Maybe We Should Tell the Newfoundlanders

An interview with Greg Malone by Drew Brown.

Greg Malone has written an excellent book called Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders: The True Story of Confederation with Canada. It recounts, in great detail, the confidential negotiations that took place between the British colonial administration in Newfoundland, and Canadian authorities in the years leading up to our political union in 1949.

I do have some reservations about the book. I didn’t come away newly convinced that the actual vote outcome was rigged (the 52-48 margin looks different when you consider the overwhelming support for Confederation in the outports). I’m also a little wary of the romantic lens through which we’re shown the ruling class of pre-Canadian St. John’s. (Grad school sucks the fun out of everything!)

That said, I think it’s worth a read. Conspiracy theory aside, Malone does a good job of highlighting just how shoddy the confederation process was. It may not have been rigged, but the deck was certainly stacked in confederation’s favour. By not restoring responsible government after World War II, and then overruling the decision of the National Convention to keep confederation off the referendum, the British disrespected Newfoundland’s right to democratic self-determination. While I’m sympathetic to Confederation, I’m left raw after reading this book.

But probably the most compelling reason to read Malone’s book is because it is probably the best articulated statement of Newfoundland nationalist politics to date. It will get you thinking—and talking—about our democracy, our history, and our place in Canada.

It certainly got me thinking, so I caught up with Greg Malone to talk more about it.

Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders: The True Story of Newfoundland’s Confederation with Canada Greg Malone Knopf Canada, 2012 352 pages; $18.77

I really liked the book, and I get the sense that it was a long time coming for you. How long have questions about Confederation and Newfoundland’s place in Canada been on your mind?
All my life actually. Since my early adult life. As I say in the book, I came to Toronto a Canadian and went home a Newfoundlander because I didn’t realize the differences and the prejudices that were about Newfoundlanders.

When I came to Toronto in the 70s, I was very much an internationalist; a citizen of the world. I had been to London and I came to Toronto to make it in theatre. But I couldn’t believe the stuff people would say to me. They’d say, “Oh you’re from Newfoundland,” and they’d laugh and they’d say, “Do you live in an igloo? Have you ever seen television?”

Geez.
I guess I was flabbergasted. We did “Cod on a Stick”, which was laced heavily with political satire about Canadians’ attitudes and about our own attitudes. It was a direct response to that whole wall of prejudice. And so my whole life has been dealing with that issue, in a way. And here I am dealing with it in a scholarly way, 50 years later.

It’s amazing, the attitude is still there. I’ve got a lot of great Canadian friends. Canada’s a great country and it’s done a lot of great things, but the point is, this is not one of them. This is the low point in Canadian history, you know?

The correspondence you go over between the British and Canadian governments—it’s fascinating, but it’s horrifying. It seems almost like they were deliberately being malicious. Why would they act this way?
It’s interesting to note too that they were lying to their own parliaments and their own populations because they were afraid that their own people would disagree violently with what they were doing in Newfoundland. Which is true of course. We were lied to, but everyone else was lied to as well.

There are a couple of points where you talk about how different British MPs and even Canadian MPs—some staunch imperialists—were thrown off by how it was being handled.
That’s what amazed me. The amount of opposition there was in London and Ottawa as well as St. John’s was astounding. Even in the caucus of Mackenzie King there was a big split and a vicious fight over what they were doing in Newfoundland with Lester Pearson, and Norman Robertson, and Wishart, and McCann and him saying, ‘This is wrong. We shouldn’t be even on the ballot in a referendum in Newfoundland. You got to wait ‘til they get their government back and do this thing properly or there’ll be problems forever.’ And they were right.

And in Britain, they were saying the same thing. Lord Beaverbrook and Churchill were down in the bunker arguing about Newfoundland as the bombs were dropping overhead, and Beaverbrook was saying, ‘We’re in an illegal position over there. We need to get out. We need to give them back their government and put this thing right because we’re going to be in an awful position after the war.’ So there was a tremendous amount of conflict in both governments about what was being done. That was very interesting to see and quite heartening to see.

