31 March 2009

Confederation 60: Federalism and the Newfoundlanders

The 60th anniversary of Confederation in 1949 is gaining a fair bit of attention but not nearly as much as it should.

The noisy minority

The one feature of the reporting and commentary seems to be the list of grievances, complaints and problems.  Now to be sure, this comes from a relatively small group of people to be found largely in St. John’s. They are the progeny of the crowd who, for their own reasons, have never gotten over losing the two referenda in 1948 that led to Confederation.

For the past 60 years this relatively small band has thrived on the belief that the whole thing was a plot and that all the ills of Newfoundland and Labrador can be placed squarely at the feet of “Canadians” and Confederation. They have thrived on the belief but not on the fact of the matters, and that is definitely not from lack of trying. 

There are three other reasons why they are such a small number, however, than the fact that they haven’t turned up evidence to back their claims.  There is a reason why the majority of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians do not give any support to their pseudo-separatist cause.

First, theirs is a negative message.  Not only does it claim this place is a mess, a claim that is hard to sustain for any length of time, it places blame for the mess squarely at the feet of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians for being too stunned – in the local meaning of the word – to look after their own affairs.

You’ll find no less an authority than Mary Walsh delivering just such a judgement in Hard rock and water, a fantasy film a few years ago that compared Newfoundland and Iceland. Most of the crowd that flocked to the showings of the film in St. John’s likely didn’t hear that part but it’s there if you listen. This is not to say Walsh is one of that small band, but her judgment is the logical conclusion one must come to from listening to the litany of grievances.

You’ll see the same thing in comments by the current Premier delivered in jest admittedly to a crowd of writers for Macleans back in 2004. The transcript is online, but here’s a synopsis from that first link along with the facetious view of the whole interview:

Understand that the editor’s question came after the Premier volunteered the opinion that the House of Assembly was “unproductive” and joked that if he had his way he would probably never call it in session. D’oh! That question came after the Macleans crowd asked the Premier why the provincial deficit was so big. His response was mismanagement over the past 10 years. There was a lengthy bit about the Stunnel; two sentences on the fishery. D’oh! The last question had the Premier calling for a seal cull. D’oh! The Premier made some misstatements of fact, for good measure (D’oh!) and a couple of big ideas got a handful of words, without explanation. D’oh! Take the whole interview and you have a bunch of poor, laughing drunks, complaining about having no money, who apparently can’t manage their own affairs, and yet who want to build grandiose megaprojects and kill seals.

There is a corollary to this that is worth mentioning in passing.  The story they tell is of a hard-done-by crowd victimised by the outside world and constantly needing a hand-out. it’s a cliche, of course, and one that they rightly find insulting but it is the essence of the story they tell.

Secondly, their message is almost invariably nothing more than a photocopy of something from somewhere else.  Masters of our own house, the constant airing of grievances, the list of demands, and the idea of getting into Confederation are all ideas advanced by the nationalist/separatist movement in Quebec. They are nothing more than a variation on the hand-me-down political ideas of copying the Irish or Icelandic models.  They don’t resonate with people who have a substantively different understanding of the world than Quebeckers, Icelanders or the Irish.

Thirdly, and flowing from that, their message has no vision for the future, no substantive way of correcting the pattern of behaviour they claim is responsible for the mess.  They do not speak to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador about their future in a way that people can actually relate to.

The time before Confederation is within the memory of people living today.  Even those of us first generation Canadians can recall how far we have come since the 1960s but except for those inculcated with what John Crosbie once called townie bullshit talk, our experience of the world is not driven by innate insecurity and feelings of inadequacy, individually or collectively.

And what’s more, the second generation Canadians now in adulthood do not recall the days of self-imposed insecurity.  Theirs is a world where it is perfectly natural for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to be judged on their own individual merits. They are able to go anywhere in the world and succeed and, with few exceptions, they do.  Theirs is a world much larger than what can be seen from the nearest headland.  The revolution between the ears of the people of this place happened a long while ago.

The rolling of thunder

Confederation came quietly in 1949 but the reverberations from it continue to shake Newfoundland and Labrador.

The most obvious change after April 1, 1949 that most people saw was a change in their individual financial standing.  Not only did Canadian social welfare programs start to flow, but prices dropped throughout the former country as protectionist tariffs disappeared. Traveling to Canada no longer required a passport and leaving Newfoundland to work on the mainland no longer meant traveling to a foreign land. The walls that had once served to hold Newfoundlanders and Labradorians in came down immediately.

