Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Pop History Moment: Newfoundland Enters Confederation


If you believe in omens, then the original date determined for the completion of the Canadian Confederation is a doozy; negotiations had already been concluded - and the date set - when someone pointed out that April 1st is also April Fool's Day. Only the quick-thinking diplomacy of Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent was able to literally save the day, by moving the moment at which the independent Dominion of Newfoundland became the subordinate Province of Newfoundland back one minute. Newfoundland, therefore, became part of Canada at 11:59 PM on March 31st rather than at midnight the following day as originally planned.

PhotobucketThe province's first premier, Joey Smallwood (shown, at left), was vehemently pro-Canadian; so much so that for many years - and even unto this very day - he's been accused of employing much villainy to make his country's transformation into a province - via two national referendums, both in 1948 - a fait accompli. Rumours of vote rigging are the least of them; his own campaign speeches are masterworks of political bribery, promising jobs, pots of money, health care - everything, in fact, that the majority of Newfoundlanders had been struggling to obtain ever since John Cabot arrived in June 1497, or at least since John Guy's plantation opened at Cuper's Cove in 1610.

Smallwood's opponent Peter Cashin favoured a continuation of Dominion status, foreseeing a time when that would lead to independence for the island colony. Britain, on the other hand, was still reeling from the effects of World War II, and was glad to offload the money-sucking (albeit prestigious) holding, which Sir Humphrey Gilbert had claimed for Elizabeth I as Britain's first overseas possession in August 1583; the prevailing sentiment in London at the time was that if it must go, it should go to Canada all at once rather than to the United States by attrition.

If all this seems like the ideal recipe for a slew of conspiracy theories you're either as cynical as I am, or already familiar with the story; again and again the results of the final referendum have been investigated. Close as they were - 51% for Canada to 49% for Newfoundland - they seem to be legit. Yet legends persist of boxes of pro-independence ballots turning up in cellars and attics, even though surely evidence as damning as that would have been long ago burned.

Wayne Johnston's superlative 1998 novel The Colony of Unrequited Dreams deals with the events of Joey Smallwood's life before, during, and after Confederation, and comes highly recommended; just as highly recommended is the film Secret Nation (1992), starring Cathy Jones as a doctoral candidate determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.
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