Melvin Baker (c)1986

Originally published in Francis Hollohan and Melvin Baker, eds., A Clear head in Tempestuous Times. Albert B. Perlin: The Wayfarer. Observations on the National Convention and the Confederation Issue, 1946-1949 (St. John's, Harry Cuff Publications, 1986), 5-13.

When the British Government in 1934 ended 79 years of responsible government in Newfoundland and established the Commission of Government, it stipulated that Newfoundlanders could have self-government returned to them once the Island again became self-supporting financially. However, the British Government did not say how long the Commission would govern Newfoundland nor what would be the criteria for the definition of self-support. Consisting of three British and three Newfoundland nominees with the Crown-appointed Governor as chairman, the Commission had had some notable achievements during its tenure from 1934 to 1949, especially in the much-needed areas of social welfare and public health. (1)

By the later 1930s the early popular expectations associated with the constitutional change in 1934 gave way to growing public disenchantment with the Commission, particularly in St. John's. When the Commission was established, many people expected that it would have easy access to large sums of funds from the Treasury for economic development and that British capitalists would rush to invest their money in Newfoundland. (2) However, the Commissioners gave the people more efficient government but not any substantial improvement in their standard of living. (3) Consequently, in August 1939 a committee of prominent St. John's citizens was formed to work for the return of responsible government, but the outbreak of war in Europe and the Commission's mobilization of the Island's human and natural resources for Britain's war effort, served to silence the Commission's critics. (4)

The war saw prosperity return to Newfoundland and the unemployment and poor relief levels drop drastically. The new-found wealth was the result of large expenditures by American and Canadian military personnel, who built military bases on the Island to defend North America. In 1940-1941 the Commission of Government recorded a surplus budget for the first time, previous deficits having been met by grants from the Treasury. Indeed, Newfoundland was now in a position to make interest-free loans available to Britain. By 1945 these loans amounted to $12,300,000. (5)

In the early 1940s the Island's new financial strength prompted many Newfoundlanders, especially some St. John's community leaders, to think in terms of their constitutional future. In June 1942 the St. John's Board of Trade, for instance, called on the Commission to recognize the need for it to consult in governing the country, a public body of representative citizens. Expressed in vague and general terms, the Board's proposal called for some kind of formal procedures to debate public opinion. This view was endorsed by Albert Perlin, a member of the Board's governing council, in his Daily News "Wayfarer" column. Perlin believed that Newfoundland could sustain itself financially as an independent country if the government would accept having expert advises in economics and finance. In another column, he attacked the Commission for not realizing that it was a "stop-gap" measure and was never intended to be a permanent system. He castigated the Commission for doing nothing at all "to prepare the people for assumption of the responsibilities of self-government." "It seems more concerned with getting a pat on the back from the Dominions Office," he continued in May 1942, "than catering to the natural democratic instincts of the people . . ." In another column he called on the Commission to provide better political education of the people because within the "past eight years enough people have come of voting age to swing an election one way or the other and hardly one of them knows anything about self-government or its responsibilities and duties . . . " The Commission's "complete indifference" to this matter, Perlin believed, was the aspect "in which the Commission . . . has proved itself an utter and complete failure..." (6)

Following a visit in September 1942 by the Secretary of State for the Dominions, Clement Atlee, and the June 1943 fact-finding visit of a Parliamentary mission the so-called Goodwill Mission on 2 December 1943 the British Government announced that after the end of the war the Newfoundland people would be permitted through some democratic means to express their views concerning the Island's constitutional future. On December 11, 1945 Labour Prime Minister Clement Atlee informed the British Parliament that the following year Newfoundlanders would elect a National Convention of 45 delegates, each of whom would have to be resident for two years in a district in which they would seek election. This Convention would examine and debate the changes that had taken place in the financial and economic situation of the country since 1934, and second, make recommendations to the British Government concerning the various forms of government that could be put before the people in a national referendum. (7)

