Canada was beneficial financially and economically for Newfoundland.” Nor does he suggest this often troubled state of affairs will be permanent. Federalism, as Blake reminds us, is a “framework for managing conflict and differences”—it is not an end in and of itself. With political will, the Canadian model can be reformed to better accommodate the aspirations of citizens in all its many constituent parts, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians included.