Anti-Confederation Song (II)
DESCRIPTION: After 1932 "a foreign gang came over here to rule and gather taxes." Joe Smallwood promotes confederation with Canada. The singer prefers we "man our vessel... with native crew to run her."
AUTHOR: Hughie O'Quinn (according to Bennett-Downey)
EARLIEST DATE: 1980 (Bennett-Downey)
KEYWORDS: Canada patriotic political
1933 - Newfoundland, bankrupt, gives up self-government and accepts a crown-colony style constitution
1949 - Newfoundland unites with Canada after Newfoundlanders vote for confederation; Joseph R. Smallwood is the first provincial premier.
FOUND IN: Canada(Newf)
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Bennett-Downey 3, pp. 67-70, "Anti-Confederation Song" (1 text)
Jerome Downey, "The Anti-Confederation Song" (on NFJDowney01)
Hector MacIsaac and Jerome Downey, "Anti-Confederation Song" (on NFHMacIsaac01)
Hector MacIsaac, "Anti-Confederation Song" (on NFHMacIsaac02)
cf. "The Girl I Left Behind Me (II - lyric)" (tune) and references there
cf. "Anti-Confederation Song (I)" (subject of Canadian Confederation, as it was in 1869)
cf. "The 'Antis' of Plate Cove" (subject) and notes there
NOTES [3046 words]: The Great Depression had been hard on Newfoundland. The government was already bankrupt, and couldn't do much to help. It had fallen into the Sovereign Debt Trap that moderns may know from the story of the Greek Bailout: It was easy and cheap to raise money on the markets, so Newfoundland kept borrowing, and using the new loan to pay off the old ones rather than trying to tighten its belt. In the late 1920s, suddenly, no one was lending any more, and Newfoundland had an unpayable debt (Noel, pp. 188-189). Things got so bad that, in 1932, a "citizen's committee" assaulted Prime Minister Richard Squires (Long, p. 62; he was eventually subjected to charges for his dishonesty; "it is indisputable that Squires was indeed a bit of a scoundrel, albeit a politically astute one": DictNewfLabrador, p. 325. He was accused not of ordinary graft but of taking $5000 per year, a huge sum by Newfoundland standards, from funds designated for veterans and their widows; Noel, p. 198. He is briefly mentioned in "The Squid-Jiggin' Ground." See also "Coaker's Dream"). It had long been run by a faction-riven government that was beholden to small segments of the population anyway. And it had no financial controls on the treasury (Noel, p. 192), which helps explain both the corruption and how the island saw so many money problems.
After Squires, who had driven Newfoundland to disaster, failed in his attempt at re-election on a platform of more money for the fisheries and agriculture, industrial development, and a balanced budget (Noel, p. 203; I'm amazed he didn't promise every man a car and every woman a diamond necklace, or the like; those promises would have been at least as attainable as what he did promise), the new government of Frederick C. Alderdice had to come up with some way to address the island's problems. They tried to sell all of Labrador to pay off their debts, but couldn't find a suitable buyer (Noel, pp. 204-205).
The island's eventual answer was "commission of government" -- it in effect sold itself back to Britain in return for a bailout of the bankrupt government (Cadigan, pp. 206-208; Neary/O'Flaherty,p. 148; Noel, p. 230 explains that the British government was able to repackage the debt at a much lower interest rate, making it easier to pay off). This is what is referred to in the opening lines, "I'm lonesome since in 'Thirty-two we lost Dominion status" -- Newfoundland abandoned its independence to once again become a colony.
"In a country less physically and morally defeated such recommendations might well have led to disorders, if not bloodshed. It is a measure of the island's anguish that a people who had struggled for so long to gain and to maintain their separate identity, could now be judged as having no more than an academic regard for the constitutional niceties, which seemed of small importance compared with the necessity of rescuing the country.... Lord Amulree and his colleagues urged that, as a quid pro quo for Newfoundland voluntarily surrendering her Dominion status and placing herself in the hands of a Commission, His Majesty's Government should for a time assume general responsibility for the finances of the Island" (Chadwick, pp. 161-162).
The idea of Commission of Government had first been suggested by William Ford Coaker -- for whom see "Coaker's Dream" -- in the 1920s as a way to deal with Newfoundland's culture of extreme factions and pervasive government corruption. It was the British government which made the formal suggestion, though, after rejecting less drastic ideas. This was probably a good idea, given the economic catastrophe and the self-serving nature of Newfoundland politics, which made it almost impossible for a government to really address its problems (Noel, p. 212), but it had its detractors, since the people never got to vote on it. Even with the bailout, the island suffered badly in the Depression; most winters saw 25%-30% of the population on relief (Keir, p. 334).
