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Newfoundland's Referendum


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

The second Newfoundland referendum has repeated the record of the first. The result, while giving a slight edge to Confederation, contains no clear mandate for union with Canada. The island is sharply divided and the size of opposition to union makes it extremely doubtful if any attempt should be made to decide the question without further clarification of public opinion. The next step is difficult to foresee and there are no guide posts available. The one clear decision arising out of the two referendums is that Newfoundland does not desire to continue commission government. But how a Newfoundland legislature or government is to be brought into being is something of a problem. Presumably such a government formed out of the majority Confederate party would proceed in due course to negotiate union with Canada


There is no precedent in British constitutional history for the experience undergone by Newfoundland in the last two years. In 1934, when Dominion status was abandoned in favor of Commission government, it was assumed that the period of non-elective rule - the Commission was appointed by London and responsible to London - would be ended when the island once more became solvent. The general assumption based on the terms of the change, was that this would take place almost automatically. It was not understood then and is challenged now, that the Commonwealth office had any right to deviate from this policy by appointing a national convention to consider the forms of government for Newfoundland and then to follow this by a national referendum. The result of this decision, taken in London, has been to divide the island bitterly and to lead, not to a solution Newfoundland's constitutional problem, but to complete confusion. Responsible government restored, Newfoundland could have negotiated its own terms and moved for confederation if it so decided. It could have done this without difficulty and without following new forms of procedure such as were laid down from London.


The failure to do this has left the island, momentarily at any rate, governed by a government which the people have repudiated - commission government was defeated in the first referendum overwhelmingly - and without any representative government until an election can be held. This again will mean the almost complete stoppage of economic life in the island while the issues, which have been fought and debated for two years, are fought over again. The division, already wide, may well grow wider.

It may be that, as reported from St. John's, the commission will recommend to Canada that the island be taken into Confederation. Provision for this already exists in the B.N.A. act and general terms of union are already on the record at Ottawa. But Thursday's vote did not meet the first condition laid down by Mr. King, namely, a clear and decisive verdict on the part of the islanders. Furthermore, the closeness of the vote indicates only too clearly that it might be reversed in a general election.


What would be the situation then if an interim government with no authority from the people was to enter the Canadian Confederation and the first post-Confederation elections in the island go overwhelmingly against it? Would Confederation then continue to be imposed upon the people of Newfoundland or would they be allowed, to withdraw amid further confusion? Past experience indicates no such withdrawal is possible. Nova Scotia once attempted it through direct appeals to the British government and after an election in which the anti-Confederation party had carried the day by an overwhelming majority. The provincial legislation was referred to Ottawa which did not support the appeal, without any decision on the part of the London authorities.


There will be general regret in Canada over the indecisive nature of Thursday's vote. The size of the confederation vote indicates, however, that support for Newfoundland's entry as a tenth province is growing. But until there is much more conclusive evidence of a desire to federate than is available today, the Canadian government would be well advised to wait upon a further crystallization of public opinion on the island.


Source: Winnipeg Free Press, July 24, 1948, p. A15. Article transcribed by Jonathan Kusek. Revision by Claude Bélanger.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College