There is a strong general concensus that the political attractiveness of Canadian social welfare programmes greatly influenced a small majority of voters in the July 22, 1948 referendum to choose the option of Confederation with Canada. Other factors were the behind-the-scenes support of the British Government for the Confederate Movement and the ability of the Confederates, led by Joseph Smallwood and Gregory Power, to exploit outport Newfoundland's historic enmity towards the St. John's Water Street merchants and its mistrust of politicians in general. (8) As shown by the 1933 Report of the Newfoundland Royal Commission chaired by Lord Amulree, the politicians were popularly held responsible for the collapse in 1934 of Responsible Government, regardless of the economic and trade considerations which contributed to this collapse.

Central to the Confederate campaign, which began in earnest in early 1946 with a series of letters Smallwood wrote enthusiastically to the Daily News on the benefits of political union, were the oratorical and propagandist skills of Smallwood himself. He was equally adept both on the hustings and through the medium of radio, which he had mastered between 1937 and 1943 as the host of a popular programme called the Barrelman. (9)

While much has been written of the "winning of the Fight for Confederation" - mainly by the Confederates themselves - less is known of the organization, campaign, and arguments of those opposed to Confederation who favoured a return to independent nation status.

Unlike the Confederation forces, those wanting the restoration of Responsible Government never coalesced around one central leader. In fact, as their chief protagonist, Smallwood, later noted they had "many leaders, but not one whose leadership they were all prepared to follow. Their cause was thus never a united front, and they never had united strategy . . ." (10) The most popular Anti-Confederate was the political maverick, Peter Cashin, a member of pre-Commission of Government cabinets, but a leader lacking the confidence of the Water Street merchants. The Responsible Government League itself was a loose organization of people united by their common opposition to Confederation, and never had the strong organizational and financial support of their Confederate counterpart. (11) Generally, those opposed to Confederation have been portrayed as simple romantics and reactionary merchants fearful of stiff competition from Canadian business. As Don Jamieson, a member of the Economic Union Movement with the United States, later noted, their case rested on a "strange mixture of hard-headed realism and deep-rooted emotions..." (12)

It was easy for the Confederates to ridicule St. John's journalist, businessman and anti-Confederate leader, Albert Perlin, as an individual supporting Responsible Government only because of his close identification with the Water Street merchant community. As for "Mr. Wayfarer's" columns in the anti-Confederate Daily News, the Confederate newspaper dismissed its author as a "verbal haymaker" who "disposes of his opponents by stabbing them between the participles rather than by throwing them through the window..." (13) Smallwood, a life-long friend of Perlin, now considers him to have been the intellectual force behind the Responsible Government movement. Writing in his autobiographical I Chose Canada, he credited Perlin with being "the clever source of every last sensible argument that ever surfaced in the Anti-Confederate Campaign..." (14) As for the other Anti-Confederate leaders, they were "ignoramuses . . . they did not know (about Confederation) and therefore what they said normally was arrant nonsense, except when they repeated the arguments that Albert Perlin originated in the Daily News..." Expectedly, Smallwood qualified his comments with the assertion that the Responsible Government arguments were weak and the best his political opponents could put forward. (15)

A student of both Newfoundland History and world affairs, Perlin in his Wayfarer columns from 1946 to 1949 strongly promoted a return to Responsible Government and appealed to the public to give serious consideration to the issue of Confederation and not let themselves be swayed by rhetoric alone. In a rational and logical manner, he asked his readers to examine the total impact Confederation would have on the Newfoundland society and economy. "Clear and dispassionate analysis of the facts, all the facts, relevant to Confederation," he wrote on May 9, 1946, "is a clear necessity . . ." He argued that while Confederation might in the long run be the best political course for Newfoundlanders to adopt, "the facts will do that and the flowing streams of passionate rhetoric are quite unnecessary unless the facts are against the confederates . . ." In the end, Perlin hoped that reason would triumph over emotion in the fight for the minds and hearts of Newfoundlanders in the constitutional debate. While both sides ultimately resorted to whipping up emotional feelings to win voters, the Confederate promise of a better life for the ordinary man within Confederation proved a stronger argument than the Responsible Government League's appeal that Newfoundlanders had "a duty and a trust to restore (the) temporarily-lost heritage . . ." of Responsible Government which "our forefathers fought for and won nearly one hundred years ago..." (16)

