At the end of this lesson one will understand;

1. the condition of living of Newfoundland

2. transitions that lead to the joining of the confederation

3 reasons for people being for and against the confederation


Newfoundland was in desperate straits in 1934 when the Commission of Government, replacing parliamentary democracy, was given the mission of digging the country out of its hole. The economy and public finances were on the rocks; conditions for the population in general, never cushy, were rendered even bleaker by the Depression.

It was predominantly a society of small fishing outports; there were 1,292 settlements strewn along the coast, only 100 of them with populations of more than 500. St. John's, the capital, had 39,886 inhabitants in 1935. Although the value of fish exports had declined steeply as a proportion of total exports - from 81 percent in 1910 to 25 percent in 1936 - the fishery employed 40 percent of the male labor force.

A large employer, the fishery offered a poor living. In normal times, fishermen could supplement their incomes through part-time work as loggers for the island's two pulp and paper mills, and as sealers in the spring. Some outport residents worked as sailors on the vessels that carried fish to the markets of southern Europe and the Caribbean.

The economy was completely dependent on the export of fish, minerals and forest products. The Depression, beginning in 1929, struck hard. Total exports fell in value from $40 million in 1930 to $23 million in 1933. The value of fishery exports alone fell from $16 million in 1928 to $6.5 million in 1932. The number of people receiving the dole, or able-bodied relief, of six cents a day rose sharply. During the winter of 1932-33, one-quarter of the population depended on the government for the necessities of tea, flour, pork and molasses.

These and many others put Newfoundland in a hole. In perspective today many people would look for a way out, a loop hole or some kind of support.


By 1939, public disillusionment with the Commission was strong. Government was more efficient, but hopes for economic development and a substantially higher standard of living had not been realized. The outbreak of war in Europe, however, changed all that. Strategically located in the North Atlantic, Newfoundland became an important defence base in the Allied war effort.

Through a series of defence agreements with the Commission, Canada established installations in Newfoundland at a total cost of over $65 million. These included air bases at Gander, Torbay and Goose Bay, and a naval base in St. John's for which the British Admiralty provided the funds. The number of Canadian garrison troops peaked at nearly 6,000 army personnel in 1943. This figure does not include the thousands of seamen serving on naval convoy duty, which operated out of St. John's. Nor does it include the airmen stationed at Gander and Goose Bay who were involved in the Atlantic Ferry Command.

At its height in September 1942, the American and Canadian construction boom employed 19,752 Newfoundlanders. They earned an average annual income of $1,500 - considerably more than the $333 to be had in the fishery in 1941. There were jobs now for all who wished to work. But the Newfoundland workers did not receive wage parity with their American civilian counterparts, because the Commission of Government did not wish to drive up wages in other industries.

Increased exports and foreign military expenditures during the early 1940s finally ended the Commission's budget deficits, which peaked at $4.8 million in the 1939-40 fiscal year. Thereafter, budget surpluses enabled the government to make $12.3 million in interest-free loans to Britain while continuing to make improvements at home, notably in the fields of education, health, housing and local government.

In the face of the large American presence in Newfoundland, the Canadian government kept a close watch on its economic and military interests there, appointing a High Commissioner in 1941. But if the links between Canada and Newfoundland were strengthened during the war, the idea of a political union aroused little public interest. Reporting on Newfoundland public affairs to the Dominions Office in London in 1943, Gov. Humphrey Walwyn observed that the people were "so dazzled by American dollars, hygiene and efficiency that many of the public rather play up to America in preference to Canada."

In planning for the postwar restoration of democracy to Newfoundland, Britain was concerned that the island Dominion would regain its political independence only to slip back into a state of economic dependence. Britain therefore proposed to fund a 10-year economic development program in Newfoundland, while keeping a tight rein on the island's finances.

That plan fell apart, however, when the British government found in 1944 that it could not afford to pay for Newfoundland's development. By 1945, it was clear to Britain that under the circumstances, Newfoundland's best hope lay in union with Canada. The Canadian government, concerned at the prospect of growing U.S. influence in Newfoundland, easily saw eye to eye with Britain. Britain wished to divest itself of the financial and administrative responsibility for Newfoundland, and confederation was an attractive alternative. On Dec. 11, the Labor government of Clement Atlee announced that a "National Convention" of 45 delegates, elected from all parts of Newfoundland and Labrador, would be held the following year to consider the economic and political situation and to recommend constitutional alternatives that might be submitted to the public in a referendum.

Joey Smallwood, a journalist, former popular radio host and delegate from Bonavista Center, was the leader of the confederate cause. He saw union with Canada as a means of giving the people "a half decent chance in life," through the introduction of "North American standards of public services" and social welfare. As part of the larger Canadian trading bloc, Newfoundland would also benefit in international trade.

Anti-confederates favored a return to the pre-1934 system of responsible government. Supported by the St. John's mercantile community and led by Maj. Peter Cashin, a former member of the legislature, they appealed to local patriotism, and warned their fellow countrymen that confederation would mean selling their birthright for the Canadian "Baby Bonus." Newfoundlanders would also have to "take on a burden of taxation, the like of which they nor their fathers have never known."

In pursuit of a common policy with Canada, London kept pointing Newfoundland towards Canada by repeatedly warning that Britain had no financial help to give. Canada's role was simply to open its arms. When the National Convention urged that Newfoundlanders be asked to choose in a referendum between responsible government and commission government, Britain tacked on a third possibility - confederation with Canada - even though the convention itself had voted down a motion to place confederation on the referendum ballot.

In the referendum of June 3, 1948, 44.6 percent of voters supported the restoration of responsible government, 41.1 percent voted for confederation with Canada, and 14.3 percent opted for the existing system of government by commission. A second referendum was held July 22 to settle the issue, whereupon 52.3 percent voted for confederation, versus 47.7 percent for a return to the pre-1934 system. On March 31, 1949, Newfoundland officially became part of Canada, and on the following day, Smallwood was sworn in as the first premier. Thus, Newfoundland joined Canada.


Newfoundland was suffering during the depression and even thought they had a moderate standard of living but still needed support. Britain set up a plan to but failed and Canada was there best ally/choice and therefore joined by signing into Canada. However, not everyone believed that it was the right choice and those who didn't had the sole reason for a responsible independent government. Yet after the second referendum in July 22 1948, the people had decided. On March 31, 1949, Newfoundland officially became part of Canada, and on the following day, Smallwood was sworn in as the first premier.

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