Jim Furlong: Democracy in Action

Somewhere in the chic bistros of St. John’s tonight there are probably still people arguing that we were ‘railroaded’ into Confederation and that somehow voting to join Canada was something other than the will of the people. That is an idea that didn’t emerge until well into our marriage with Canada.

‘The House of Joe’

In the early years everybody was Liberal and down on their knees thanking God for Confederation and Joe Smallwood. As the political clouds gathered over Smallwood there developed an intellectual opposition that eventually became a political movement that brought down ‘the house of Joe.’ It became in vogue to talk about how Britain forced us into Confederation and the vote was rigged. 

I was born in Newfoundland before it was part of Canada. My whole family knew poverty well. Dad told me he was at the riot at Colonial Building in 1932 when the poor marched on the seat of government, smashed out the windows, and forced PM Squires to flee. Dad saw it all and he was ‘politically active’ as they say. He was there at Colonial Building as a rioter, not an observer. Things were better with the war of course. Nobody tells you but war is great for business. American bases and soldiers and sailors from Canada and elsewhere were everywhere. Legitimate businesses did well. So did the hookers and the bootleggers and the thieves. When the war ended decisions were made. Not by Newfoundlanders but by governments in London and Ottawa. What to do with Newfoundland? Britain didn’t want Newfoundland to slip in the direction of the United States and didn’t want her back on her own lest she stumble again. ‘Confederation with Canada’ ended up on the ballot in the first referendum despite the fact the National Convention didn’t put it there. Britain did. That was the end of the minor conspiracy except for millions of dollars to help the Confederation cause.

An urban phenomenon

The two votes themselves were democracy in action and democracy is a rough sport. The first one eliminated Commission of Government as an option. The runoff vote in July of 1948 was polarizing and dirty but again; this is politics, not evensong. That second referendum had Confederation with Canada winning by about 7,000 votes. As a percentage, Confederation polled 52.34 per cent. On the face of it that appears wafer thin but consider the electoral districts. The Responsible Government movement was largely an urban phenomenon. It piled up the votes with the townies in St. John’s. 

Across Newfoundland, Confederation won 18 of the 25 electoral districts. That is 72 per cent. It was the will of the people as opposed to the merchant forces of St. John’s. The arguments won’t stop. Large events in history are almost always surrounded by, after the fact, debate (see ‘grassy knoll’). The fact is that Newfoundlanders in a vote in which there was universal suffrage, a great turnout and lots of politics chose Canada. It was a great choice.

NTV’s Jim Furlong can be reached by emailing: [email protected]

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