Commission of Government did not prove a cure for all ills; the economy remained so bad that there were food riots (Noel, pp. 236-237, etc.). Indeed, as late as 1938, there was a time when 29% of the population -- 85,000 out of 290,000 -- was on relief (Noel, p. 242). And the commissioners were often in conflict, and Westminster wasn't much help because the Dominions Office didn't want Parliament to know how bad things were (Noel, pp. 238-239). Mainly it kept scoundrels like Squires out of politics. What finally got the economy going again was the Second World War, where Newfoundland was a major base (something it didn't have much choice about -- the British, since they were running Newfoundland, actually included Newfoundland territory in their Destroyers for Bases deal with the Americans without asking the Newfoundlanders; Noel, p. 243).
But not even the American influx was enough to make the island's economy permanently sound. The British thought, given Newfoundland's history of astonishing failures of self-government, that the island would soon get into financial trouble again (Noel, p. 244), and Britain had its own post-war recovery problems. (We should probably add that, during the war, Newfoundland had actually given more to Britain than the reverse. But that was a peculiar wartime situation.) As a result, Britain wasn't interested in running the island after the war; in late 1945, Prime Minister Clement Attlee announced that delegates would be elected to a National Convention to decide the territory's fate (Neary/O'Flaherty, p. 161). Confederation (union with Canada) was one option, but another was to return to the pre-1934 form of government (which had had a legislature, although it had been marked by extreme partisanship). When Newfoundland had accepted Commission government, the understanding had been that it would eventually get its own government back (Long, pp. 139-141) -- and the boom caused by all the bases built in Newfoundland during World War II caused a lot of people to think that they were ready, and also to feel that Britain and Canada and the U.S. had taken advantage of them.
Noel suggests, p. 246, that the British government did its best to set things up so that Newfoundland would decide its fate BEFORE a representative legislature could be formed; "It took no special political percipience to realize that if responsible government was restored first it was extremely unlikely that an independent Newfoundland would choose to become a province of Canada through the normal operation of its political process." So when they had an election in 1946, it wasn't to elect a government (which would have been perfectly possible, using the old constitution); it was merely to select delegates to a national convention to recreate the institutions of government.
"The spokesman who emerged to lead the Confederate forces was J. R. Smallwood, the delegate for Bonavista Centre, who, thanks to his earlier career on a show he had invented, 'The Barrelman,' had the best-known radio voice in Newfoundland..." (Neary/O'Flaherty, p. 162).
Smallwood until then had not been a great success; having supported socialist causes from an early age, he has drifted from his birthplace in Gambo, Newfoundland to St. John's (where he worked in the newspaper trade) to Halifax to New York to Newfoundland to England back to Newfoundland, finally settling in St. John's (apart from a brief spell in Gander) in 1935. Then, in 1943, he packed it all up to start a pig farm in Gander (DictNewfLabrador, p. 317) -- the idea being to take the food waste from the American base there, feed it to the pigs, and sell the pigs to the base (Noel, p. 248). As a business, this was only a modest success -- but it meant that he had a permanent residence outside St. John's. In 1946, when it came time to form the convention to decide Newfoundland's future, it was decided that delegates should be required to live in their districts -- and there Smallwood was, running his pig farm. That meant that he could run for a seat from Bonavista Centre. Had he run in St. John's, he would have had little chance. But, in Bonavista Centre, he was able to win a seat (Noel, pp. 248-249).
"In retrospect, the... wonder is that so obvious a cause was left to Smallwood, a man from nowhere, to pick up.... But in reality, those who were most likely to emerge in political roles after the departure of the Commission felt that they had too much to lose.... They were St John's merchants or professional men, comfortably off, out of touch with the people of the outports.... The field was therefore free for Smallwood, a self-recruited renegade from the old regime, a political sans-culott" (Noel, p. 250).
And it had been decided that the deliberations of the Convention would be broadcast on the radio (Noel, p. 251) -- a medium Smallwood understood better than any other delegate. "The Barrelman" had originally appeared as a newspaper columnist in 1942 before gaining wider circulation in radio (ButlerHanrahan, p. 164); the reference is (I assume) to the men who, when ships were in the ice, went up to the "barrel" on the mast to look for leads, or seals; barrelmen did not normally direct the ship, but they scouted the way ahead. Smallwood himself was a follower of Coaker, about whom he had written a book (Long, p. 135).
