An “unruly and prodigal child”…(part 2)

Hans met up with Greg Malone to discuss his new book ‘Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders’. In Part 2 of this feature, they discuss the confederation struggle…and the future.

You can read Part 1 of this feature here.

A done deal

Malone’s presentation of the confederation process runs like this (do read the book though: this overview does no credit to the incredibly nuanced swells and currents of diplomacy involved in the confederation process, a form of suspense-thriller that Malone teases out with excoriating detail and riveting style).

The agreement to suspend Newfoundland’s self-government and to install Commission of Government had been stated to last only until such time as Newfoundland could function financially on its own again. By the later stages of the war Newfoundland was not only functioning on its own but was a steady source of revenue for Great Britain. Britain’s commissioners who were running Newfoundland conveniently arranged for millions of dollars in interest-free loans to be made to the mother country (the same mother country which, about a decade earlier, had refused an adjustment in interest payments on the loans owed in reverse by Newfoundland, in order to pressure Newfoundland into giving up responsible government). Newfoundland was also donating a range of other monies to England. In short, Newfoundland was self-sufficient, but also suddenly a revenue stream. Britain felt a strong colonial attachment to Newfoundland, and was torn between those who felt the proper, constitutional, legal and ethical thing to do was to return Newfoundland’s self-government – as had been promised – and those who saw the immense advantage (fiscal, political, and strategic) to be gained by holding on to the Island in a direct fashion. But the situation was starting to become untenable: Newfoundlanders were starting to realize they’d been had, and even formerly loyal elites on the Island were starting to clamour for change. At the same time, Canada was suddenly developing an interest in the Island. Canadian foreign affairs officers drew up detailed ‘pro’ and ‘con’ lists to absorbing Newfoundland into Confederation. There was one problem: Canada was almost universally despised by Newfoundlanders. The same had been true for Canada, but, cognizant that Newfoundland might offer a strategic advantage in the post-war world, the Canadian federal government had quietly started trying to warm Canadians up to Newfoundlanders. However, no such initiative was underway on the Island, and all parties were quite aware that if Canada had offered confederation, Newfoundland would have scoffed and sent them packing.

Colonial practice

“I like to say that after the war, Russia got Poland and Canada got Newfoundland,” Malone says to me, with an ironic smile. “And both of them suffered the indignity of loss of their sovereignty, and both of them suffer from jokes. The Newfoundland joke and the Polish joke are the same joke, just with different names. And it took both of them about a half a century to get their self respect and their country back under their control. And that’s the truth. And both of them experienced a cultural renaissance before they had that political step. Newfoundland punches way over its weight culturally: its musicians, its actors, writers, painters are pushing the envelope, and that’s what’s dragging the country into the 21st century, really.”

In the end, Canada wrote off the entire $5.6 billion British war debt: but the price of this was Newfoundland…

Once Canada had decided it wanted to take over Newfoundland – a “passive-aggressive approach to union [that] was typical of Canada’s historical apathy and its desire to acquire Newfoundland by default or for as little cost as possible” – the question remained of how, credibly, to do so. The strategy involved, first, undermining insofar as possible Newfoundland’s ability to stand on its own. Britain, finally feeling a sense of responsibility over its colony and the one-sided flow of revenue and people Newfoundland had provided during the war effort, had begun to develop a $100 million, 10-year development program for Newfoundland. Canada was instrumental in scuttling this initiative, warning Britain in fairly direct terms that Britain still owed Canada for goods and loans provided during the war and that if it wanted continued good terms on those, it would provide no assistance to Newfoundland. While some in the British government clearly felt uncomfortable with the direction this was heading, they acquiesced. Britain was desperate to pay off its war debt, and had been surprised by the Americans’ unwillingness to set aside loans owed to them. Canada was the only other option. In the end, Canada wrote off the entire $5.6 billion British war debt: but the price of this was Newfoundland, delivered through a process of conspiracy and gentle coercion.

