Newfoundland referendums, 1948

Newfoundland referendums, 1948
Newfoundland and Canada

The Newfoundland Referendums of 1948 were a series of two referendums to decide the political future of the Dominion of Newfoundland. Before the referendums, Newfoundland was in debt and went through several delegations to determine whether the country would join Canada, remain under British rule or regain independence. The voting for the referendums occurred on June 3 and July 22, 1948. The eventual decision by Newfoundlanders was to enter the Canadian Confederation.



Newfoundland is the oldest settled region in what would become Canada, yet was the last to obtain either a local representative government or responsible government. In 1832, it received local representative government in the form of a locally elected body of officials overseen by a governor.[1] The British only granted responsible government, where the government is responsible to the people and elected officials occupy ministerial jobs, in 1855.[1]

Newfoundland did not send any delegates to the 1864 Charlottetown Conference, which was to discuss a union of Maritime colonies. Later that same year, Newfoundland did attend the Quebec Conference called by Sir John A. Macdonald to discuss a greater British North America union. The two Newfoundland delegates, F. B. T. Carter and Ambrose Shea, returned in favour of a union with Canada.[2] However, Confederation was highly unpopular with the Newfoundland public, and the Government of Newfoundland did not send representatives to the London Conference of 1866 where the British Government passed the British North America Act. In 1869, Confederation was put to a vote in Newfoundland, and was soundly defeated.

By the 1920s and 1930s, Newfoundland was almost $40 million in debt,[3] and on the verge of economic collapse. A commission recommended that Newfoundland should be "given a rest from party politics"[3] and be administered by a special Commission of Government. Chaired by the governor it would consist of three people from Newfoundland and three from the United Kingdom.[3] Backing the recommendation was the United Kingdom, who agreed to take on Newfoundland's debts. This commission of government began on February 16, 1934, and governed the island until it entered Canada in 1949.

Prosperity returned when the Americans were invited to the island by Britain to set up military bases in 1941-45. The American Bases Act became law in Newfoundland on June 11, 1941. As Earle (1998) finds, Newfoundland girls married American personnel by the thousands, "the Yanks' jaunty manner and easy social ways making an often stark contrast to the Canadian servicemen who at this time began to coin the epithet 'Newfie.'" The American connection worked so well that the Canadian government in Ottawa became alarmed. Earle concludes, "In 1948 there was a short-lived but lively movement for economic union with the United States."

The British government, keen (if not desperate) to cut expenditure after World War II, hoped that Newfoundland would decide to join the Canadian Confederation and end the rule by commission.[4] Newfoundland first asked Canada for help in a return to responsible government, however. The response from the Canadian government was that they were not interested in helping Newfoundland economically unless Newfoundland joined the Canadian Confederation.[4]

Although the prospect of full political union with the United States did attract widespread opposition within Newfoundland, Britain and Canada were both concerned that an independent Newfoundland might eventually pursue annexation to the U.S., especially if its economic troubles re-surfaced. The British considered the prospect of their colony becoming an American possession unpalatable, and were also concerned that the old Labrador boundary dispute might flare up if Newfoundland joined the United States. The Canadian government, although far from convinced that absorbing Newfoundland would benefit Canada economically, thought that a much better option than the prospect of the country being almost completely surrounded by American territory.

The British government refused to allow the people of Newfoundland to vote on union with the U.S. Although the U.S. recognized the strategic importance of Newfoundland, the administration of President Harry S. Truman also realized they needed British and Canadian cooperation in the Cold War. Also, pro-annexation Newfoundlanders expected that they would be admitted into the U.S. as a state and the Truman administration knew that would be very problematic to get passed through Congress. Had the Newfoundland debate taken place a decade later after the admission of Alaska and Hawaii to the Union been secured, the political climate in Washington might have been quite different. After receiving assurances that the Canadian government would honour the leases for bases on Newfoundland, the U.S. State Department decided not to press the issue.[5]

The National Convention

The opening of the Newfoundland National Convention

The British government decided to let Newfoundlanders deliberate and choose their own future by calling a National Convention in 1946. Chaired by Judge Cyril J. Fox, it consisted of 45 elected members one of whom was the future first premier of Newfoundland, Joey Smallwood.[6]

The Convention set up committees to study where Newfoundland's future lay. Many members assumed that the final decision was due near the end of their deliberations, but the timeline was upset when Smallwood moved that the Convention should send a delegation to Ottawa to discuss a union in October 1946.[6] His motion was defeated, as it only received the support of 17 members, although the Convention later decided to send delegations to both London and Ottawa.

The London Delegation

The members of the London Delegation

The London delegation, made up of so-called anti-confederates, preferred that Newfoundland become independent rather than join Canada.[6] The group left Newfoundland on April 25, 1947, and met with a British delegation headed up by the Dominions Secretary, Viscount Addison. The British response to the delegation was that it would give no economic help to Newfoundland if it returned to responsible government. The leader of the delegation from Newfoundland, Peter Cashin, gave an angry speech to the Convention on May 19 claiming, "A conspiracy existed to sell this country to the Dominion of Canada".[6]

The Ottawa Delegation

The Members of the Ottawa Delegation

The Ottawa delegation, dominated by pro-confederates including Smallwood, preferred a union with Canada to independence.[7] The talks between them and Ottawa began on June 24, 1947 with the goal being to stay in Ottawa as long as needed to negotiate good terms for Newfoundland's entry. Ottawa was reluctant at first because they felt that the delegation was not an official representation of the Dominion of Newfoundland, but the Federal Cabinet finally decided to begin negotiations on July 18.[7] By mid-August, the agreement of draft terms was nearly complete. However, with the death of Frank Bridges, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King's minister from New Brunswick, negotiations effectively ended. King refused further discussions until New Brunswick had representation,[7] and so the delegation headed back to St. John's.

