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Telling the Newfoundlanders: An idea whose time has come

in Featured/To Each Their Own by

When I interviewed Greg Malone recently about his new book Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders: The Untold Story of Confederation, he told me that the process of writing the book made him much more of a Newfoundland nationalist than he had been before.

I predict that reading the book will, for many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, have very much the same effect.

Mr. Malone’s book is remarkable in many ways and it is far more than just a history book. It lays a potent and palpable claim on the present. It opens a door to a possible and necessary future, driven forward by a renewed and clarified understanding of our past.

The sins of the past

It is said that your sins always catch up with you, and it would appear that this is so with Canada. The history revealed in Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders reveals Canada to be a scheming and duplicitous colonial empire that annexed Newfoundland through a conspiracy in which they used their financial muscle to force a war-indebted Britain to begrudgingly participate. The documents demonstrate Canada was neither interested, friendly nor sympathetic to the people and responsibilities of Newfoundland, but had its eye on the goals set by power-brokers in Quebec and Ontario: strategic control over aviation rights, controlling and holding at bay American influence and investment in the region, and controlling access to mineral and hydroelectric resources in Labrador. We never mattered to Canada. And as the actions of the Harper federal Conservatives have shown, we still do not. They have effectively eliminated search and rescue off our shores, and continue the process of disposing of our vital fishery resources for the trade gains of central Canada.

We never mattered to Canada. And as the actions of the Harper federal Conservatives have shown, we still do not.

What will be the punishment meted out to Canada for its role in this crime of greed and empire? It would be ironic indeed if it would turn out to be, finally, the dissolution of Canada: not from a separatist Quebec, which has in fact been its close partner in building the Canadian nation, but from Newfoundland – the country it illegally coerced into the equivalent of a state of occupation.

Cutting the ties that bind

The federal Conservatives’ agenda of cost-cutting and austerity signals more than merely a distressing reduction in social program support. It also signals the final cutting away of the ties – tenuous though they were – that held us to Canada in the first place. In the face of overwhelming resistance to the notion of confederation, how did the Canadians reel us in and, in the end, obtain the minimal borderline support they received during the confederation vote (setting aside the various suspicions of burned ballots for independence)? Well, aside from flagrantly outspending what the Responsible Government league had access to, they dangled the beginnings of a European-style social welfare system before us. To a nation like Newfoundland, that has historically been more European than American, and in which equality of social and economic status and community solidarity has been the prevailing principle of life upon this island, such a system made sense. Those who did agree to join Canada, agreed to join a partnership in which a generous social welfare state was an ideological underpinning. Canada is no longer that state.

Canada has drifted toward the American model: a lunatic jumble of market forces and every man [increasingly literally] for himself. There will be no great shock when we cut the final tie with Canada: the ties that brought together confederation have already slowly withered and dissolved and become meaningless over the past 20 years at the hands of a federal government that has lost sight of what were supposed to be Canada’s guiding principles. Indeed, our own government currently facilitates a stronger social framework than does the federal government. Let us withdraw our federal tax dollars and continue expanding our own network to provide the generous and responsible social welfare state that our ancestors fervently believed would be our destiny. And let us do it before Canada’s dismantling of the welfare state irrevocably ruins the institutional supports we have built up around it here in Newfoundland.

(You’ll note I’ve made little mention of Labrador: this is deliberate. While I believe Newfoundland and Labrador share not only a common history but a common destiny, the principles of self-determination and respect that we invoke here require that those of us on the island explore a renewed relationship with Labrador: one based on true equality and respect for the unique characteristics, needs and contributions of our mainland partner. But that’s a story for another column.)

What is to be done?

A close read of Malone’s book suggests, also, a way forward. The crux of the Canadian challenge was two-fold: how to overcome the fact that Newfoundlanders despised Canada – which it eventually vanquished through the tricky process of inducements and manipulation described by Malone in the book – and how to overcome the fact that the prospect of confederation was in fact utterly illegal. When Newfoundland gave up responsible government for Commission of Government, the legal arrangement was that responsible government would return when Newfoundland was self-sufficient. Any future political arrangements – for instance, political or economic ties with Canada or the US – were supposed to be negotiated by a duly elected, representative government of Newfoundland; not by the colonial overseers of Canada and Britain.

That never happened.

This was the challenge the Canadians and British faced – how to convince Newfoundlanders to look the other way, and overlook that fundamental legal barrier to confederation. Which, in the end, they did.

The argument we ought to make, then, is that we are still waiting for the fulfillment of this legal obligation. The fact we’ve been partnered with Canada for the past half century doesn’t change that obligation. It should have been fulfilled half a century ago. But it can still be fulfilled tomorrow.

The fact that our self-rule was not returned to us, and that it was not our own elected legislature that negotiated our future – as per the terms under which we temporarily gave up responsible government – renders our interlude in the Canada confederation null and void.

The fact that the Terms of Union were essentially negotiated with Canada by our British colonial rulers (and signed off on by a hand-picked group of compliant collaborators – with the exception of one who was so disgusted by the process he witnessed that he refused to sign) means Newfoundlanders never had any effective say in them – and it is those bad terms (with their lack of control over our fisheries, immigration policy, resource wealth and marine borders) which have created the circumstances we find ourselves in today. This is not just a historical grievance: it is an ongoing injustice.

And it must be brought to an end.

If you are not already sufficiently outraged by the inequity of our relationship with Canada and the impact this has had on our communities and our society, then reading Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders is likely to make you feel that way. Either way, the book signals that the time for looking the other way, and sighing in wistful nostalgia at our lost nationhood, is over; and the time for action has arrived. Let us arm ourselves with the knowledge that Malone – and others – have revealed in building their case against the colonial occupation of Newfoundland.

And, armed with that knowledge, let us organize.

And once we’re organized, let us reclaim our nationhood.

It’s sixty years overdue.

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