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
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
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
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
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
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.