24 April 2007

The Newfoundland Nationalist orthodoxy

Given the nationalist rhetoric permeating the latest provincial throne speech, it might be useful to examine the writings of another Newfoundland nationalist.

The following piece appeared in the St. John's Telegram in 1998 under the title "Confederation orthodoxy". It's author, John Fitzgerald, today serves as the provincial representative in Ottawa, or as it might seem to some "our man in a Blue Line cab."

While his doctoral thesis was on the Roman Catholic church in Newfoundland in the middle of the 19th century, Fitzgerald's master's thesis was titled The Confederation of Newfoundland with Canada, 1946-1949. His interpretation has been criticised by other historians, but it did serve as the inspiration for the entertaining but fictional movie Secret nation.

The film contended that Confederation was the result of a giant plot involving foreign powers that included falsifying the final referendum result. Fitzgerald's account below does not come to that conclusion, but there is no doubt that he leans heavily on a peculiar interpretation of selected information to attack what he views as Confederate mythology. It is all to common for self-proclaimed myth debunkers to propagate a few myths of their own and Fitzgerald is no exception. He recites neatly the townie anti-Confederate catechism.

For that reason, and given Fitzgerald's current position as a senior advisor to the Premier, here is Fitzgerald's 1998 view:

Confederation orthodoxy
John Fitzgerald
The Telegram
St. John's, NL
April 6, 1998
Page 6

The Telegram editorial of April 1, celebrating 49 years of Confederation as a "qualified success," claimed that Newfoundland would have been much worse off as an independent country than as a Canadian province, and that without Ottawa, Newfoundland might return to the "grinding poverty" of the 1930s. This is the same tired orthodoxy that The Telegram and Smallwood preached in 1948: Newfoundland would not survive without Confederation.

Newfoundland very likely could have prospered without Confederation. For nine of the 10 years before Confederation Newfoundland had a balanced budget. On the eve of Confederation, Newfoundland had two-per-cent unemployment and a per-capita debt which was one-tenth of Canada's. On the eve of Confederation, Newfoundland had an accumulated surplus on current account of $43 million and $12 million in interest-free loans to Britain. In 1998 dollars this would be close to $1 billion. Was this prosperity temporary? No. Newfoundland changed forever in the 1940s. If the absence of a House of Assembly at the time prevented Newfoundlanders from knowing it or doing anything about it, then Canada certainly did know the wealth and value of Newfoundland.

Confederation may have been an qualified success for Canada, but not so for Newfoundland. Canada feared that Newfoundland could have used its resources to survive and prosper independently. The Ottawa mandarins realized that Confederation would help extract the Americans from their bases in Newfoundland. Newfoundland also had two of the largest airports in the world, situated on the Great Circle air route.

Canada wanted them, and acquired them with Confederation. It then used the control of the airports and landing rights to force its own way into American markets which had previously excluded Canada. In 1946, Newfoundland had an estimated 300 million tons of iron ore in Labrador, which Canada was interested in exploiting. (In March 1996 the IOC blasted the one billionth ton of iron ore out of Labrador, while Newfoundland still collects revenues under the 1944 royalty regime established by the Commission of Government which allows Newfoundland five per cent of what the IOC tells us their profits are.) Ottawa knew that controlling Newfoundland's fisheries would eliminate Newfoundland from competing with Nova Scotia for markets for its fish. (Could Newfoundland have managed its cod stocks any worse than Canada has?)

On Oct. 17, 1946, the Canadian High Commissioner in Newfound land, Scott Macdonald, wrote Ottawa about the benefits Newfoundland would bring to Canada. Newfoundland had "very considerable mineral and forest resources as well as easy access to the finest fishing grounds in the world." Confederation "would solve, permanently, all questions of post-war military and civil aviation rights which are at present terminable after March 31, 1949, on 12 months' notice. It would make possible a common jurisdiction over North Atlantic fisheries. ..."

And would Newfoundland return to poverty? Not likely. "Moreover," Macdonald wrote, "(Newfoundland) is richer by the investment of at least $100 million by Canada and at least $300 million by the United States primarily for defence but much of which was spent on roads, wharfs (sic), telephone lines, warehouses, similar buildings, radio ranges, airfields, the training of Newfoundlanders in various technical jobs, etc. and has redounded to the general development of the country." In Macdonald's view, Newfoundland thus had the infrastructure to sustain prosperity.

For Canada, Newfoundland's Confederation was not about the welfare state or about helping Newfoundlanders "out of poverty" (for which, The Globe and Mail tells us, we must be eternally grateful). Rather, it was about acquiring valuable resources, eliminating competition, acquiring very valuable aspects of Newfoundland's sovereignty, and doing it all rather deeply [cheaply?]. After all, Smallwood's Confederation campaigns only cost CD Howe and the Liberal Party of Canada a cool half-million bucks.