Not one to allow an opportunity for high drama to pass, once he put down Greg Malone’s new book Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders: The True Story of Newfoundland’s Confederation With Canada Rick Mercer (yes, that Rick Mercer) said of it: “Malone uncovers threads that when pulled could lead to the unravelling of our entire confederation…”

Of course, given the depth and significance of Malone’s new work, this time Mercer might not be wrong.

A much-anticipated work

Malone’s book has been anticipated in many quarters for some time. Once word leaked out that he was working on a book about Confederation, there was widespread anticipation to see what would result.

The anticipation was mixed: Malone is known for many things, but historical research has not – until now – been one of them. Indeed, his most well-known accomplishments – as an actor and cultural icon who was part of such great acts as Wonderful Grand Band, Codco, and more (not to mention his outspoken community activism and recent forays into electoral politics) – led some to respond with skepticism to the idea that someone who built a famous career outside the ivory tower could produce a work of serious scholarship. An ivory tower hack myself, I asked Malone where he gets off thinking he’s qualified to write about history. Unexpectedly, he explains that not only has he studied under some of Newfoundland’s greatest historians, but his interest in the subject stems from a background in scriptural exegesis. He is a man of many surprises.

“When you look at a scripture, what’s the tone of it? Is this in response to the community being persecuted? You can tell all this kind of stuff by the tone. Which is a lot like being an actor, where you get a script, and you’re like, what’s going on here? What mood is this character in? You have to deconstruct the whole thing. So I found that very good practice for when I came to the documents.”

 What amazed me was the array of people involved in this. — Greg Malone

It’s not just empty words. Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders is a serious work of scholarship and Malone’s grasp of the complicated history of a complicated period is masterful. He spent four years working on the book, including stints digging away at archives in London obtaining material from the period, and obtaining access in some cases to documents that have only just been released.

“For instance, documents about the rift in Churchill’s war cabinet over Newfoundland,” he explains. “When the bombs were dropping, they were down in the basement arguing about Newfoundland! They were saying ‘it’s illegal, we’re illegally there, it’s a ridiculous situation, we should get out, we have to get out and give it back its government’, and the other b’ys were saying ‘no, we got to hang on, we have to hang on to it’. What amazed me was the array of people involved in this.”

Making our history accessible to ourselves

Perhaps because of his multitalented background, Malone demonstrates a skill all too rare among tenure-track historians: the ability to both write history in scholarly fashion, with attention to detail and research, yet at the same time make that scholarship accessible to a wide readership. Malone – who already has an acclaimed autobiography under his belt – has a first-rate style which enables him to render complex historical detail accessible and vividly real to a wide swath of potential readers. I couldn’t put the book down, and shot through it in two days.

What can the reader expect? What Malone does in this book is provide a searing indictment of British and Canadian colonialism in Newfoundland. As he explained to me:

“My book is not about the failures of the Newfoundland political elite. Someone else can do that study. This is about the British and the Canadians. This is their perspective, it’s their words…I’m trying to get them to tell their own story.”

…the way they were pushing Newfoundland into confederation was wrong, and they openly admitted it to themselves.

It’s the history from the Canadian and British side, told through the words of their officials, diplomats and leaders. It’s often told verbatim by these people: Malone keeps his editorializing to a minimum in much of the book, and weaves the story together through the use of declassified cables, reports, and other communications. In many ways, that’s all one needs to do: the Canadians and British damn themselves by their own admission and their own words. These were people who knew the way they were pushing Newfoundland into confederation was wrong, and they openly admitted it to themselves. If there is something surprising and shocking in these documents, it is how brazen and accepting British and Canadian officials were of an ongoing policy and course of action that was designed to betray their former wartime ally, undermine its sovereignty and deliver it into Canadian hands.