Through his columns, Perlin attempted to dispel the public's perception, which Smallwood reinforced through the radio broadcast of the Convention's proceedings, that the restoration of Responsible Government was equivalent to a return to the poverty, disease, and corruption of the pre-1934 period. "The sad part of our present situation," he wrote on April 15, 1948, was "the growth of the myth that all our troubles were due to the kind of government we had before 1934. The confederate leaders are trying to foster that belief..." Rather, it was "injust to attach to government the responsibility for an economic depression of external origin and universal effect..."

This Confederate strategy reached a feverish level during the two referenda campaigns in June and July 1948. In particular, Smallwood attempted to discredit the Responsible Government option on the ballot through ridicule of its phrasing which he managed to get the Convention to adopt. This phrasing referred to the restoration of this form of government "as it was in 1933," and the Confederates exploited it to mean a "return to our grimmest days in our history" Perlin wrote on April 22, 1948. Perlin denounced this frightening propaganda as "unscrupulous and unethical" and cautiously hoped that those who would vote for Confederation would do so because "they believe that it has something to offer them." However, in a theme which he emphasized in Wayfarer columns during the 1940s, he acknowledged that, because the people have not been schooled in political education by the Commission of Government, there will be some "who have the least concept of political democracy who will vote against Responsible Government because they believe that 'as it was in 1933' means a return to dole and suffering..."

For Perlin and many other anti-Confederates, opposition to the Confederates meant more than refusal to support a political union with Canada. Responsible Government meant the opportunity to determine one's own destiny in one's own way, the democratic way. "It gives to us, the people of Newfoundland," he commented on April 22, 1948, "the means to suit our policies to our needs and even to change the form of government to suit those needs..." To achieve this goal, it was important to Perlin and others of like mind that the Convention, especially its Finance Committee, report that Newfoundland had the natural resources to be self-supporting. "The Convention represents the last chance to get the kind of information," he optimistically noted on June 29, 1946, "on which alone the people of Newfoundland can make up their minds soundly and wisely about their future government and their prospects of advancement economically and socially..." In November 1947, the Finance Committee, chaired by Peter Cashin, reported that Newfoundland could indeed be self-supporting as an independent nation, and received Perlin's full endorsement as "a practical view of the situation..."

By contrast, what Smallwood and the Confederates had to offer the people as part of the Canadian proposals for the Terms of Union in 1947 was "fairyland finance and nothing more." He believed that Smallwood's budget underestimated both revenue and expenditure needs under Confederation and that Canadian revenue estimates were similarly incorrect. That the Canadian financial terms were probably not the best that could be obtained from Canada, Perlin believed, proved the Responsible Government assertion that such negotiations could only best be carried out between two sovereign governments. Such negotiations could then be handled with the help of expert advisers on both sides. "Any other way would be a betrayal of the national interest," Perlin declared on September 10, 1947, "not alone of the interest of those now living but also of the interests and the rights of prosperity." He naturally disapproved of Smallwood's ad hoc manner in seeking terms in mid-1947 from the Canadians. Not only did Smallwood sit on most of the committees involved with these negotiations, but he did so without the assistance of adequate Newfoundland experts. "At almost all these meetings the Canadian Government was fortified by the presence of technical advisers," he commented on October 17, 1947, "while at some times the Newfoundland delegation found itself compelled to postpone the consultations while statistical information was procured from the Government in St. John's..." It was hardly comforting to the people, he noted on December 10, 1947, that Smallwood regarded his delegates as "clod-hoppers" in describing their expertise in comparison to their Canadian counterparts. Since clod-hoppers were "clumsy, awkward boors," Smallwood's admission, Perlin continued, was "itself adequate proof of the importance of confronting the Canadian experts with men on our side of equal ability and with full official credentials... Nothing can be left to chance and that is the whole purport of our argument against the methods now employed to force union on the people." Instead, negotiations with Canada should only be undertaken after the restoration of Responsible Government and a general election was held. If the Confederates won the election, Perlin reminded his readers, that, they could commence negotiations with Canada and submit the terms of union to both the Newfoundland and Canadian legislatures for their approval.