Although the backers of Confederation were a minority in the Convention, they were organized and their opponents were not. "The only personality to emerge as a spokesman for responsible government to rival Smallwood was the irrepressible Peter Cashin.... Yet he was unable to establish himself as the effective leader of the anti-Confederates. There were a variety of reasons for this: he was no match for Smallwood in the give-and-take of debate, while his oratory tended to be blustery and illogical; but most of all he was not an acceptable spokesman in the eyes of the St. John's merchant-lawyer elite.... He preferred... to remain his own man, one of nature's extremists, as unpredictable as he was volatile" (Noel, p. 252).
"Smallwood and his Confederate supporters were able to manouevre the convention into sending a delegation to Ottawa to see whether suitable terms of union with Canada could be devised." (Neary/O'Flaherty, p. 162). They got an offer -- on its face, a pretty good one: Canada (which supposedly didn't want Newfoundland independent and potentially close to the United States; Cadigan, p. 233) would take on 90% of Newfoundland's debt, subsidize the province, allow it to keep its religiously-segregated schools, and let it keep its cash on hand (Cadigan, p. 237; Smallwood would use that cash to try to promote quixotic industries -- which eventually resulted in corruption charges against the official in charge; DictNewfLabrador, pp. 317-318). The delegation went home to Newfoundland, where the Convention voted it down 29-16. The only recommendations the Convention (and the St. John's population of the "Responsible Government League") wanted to make to Britain was for a return to 1934 or continued royal government (Long, pp. 147-148)..
The British government -- exhausted and broke after World War II -- didn't like these options; Clement Attlee was tired of running Newfoundland (Long, pp. 139-140. I would note that Attlee had opposed Britain's bailout of Newfoundland from the start; Chadwick, p. 166). Smallwood got together a bunch of petitioners to call for Confederation, and Britain decided that the referendum should have three choices:
1. "Commission of Government" for five years (i.e. five years of continued non-representative government while the people straightened things out)
3. Return to 1934
As Noel, p. 255, concludes wearily, "For all the effect of its decision, the National Convention might just as well never have met."
Smallwood proceeded to turn the referendum into contest between the "common man" and the elite businessmen of Water Street in St. John's (Cadigan, p. 239). And he had, by Newfoundland standards, a lot of money for the campaign -- much of it coming not from Newfoundland but from the Liberal Party of Canada (Noel, p. 255). His propagandists also managed (helped by some mistakes by the opposition) to imply that a vote for Confederation was a vote in favor of loyalty to Britain, while a vote against it might lead to union with the United States (Noel, p. 256). (Although the song asks "shall we court the Yankee," it appears that there was never any serious possibility of joining the U.S. -- there was no proposal to do it. There had been talk of customs unions and the like, however.) It has been suggested that there were also appeals to Newfoundland's history of religious division, with Protestants being inclined toward Confederation and the minority Catholics toward Responsible Government (Noel, p. 257).
Even with all that money, trickery, and help, the campaign just barely worked.
In the first round of voting, on June 3, 1948, Confederation actually lost -- 69,400 voted for a return to 1934, 64.066 for Confederation, and 22,311 for Commission. But there was a runoff on July 22, with continued Commission dropped from the choices, and Confederation won 78,323 to 71,334 (Neary/O'Flaherty, p. 163). The returns were interestingly divided: The vote for 1934 was concentrated in St. John's and the Avalon Peninsula; the rest of the island, much less populated (and poorer) went for Confederation (Neary/O'Flaherty, p. 164; McNaught, pp. 275-276). Newfoundland thus became "The Tenth Province."
Some who opposed the move thought the vote was rigged or manipulated, and maintained so for many years (Long, pp. 149-150). Another argument was that such a move should not have been decided by such a small margin. There is some merit to this, but it wasn't how the referendum was set up. There was a move to appeal the result to the British Parliament -- but the British made their attitude clear: "Public Petitions could only be presented to the Commons by one or more Members of a local Legislature. And on this count Newfoundland ironically failed to qualify" (Chadwick, p. 207). Those who appealed included members of the Convention; the Commons could have heard them. They instead hid behind the letter of the law.