Tarring the Newfoundlander

While Malone presents a brief sketch of Newfoundland history for readers that might not be familiar, the real story begins with the process whereby responsible government (self-rule, for all intents and purposes) was replaced with Commission of Government. The period ushered in more than merely a form of dictatorship: it also served as the origin for the insulting depiction of the Newfoundland character which Newfoundlanders have been struggling with ever since. Key to this process was the Amulree Report, an investigation by British colonial officials into the state of Newfoundland’s finances and democracy.

As Newfoundland struggled — like all other countries — with the financial challenges of the Great Depression, it requested from Britain a reduced interest rate on its debt (a debt incurred in great part by Newfoundland’s contribution to the First World War). Britain refused — despite alleviating debt obligations for many other countries — and suggested sending the Amulree Commission to look over Newfoundland’s finances instead. It was this Commission’s report which led to the recommendation by the British government that Newfoundland surrender its self-government.

The report also provided one of the earliest and most intense presentations of the myth of Newfoundland inferiority. It concluded that Newfoundlanders were unfit for the modern institution of democracy – partly because they had no “leisured class” to rule over them.

 That’s where the beginning of the destruction of our national character came from…before you take someone’s country, what do you have to say to them? You’re stupid, you’re lazy, you’re ignorant, you don’t deserve it. Always, before you take somebody’s land and their rights, you denigrate them. — Greg Malone

“That’s where the beginning of the destruction of our national character came from – the Amulree Report,” Malone explains.

“We never really recovered from the damage done to our reputation from that. And of course, before you take someone’s country, what do you have to say to them? You’re stupid, you’re lazy, you’re ignorant, you don’t deserve it. Always, before you take somebody’s land and their rights, you denigrate them. You create a pretext. That’s what they did in Newfoundland, they created a pretext, that we weren’t fit for it. We weren’t fit for democracy. So we’ll take it from you. That’s how they did it.

“If they had taken over our government without denigrating our character, I don’t think we would have suffered so badly. Why they felt the urge to single us out for particular condemnation and for corruption – you only had to look at what was going on in Britain and Canada and the States to find ample corruption to bring any government down.”

A legacy that lingers

The process was doubly crippling for Newfoundland; in addition to attacking the Newfoundland character as backward and unfit, the Amulree Report and the subsequent replacement of democratic government in Newfoundland with government by a colonial commission also stunted the growth of the nation’s democratic institutions. By reinstating a form of colonial direct rule which was for all intents and purposes identical to a dictatorship, Britain halted the growth and development of the sort of democratic institutions which could have played a role, following the war, in facilitating public debate about Newfoundland’s future.

“When the British took away democracy in Newfoundland in 1933, that devastated the country. And after 15 years of dictatorship where the institutions of democracy were moribund, it led to 21 years of dictatorship under Smallwood. And we had to crawl out of that hole – it takes a long time to get your real democracy working again. So the British did a nasty thing there in ’33.”

Don’t just tell the Newfoundlanders

Greg Malone signs copies of Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders in St. John’s. Photo by Justin Brake.

Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders is, for obvious reasons, a riveting book for Newfoundlanders. But it is also a worthwhile read for Canadians who might never have thought twice about the ‘unruly child’ to the far east. It provides riveting insight into the actions of major Canadian figures in their early years. When a young Lester B. Pearson begins to express doubts about the legality of Confederation and suggests it would be illegitimate unless negotiated with an independent, duly elected Newfoundland government (the very circumstance Smallwood and the Confederates were trying to avoid, for fear they would be unable to control the outcome), it is a young Louis St. Laurent who convinces him to come on board and to stop voicing his misgivings to the press.

Meanwhile, Canadian Prime Minister William Mackenzie King – who has also gone through phases of believing his government’s approach to Newfoundland was unconstitutional and wrong – was also duly corrected by St. Laurent, and fantasizes in his diaries about “the value it would be to my name and to the future to have Newfoundland come into Confederation while I am still P.M.”

At times, these characters sound like they come from the pages of fiction.

The book also offers a fascinating insight into Canada’s view of itself and its future in post-WWII North America. It reveals an abject fear and mistrust of the United States – this was, remember, the era prior to George Grant’s famous Lament for a Nation and the ascent of Canadian-American capital interests. Many on the Canadian side feared the growing influence and popularity of the Americans in Newfoundland.