Perlin was strongly critical of the Canadian proposals for political union which Smallwood brought back from Ottawa in 1947 and of the final Terms of Union negotiated in autumn 1948 by a delegation appointed by the Commission of Government and including Smallwood and Chesley Crosbie, the leader of the Economic Union Movement with the United States. His view was the often-repeated argument that too little was known of the effects of Confederation on the economy, especially as to how the constitutional change would, for instance, affect the local cost of living, the removal of local tariff subsidies, the transportation cost of goods from Canada, and the amount of taxes consumers would pay to both the federal and provincial governments.

Federal control of the fisheries was another concern of Perlin's. This control he considered could be detrimental to the interests of the economy if the Federal Government proved unable to negotiate foreign trade agreements favourable to the fisheries. An independent Newfoundland, he wrote on April 21, 1948, which would be "answerable only to the people of this island," would be better able "to take steps to promote the popular interest by seeking to make arrangements in the field of external relations which would be impossible if we were a province of Canada . . ." He reminded his readers that a strong fishery, as well as productive forestry and mining sectors, were essential to a strong economy and that the "political question enters the picture only to the extent that one form of government better than another will provide the kind of enterprising policy that the country needs . . ." As for the Newfoundland railway, he noted that the only duty of the Canadian National Railways (CNR) was to see "that services are commensurate with the traffic offering." He warned his readers on December 21, 1948 that under Confederation the railway would become part of an organization responsible to the Canadian taxpayer first and not to the needs of the Newfoundland people. With regard to any curtailment of rail and steamship services by the CNR, he ruefully noted, "we shall have to learn all about this in the school of experience. It can only be hoped that the outcome will be satisfactory." Compounding the possible detrimental effects on the local economy, Perlin asked his readers on December 12, 1947 to consider, was that Newfoundland, with seven proposed seats in the House of Commons, would have little influence in comparison to the larger and wealthier provinces.

In his negotiations in 1948 for the final Terms of Union, Smallwood persuaded the Canadian Government to make more generous financial concessions. These were a 50% increase in the transitional grants "to facilitate the adjustment of Newfoundland to the status of a province" and would be paid over a 12-year period. Smallwood also had the Canadians agree to Term 29, which provided for the appointment of a Royal Commission within eight years from the date of union to review Newfoundland's financial position. (17) These new changes did not impress Perlin, because the overall financial provisions did not show that "Newfoundland as a province will be solvent at any time..." Any balanced budget in the early years of union, he reminded his readers on December 20, 1948, would be achieved through increased local taxation and regular drafts on the surplus, which the Commission of Government had accumulated as a result of the prosperity during the war years. He did not think, either, that Term 29 provided much future security for the provincial government and pointed out the failure of Federal Royal Commissions, which had been appointed in the past to inquire into the social and economic conditions of the Canadian Maritimes, to produce more constructive results for the people of these three provinces. Moreover, he observed that no Canadian Government was in a "position to determine whether the recommendations of a Royal Commission to be set up in eight years time will be to the liking of the administration then in charge of Canadian affairs..." In summary, Perlin wrote on New Year's Eve, 1948, "the financial arrangements are inadequate and may lead to much future trouble and even suffering."

