24 March 2009

Encounters with reality

From the 1998 special Confederation anniversary edition of the Journal of Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, some food for thought for the more ardent of the anti-Confederates out there:

1.  For the “whole thing was rigged” faction:  “Confederation, conspiracy and choice: a discussion” by Memorial University historian Jeff Webb.

2.  For the “Canada killed the cod” crowd: “The background to change in the Newfoundland cod fishery at the time of Confederation” by Miriam Wright.  Wright is also the author of a significant book on the industrialization of the fishery. 



D'Arcy said...

HI Ed,

I had read M. Wright's book, and will agree, to some extent, that Canada did not kill the cod fishery. Simply, it was capitalism and globalization, a process that has been with us a lot longer then has been in our vernacular.

In fact, I did a paper about 14 months ago titled "The Underdevelopment of Newfoundland" whereby I looked at issues including the collapse of the cod fishery, and with it the mass-exodus from the outports. Dean Bavington, a professor at Nippising University, and a Canada Research Chair who has studied the collapse of the cod fishery has had a lot of interesting things to say on these matters. If you have not heard it, I would suggest listening to a CBC Ideas special that he did with David Caley.

As far as the "conspiracy theories" regarding Confederation here are a few things that must be considered:
1) As early as the 1930's Canada had approached Britain regarding acquiring Newfoundland.
2) With its Empire collapsing around it, Britain no longer wished to have to deal with NL. One could almost view it as a parent who has an adult child at home, and they wanted them out on their own.
3) There were many strong ties between NL and the US, and both Canada and Britain did not want NL to become a part of the US.

I would not go so far as to suggest that the balloting was rigged, however, the confederate side used as many dirty tricks as it could to ensure they got the votes they wished for. The took advantage of a rural population who had little or no education who simply wanted to continue to fish. Further, one has to ask why then, the people of Newfoundland were not given the option to join the US in the second referendum ballot given that it scored higher then the choice of joining Canada on the first ballot?

Mark said...

"The(y) took advantage of a rural population who had little or no education who simply wanted to continue to fish."

D'Arcy, that is revisionist history in the extreme.

I'd suggest quite the opposite, the people taking advantage of the rural population with little or no education were the merchant interests and others who didn't want baymen to ever have access to such things as a cash economy or public services, where they could be continually left in isolation and taken advantage of for the cheap labour they provided.

D'Arcy said...

Mark, I would never for a moment discount the power dynamics that the merchants very much used. I fully recognize that they did all they could to keep them out of the cash economy, and further reason for the "townie" merchants to discount confederation.

However, when you have Joey making false statements to the benefits of joining Canada and allegedly making comments such as "Burn your boats byes, there'll be money for all" (and I say allegedly because it has been quoted in numerous books, though Joey always denied saying it). Further, both sides, but particularly the confederate side, took to the churches using the priests and their pulpits to preach to the benefits of confederation, and you can see that all took advantage of a rural population.

Edward G. Hollett said...


**1) As early as the 1930's Canada had approached Britain regarding acquiring Newfoundland.**

I am not sure what you mean by acquiring but as early as the 1930s (if memory serves) Peter Cashin among others advocated selling Labrador to Canada.

**2) With its Empire collapsing around it, Britain no longer wished to have to deal with NL. One could almost view it as a parent who has an adult child at home, and they wanted them out on their own.**

The use of individual analogies to one side, this hits on a valuable point.

The London delegation went looking for cash. They wanted a financial backer for their venture. They couldn't find one in a country that was financially in very tight straits. At that point Cashin returned with his great conspiracy allegation that thrives in some quarters to this day.

It hardly constitutes a conspiracy but Cashin certainly knew how to whip up hysteria.

To carry on your analogy, though, you have to wonder about the adult child who wanted to continue living at home all the while trumpeting his independence and then getting pissed when someone expected them to be independent (responsible).

**3) There were many strong ties between NL and the US, and both Canada and Britain did not want NL to become a part of the US.**

There were equally strong ties with Canada. The Us connection was very strong during the war period and certainly both Canada and Britain were concerned about the potential for American hegemony over the northeast north Atlantic.

