(or, “talkin’ ’bout Confederation” and other joke titles made out of The Who lyrics)

I love Greg Malone. Here I am, in far away snowy Edmonton trying to put together a paper on the politics of Newfoundland nationalism, and he drops a book about Confederation that gets everyone really mad over Newfoundland history.  It’s like Christmas.

I have not read Greg Malone’s book yet (it’s on my list). But conveniently, I have already been reading and thinking a lot about Confederation and its place in our collective political consciousness, so the timing is excellent. His book may or may not lay bare “the truth” about what happened in 1948, but the old arguments it raises have been a good rallying point for my own thoughts.

There is nothing new under the sun, especially so when it comes to rehashing the history of Newfoundland’s entry into Canada. Most famously (as in “I could actually find a copy of it in the U of A library”), Bren Walsh in More Than A Poor Majority: The Story of Newfoundland’s Confederation with Canada lays out the contention that (on the basis of ‘newly discovered’ documents out of British and Canadian archives) there was a “deliberate, calculated design, fermenting over a decade or more, between Britain’s Dominions Office and Canada’s Department of External Affairs [to bring Newfoundland] under the Canadian umbrella this time with no repetition of the costly miscalculations and errors which had frustrated [earlier attempts at Confederation]” (Walsh, ‘Introduction’; 1985). But before you get too excited, Secret Nation is not quite a documentary:

Although I admit I could not uncover the sort of proof a reporter should demand for such an accusation as I am making, I also have to say that I do not believe that all of the gaps were innocent; in fact, I am convinced that some of the records for the period I was researching were deliberately removed from the files and either hidden in some inaccessible hiding place or destroyed so that someone like me couldn’t peruse them and come to the sort of conclusions I have reached. (ibid)

So much for that. Since “Smallwood hid the facts” and/or “Attlee did 4/1” aren’t the most compelling historical arguments, we can probably bracket them out and tackle the legitimate questions Walsh does raise: did our parents (or grandparents) really choose Confederation, or did the British Empire load the dice?

On the order of a historical study, this is an old question, and has been treated at length elsewhere over the last 20 years. Jeff Webb does a magnificent job of taking apart Confederation conspiracy theories, and Jim Hiller’s short essay Confederation: Deciding Newfoundland’s Future 1934 to 1949 is an indispensable survey of the relevant facts. His assessment at the end is the authoritative word on the subject and worth quoting here at length:

It is important to remember that the crucial, early decisions about procedure were made at a time when the British government assumed that Confederation, though desirable from its point of view, was extremely unlikely. It was Clement Attlee and the members of the “goodwill” mission who laid out the ground rules. Newfoundland’s future as an independent country would be precarious. Thus Newfoundlanders should think hard before they reclaimed independence, and should prepare themselves for a difficult future. (…)

The idea of attempting confederation came later, once the reconstruction plan had collapsed, and Canadian officials had shown their interest. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Canadians had a more accurate sense of Newfoundland than the British, and thought that confederation might be pulled off. But neither side could be certain, since the decision had to be left to the Newfoundland electorate, and as yet no confederate leaders had emerged.

The plan worked because of Joseph Smallwood. He understood that the grim days of the Depression and the prosperity of the war years had changed Newfoundland society significantly, and political attitudes as well. (…) Smallwood and [F. Gordon] Bradley were certainly helped in significant ways by the Canadian and British governments, but it was their achievement that by the time the Convention ended early in 1948, confederation was a live issue and a real constitutional alternative.

At this point, the British would have been well-advised to change tactics. Their decision to place confederation on the ballot against the recommendation of the Convention was widely criticized. It made the Convention seem like a waste of time, and convinced many that the British were more interested in manipulating events than in listening to Newfoundlanders. The quite plausible alternative would have been a return to responsible government, trusting that confederates could win control and then negotiate union. Done that way, confederation would have been more palatable and probably less divisive than was the case.

But the British felt they could not take the risk, and could not tolerate further delay. Confederation had to be on the ballot, referendums had to be fought. The results showed that Smallwood’s political sense had been accurate, in that most Newfoundlanders off the Avalon Peninsula were prepared to join Canada. If the second referendum had been a general election, the confederates would have been swept into office. (…)

There is no convincing evidence that the votes were tampered with or the results manipulated. That such allegations were sometimes made shows how divisive the issue became, and that many Newfoundlanders ceased to trust the good faith of the British government. The process of confederation, certainly after January 1948, became an exercise in blunt realpolitik which caused widespread, lingering and justifiable offense.

