by Don Cayo


Has Confederation been worth it for Newfoundland ? It’s been 50 years since the island province made its first moves toward leaving Britain and federating with another country. Time to look at the balance sheet.

The Globe and Mail – Metro

Hurrah for our own native isle, Newfoundland. Not a stranger shall touch an inch of your strand. Your face turned to Britain, your back to the Gulf. Come near at your peril, you Canadian wolf.

It’s 50 years since these words resounded through the crooked streets and laneways of old St. John’s. Yet when John Crosbie casts his mind back to those days, when he tilts his chair and closes his eyes, the words tumble from his lips as if unbidden. He speaks them soft now; his heart’s not in them any more.

Mr. Crosbie believes his late father, Chester, was right in 1948 and 1949 to lead the fight against Joey Smallwood’s pro-confederation juggernaut. But for Newfoundland today, as part of a country of then-unimaginable wealth and generosity, “You’d have to be pretty obtuse to think this hasn’t worked pretty well.”

Even when the Terms of Union were agreed to a couple of years after Newfoundland joined Canada, the accord was too vague for the elder Crosbie. He was the only negotiator who’d opposed Confederation and the only one who refused to sign.

But, today, “98 or 99 per cent of Newfoundlanders are more than satisfied,” says his son. “If they’re not, there’s something wrong with them. The government of Canada went on to adopt policies that were generous beyond anybody’s possible expectations.”

In the early 1950s, a royal commission on the Terms of Union decided Ottawa should grant Newfoundland $8-million a year for services. “Just $8-million a year in perpetuity?” Mr. Crosbie says, his voice rising with incredulity. “Today, that’s nothing.”

He’s right. Over the years, Ottawa has spent billions and billions of dollars to fatten both personal pocketbooks and the provincial treasury. Equalization; health and social transfers; shared-cost programs; an alphabet soup of development schemes, from ARDA of the late 1950s to ACOA today; EI; pensions; TAGS; civil servants’ wages — federal money flowing into the province peaked at $3.7-billion a year in 1993. It has decreased only slightly since.

Mr. Crosbie views all this history from a lofty perspective. From his vantagepoint, things may look simple. But not for a lot of others.

Gerry Squires, who grew up naive and happy on remote Exploits Island in Notre Dame Bay, came “home” to rural Newfoundland feeling informed and angry after spending his early adult life in Toronto. It was the mid-1960s, the era of “resettlement” — a much-loathed program that emptied communities around the coast.

Many didn’t want to go; they were coerced. And Mr. Squires knew who to blame. Canada. The Ottawa-Smallwood mindset that denigrated the fishery and traditional life. That put its faith in charmless ghettos called “growth centres” where outporters were herded, and in flash-in-the-pan “great new industries” that Joey used to announce by the score.

Mr. Squires, an artist, poured his rage onto canvas. His most savage work was done in the early 1970s in The Boatman series — bleakly surrealistic images imposed over bleakly realistic landscapes. Today, at 60, he focuses not on things lost or broken, but on the timeless hills and seascapes and barrens that remain.

“Here was me, trying to rediscover this wonderful culture,” he says as he walks around a retrospective show of his work, moving from the last Boatman painting to his haunting House Where Nobody Lives. “And here it was, falling apart. I still see the fear and the tears when people realized they could never come back.”

Then, on reflection: “But if Newfoundland hadn’t changed, I couldn’t live here. In my father’s time there was no room for a painter.”

Too true, says F. L. (Lin) Jackson, a retired philosophy professor. A decade and a half ago, Prof. Jackson wrote in Surviving Confederation, a collection of blunt and insightful essays, “. . . as a truly viable, successful society, Newfoundland has never existed; or, put more positively, it has yet to come into its own.”

His homeland has failed to exercise successfully even the modest powers of a province in the Canadian federation, he says. Newfoundland was always under somebody’s thumb, its economy directed by and for the benefit of those living elsewhere. Its brief fling with independence, from 1931to 1934, was a disaster that culminated in it begging Britain for bailout aid.

And Confederation ? A mere exchange of subservience for charity – independence forsaken for the likes of flush toilets and paved roads.

So his regret, like that of so many Newfoundlanders, is for “what if,” not “what was.”