That said, it is hardly a stunning idea to suggest that the two countries had interests in what went on here.

As for your last paragraph it is another one of the tired arguments that, among other things, infantilises the people who voted in 1949 for Confederation. The same rules applied to both sides in the second referendum. The RGL was chock full of experienced politicians. They lost.

There are plenty of people who have invented all sorts of arguments about conspiracies but they don't stand up to scrutiny. As more and more documents become available and as more and more people dig trying to find evidence to prove the conspiracies, it's really quite telling they haven't come up with a thing.

You might wish to have a look at the two referenda, incidentally. The US option wasn't on either ballot; it was never really a serious contender at any point.

The first referendum had three choices: responsible government as it existed prior to 1934, continued commission and XConfederation. With no clear winner (majority) on the first ballot, the commission option was dropped and the second vote was a run-off between the two forms of responsible government.

Mark said...

As early as the 1860s, Newfoundland was a willing participant in Confederation discussions, alongside other British interests in North America, so I fail to see what the heck is so conspiratorial about Canada's interest in Newfoundland in the 1930's. I suppose there were similr "conspiracyies" afoot in PEI, British Columbia and at the Hudson Bay Co., but I digress.

As for the preachers and the pulpits, I'm afraid that once again you've fingered the wrong side with use of the word "particularly".

And yes, Smallwood probably is accurately quoted with the "Burn your boats" line, so I guess that effrectively kills your previous argument about "simply wantingto continue to fish". If the poor uneducated rural souls you mentioned in your first comment "simply wanted to fish" then they wouldn't have been enthusiastic about or easliy swayed at the prospect of "burning their boats", would they?

Rightly or wrongly, Joey and the Confederate side opened a lot of poor people's eyes to a world of greater possibility. They wanted a better life for their children and grandchildren and voted accordingly.

Oh, and by the way, there is absolutely nothing preventing the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador from holding a re-vote any day it wants to.

D'Arcy said...


Never let it be known, that I will not admit when I have made a factual error, and I stand corrected upon the ballot. I have just reviewed my copy of Major's "As Near to Heaven by Sea", where he writes much about the referendum issue.

And granted, I may infantilised the voters, none-the-less, there has much documented about "donations" made by parties from outside of NL in purchasing advertising and assisting the confederate campaigns.

Again, as I mentioned earlier, I do not subscribe to many of the conspiracy theories about the referenda being rigged, however, it has to be acknowledged that Both Canada and Great Britain, two larger and far more economically advanced nations did all they could to ensure that the people of NL voted the way they wanted them to.

One final point, and to continue further analogy of the parent/child dynamic, what does it say about a parent who when the child does all it can to make it on its own, yet has the parent destroy its efforts. You mini-bio about SRB on this page references Britain's choice to negate free-trade deals between NL and the US. One has to wonder if the situation would have been very different had NL been allowed to develop economically rather, retaining the vast amount of capital from its resources rather then have these same riches build mansions in Britain.

Edward G. Hollett said...

Right off the bat D'Arcy, I'd suggest Peter Neary's newfoundland in the North Atlantic World long before the Kevin Major thing.

As for the donations, I simply go back to the point before: the rules applied equally to all. The RGL had the opportunity to tap into all sorts of cash that would have preferred NL stay out of Confederation. Why they didn't remains to be uncovered.

To suggest that a well financed and run campaign hoodwinked stupid baymen really does a disservice to the people of the province. I am deliberately exaggerating your argument for the effect of showing what it really says. People understood what was going on and made their choice democratically.

**Both Canada and Great Britain, two larger and far more economically advanced nations did all they could to ensure that the people of NL voted the way they wanted them to.**

One of the dangers of the individal analogy applied to states is that it misses huge amounts of detail. To say that something called "Canada" had a singular perspective is to miss the detail and that applies equally to the claim about doing all in its power.

There were huge issues within Canada about Confederation and the terms of union were as much as anything else about navigating the competing concerns and interests in the country as a whole.

The free trade agreements are two specific examples that then get swallowed up by the sweeping generalisations about exploitation by foreign interests and supposedly not being allowed to develop.

