In March 1999 to mark the
50th anniversary of Confederation the Newfoundland Historical Society organized
a symposium entitled “Encounters With the Wolf” (so called because of the
anti-confederate song "Come near at your peril, Canadian Wolf!!).
The panelists included participants in the negotiations leading to
Confederation, academic experts, former politicians, writers, students and more
than 300 interested observers. Confederation still raises strong emotions and
debate in Newfoundland. Grace Sparkes is a former journalist, an opponent of
Confederation and the first woman to run for a seat in the Newfoundland
legislature following Confederation. Richard Cashin was a member of the House
of Commons from 1962-1968. He was President of the Newfoundland Fisherman, Food
and Allied Workers Union from 1969 to 1981. Mr. Cashin and Ms Sparkes were
interviewed by Gary Levy in March 1999.
Can you characterize the
political and economic situation in Newfoundland that led to the suspension of responsible
government and what impact this had on the people?
Grace Sparkes: We went through the Great
Depression like the rest of the world but the Newfoundland economy had always
had its ups and downs. You could not always determine wealth or poverty the way
you did in other places. For example, my father an out-port merchant owned
fishing ships called “bankers” that went on several trips yearly to the Grand
Banks in search of cod. Usually three bankers made up the yearly fleet. Each
ship had a compliment of twenty-five men. Supplies for the men’s families and
the ships cost about thirty thousand dollars a season. Sometimes they came back
with no fish which meant that the fishermen owed him money. He would forgive
the debt and try to make it up the following year. Such arrangements were
common and as a result bank fishermen considered themselves as living in
The political situation was very
bad. I think we were basically sold down the river by Britain. At the
time information was hard to come by. Like many people I did not learn
that responsible government had been suspended until some time after the event.
When I did hear the news I remember a sinking feeling which proved to be
The appointed Commission acted
in a very high handed manner. They did not like criticism and attempts to
elicit information were met with blunt refusals. We were told it was not in our
interest to know what was going on.
Richard Cashin: I came from a very political
family. My uncle, Major Peter Cashin, and my father, were both keenly
interested in politics so even though I was too young to participate in
the pre-confederation debates I remember the era very well. I also
studied it when I was at university.
There was definitely a sense of
anger over what had happened. We became the only Dominion ever to voluntarily
give up responsible government. The country was in danger of defaulting
on its debts. The government had lost the confidence of the people as a
result of corruption and scandal.
There was a feeling that the loss
of responsible government was a dirty deed done by outsiders. However, we have
to look at this in the context of Newfoundland history. From the very beginning
the Irish who settled Newfoundland were a tough, rowdy, independent lot strung
out along the outports. They lacked a landed gentry as you found in Nova Scotia
at this time and also had very little in the way of local government.
Democratic institutions and values were lacking. Attempts over the
years by Coker and others met with some success but the democratic reforms they
promoted could not survive the politicial upheavel caused by the Great
Was there a conspiracy to
ensure that Newfoundland joined Canada?
Richard Cashin: Peter Cashin, one of the great
orators in Newfoundland history, made this argument during the Convention.
He was convinced of it and I suppose in a manner of speaking there was a
series of events and circumstances that conspired to make Confederation with
Canada almost inevitable. There was the Newfoundland debt. Britain
was in the process of liquidating the Empire. Canadian businessmen had
their eyes on resources in Labrador. There was a certain inevitability of Union
but I do not know if it was a “conspiracy” in the strict sense of the word.
Chronology of Events Leading to Newfoundland Joining Confederation
British appoint Amulree Commission to study
the political future of Newfoundland
|February 16, 1934
Government suspended and Government by an Appointed Commission established to
govern Newfoundland until it became economically self supporting and the
people of Newfoundland requested a new form of government.
||Second World War. Numerous American Military Bases
established in Newfoundland.
||Election to choose
45 members of the National Convention to consider and discuss changes in the
financial and economic situation and to make recommendations as to possible
form of future government.
||Joey Smallwood’ s motion to have the Convention send
delegates to Ottawa to discuss Confederation is defeated.
motion to send delegates to Ottawa is adopted and talks are held in Ottawa
during the summer of 1947.
|November 6, 1947
||A draft of
Terms of Union is presented to the Convention for discussion.
||The Convention decides to hold a referendum but a motion
to include Confederation on the ballot is defeated by a vote of 29 to 16.
|March 2, 1948
||The British Government
announces that a referendum will be held and that one of the options will be
Confederation with Canada. The other options are continuation of
Commission Government for five years, or a return to Responsible Government.
|June 3, 1948
||First referendum: Responsible Government 45%,
Confederation 41%, Commission Government t 14%.
|July 22, 1948
||Second referendum: Confederation 52%, Responsible
||Negotiations on the Final Terms of Union in Ottawa
of Union signed
|March 31, 1949
becomes the tenth Canadian province.
