11 August 2015

Lions or jellyfish: a review

jellyfishHistorian Ray Blake’s new book  Lions or jellyfish:  Newfoundland  - Ottawa relations since 1957 is likely to be be on many reading lists. 

It should be.

Blake examines:

  • the Term 29 dispute,
  • hydro-electric development in Labrador between 1960 and 1970,
  • resettlement,
  • offshore oil and gas ownership,
  • Meech Lake,
  • the 'Williams’ “fair share” argument.

Resettlement gets two chapters, one before 1965 and one for the period afterward.  Likewise, offshore oil and gas gets two chapters, the second focussing on the period between 1979 and 1985.

Blake examines the relationship between the province and the federal government in the context of Canadian federalism and, specifically, through the lens of executive federalism.  That is, he frames the discussion as one focussed primarily on the relationship between the individual first ministers. There are sound reasons for doing this. Blake describes his reasons for doing so and puts the book in a general theoretical framework in a crisply written introduction.

Two issues do not get treatment in the book, as Blake notes in the introduction.  He has dealt with the fishery elsewhere. The issue deserves, as Blake states, treatment in a book on its own.  Nor does Blake deal with aboriginal people in Newfoundland and Labrador. He argues that it deserves a book-length treatment of its own. That is true of all the case studies Blake examines. In the case of aboriginal affairs, Blake can be excused for leaving it out since the subject remains largely unexamined by scholars.

The same is not true of most of the cases Blake examines.  While this is the first book to examine federal provincial relations between newfoundland and Canada specifically, each of the cases in Blake’s book have been by scholars elsewhere.  There is one exception, noted below.  Thus, Blake has a relatively rich field of primary material as well as secondary work on which to draw.

That said, the weakest chapter is the one on Williams.  The seems to stem, as much as anything else, from the relatively limited access to primary sources and little else except for a handful of very weak secondary source material.  Thus, Blake relies chiefly on official news releases and media commentary for his account. 

One is example of the weak secondary sources is Bill Rowe’s memoir of his brief sojourn in Ottawa as the province’s official representative. Most of what Rowe repeats about crucial elements in the ongoing talks is anecdotal and has the ring of hearsay about it.  There is no evidence Rowe played any role in the ongoing discussions. We are left with a self-described insider’s account written by someone who was – by all appearances, completely outside.

The result is a chapter that does little more than summarise the  popular version of what happened in 2004.  A crucial juncture in the dispute occurred in October 2004 when Williams stormed out of a federal-provincial conference. Blake quotes Bill Rowe:  Williams’ was afraid that the federal government was trying to stir up the other provinces against Newfoundland on the grounds Williams’ demands threatened Equalization. (p. 293)  He offers nothing else on the point. Repeating the unfounded claim simply isn’t good enough given the calibre of the rest of Blake’s book.

In this instance, the other provinces didn’t need the federal government to tell them that Williams’ demand for an Equalization-type transfer in perpetuity was a lousy idea for them.  By the time of the October meeting other provinces had begun to complain publicly – of their own volition – about the side deal Williams was negotiating.  They had assessed Williams’ public statements and, undoubtedly, shared information among themselves on the back channels that run from government to government across Canada.

What Williams avoided by storming out of the meeting wasn’t some nebulous thing cooked up by the federal government.  Williams avoided the significant opposition to the side deal forming among his fellow premiers.  Indeed,  Bernard Lord, Jean Charest, and Gary Doer met on October 8 to co-ordinate their opposition to the side deals Paul Martin was working out with both Nova Scotia and newfoundland and Labrador. 

Williams issued a news release at the time of the premiers’ meeting,  and almost three weeks in advance of the meeting on Equalization.  He warned the three about meddling in what Williams’ evidently considered his business alone.  For good measure, Williams even repeated the transparently silly claim that the negotiations were not about Equalization but about something else.

A week before the Equalization meeting,  provincial finance minister Loyola Sullivan sounded very positive about the negotiations.  He talked publicly about the general features of the deal and specifically noted how much money the provincial government was getting ready to accept.

Given all that,  it is simply incredible to accept at face value the idea that Williams stormed out of the meeting in protest over the limitation contained in the federal proposal.  That is what Williams and Sullivan said at the time. Their theatrics were a distraction,  a way of avoiding a tense private meeting on Equalization in which Williams was likely to get a tongue-lashing and the federal government was sure to receive heavy pressure from several provinces not to conclude Williams’ side deal.  In other words, a closer reading of accounts that are already in the public domain tell a very different story than the one Blake presents.