Malone identifies with adroit clarity the crux of the matter in his analysis of the correspondence and internal reports that comprised official policy development on Newfoundland in both Britain and Canada. His book describes

…the high-level cooperation between Great Britain and Canada to bring Newfoundland into Confederation without the knowledge of the people of Newfoundland. The conspiratorial tone of these communications indicates that all parties involved were aware that they were initiating confidential negotiations that were constitutionally, politically, democratically, and morally wrong. They were certainly against the spirit and letter of everything that the British governors were telling the people of Newfoundland. They were also contrary to the vaunted Atlantic Charter asserting the rights of all peoples to self-determination, which the British had proclaimed with such fanfare in 1941.

A colonial critique

The bulk of the book comprises a searing, insightful and well-researched indictment of British and Canadian colonialism in Newfoundland. It is only with this argument presented that Malone turns his attention, in two shorter chapters at the end, to the possibility of a more direct conspiracy to rig the vote. The notion that the extremely close vote was rigged has dominated popular consciousness, made trendy in recent years by media and pop culture (for instance the 1992 film Secret Nation starring Mary Walsh). This notion is one that has also undermined more thoughtful critiques of the confederation process – efforts to draw attention to the utterly undemocratic and unconstitutional conduct of Britain and Canada become distracted by irresolvable debates over whether the vote was rigged. To his credit, Malone makes this dimension of the debate neither central, nor does he dwell on it for long. He instead presents the evidence advocates of the ‘rigging’ theory point to, more or less leaving the reader to draw their own conclusion. This is the proper way to address the issue. It is a historical fact that suspicious evidence exists, and to ignore it would be improper and intellectually dishonest. Yet it is impossible to prove, and the evidence is by no means convincing, even if it is certainly thought-provoking. Malone provides a good overview of what hints and evidence does exist, and then properly leaves the subject to focus on more fruitful territory.

The true conspiracy occurred in broad daylight, in the halls of empire in both Ottawa and London.

Because Malone’s ‘ conspiracy’ ultimately has very little to do with cloak and dagger secrecy and ballot boxes stuffed under cover of darkness (or responsible government ballots tossed into the furnace, as some witnesses allege). The true conspiracy occurred in broad daylight, in the halls of empire in both Ottawa and London. The evidence does not lie buried underground or burned in a fire; it is there for us all to read and see for ourselves, in the internal government documents of British and Canadian colonial authorities. The conspiracy is not a mystery, and Malone gives it a name: colonialism. And it is one which did not end with Confederation.
“They wanted Labrador. If they could have got Labrador without Newfoundland they would have happily taken it. They didn’t want the Newfoundlanders at all – you see it in memo after memo: ‘they’re gonna be troublesome, oh what are we going to do with them [Newfoundlanders], they’re going to be in revolt the whole time, they’re a very difficult people to deal with’, you see all of this in the memos. So they wanted Labrador, they had the idea that they wanted to extract the hydro and the iron ore out of Labrador, that’s what they wanted, and then they used the Grand Banks as a bargaining chip. They’d give a fishing quota to Spain, and Spain would buy Canadian wheat. They’d give a fishing quota to Russia, and Russia would buy Canadian wheat. They’d give a fishing quota to Korea and Korea would put a Hyundai car plant in Quebec. That’s exactly how it worked. You can look back at those deals one after the other, until there was no fish left. And then it’s ha ha ha: comic opera on the east coast – the Newfoundlanders have lost their fishery. Largest biomass on the planet gone, under Canadian management. And it was considered a laugh, really.”

What-if’s and what-not’s

Would our history have turned out differently, had Britain (and Canada) honoured the agreement to return self-government to Newfoundland, prior to pressuring us to decide on other directions for our future? Malone thinks so.