As Dominions Secretary in 1942, Attlee had started the process of constitutional discussion in Newfoundland on principles derived from his Fabian Society background – an insistence on political education, gradualness, and informed decision-making. His Labour government ended the process seven years later by refusing to accept the results which those principles had produced. Instead, Newfoundlanders were rushed into confederation – not against the wishes of most of them, but in a way that was undignified, and which prevented a full discussion of how Newfoundland and Labrador, a distinct society, might best have been fitted into the Canadian confederation. (…) Few would want to undo that decision taken in 1948; many wish that it had been done differently. (Hiller, 1999: 61-63)

This latter criticism – that confederation was the result of a rushed procedure – is valid, and I think its also valid that this remains a legitimate grievance today. This isn’t Hiller’s position, but the notion of a confederate responsible government does raise the spectre of a getting a ‘better deal’ in the federation than the negotiated Terms of Union (an argument popular in some nationalist circles); on this question, Webb more or less exorcises that ghost when he writes that “the division of federal and provincial powers had been set out in 1867 and there were limits to Newfoundland’s ability to use ‘special circumstances’ to wring additional concessions out of the federal government. (…) Anyone who thinks Newfoundland could have been given a better deal than that enjoyed by the other provinces knows nothing of Canadian politics” (Webb, 1998; 178-9). As to the ‘dignity’ point, I am admittedly less sympathetic to this criticism; the decision to put Confederation on the ballot contra the Convention’s wish was definitely the British playing fast and loose, but I’m also not ready to completely write off the 50,000 Newfoundlanders who petitioned for them to do so.

As far as the question of “what really (empirically) happened” goes, I think it’s fair to say that the issue is largely settled. The questions that remain are of its symbolic dimensions: what does it mean, and what is at stake in how we interpret it?

I have a few ideas.

In trying to think through questions of national consciousness in Newfoundland post-Confederation, I found myself ‘borne back ceaselessly into the past’ and into thinking about the larger implications of modernity; specifically, the ‘modernization’ of Newfoundland brought about by Confederation. Making sense of what happened requires looking at the way notions of modernity played into Newfoundland politics, not only post-Confederation (which is obvious in Smallwood’s ill-fated “Great Leap Forward”) but also in the context of pre-Confederation politics.

I think it’s a fair assessment to say that outside of St. John’s and the corporate fiefdoms of Grand Falls and Corner Brook, pre-Confederation Newfoundland was not ‘modern’ in the sociological sense of the word; many historians and commentators have described the economic and social structures of the outports (where most Newfoundlanders lived) as “quasi-feudal”, and I am inclined to agree with them. Characterizing the merchant credit system as a form of indentured servitude isn’t a far cry from the truth, but despite the exploitative (and certainly oppressive) nature of this system it was also a structurally necessary outgrowth of the outport economy; starved for capital in a pre-modern economy, credit and truck are the only ways to get anything done.

The problems of this system for economic and political emancipation had been recognized at least as far back as William Coaker (who famously declared that “if [Newfoundlanders] are to be free, [they] must break the chains of credit that bind [them]”), and I think this problem also preoccupied the young socialist Smallwood. Where Coaker’s emancipatory project had failed, I think Smallwood saw the Canadian welfare state not only as a means to address the symptoms of outport poverty but also as a tool to break up and re-organize the economic structures that produced that poverty and underdevelopment. Confederation inaugurated a process of modernization and Resettlement – the geographical and socio-economic restructuring of the province – was its ‘master device’ (I have explored this argument elsewhere).

What does this have to do with Newfoundland nationalism? Consider the timing of the ‘Newfoundland Renaissance’ (of which Greg Malone was an important figure) in the 1970s and 1980s; the initial trauma of the modernization process had run its course, and a new generation (and more importantly, a new social class) of Newfoundlanders emerged with a new capacity to reflect on itself and its identity. Newfoundland nationalism, I would argue, is a reaction to modernity; in fact, I don’t think it could have existed before this modernization process. The romantic vision of the ‘Republic of Newfoundland’ is something that could only exist in the imagination of a confederate Newfoundland; its existence (as a construct, as an ‘object’ of nationalist politics) is a reaction to the ‘imposition’ of modernity on us, of which Confederation is a constitutive moment.

Slavoj Žižek might be useful in clearing this up (there’s a first time for everything):

…There is no national identity before its (colonialist, etc.) oppression; the fight for nationalist revival is therefore a defence of something which comes to be only through being experienced as lost or endangered. The nationalist ideology endeavours to elude this vicious cycle by constructing a myth of Origins – of an epoch preceding oppression and exploitation [in NL nationalist ideology, certainly, this is how the Confederation experience is understood] when the nation was ‘already there’ (…) – the past is trans-coded as a Nation that already existed and to which we are supposed to return. (Žižek, 2008; 213-4)

My thinking, at this point at least, is that this Nation is a construct that could not exist outside of its production (as a negativity, a loss) through modernization and modernity itself; there was no Newfoundland nation in most of the outports because the social and economic conditions made it impossible to exist as a political subjectivity in the modern nationalist sense.

