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Newfoundland's Choices


[For the source of this document, see the end of the text.]

Newfoundland is slowly moving toward a decision about its future. A referendum in the spring will carry the process one step forward, but may not be decisive. Newfoundlanders will perhaps not vote on the crucial issue of federation with Canada until they equip themselves with a new Government.


If the island seems to be taking a long time to make up its mind, the reason is its unusual position betwixt and between home rule and colonial status. Once fully self-governing, Newfoundland has been ruled since 1933, at its own request, by an appointed Commission responsible to London. The British Government's pledge of financial aid was the reason for this arrangement. Britain is now anxious to be relieved of this burden, which, in any case, seems not at present necessary since Newfoundland has recovered from the severe depression it suffered in the early 30's.


That was the background of the Newfoundland elections of June, 1946, in which the islanders chose a "national convention", but a point to be noted is that the Commission still governs. The convention is not a Parliament and has no power except to make recommendations, subject to London's approval. After long debate, it has at last proposed that the electors should vote on two questions: Do they want the present form of administration to continue? Do they want a return to "responsible government", meaning complete autonomy?


It is quite possible that a majority of Newfoundlanders do not wish to say "yes" to either question. There would be little point in voting for the first choice in view of Britain 's express unwillingness to bear further responsibility. Apart from that, it would hardly become the Newfoundlanders, in a period of solvent prosperity, to prefer colonial status to self-rule. On the second question, an affirmative vote would set up Newfoundland as a separate political entity on its own in a world of expanding power units and blocs. At least some Newfoundlanders - whether a majority or not   cannot now be said - think that their country would be safer and more prosperous as a Province of Canada than standing alone.


Some members of the convention wanted a third question on the ballot: Do you favor confederation with Canada ? But this proposal was defeated by an argument which is perhaps more ingenious than sound though it is not without point. Newfoundlanders, it is contended, cannot decide for or against union with Canada until they know the terms. There is a very definite proposal before them, with financial details in full; but this proposal, the argument runs, was a unilateral Canadian offer. It was not negotiated and therefore Newfoundland 's bargaining power was not brought into play.


The conclusion apparently accepted by the majority at the convention, is that Newfoundland should first recover its autonomy and then, after electing a new Government, talk business with Canada. The difference between this procedure and voting now on union looks, in one respect at least, illusory. In their first election after the restoration of home rule, the people will presumably have to choose between candidates favoring union and candidates opposed. In other words, they will have to vote for or against confederation on principle - without knowing the terms.


It is not for Canadians, however, to tell the Newfoundlanders how to proceed. Canada will welcome the island as a Province if its people wish to join us; but the decision is strictly their business and how they arrive at it is also for them to say. The British Government will doubtless act on that principle in dealing with the recommendation of the convention. London has the authority to amend the proposed ballot, but seems unlikely to interfere in the Newfoundlanders' natural right to settle this matter in their own way and their own time. It is certainly desirable to avoid giving the false impression that either Britain or Canada wants to railroad the island into confederation.


Source: " Newfoundland's Choices", editorial in The Globe and Mail, January 30, 1948, p. 6.


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© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College