“What was” was often awful, though not everyone remembers.

The Confederation battle pitted “town” (St. John’s) against “the bay” (everywhere else). Mr. Smallwood played up Canadian goodies — the baby bonus and old-age pensions. He targeted the poor and the rural.

Those folks knew hard times, as had their forefathers. Newfoundland ‘s history differs dramatically from other parts of Canada, a reality that stunted economic and political growth even as it fostered a unique and colourful character that endures to this day.

Most early attempts at organized settlement failed; Newfoundland ‘s growth was largely happenstance. And most stretches of its coast were populated only in pockets, usually first as little more than over-wintering stations for European fishing fleets. Hundreds of outports got roads only in recent decades, and hundreds more that never did were abandoned to oblivion only within the last generation or two.

When Newfoundlanders at last reached out for independence in 1931, the timing couldn’t have been worse. An incompetent administration beset by the Great Depression lasted only three years before surrendering its sovereignty for the thin gruel of British aid. So Newfoundlanders knew the risk of going it alone.

And when the first steps to federate with another country were taken, union with the popular and prosperous Americans wasn’t on the ballot. Mr. Smallwood and the British saw to that.

In a first referendum in June, 1948, independence won, though not strongly enough to carry the day. On a second ballot a month and a half later, the unpopular British option was dropped. The choice was go it alone, or go with Canada and hope for the best. Mere patriotism couldn’t compete against fear and the lure of Canadian wealth. Canada won, 78,323 to 71,234.

Shannie Duff, a former mayor and MLA and now a St. John’s councillor, says, “We talk about Iceland as a place with a small population and even fewer resources that we could copy. But Iceland is from the Scandinavian tradition — 1,000 years of democracy, strong traditions, high literacy. We came from a near-feudal system. We were never intended to be a normal colony; we were a place to exploit.

“It benefits us to be part of the larger whole. And when you look at nations around the world, Canada is a pretty good one to be part of.”

St. John’s Mayor Andy Wells isn’t so sure. He sees no net gain from Confederation. “Our fishing industry was just a UI stamp machine, with no concept of conservation. There’ve been billions poured into nothing. Oil refineries. Chocolate factories. Battery factories. Rubber-boot factories. Call centres is the latest one. Sprung Greenhouses. And on it goes. One failure after another.”

He wonders if it would be so bad — “It couldn’t be worse” – if Newfoundland had stood alone.

“Newfoundland had a lot of assets as a country. A successful fishery, the pulp-and-paper industry, vast mineral wealth. Canada coveted these things. . . . And we gave it all away because of our welfare mentality — that we were too poor, that we didn’t know enough to go it alone.”

Of course nobody’s “what if” — neither the optimists’ nor the pessimists’ –carries weight on a balance sheet. Accountants can tally the transfer payments. Social scientists can tote up the cost of dependence and, on the other hand, the boon in education and health care that came with Canada. Business analysts can speculate on lost opportunities. But, in the end, no one can put a firm price tag on any of it.

And all the dreams remain elusive, more potential than real. The one big resource the province controls — a huge nickel deposit at Voisey’s Bay on the Labrador — is on ice while the province duels with Inco over how to develop it. Shrimp is big, but the fishing industry was shaken to its roots by the cod collapse. Many fear it won’t recover and, if it does, with far fewer jobs than of yore.

The oil industry? At the Duke of Duckworth in downtown St. John’s, publican Terry O’Rourke is unimpressed. Even a flurry of spin-offs during the drilling phase offshore has dissipated, he says. “The place was full two or three years ago. Now they’re pumping lots of oil, but nothing into the economy.”

The most dour view of Newfoundland ‘s merger with Canada comes from Gracie Sparkes. She’s 90, a retired journalist, four times a defeated candidate for the provincial Tories, a lifelong anti-Confederate who, legend says, has only in recent years begun to stand when O Canada is played.

She believes her countrymen sold their heritage, as Esau did in the Bible, for a mess of potage.

But the parable of the loaves and fishes also comes to mind. Maybe Newfoundland sold out for potage, but what a wonderfully big mess of it.

Don Cayo is a writer and president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies based in Halifax and Saint John. He writes a monthly Provinces column on The Globe’s Commentary page