With Confederation, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians found a financial prosperity they had not known before but they also found a financial security. Economic problems in a town or industry no longer had to mean local disaster and the permanent departure of local residents.

Before Confederation, a community like Stephenville would have assuredly faced disaster. The provincial government, as it turned out, did not need to lift a finger and indeed its meagre efforts to respond to the closure did not spell doom for the community.  Residents who used to work at the paper mill found work easily elsewhere in Canada and could continue to live in their homes. It may not be ideal and indeed we may take it for granted but the experience in Stephenville in 2005 stands in stark contrast to the experience of communities in Newfoundland in the century and more beforehand.

The Newfoundland and Labrador government also benefitted as well from the strategic financial depth provided by Confederation.  Government had the room to explore and to make mistakes in economic development – like the chocolate factories and rubber boot plants and cucumber hothouses – without the fear such mistakes would translate almost instantly into suffering for ordinary Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. 

Confederation gave the provincial government a wealth of cash in addition to its own modest surplus from the Commission.  Schools, roads and hospitals came as a direct consequence.

The most profound change that came with Confederation, though, was the restoration throughout Newfoundland and Labrador of responsible government. That one change gave individuals in the province – Labradorians for the first time ever – the direct responsibility to elect the people who would represent them not only in the provincial legislature but in the national parliament as well.  No longer confined to dealing with only local affairs or with issues directly related to Newfoundland and Labrador, the people of the province could have a hand in shaping the policies of a country with much wider influence globally and much wider responsibilities than they had known before.

The path ahead

Newfoundland and Labrador today enjoys a measure of individual and collective prosperity earlier generations could only dream of. All is not perfect, but it is immeasurably better than it might have been.

It is immeasurably better because we have – individually and collectively – been able to apply ourselves to making it better.  We have made mistakes and learned from them and we have also enjoyed great success.  The current prosperity comes entirely from policies followed by successive governments in the 1980s and 1990s that are denigrated as give-aways only by the ignorant or the self-interested.

The broader foundation of economic success grew out of policies which took advantage of the move toward a global economy and free trade. The 1992 Strategic Economic Plan, which remains in place to a great extent, grew out of the ideas of two projects of public consultation, one in the 1980s and the other to develop the plan itself.  These were meaningful consultations in which many people had a direct impact on what the final documents said.

As we mark this anniversary it is worth considering the three fundamental changes needed to implement the 1992 SEP.  Those three changes are important because they are fundamentally related to the changes that began in 1949:

  • A change within people. There is a need for a renewed sense of pride, self-reliance and entrepreneurship. We must be outward-looking, enterprising and innovative, and to help bring about this change in attitude we will have to be better educated. During the consultation process, most people agreed that education is essential to our economic development.
  • A change within governments. Governments (both politicians and the bureaucracy) must focus on long-term economic development and planning, while still responding to short-term problems and needs. Government programs and services must place a greater emphasis on the quality of the services provided and on the client. Changes in education, taxation and income security systems are also considered critical to our economic development.
  • A change in relationships. To facilitate the necessary changes in the economy, new partnerships must be formed among governments, business, labour, academia and community groups. In particular, better co-ordination between the federal and provincial governments in the delivery of business and economic development programs is needed to eliminate duplication and to prevent confusion for those who use them.

As we mark this 60th anniversary of Confederation, it is worth considering the extent to which current government policies fail to continue those changes.  It is worth noting that in the endless wars with outsiders, there has been a steady rebuilding of the walls and barriers we have worked so hard to tear down.  We worked to tear them down because they served only to restrict us.

It is worth noting that genuine pride, innovation and self-reliance can be stifled by a late-night telephone call and by the relentless personal attacks that come from merely dissenting from official views. By choking off healthy debate about public policy issues within Newfoundland and Labrador, by strangling any alternative views we serve only to return this place to self-defeating isolation.

Confederation gave Newfoundlanders and Labradorians the tools and opportunities to make for themselves a better place in the world. In 1949, we became once more masters of our own destiny and masters of our own house.

On this 60th anniversary of Confederation, we must be mindful of how far we have come and at the same time, be aware that if we are to continue to grow and prosper we must safeguard the foundation on which our current prosperity is built.