Recognizing the irrevocable nature of the referendum vote and the inevitability of Confederation, Perlin in early 1949 implored his readers to accept the forthcoming union and to work towards becoming good Canadians. He hoped that the bitterness associated with the 1948 referendum campaigns would not continue with the constitutional change in 1949. One way of preventing this from occurring, he wrote on March 11, 1949, was for the Canadian Government to appoint a provisional provincial government consisting of both the victor and the loser, a "non-partisan regime, composed of able citizens above the reproach of petty partisanship..." He acknowledged that this would probably not happen, but Smallwood's claims that he would form the first cabinet were probably true. Yet, how Canada dealt with this matter, he commented on April 1, 1949 the day after Newfoundland formally became a tenth province of Canada would set "the standard of future political development and on what is done and how will depend the respect that a great many Newfoundlanders are going to hold or lose for the present prime minister of the great dominion to which, for better or for worse, we are now bound in perpetuity..."

As for himself, Perlin told his readers four days later that his Wayfarer column had "fought for what it believed to be right and just. We have contended many times that our position was not opposition to union but rather to the methods employed to obtain it..." However, the events of the past few years were "now a part of the past" and that it was the duty of all Newfoundlanders to accept this fact, because the "nourishing of grievances, however just, will in this instance, lead only to harm to ourselves, our island, and our new allegiance..." Newfoundlanders must be prepared, he continued, to learn more about Canada and, in turn, he hoped that "our new fellow citizens must not treat us as indigents beholden for the aid we are to receive, but a people willing to make an "important contribution to the strengthening of the Canadian nation..." In the view of his fellow Newfoundlanders and Canadians, Perlin made that effort. In 1974 he received an appointment as a Member of the Order of Canada for his contribution to the writing of Newfoundland history, the field of print journalism, public affairs, and services to his country in general.


1. Peter Neary, ed., The Political Economy of Newfoundland, 1929-1972 (Toronto: Copp Clark, 1973), 68-98.

2. Ibid., 70-1, 76-83.

3. S. J. R. Noel, Politics in Newfoundland (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1971), 221-243.

4. Evening Telegram, August 5, 7, 1939.

5. Harry Cuff "Political Developments in Newfoundland During World War II," in Newfoundland Government Arts and Letters Competition 1964, 61-79.

6. Paul Bridle, ed., Documents on Relations between Canada and Newfoundland Vol. 2, Part I (Ottawa 1984), 16-20,31-2; and Evening Telegram, June 27, 1942.

7. Peter Neary "Great Britain and the Future of Newfoundland, 1939-45" Newfoundland Studies, Vol. 1, No. I (Spring 1985), 29-56.

8. Noel, Politics in Newfoundland, 248-60; and Neary, ed., The Political Economy, 150-80.

9. Robert Paine "The Persuasiveness of Smallwood: Rhetoric of "suffer" and "Scoff", of Metonym and Metaphor", Newfoundland Studies, Vol. 1, No. I (Spring 1985), 57-75; and Peter Narvaez," Joseph R. Smallwood: 'The Barrelman': The Broadcaster as Folklorist" Canadian Folklore Canadien, Vol. 5 (1983), 60-78.

10. Joseph R. Smallwood "The Story of Confederation" in Smallwood, ed., The Book of Newfoundland, Vol. 3 (St. John's; Newfoundland Book Publishers Ltd., 1967), 21.

11. Noel, Politics in Newfoundland, 252.

12. Donald C. Jamieson "I Saw the Fight for Confederation," in The Book of Newfoundland, Vol. 3, 76.

13. Joseph R. Smallwood et al, "The Confederation War," in Smallwood, ea., The Book of Newfoundland, Vol. 5 (St. John's: Newfoundland Book Publishers Ltd., 1975), 284-85, 289.

14. Joseph R. Smallwood, I Chose Canada (Toronto, Macmillan, 1973), 297.

15. Francis G. Hollohan, Albert Perlin: A Biography (St. John's; Jesperson Press, 1985), 64.

16. Neary, ed., The Political Economy, 144.

17. Noel, Politics in Newfoundland, 260-61.