Smallwood's "reward was almost 23 years of political dominance of the new island-province" (Brown, p. 473). Though it wasn't all smooth governing; Smallwood, who early in his career supported socialist candidates for office (ButlerHanrahan, p. 162), gradually drifted away from his populist roots toward almost complete support of the often-inefficient businesses he had helped encourage (Cadigan, pp. 239-244), so supporters of all stripes gradually drifted away. By 1959, he was actually breaking strikes by his former allies in the labor movement (DictNewfLabrador , p. 318). But, by the time Smallwood was gone, Confederation was firmly established. Unlike Quebec, Newfoundland did not end up with a "Newfoundander" party, though for a long time there were many who wanted changes in the relationship with Canada; the local political factions aligned themselves, sometimes very imperfectly, with Canada's major parties, making Smallwood a "Liberal" (Cadigan, p. 240).
Smallwood "did his best in that length era 'to bring Newfoundlanders kicking and screaming into the twentieth century.'" Yet his policies also resulted in what Ralph Matthews called "development of underdevelopment," by which Matthews seems to have meant keeping Newfoundland as an economic colony of the rest of Canada (Busch, p. 245).
Eventually Smallwood's program became so extreme that he resettled whole towns (see "The Blow Below the Belt") and offered away much of Labrador on lease (Cadigan, pp. 246-247). The audacity of it all is amazing. The intelligence... eh.... He and his party were finally voted out of office in 1972 (Cadigan, p. 260). He tried for a comeback in the Liberal Party in 1974, and failed, briefly left the party, came back, and finally left politics in 1977 to work on the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador, a very ambitious book that was also a financial flop. He had a stroke in 1984 (DictNewfLabrador, p. 318), and although he lived until 1991, he was no longer a force in either politics or publishing.
Even today, "Joey Smallwood remains a name to conjure deep emotions. Adored by some and loathed by others, he is probably Newfoundland's most undisputed icon. To his admirers, he is Newfoundland's savior, a genuine liberal socialist who brought Newfoundland into Canada and its welfare state. To his enemies, he was a dangerous fanatic and tyrant, Canada's and Britain's spy during the war, the villain who sold Newfoundland off to the highest bedder in 1948, and then thwarted democratic discussion and healthy dissent" (ButlerHanrahan, p. 160).
"If it can be fairly said that for Newfoundland confederation was a good idea, it would not be too much of a stretch to say that it was just about the only good idea Joe Smallwood had.... In the first federal election campaign following his own election as premier, Smallwood proceeded to unearth the most contemptible political practices from the past and directly threatened a group of voters... if they did not support his candidate. After his candidate lost, he was taken to court for violating the elections law, but clearly came to learn nothing about containing his arrogance or presumptive powers" (Long, pp. 151-152).
I frankly understand the Newfoundlanders' gripes. The benefits were tremendous -- Noel, p. 265, lists a twenty-fold increase in education spending from 1949 to 1965, and a five-fold increase in health care spending; education became almost universal, and much better, and the life expectancy went up while infant mortality went down (Noel, p. 270). These improvements were surely needed; in 1935, the infant mortality rate was 103 per 1000, and there were tales of children so poor that they could not go to school because they had no clothes! (Chadwick, p. 226). Yet with those improvements came the destruction of much that was unique about Newfoundland culture. And the fault there is not Canada's, I think, but Smallwood's.
Little wonder that Confederation, his most significant single action, provoked songs like this. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.4
- Brown: Craig Brown, editor, The Illustrated History of Canada, Key Porter, 1987-2000
- Busch: Briton Cooper Busch, The War Against the Seals: A History of the North American Seal Fishery, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1985
- ButlerHanrahan: Paul Butler and Maura Hanrahan, Rogues and Heroes, Flanker Pres, 2005
- Cadigan: Sean T. Cadigan, Newfoundland and Labrador: A History, University of Toronto Press, 2009
- Chadwick: St John Chadwick, Newfoundland: Island Into Province, Cambridge University Press, 1967
- DictNewfLabrador: (Robert H. Cuff, managing editor), Dictionary of Newfoundland and Labrador Biography, Harry Cuff Publications, 1990
- Keir: David Keir, The Bowring Story, The Bodley Head, 1962
- Long: Gene Long, Suspended State: Newfoundland before Canada, Breakwater Books, 1999
- McNaught: Kenneth McNaught, The Pelican History of Canada, enlarged edition, Pelican, 1982
- Neary/O'Flaherty: Peter Neary and Patrick O'Flaherty, Part of the Main: An Illustrated History of Newfoundland and Labrador, Breakwater Books, 1983
- Noel: S. J. R. Noel, Politics in Newfoundland, University of Toronto Press, 1971
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