Grace Sparkes: Peter Cashin’s claim was
absolutely right. I remember during the war we invited a high ranking member
of the Canadian military to dinner and he astounded me when he asked. “How
would you like to become Canadians”. The way the Commission of Government
was appointed, the way the Newfoundland delegation was rebuffed by Britain, the
way the Confederation option was added to the ballot all point to a conspiracy.
Individuals like Charlie Burchell who was Canada’s Trade Commissioner
worked behind the scenes to promote this option.
Was union with the United
States an option?
Richard Cashin: I always thought “Economic
Union”, as it was called was a red herring. Some prominent people
supported it including Ches Crosbie and young Don Jamieson but they never
attracted more than a fringe following. The United States never engaged
in negotiations with them since that would have been perceived as meddling in
British affairs. This option only made sense if we first reverted to
responsible government and then, somewhere down the road, decided to pursue
union with the United States.
Grace Sparkes: I never really figured out what
they wanted. I remember one meeting of the Responsible Government
supporters when we invited Don Jamieson to share the platform with us. I
took out my pen and decided to make notes on exactly what they were proposing. He
was a gifted orator and he made a fine speech but when I looked at my notes
there was nothing. He had spoken for nearly an hour and never said a
single thing that explained this option.
I think the Economic Union
movement consisted mainly of St. John’s merchants who wanted to capitalize on
the very pro American sentiment that prevailed at the time. The American
military had made a tremendous contribution to the Newfoundland economy and the
Americans were associated with prosperity.
What did you think about the
referenda debate and the results?
Richard Cashin: When the second referendum went in
favour of Confederation both my father and my uncle raised a pink and green
flag as a sign of protest and mourning. Our family was anti-confederation
but if we look at the reasons carefully we see that it was largely an issue of
Our dignity was diminished the
way we entered Confederation. It would have been much better if we had
got back our self government and then, perhaps, entered into negotiations with
Canada as a fully self governing Dominion. I am not sure if the result
would have been much different but we cannot dwell forever on mistakes that may
have been made in the way the process unfolded.
Grace Sparkes: During the referenda campaigns I
made numerous speeches against Confederation. I ghost wrote dozens of speeches
for others. We travelled around the island and I remember many lively
meetings. In some places the audiences did not really understand what was
at stake. In other places they had been mesmerized by Joey Smallwood’s
talk of Canadian pensions and family allowances. The Confederation forces
enjoy limitless funding. Every time we had a meeting there seemed to be
an airplane flying overhead dropping pro confederation leaflets. Sometimes
our meetings were drowned out by noisy demonstrations outside the hall. Years
later I met a man who told me that he had been paid $5,000 to shut down one of
Did the vote divide along
religious, regional or class lines?
Richard Cashin: There were certainly religious
factors. Irish Catholics were generally anti- Confederation and not just
because the Arch Bishop took this position. The élites of St. John’s both
Protestant and Catholic were also anti-confederation. Those areas that
were closer to Canada or who had more trade with Nova Scotia tended to be
pro-confederation as were the outports. Women generally seemed largely in
favor of Confederation.
When we look at the voting
breakdown we have to remember that Smallwood was a populist. His message was
not unlike the CCF of the time. The Bonavista Platform of the Fishermen’s
Protective Union pre-dated the Regina Manifesto. Smallwood modeled his
program after the social democrats and his early program was very attractive to
workers. Smallwood was also a great communicator and organizer. He
took the message to people who felt isolated from St. John’s.
Grace Sparkes: The Orangemen certainly worked in
favour of Confederation. Roman Catholics and particularly the Monitor
were generally opposed. It is true that many women favoured the idea of
Confederation. I wondered sometimes how much they were influenced by the
prospect of being able to buy duty free goods from the Eaton catalogue.
