Newfoundland to Chart its Course
[For the source of this document, see the end of the text.]
This is Newfoundland's year of decision. Today, for this is one day at least, the franchise is returned to inhabitants of Britain 's oldest overseas settlement to elect what amounts to a constitutional assembly. The assembly will decide what it feels is the best form of administration for the island, and so report to the British Government, which will make what use it sees fit of the recommendations in drawing up a referendum to be put before the people before the end of the year.
Newfoundland 's experiences have not been happy. The root of its troubles is to be found in the barrenness of the soil itself. Iron-ore, wood-pulp and fish are the only natural products. Practically everything else has to be imported. Half of its three hundred thousand people live in St. John's, the rest in more than one thousand towns and villages scattered around the six thousand miles of rugged coast-line. Communications, as a result, are poor and, except for one trans-island railway, transportation is almost entirely by water. From the time Britain 's first wandering fisherman stopped at Newfoundland and founded tiny settlements, the British Government tried to discourage settlement. No formal colonizing ever was done., yet Newfoundland still became Britain 's first colony and in the middle of the nineteenth century was granted responsible government.
In the succeeding years the island's fortunes were not enviable. By 1934 they had sunk so low that the legislature, acting on the advice of a Royal Commission, voted itself out of existence and since then the island has been ruled by a Governor and a Commission. The British Treasury was tapped, and with the outbreak of war there was a flood of revenue in Canadian and American dollars. As a result, Newfoundland at the moment has a surplus of close to thirty million dollars. Many responsible islanders recognize that this surplus is far from being a natural condition and that there may be a repetition of the national poverty of years past. But there is, naturally, a considerable desire for self-rule. On the other hand, there has been evidence periodically of a political lethargy; a complete lack of interest, in fact, in such matters as administrative systems.
The four possibilities before the national assembly are: Continuation of the Governor-Commission system; a return to responsible government; representative government with both elected and appointed members; and Confederation. The British North America Act provides for acceptance of Newfoundland as a province of Canada at the option of the Canadian Government if the people of Newfoundland want it, but there have been no signs of late that they do. Whatever the assembly decides upon, however, is first subject to the approval of the British Government. And in Whitehall the closest study will be given to the deliberations of the assembly and its findings because, no matter how much London desires to encourage self-government, it can hardly be expected to keep the purse-strings of the British Treasury ever available to a dependent which may slide into another depression and seek to go through the whole process of surrender-tutelage-assembly and referendum again at a later date.
As a matter of fact, there is an important group in Britain which regards the restoration of responsible government to the island as "disadvantageous and impracticable". That point of view is upheld by Lord Ammon, who headed the British survey mission to Newfoundland in 1943. In his view, published in a formal report in 1944, government on the lines followed in Northern Ireland would be unworkable and confederation with Canada as the tenth province "generally unacceptable".
It was Lord Ammon's opinion that the present Commission administration should continue indefinitely, possibly in modified form. Newfoundlanders themselves, he reported, seemed to fear that under a return to responsible government "a small clique of old politicians, living chiefly in St. John's, would still dominate any such government". He felt that only a carefully planned long-term policy of social development, such as the Commission might work out unhampered by local politics, could provide a permanent cure for the island's economic ills and social needs.
Since Lord Ammon represented the Labour Party on the fact-finding tour arranged by the Coalition Government of Winston Churchill, it is not unlikely that his report will have considerable influence not only upon the final decision in London but upon the guide to policy which will be followed by the political adviser whom the British Government will provide for the national assembly during its sessions this summer.
Source: " Newfoundland to Chart Its Course", editorial, Montreal Star, June 21, 1946, p. 10.
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© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College