By way of example: Wayne Johnston has a line in his novel Baltimore Mansion about how if only more outport homes had copies of D. W. Prowse’s History of Newfoundland, they never would have voted for confederation. This simplifies things and misses the point. The point is that it wouldn’t have mattered, because most people wouldn’t have cared to read it (if they were even literate), and that this idea of the forsaken nation is a projection of the modern (I would add here the qualifier ‘bourgeois’) imagination. This is a subjective position that couldn’t exist for most Newfoundlanders off the Avalon until modernization, through Confederation, had occurred. There could be no proud independence in the grueling poverty of the outports; Webb is close to the mark when he suggests that the “often-dreamt ‘Republic of Newfoundland’ might have been a lot like the Republic of Haiti” (Webb, 181).

This is more than just an abstract point. Not only is it important for thinking about our own self-understanding, it spells out precisely what is at stake in rehashing all these old arguments about Confederation. If we accept the narrative that the Newfoundland nation was forsaken by the Anglo-Canadian manipulation of “ignorant [or] avaricious” outporters, we are accepting a narrative that casts Newfoundlanders as perpetual victims: before, during, and since Confederation, victims of outside forces and our own weakness. We are negating an alternative – in my opinion, a much more radical and emancipatory alternative that’s also more consistent with the historical evidence – that instead sees Confederation as one of the only instances in Newfoundland history where through a direct expression of democratic power, the poor and the downtrodden wrenched control of their political destiny from the St. John’s oligarchy and turned the wheel of history in their own direction.

The process of Confederation was not perfect, and neither were its outcomes; modernity begets its own malaises, and our place in the Canadian federal system – like all other partners in the union – is fraught with tension*. But whether we reconcile it as an imperfect but genuine popular victory or as just another instance where the lash cracks across our back has profound implications for how we confront our political questions and our sense of ourselves today. Webb’s piece dissects the anti-democratic implications of popular strains of nationalism thoroughly; I would like to go a step further and suggest that those who read Confederation as a failed democratic moment not only misread history but misread themselves. This form of nationalism is a neurosis, a pathological blend of melancholy and obsession that sees us forever trapped in a pattern of powerlessness. It occludes the ways in which we are the architects of our own fate, and the potential we still retain to alter the contemporary social and political predicaments in which we find ourselves.

So “don’t tell the Newfoundlanders” that the moment of their greatest democratic triumph was really just a backroom sham. If we are to move the democratic project forward – if we really are to be ‘masters of our own house’ – we have to own the fact that we lay the foundation. If we are going to solve the problems we face today, we need to recognize that our agency was not foreclosed. We have taken control of our political destiny before; we can and will do it again.

* – F. L. Jackson’s Surviving Confederation lays out a brilliant analysis of the way Smallwood failed to harness the emancipatory dimension of Confederation and instead perpetuated a new regime of dependency. You’d better believe this is something I’m going to write about when I get the chance.

Works Cited

Hiller, James K. Confederation: Deciding Newfoundland’s Future 1934 to 1949. Newfoundland Historical Society, 1999.

Walsh, Bren. More Than A Poor Majority: The Story of Newfoundland’s Confederation with Canada. Breakwater Books, 1985.

Webb, Jeff A. “Confederation, Conspiracy and Choice: A Discussion” in Newfoundland Studies 14 (2). 1998.

Žižek, Slavoj. For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor. Verso, 2008.


2 thoughts on “we won’t get fooled again

  1. hey there, just a quick note to say you might want to check as a reference a book published on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Canada’s joining with newfoundland, “suspended state: newfoundland before Canada”. Never heard of it? breakwater should have copies. it anticipates what passes for the “debate” wrought by greg’s book, as in when ed riche and ed roberts flail around in the newfoundland quarterly, looking for an answer to greg’s salacious, evidence-defying, agency-denying over-reach. if you haven’t heard of it, i’d recommend it. I should, I wrote it. cheers and keep up the good work…

    1. hey gene,

      sorry I took so long to approve/respond here… school got busy and I sort of forgot I have a blog. I have read your book! totally loved it and cited it in my canadian politics comprehensive exam. found it so useful I will probably order my own copy so I mark it to pieces as I am wont to do.

      I wrote this piece a while ago (before I had read Greg’s book – I wrote a brief riposte to it in The Scope last summer) and before I’d done a lot of additional reading. would be nice to eventually go back and re-write this to be a little more substantive now that I have a better idea what I’m talking about. thanks for the good words, it means a lot. cheers!

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