What’s more, had Blake done a comparison of the provincial position over time, he might have noted the dramatic differences between what Williams initially demanded,  what was discussed in June, 2004,  the federal offer in October that Williams ostensibly rejected and what he finally accepted in January with the loser’s claim that Newfoundland and Labrador had won “a moral victory.”

All of those details would have led Blake to a very different conclusion to the one he reaches on the Martin-Williams negotiation, including  his assessment of which of the two was desperate for an agreement in January 2005.

One can contrast the unsatisfactory chapter on Williams with Blake’s examination of any of the chapters dealing with Joe Smallwood. Blake has substantively altered the generally-accepted interpretation of Term 29, for example.  He compares and contrasts the contending styles of the first ministers and the difference systemic approaches of the two governments to dealing with the issue.  The simplistic argument that Diefenbaker was on a personal vendetta against Smallwood and the province simply disappears in the face of Blake’s cogent analysis based on research.

The same can be said of Blake’s chapters on resettlement or even on the long disagreement over ownership of offshore resources: Blake will force a re-examine of some of our preconceptions.  The chapter on hydro-electric development will likely raise a few  eyebrows among people unfamiliar with the considerable research already done on the subject by Mel Baker, Jim Feehan, and others. Blake adds research of his own to the account in support of a conclusion that may be subject to dispute but that is well-founded.

While Blake’s account of the bitter fight in the early 1980s over offshore oil sometimes sounds like he has chosen sides in the fight,  he tells the story thoroughly.  One can understand what happened and why it happened from both the federal and provincial perspectives. 

The chapter on Meech Lake is balanced and generally true to events, as they occurred. It includes the start of the episode with Brian Peckford as Premier and finishes with the collapse of the agreement in June 1990. Again, Blake is able to rely in key places on accounts draw directly from participants.  That provides his account with authenticity and depth.

Generally, Blake takes the view that both the federal and provincial governments approached their relationship with similar objectives – Blake calls them fairness and justice at several points – but with different perspectives. 

He is, for the most part, generous in ascribing the best intentions to any of the individuals he discusses.  While this might seem a bit hokey,  it is a useful anti-venom to the often simplistic view of federal-provincial relations one finds in popular commentary or from the politicians themselves.  Premiers do not always fight with Ottawa.  As a rule,  politicians are trying to do what they think is best.  They just disagree. 

At the same time, we should not be so quick to dismiss the role other factors – like a foreign political foe or winning conditions for a political party  - might have in a politician’s calculations.  Not everything is strategic and not everything is strategic all the time.  Indeed, the lesson in some of these cases is that politicians often proceed along primarily tactical lines.  In other instances, as in Smallwood and Term 29, the two governments are using different approaches and that, in turn, makes agreement difficult and dispute easy. Each episode must be assessed on its own terms if one is to successful understand what happened and why. 

Such a level of complexity or detail was outside the scope of Blake’s book, however, and no one should take that observation as a fault in the book.  What Blake has produced here is a series of case studies and they are offered with the requisite level of detail to support Blake’s objective.  The only exception is the chapter on Williams. 

The view of events in 2004 offered by your humble e-scribbler would differ on the details but on the general premise from which Blake proceeds,  the point would be the same.  The provincial government was trying to deal with a particular economic problem and sought fairness and justice,  as defined by the government and its supporters. The federal government had the same goal,  although what it did in response to provincial demands was defined differently from the provincial goal for different reasons.  That was true under Paul Martin and it was also true under Stephen Harper, despite Williams’ claims that Harper was simply being petty and personal.  Both prime ministers had to contend with pressures from other provincial premiers, for example.

Lion’s or jellyfish is engaging. It is also accessible, meaning that one does not need to be an expert to understand what Blake is saying.  The writing is lively and, as one might expect from a knowledgeable, experienced scholar, the book comes with ample footnotes, a solid bibliography, and a good index.

Anyone seriously interested in federal provincial relations in Canada, especially between Newfoundland and Labrador and the federal government, will want a copy of this book. Lions or jellyfish is a fitting companion to Blake’s other work, including Canadians at last.  It will be a standard reference for quite some time and deservedly so.


Lions or jellyfish is available at your local bookstore,  from your online book retailer or directly from University of Toronto Press.

Raymond B. Blake, Lions or Jellyfish:  Newfoundland  - Ottawa relations since 1957. TorontoUniversity of Toronto Press.  2015. 448 Pages 23 Images

ISBN 9781442628304  (Paper)

ISBN 9781442650251 (Cloth)

ISBN 9781442622661 (ePub)

Disclosure:  The author received a review copy of the book from University of Toronto Press.