“Well, it [return of responsible government, as per the agreement] would have given Newfoundland self-respect, self-esteem, and position again. And authority again. And Canadians would have had to make a better offer to a free and independent Newfoundland government. And all of these aspects that were never opened up under negotiations under Commission of Government, like the difference in the per capita debt [Canada’s national debt, per capita, was much higher than Newfoundland’s, so Newfoundland wound up in fact absorbing Canadian debt through Confederation] and the over-fly rights, all this stuff was never dealt with. If you had had a Newfoundland government, even if it was split half for confederation and half for independence – if they got in the House and that was the split – well they would have had to have a good deal to convince the Newfoundland people and to convince the opposition. All those things would have had to be aired and given some transparent airing and discussion.”

“They didn’t want to give us our choice, because they were afraid that we’d make a choice that they didn’t want us to make.” – Greg Malone

“And what was the rush, you know? What was the rush? We had a $40 million surplus, the price of fish was good, we could have taken stock of ourselves, gone and talked to the Americans, gone and talked to the Canadians, and seen what options there were…they didn’t want that. They didn’t want to give us our choice, because they were afraid that we’d make a choice that they didn’t want us to make. And that’s the long and the short of it.”

Speculations and predictions

How would life in Newfoundland and Labrador today be different, had Britain and Canada honoured their agreement and returned self-government to Newfoundland? Would the country have voted to confederate with Canada anyway? Ultimately there’s no way of knowing, but we can – with the aid of the documents and perspectives Malone presents – identify the strengths Newfoundland had, and speculate how these could have been used to leverage a more fair confederation, had Britain and Canada not colluded to undermine democratic, legal and constitutional process.

“I think if we had gotten our independence back, I think that in the early 1950s we would have had a very different kind of confederation. A more up-front, face-to-face, nobody saving anybody, just people getting together out of mutual interest to do something good. I think it would have been a much better union. It would have been much better for Canada as well as much better for Newfoundland, than what they did. Which was create a crippled confederation.”

Malone’s book offers a riveting read, particularly for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians seeking to understand their heritage – and their present. One of the critiques it has received is that, by highlighting the role of Canada and Britain as colonial oppressors manipulating and undermining legal and constitutional process, it nevertheless feeds into the narrative of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians as perpetual victims. Malone doesn’t think so. He feels the book offers a way to deal with a victimization that is a cultural, political and historical fact, and a way to move forward from it.

“I think [the book] shows us as independent people, and people who fought for our independence. People who fought with integrity…we had three huge empires all around us, and yet we managed to stay independent…” – Greg Malone

“I think [the book] shows us as independent people, and people who fought for our independence. People who fought with integrity, and managed to govern a country the size of Sweden, with 300,000 population, with huge empires all around – we had three huge empires all around us, and yet we managed to stay independent and govern ourselves and have prosperity and independence all throughout the first decades of the 20th century. I think that’s an enormous achievement! It’s not surprising that we hit the dirt in the Great Depression. The United States and Britain also hit the dirt in the Great Depression. We were just a smaller power and therefore were more dependent on them. But I think Newfoundlanders did very well for themselves. They did well. We could have done better – I have lots of complaints – but we did everything we could to get our country back. But with the United States, and England, and the British Empire lined up against you, you know, the chances of you winning are quite slim.”

“But the game’s not over yet. Everything comes around. And who looks bad now? We were blamed for having a uniquely corrupt government, but it turns out that the ones who were uniquely corrupt were the ones who were blaming us. It was Britain, and Canada. They were the corrupt ones. They were the ones who let their end down, in the end. It was those guys. They lied to their own population, and to their own parliament. They repeatedly lied to the parliament in Ottawa. They were deliberately and repeatedly lied to!”


Was Confederation a crime? Does the deliberate, orchestrated violation of legal and constitutional process which led to Confederation constitute a criminal act? Of that Malone has no doubt.