Look a bit more closely and you can find a recurring theme that is substantively different:

Economic development requires capital which has historically been available only from sources outside Newfoundland and Labrador. One of the challenges locally has been to find a way to diversify the economy and attract that foreign investment.

That's been the major hindrance on development, if you will, and it is not something which is imposed by some nefarious outside exploiter (leaving aside any Marxist approaches to history).

Winston Smith said...

Funny thing about the current cabal of separatists. They love to talk about independence, but they say precious little about holding an actual referendum. They love to talk about Patriots and the American Revolution, but they say little about what a real revolution would actually entail.

According to polling done for the 2003 Royal Commission, there is extremely little popular support for actual independence. If there is a non-VOCM poll out there showing significant support for actual independence, I'd like to see it.

Judging from the disdain Newfoundland nationalists have always shown for the democratic vote that was exercised in 1948, it's not surprising that constitutional details (such as an actual referendum held in accordance with the Clarity Act) receive such little attention. Nor is it an accident that they say so little about popular support for independence in Labrador.

Debating the fine points of who exploited whom three generations ago is all well and good, but it's not the same as a genuine political debate over the province's constitutional future.

As I tried to show in my post on "Democracy in the Republic of Newfoundland," Newfoundland nationalists have a view of parliamentary democracy that makes for curious reading.

As for the latest layer of historical interpretation, Sean Cadigan's book has just been published by the University of Toronto Press:


WJM said...

As early as the 1930's Canada had approached Britain regarding acquiring Newfoundland.

As early as the 1830s, there was talk of uniting all of the BNA colonies; what's your point?

WJM said...

Funny thing about the current cabal of separatists.

Federation, Winston.

It's the Federation of Separatists.

Winston Smith said...

"I have just reviewed my copy of Major's "As Near to Heaven by Sea", where he writes much about the referendum issue."

Kevin Major is not a historian. He was never trained as a historian, and he has never done archival research. You're better off consulting the scholarly literature listed in his extensive bibliography, i.e., where he got his facts.

Or, consult the NL Heritage Web Site, which has scholarly articles on NL political history (including the referenda) written by James Hiller, Jeff Webb, et al.:

Craig Westcott said...

You've started a good debate. Unfortunately when it comes to issues like separatism and independence, facts, historical or otherwise, matter not a whit. It's all about emotion.

The premier has cleverly stoked the latent embers of nationalism and our collective sense of grievance into something approaching an open flame, all in order to stay high in the polls and avert people's attention from real issues, such as the deplorable state of health care ( witness the the Cameron Inquiry) and the unabated decline of rural Newfoundland.

It's smart politcs. But it's also very dangerous. Williams has gathered the tinder for what could be a real conflagration, one that even he wouldn't be able to control, should the match ever be struck.

I just hope that he realizes what he has done before it's too late and does the honourable thing, which is to douse some of the flame and steer away all those wingnuts he's aroused with their trembling cans of gasoline.

Craig Westcott
St. John's

WJM said...

Craig Wescott, nothing could be further from the truth.

Why can't you be more Premier-positive?

It's terrible when one of Us betrays us like this.

Winston Smith said...

Part of the problem is that no one seems to know what type of nationalism they want to have.

One minute it's ethnic nationalism, replete with claims about a dying race; the next minute it's civic nationalism, jumbled up with the notion of limited identities.

One minute NL has broken free from its past, the next minute it's trapped by it. One minute Newfoundlanders have crossed the Red Sea of federalism; the next minute the Pharaoh of Ottawa has enslaved them.

One minute DW's a proud Canadian; the next minute he's pulling down the national flag. One minute Curious George is playing happily with his federalist friends; the next minute he's poking them in the eye.

WJM is rght: Star Trek is a better analogy, since the Federation contains a lot of alien life forms in dire need of accurate classification.

Anonymous said...

Dear Craig W. Please crawl back under your rock.

Edward G. Hollett said...

Dear Anonymous 1839:

If you had the stones and the personal integrity to sign your name to the comment, someone might actually take you as something other than a buffoon.