On the one hand it’s awful that this is how it happened, but it’s nice also that it wasn’t monolithic. There were people that were pushing for fair play.
Exactly, and I think that even though it’s a difficult and painful history, and it’s a very shabby kind of a sad history, I think people are going to feel a lot better after they know it, because it’s everything they suspected anyway. To have the truth confirmed is so therapeutic. I think this is going to empower people when they see the real truth and the real way people behaved.

I could see that. Even in the more generous histories of Confederation everyone still seems to lament how badly it was carried out. And after reading this book it seems like that’s putting it mildly. You raise an interesting point toward the end of your book about the weird legal limbo that the Terms of Union actually exist in. Do you think this might be something that could be challenged in court?
Oh, yes. The Terms of Union are a fraud. No Newfoundland authority ever negotiated, accepted or approved them. Ottawa unilaterally imposed them. They were accepted and approved and negotiated by the British government in St. John’s that got a group of cooperative Newfoundlanders to sign it. That’s the best that can be said for it. I don’t think they’re legal or binding on Newfoundland at all. I think we’re Canadians by usage and custom, but not legally.

That’s fascinating. It seems like this has the possibility to open up a whole new avenue of politics. I don’t know if it’s fair to say that you’re in favour of a Newfoundland separatism, but, I mean, logically, where else could our politics go at this point? Especially after reading of the process and the results of Confederation for 60 years, how can you not come to that conclusion?
I think Confederation has suffered chronically because of this. I think it’s crippled. Confederation was manipulated as a tool of empire. All they wanted was resources, so you have a case where the heartland, Quebec and Ontario, are running the country, and they have no idea what to do with the east coast. They didn’t want it. They had no idea what to do with the west coast; the west has kind of slashed and burned its way in now because they’ve got economic power. They’ve pushed their way in.

But Ottawa has had no vision for building the country. We need a proper, mutually-respectful Confederation where everyone can get in and build this country or it’s not going to happen the way it needs to happen. And so we really do need to take a fresh look at these lies and deal with them; get them out of the way. We will never move on if we don’t deal with this.

Yeah, it’s hard to imagine how the country can go forward if we were, like you say, bounced into Confederation. God knows everyone out west has not stopped being mad about it either. It’s almost like we need to actually just reopen the Terms of Union for everybody. We need to refashion the Canadian cooperative.
Definitely. We need to mutually recommit to this thing or it’s not really going to move for us. The whole notion that Newfoundland was a basket case, and that Canada had to save us, and that Canada was our saviour—that’s all bull. If Canada hadn’t got Newfoundland, they would have been the ones who would have disappeared, not us.

That’s what Jack Pickersgill was terrified of; that if the States established themselves in Newfoundland and Labrador and had Alaska, where would Canada be in 20 years? It would be a part of the States. It wouldn’t have any power.

So they had to have Newfoundland. Newfoundland saved Canada, not the other way around. That’s the point of this whole thing.

I just have one last question, and I almost hate myself for even broaching this topic, but I do have to ask: What do you make of the present state of democracy in Newfoundland? Do you ever get the sense that we’re facing a similar situation where say a government that shall remain nameless may be playing fast and loose with our own democratic institutions for say maybe a resource deal of some kind?
Isn’t this funny? It’s all too familiar, isn’t it?

I think that any government that suppresses democracy, suppresses information or weakens the democratic institutions doesn’t do their country any good. They’re not doing Newfoundland or Newfoundlanders any good if they do that. When those dictators go, or those premiers and prime ministers, whatever you want to term them as, all you got left is your system. It’s a process. The democratic process, that’s all the people got. That’s what’s theirs.

If you’ve degraded this, you’ve left your country worse off than when you came in, so you’re not doing your country any good. They do it time and again if they smash freedom of information and suppress democratic procedures in the parliamentary committees. It really, really rots me. That’s treasonable if you ask me. That’s working against your people.

Is there anything else you’d like to let people know?
I wrote this for Newfoundlanders. I felt like it was needed. I really feel that talking about this has the power to liberate us and heal us, really, and make us feel better about ourselves by dispelling the lies of the past. I really hope it does give everyone energy and inspire people.

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