“Oh, it is a crime! A high crime! Treason. It’s treason. After writing the book, I’m a much more firm nationalist. As I said, the only firm conclusion I can come to is I’m a Newfoundlander. I may be a Canadian by usage, but there’s nothing legal about it. When it comes to integrity, Newfoundlanders didn’t make the deal [Confederation]. They didn’t approve the deal, they didn’t accept the deal. A group of cooperative Newfoundlanders got up to sign it, and that’s as much as they did. But there was no one – they were selected by Britain, they were hand-picked by Britain, Britain negotiated the deal, Britain accepted the deal, Britain transferred our sovereignty. It was never us. So it’s not legal. And if it is, it’s only because Britain wrote the law to say so. They unilaterally violated their contract with the Newfoundland government. The other party had no say in altering the terms that went into confederation with Canada. That was totally, unilaterally done – the violation of an agreement between two sovereign nations.”

“It was Britain, and Canada. They were the corrupt ones…They lied to their own population, and to their own parliament.” – Greg Malone

“And the terms were never negotiated. Everyone agrees with that: they were unilaterally imposed by Canada. So those are not binding, no.”

It’s not us. It’s you.

For Malone, it’s not about heaping shame upon Canada, but rather about airing the truth.

“Canada’s a great country. That’s not the point. Canada has done a lot of wonderful things. This was not one of them. That’s the point.”

Malone’s book is sure to resonate deeply and powerfully with Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. But what about Canadians? What should they feel, learning that their country betrayed and illegally annexed another nation? That the confederation they celebrate each year on July 1 is, in fact, a product of illegality and colonial occupation?

“…the terms [of union] were never negotiated. Everyone agrees with that: they were unilaterally imposed by Canada. So those are not binding, no.” – Greg Malone

“Oh, it’s very important for Canadians to read this book. I think they’ll understand their country a lot better, and they’ll get a glimpse at how it was working back in ‘48 and ‘49. You know, lying to them – they deceived the Canadian parliament, brazenly! They deceived the Canadian public, brazenly! And they sold them a bill of goods as much as they sold us a bill of goods. And Canadians have to look at that propaganda – that they’re supporting Newfoundlanders and keeping the change out of their back pocket to keep Newfoundland going every day – when really it’s the reverse! Billions [taken from Newfoundland] in over-fly rights, billions in iron ore to keep the heartland humming – they’d be without that! They got billions in hydro to keep Quebec going! And Quebec used all that money to get their independence movement going.”

“I think though, the value of the book is that the truth will really liberate people…We did well in ’48. The other guys – they were the scoundrels. We did well. You know? Let’s deal with that. And I think people feel bitter, and upset, and a lot of people have suffered an awful lot because of what happened in ‘48 and ‘49, and how it was done. I mean, the shame, the humiliation, the resentment, the loss of resources, the loss of jobs, the loss of opportunity, people moving away – there’s a LOT gone into that!”

“This is needed for Canada. Because Canada is built on a nest of lies. It needs to open the window…”

Taking stock

So, thanks to Malone’s work, the Newfoundlanders have finally been told. Not for the first time – but his book provides the most complete and comprehensive explanation of how two colonial powers – Britain and Canada – undermined its sovereignty and coerced it into the empire of the latter.

So now what?

The book’s true value remains to be seen, for that is something which will, in many ways, be determined by what we make of it. This book has revealed Confederation for what it was: a criminal act, grounded in conspiracy, deceit, colonialism and betrayal. It has laid bare the extent of a crime for which the criminal – Canada, and to a lesser extent Great Britain – has never been held to account; never sentenced, never punished. Great Britain’s role is now somewhat peripheral, but the effect of Confederation is such that Canada continues to reap benefits from a crime committed 60 years ago. Now that the extent of the duplicity, lies and deceit on which the fabric of the Canadian nation is woven has been laid bare, the question is what will we do about it. Knowledge is power, but power but must be taken in hand and used toward some purpose, if it is not to disappear. To what purpose will we use this knowledge, and the power over our own future that comes with it? The story of what the Newfoundlanders will do – now that they have been told the truth – and how they will call Canada to account to pay for its crimes and to face justice for the ongoing denial of the self-determination that was stolen from them 60 years ago, is a story that is yet to be written.

It is our story to write.

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