Anonymous said...

When talking about elections in the past we must remember that dirty tricks and shenanigans were the norm, see the Kennedy/Nixon 1960 article at wikipedia for a good example.

Even if minor cases of wrong doing showed up, without compelling evidence that one side was far better at dirty tricks than the other, we should just assume that both sides had people up to no good and move on.

This is really a great piece of our history that we should all know more about, with honest intellectual discussion not political spin, the priority.


Edward G. Hollett said...

Agreed DH.

Part of my purpose in posting those two links was to demonstrate that there has been some scholarly attention paid to these subjects that should become part of the wider public discussion.

There's also an article on Churchill Falls that I'll link to in the next while. It gives some tremendous background that should help put to rest many of the bits of sheer nonsense that continue to fly around about the project.

There's still lots to discuss and much of it remains relevant to current events but some of the hoary myths can go by the wayside.

In the referenda campaigns I am not sure if there has been any evidence of dirty tricks per se as much as allegations of them. The funding thing is much less a dirty trick to my mind, as I understand something along the lines of Watergate or Dan Ellsberg's psych records (related to the Pentagon Papers case).

Overall, though, the rule in NL history remains that if a subject has been covered by an academic at all, it may well have been only once and there is no guarantee that the one piece of work was as good as it might have been.

Winston Smith said...

While academic articles can be as flawed as any study, they are usually peer reviewed, which gives an element of quality control.

There is far more scholarship publicly available than there was even five years ago, and much of it is now accessible online. Not only are most journals available online, but many books from publishers such as UTP can now be accessed on the web as well.

MUN's "Periodical Article Bibliography" is an excellent search engine. Here's the link to the main page; you need to select NL from the list of indexed subjects:

D'Arcy said...

As others have said, there has actually been a lot of academic research into the people of outport Newfoundland and their way of life and culture. As House notes in The Challenge of Oil “the people in outport Newfoundland were not ready for parliamentary democracy. They had no local government, the valued egalitarianism, which discouraged the emergence of local leaders; and they had a well founded suspicion of outside authority” (House, J. D. (1985). The challenge of oil: Newfoundland's quest for controlled development, St. John's: Institute of Social and Economic Research, Memorial University of Newfoundland).

Further, Gerald Sider, a preeminent anthropologist from the City University of New York has done much work looking at rural Newfoundland. He argues that argues that Newfoundland joined Canada in a state of economic failure and crisis having suffered years of economic exploitation of the island’s human and natural resources in the interests of the British Empire (Sider, G. (2003). Between history and tomorrow: making and breaking everyday life in rural Newfoundland. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press).

It's time to put the rhetoric behind us, and move past the us or them politics of the past, whether it be liberal v. conservative; confederate v. nationalist/separatist and start resolving to learn from the past for the betterment of all.

Edward G. Hollett said...

Absolutely, D'Arcy and Winston.

You both said it.

House's observation 25 years ago was valid and they remain valid. In the late 1940s, the country had been without active politics for a decade so an entire generation had never known how the political system worked even theoretically.

There is a peculiarity to local politics (not unique but peculiar) which means you have to means a coded language of words and gestures to understand what goes on. It's one of the reasons why simple polling can often mask genuine attitudes.

Winston Smith said...

Gerald Sider is about as controversial a scholar as you can get. For a sense of the debate over his work, see

Much of this debate involves ideological disputes over Marxist theory. Sean Cadigan (another Marxist) has spent much of his career trying (with mixed success) to discredit Sider. In Cadigan's just-published book, he decides to pretend that Sider simply doesn't exist.

It's all worth looking at, but when the scholarship gets weighed down with theological disputes over when proletarianization happened, you need to pick your way through carefully.

On the question of economic culture in NL, the best place to start is the late Stuart Pierson's classic review essay:

I don't think the PDF links will fit the comment, so I'll email them to Ed, in case anyone is interested.

Edward G. Hollett said...

Stuart Pierson's review essay

Hiller, Narvaez and Vickers

Edward G. Hollett said...

They will fit, Winston, if you use the html code to do so