What joining the Dominion meant for Newfoundland, sixty years ago this month

Confederation news, Corner Brook, Newfoundland, July 1948 / C. Lund, CP Photo, National Archives of Canada

The following article by Dorothy Howarth, “New Province Tomorrow,” originally appeared in the Toronto Telegram on March 31, 1949.

Today a country dies. Not as they die in Europe by enemy fire and sword, or by aggressive annexation, but by its own hand, the democratic choice of its people. By a majority vote of only 6,401 of its citizens, Newfoundland today gives up its life as an individual nation in the British Commonwealth to become, instead, the 10th province of the largest Dominion in the Commonwealth, Canada.

There is no celebrating in St. John’s today. People move quietly about their everyday business, through the steep up-and-down roads. Two-wheeled carts, filled with coal and produce, clatter in the cobbled streets. Fur-hatted policemen patrol their beats and long-shoremen wait on Water Street, leaning idly over the railing, above the docks where the tall ships come in.

“Ah, well, Miss, I think there are many of us feeling badly today, even though we be confederates,” said the doorman at the British Commission office.

“How would you feel in Canada if the United States were taking you over today? It’s like a country dying,” said the librarian. “It doesn’t matter how you voted, confederate or responsible government, today still means that we are no longer a separate country. We’re only part of a larger one now.”

Above the hall of an Irish Benevolent Association rises in defiance what claims to be Newfoundland’s flag — pink, green and white. But far out the narrows from the top of Cabot Tower, whipped out in fierce wind, flies its real flag — the Union Jack. “That’ll not change, thank God,” said a policeman.

In the hearts of many responsible government people there is real despair. “We hate Canada; we hate Canadians,” said a well-known St. John’s professional man. “Come in here with your baby bonus and take us over and you’ll name us a premier and cabinet that are like leopards that can change their spots. Now Tory, now Liberal. Well, once I was a Liberal but not any more. I’ll not be associated with that confederate outfit, I can tell you.

“Look at my office — it’s the same at my house…” Every blind in the place was pulled down to the sill — as if death lay inside.

There is a rumour that before the day is out a number of anti-confederates will take a funeral cortege through the town to bury high on the hill above the city the body of what is supposed to be Newfoundland. But their procession, if it is carried out, will wind right by the same frame houses, lining the hill, from which nightsoil is still collected and from which issue nine and 10 children.

“Of course we’re glad to join with Canada,” said one woman, a baby in her arms. “Look what it will mean to us. I’ve five children and my husband’s work is uncertain. Those Water St. millionaires have bled us long enough,” she added, looking down into the town where the names of a number of merchants could mainly be read on the sides of their stores.

Prices tell story

Store windows are the only evidence that Confederation has really come. Price tags on goods, with black lines drawn through the old prices, show the cuts. Nylons from $2.25 to $1.98: Linoleum at $1 a yard down to 50 cents. Drugs and cosmetics in particular show a tremendous difference.

“It’ll take me from three to six months to recover from the change,” said one druggist. “I’ll lose 20 percent on most of my stock.”

But his clerk, a girl, saw the other side of the story. “Now I’ll only pay $1.25 for creams, I paid $2 for before — and cologne is $1.98 now instead of $2.50.

“I saw a cotton summer dress in a store window today for $8.95 — last summer I paid $15 for the same dress. Confederation will certainly make things easier for me, but I am sorry to feel that I must sign my passport Canadian.”

There was an air of waiting over the whole city, waiting for what is going to happen, what Confederation is to bring in small things and in large.

“I was going to buy curtains for my living room, but I decided to wait and see,” said a woman, window-shopping. Another window-shopper was interested in the drop of the price of linoleum. “I wanted new covering for my kitchen floor for Christmas, but we decided to wait. Now I see that I was wise to.”

Civil service in suspense

Waiting in government offices, figuratively biting their nails, are civil servants who have not yet been notified if their department is even going to exist after today. Several slated to take trips to Canada on official business, find that financial provision has not been made for their journey.

Up at Government House, where tomorrow the official naming and swearing in of the new premier is to take place, faces are a little red. It isn’t too propitious that new government should be born on April Fool’s Day — a day kept here in the rowdy English fashion. It is said that is the reason the ceremony will not take place until 1:15, the traditional minute for April Fool’s Day to end.

The whole ceremony is being carried out as swiftly, as simply as possible with all the hush-hush trimmings of a military secret. There will be no fanfare: It was not even announced where or at what time the ceremony was to take place.

In schools there will be no special observance of the last day of Newfoundland’s nationhood. One schoolmaster said he thought he would probably address morning assembly for a few moments on the significance of the day, but other schools were ignoring it.

“We’ll be singing our national anthem, ‘Ode to Newfoundland,’ in the morning and ‘God Save the King’ when we leave at night,” another teacher said.

Baked seal a delicacy

Biggest event of the day will be when the first sealer come in, its decks slippery with blubber and blood from the raw seal skins piled on it. The Terra Nova, possession of the Eric Bowring stores, a Water St. merchant, was due today but because of high wind and its loaded decks, rolling in a heavy sea, it is still on its way.

“Oh you don’t have to worry about where it come in,” said a clerk in the store. “Just tell the taxi driver; he knows where to take you. There’ll be lots other people there.”

Baked seal flippers and seal flipper pie will be on all menus when the first ship finally does arrive. “Tastes just like beef, with a bit of a fishy tinge,” said a long-shoreman. “You’ll like it. Real Newfoundland dish. Can’t make it Canadian whatever you do.”

“I don’t know if we’ll have any here,” said the waitress in the restaurant. “Some-times we do,” then giving out the change, she noticed the silver. “There — there’s our 20-cent piece for you, and our little bitty nickel. Suppose they’ll go out of circulation. But I kind of like them. I’ll miss them. It’ll be all Canadian money instead of our own.”

She swabbed the table with her cloth for a moment. “I’ve a sister in Toronto. She makes more than I do at the same work. But I don’t know, whatever happens, I still want to be a Newfoundlander.”

So it goes all through the city: Half sadness, some downright anger, some anxiety and some downright gladness. No one quite sure about the future. Almost everyone realizing they’ve reached the end of an era and everyone waiting — waiting to see what Canada and Confederation will bring.

Dorothy Howarth