Was the first provincial
election in 1949 somewhat of an anti-climax after the years of debate over
Richard Cashin: The Confederation debate settled
Newfoundland politics for a decade. The Liberals under Smallwood came to power
and the opposition, formed out of the Responsible Government forces, was unable
to put together any coherent alternative. Peter Cashin was elected as an
independent. In 1951 he took over the leadership of the Progressive
Conservatives but was never able to defeat Smallwood. The defeat of the
federal Liberals in 1957 led directly to another issue that sustained Smallwood
in office. He tangled with John Diefenbaker over Article 29 of the Terms
Grace Sparkes: Once the referendum was lost there
was little hope for the opposition. In my district, Burin, which was very
pro-Confederation, it looked like there would not even be a candidate so I let
my name stand. I described myself as a PC — a Protesting Canadian —
but was defeated. I ran again in 1951 and also ran twice federally when
the opposition was having difficulty finding a candidate. During one
election campaign I was teaching and asked for a month’s leave of absence to
run in the election. Instead I got a letter terminating my services.
Was there an immediate change
in the lives of Newfoundlanders as a result of Confederation?
Richard Cashin: I think the change was dramatic.
Imagine, an entire new system of social welfare being implemented in one
fell swoop. Everyone began receiving family allowance cheques, old age
pension cheques, veteran benefits and so on. Newfoundland had its own
social welfare system but the Canadian rates were much more generous. The
outports which had existed in a kind of time warp without roads or electricity
soon started to see changes. Memorial University was established and many
other changes followed.
Grace Sparks: Yes there certainly were changes.
Virtually all our large industries collapsed. There used to be a
Newfoundland clothing industry and Newfoundland foundries but with the coming
of competition from Canada they collapsed and the jobs associated with them
disappeared. We were flooded with goods and services from the mainland.
Another change, which happened very slowly, is that we lost control of
our resources including, of course, the fisheries.
How, in the light of history,
would you describe the legacy of Joey Smallwood?
Richard Cashin: Joey Smallwood was a man with a
vision. His vision was to unite Canada and Newfoundland. He behaved as
men of vision sometimes do – energetically, stubbornly, dogmatically. He
would have fit nicely into a revolutionary society like Argentina under the
Peronistes. He also brought tremendous knowledge and skills to the task
at hand which was to convince Newfoundlanders to accept his vision.
Once he had accomplished this task for which he worked so long and
so hard he turned to other projects and some of these were less successful.
He may have stayed too long. He may have strayed from some of his
original ideas, as far as unions were concerned for example. He may have
neglected to nurture people to succeed him. These are not unusual faults
for people with his character.
Grace Sparkes: When I think of Joey Smallwood I
remember his ruthlessness and vindictiveness. He would use whatever means
necessary to get what he wanted. If he found out that an adversary was in
financial difficulty he would offer that person money or a job in exchange for
support. If he could not win someone over he would threaten and
intimidate. I was a journalist in those days and I am sure that if he had the
power he would have put me in jail for my criticism of his government. We
called him “little Batista” after the Cuban dictator of the 1950s. On
more than one occasion he wrote the editor of my newspaper and demanded that I
be fired. Fortunately John Currie, owner of the St. John’s Daily News,
was not intimidated by these threats.
Could Newfoundland have gone
it alone in 1949 or today?
Richard Cashin: One can only speculate about the past
but I have never shared the romantic view that if only we had been left alone
we would have developed an idyllic society free from many of the problems we
face today. When people make this argument I try to remind them that lamenting
Confederation seems part of our common heritage. The first Nova Scotia
government opposed Confederation. Quebec governments have sought
dissolution. At various times people in Alberta and British Columbia have
come to the conclusion that they would be better off on their own. One
cannot live in the past and one cannot live with a permanent sense of
grievance. It is debilitating and keeps us from solving real problems
Grace Sparkes: During the Confederation debates I
believed that if we joined Canada, Newfoundlanders would never again own the
soil we walk upon. With strong leadership we may have had a chance to govern
ourselves. I am now 91 years old and have yet to be convinced that I was
wrong. I still keep an active interest in politics but I think the answer
to this question really has to come from the younger generation.