Back in St. John's

The Convention reconvened on October 10 and Smallwood presented his delegations report, infuriating the anti-confederates.[7] Just as the Convention decided to debate the delegations report, the draft terms from Ottawa arrived. Ottawa offered to assume most of the debt, negotiate a tax agreement, and outlined which services would remain in the jurisdiction of the province.[7]


Newfoundland recommended that the British Government hold a referendum on Newfoundland's future. London agreed that a referendum was a good idea, and left it up to the Convention to decide what was to be on the ballot. Originally, the Convention decided that only two choices were to be on the ballot: restoration of responsible government and the continuation of the Commission of Government.[7][8]

Smallwood moved on January 23, 1948 to add Confederation with Canada to the choices. The debate ended at 5:30 in the morning on January 28, with the motion being defeated 29-16.[7] The British government intervened in March and overruled the Convention, deciding that Confederation with Canada would indeed be on the ballot.[8] They did this after having concluding, "It would not be right that the people of Newfoundland should be deprived of an opportunity of considering the issue at the referendum".[8]

The factions

Three main factions actively campaigned during the lead up to the referendums. One faction, led by Smallwood, was the Confederate Association (CA) advocating union with the Canadian Confederation. They campaigned through a newspaper known as The Confederate. The Responsible Government League (RGL), led by Peter Cashin, advocated an independent Newfoundland with a return to responsible government. They also had their own newspaper The Independent. A third smaller Economic Union Party (EUP), led by Chesley Crosbie, advocated closer economic ties with the United States. The EUP failed to gain much attention, and merged with the RGL after the first referendum.[9]

The first referendum

The first referendum took place on June 3, 1948. The votes were as follows:[8]

Choice Votes % of Votes
Responsible Government 69,400 44.5%
Confederation with Canada 64,066 41.1%
Commission of Government 22,331 14.3%
Total Votes 155,797 88% (of total electorate)

The second referendum

Since none of the choices had gained over 50%, a second referendum with only the two most popular choices was held on July 22, 1948. The results of this referendum were:[8]

Choice Votes % of Votes
Responsible Government 71,334 47.7%
Confederation with Canada 78,323 52.3%
Total Votes 149,657 85% (of total electorate)

As the results of the binding referendum were to join Canada, Newfoundland began to negotiate with Canada to enter into Confederation. After negotiations were completed, the British Government received the terms and subsequently passed the British North America Act, 1949 in the British House of Commons. Newfoundland officially joined Canada at midnight, March 31, 1949.[8]

Results map

Newfoundland 2nd ref 1948.png

Reaction to the referendums

The elections for the Newfoundland House of Assembly followed almost two months after Newfoundland entered Canada. The Liberal Party, led by Smallwood at first, swept to power and controlled the provincial government until the 1970s. Reactions to Confederation were mixed.[10]

Newfoundland as a province secured some significant guarantees as a part of the union. As ruled by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in 1927, Canada agreed to put Labrador under the jurisdiction of Newfoundland, after some consideration.[11] Such commitments carried over to other areas as well, such as a ferry between Port aux Basques and North Sydney, and a guarantee that Newfoundland would be able to continue to manufacture and sell margarine (a very controversial product at the time).[11]

Canada was very welcoming of Newfoundland into confederation, as seen in an editorial in the The Globe and Mail on April 1, 1949:

"Union with Newfoundland , as everyone knows, rounds out the dream of the Fathers of Confederation. This newspaper is certain that Canadians welcome their new fellow-countrymen with full hearts. May the union be forever a blessing for Canada and to the island which is yielding its ancient independence, but not its identity, to belong to a larger fraternity."[12]

An editorial from the Montreal Gazette also welcomed Newfoundland, saying:

"For Canadians tomorrow will be a day of welcome. For this is the day when a tenth province is added to the Dominion of Canada. There will be a greater meaning than ever to the Canadian motto, chosen by Sir Leonard Tilley from the words of Isaiah which describes the dominion that reaches 'from sea to sea'."[13]

The Vancouver Sun also reflected on the results, saying:

"Today a dream of greatness, present in the minds of the Fathers of Confederation more than 80 years ago, comes true. Newfoundland at long last is part of Canada."[14]


  1. ^ a b "The Development of Self-Government in Newfoundland". Retrieved 2010-12-03. 
  2. ^ "First Confederation Talks of Newfoundland With Canada)". Retrieved 2010-12-03. 
  3. ^ a b c "The Great Depression, Economic Collapse in Newfoundland and Newfoundland's Loss of Responsible Government". Retrieved 2010-12-03. 
  4. ^ a b "British Policy and Newfoundland". Retrieved 2010-12-03. 
  5. ^ Karl McNeil Earle, "Cousins of a Kind: The Newfoundland and Labrador Relationship with the United States" American Review of Canadian Studies, Vol. 28, 1998
  6. ^ a b c d "The Newfoundland National Convention". Retrieved 2010-12-03. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g "The Ottawa Delegation, 1947". 1947-06-24. Retrieved 2010-12-03. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f "Newfoundland Joins Canada) and Newfoundland and Confederation (1949)". Retrieved 2010-12-03. 
  9. ^ The 1948 Referendums from Library and Archives Canada
  10. ^ Newfoundland: Aftermath[dead link]
  11. ^ a b Expectations as We Joined Canada from the Government of Newfoundland
  12. ^ "Editorial from ''The Globe and Mail''". 1949-04-01. Retrieved 2010-12-03. 
  13. ^ "Editorial from the Montreal Gazette". 1949-03-31. Retrieved 2010-12-03. 
  14. ^ "Editorial from the Vancouver Sun". 1949-04-01. Retrieved 2010-12-03. 

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