Enter the Americans

The Americans arrived during World War II (a cash-strapped and desperate Britain provided virtually free leases of large swathes of Newfoundland territory on which the US built military bases, in exchange for desperately needed military supplies to keep up the defense of Britain during its dark hours), and although initially received with suspicion by the Newfoundlanders, the two peoples quickly warmed up to each other.

Unlike the Canadians and the British, the Americans seemed to treat the Newfoundlanders as equals; just as importantly, and unlike the other two relatively stingy parties, the Americans came with open wallets, and rapidly began developing the island to a degree exceeding any investment made by the British colonial authorities. The bonding of the two peoples was reflected both by the thousands of intermarriages between Newfoundlanders and Americans, as well as the enormous Newfoundland diaspora communities – tens of thousands strong – in many American cities.

This development terrified Canada and was one of the key catalysts convincing Canadian officials they needed to move quickly. They feared this was their last chance to get Newfoundland within confederation: with British influence waning, Canadians historically mistrusted, and American influence and popularity growing, they feared the Newfoundland-American alliance would become entrenched within a matter of years, and perhaps even lead to some form of union down the road.

Intervention in Newfoundland-American affairs was not a new phenomenon: this was, remember, the country that had intervened to make Britain prevent lucrative trade agreements between America and Newfoundland. Indeed, some Canadian officials even suggested it would be the end of Canada if they did not act quickly, fearing that if Canada missed its last opportunity, Newfoundland would inevitably join the US at some point in the future, and that this could ultimately spell the end of Canada (surrounded on three sides by the US).

 Astute commentators say that Newfoundland saved Canada, not the other way around. — Greg Malone

So Canada decided to act.

“[T]he British and the Canadians were quite embarrassed at the money the Americans were spending on Newfoundland, and how they got stuff done,” Malone explained when we spoke. “Hospitals and bases put up overnight, practically. The Brits had been sitting in the place for 10 years and hadn’t done anything – nothing! It lit a fire under them in a way.”

The presence of the Americans had a profound ideological impact on Newfoundland as well.

“I think that’s when Newfoundland turned to North America really, with the Americans in there. That was the final turn away from Europe, and the turn towards North America, really. We became real North Americans during the war, which we weren’t before.

“And they were right. If the Canadians hadn’t made a move, we would have gone with the Americans. The Canadians and British were not about to give any chance to that. It was not a false fear that the Canadians and the British had about American dominance. They could see it, real enough. Astute commentators say that Newfoundland saved Canada, not the other way around. Because if the United States had come in, if Newfoundland was American, and Labrador was American, and then you had Alaska on the other side, Canada would be gone in no time. Some of them were thinking ahead.

“John A. MacDonald felt the same way, that if they didn’t eventually get Newfoundland, and America got it, they’d be fucked. They’d be encircled, right?”

American welcome

It’s not surprising, therefore, that the Americans found themselves more welcome than either the Canadians or the British. While the taciturn Canadians tried to commit to giving as little as possible to Newfoundland (while taking as much as they could for their own benefit) and while the British treated Newfoundlanders with a sort of paternalistic superiority, the Americans treated Newfoundlanders as equals: they were efficient, business-like, and came with open smiles and open wallets. As Malone writes in his book:

If the American relationship with Newfoundland was a marriage of the heart, as was often said, it seemed certain that any marriage between Canada and Newfoundland would require a shotgun…As the war carried on, both the Canadians and the British in Newfoundland were increasingly embarrassed by the Americans, who were far more popular than the Canadians and were clearly spending more and doing more for the Island than its British rulers had ever done.

This set the stage for the dramatic process – the conspiracy, if you will – which brought Newfoundland into Canada. We’ll look at that process, and what Greg Malone had to say about it, in Part 2 of this feature.

Part 2 of this feature will appear on Monday, Dec. 17.