A Catalyst For Confederation: Newfoundland And The Great War

  • Category: History
  • Words: 2907
  • Grade: 75
Canada experienced a watershed in her history as she grew from a British Dominion to a Nation in the 19th century. Canada intended on sharing this growth with Newfoundland, talks of union and Confederation dated back to Lord Durham's report and other attempts in the following decades were rejected by the island colony. In 1895, the Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie Bowell feared that better terms for Newfoundland would reopen appeals from other provinces. Newfoundland was carrying a considerable amount of debt, due in part, to the expensive construction of Newfoundland's railway; the Canadian Government was unwilling to absorb all of Newfoundland's debt. After an unsuccessful plea to the British Government to take over part of the debt, discussions were abandoned. Newfoundland would have to find her own way under British rule until 1949. As global tensions began to rise in the 1910's, war was on the horizon and Newfoundland found herself in a confused state of affairs. The impending decades saw Newfoundland experience significant, profound and lasting changes on the shores of the isolated island colony. The island was divided not only politically, but also socially and economically. Corrupt politicians fuelled inhabitants rage, social interactions were marred with discontent as the population was divided on class and religious grounds and deliberate economic mismanagement resulted in a lost of voter loyalty and trust. These factors laid the groundwork and contributed to Newfoundland's entry into Confederation.
The political landscape of Newfoundland prior to and during the war was a collage of ideologies, visions and co-operation. Living in the British Empire under a system of "˜responsible government' which had been inaugurated in 1855 , political competition was fierce due to the regional concerns of the out laying fishermen and the urban dwellers. The Island enjoyed full internal autonomy and had won the right to be consulted on international matters of concern to her. This was a privilege that Canada would not be granted until the end of The Great War.
There were two primary political parties that regularly competed with each other to gain superiority and electorate support. These colourful charades were highlighted by an election tie between Robert Bond's Liberal party and the newly created People's party led by Edward Morris, in 1908. Ironically, the influential Roman Catholic Morris was urged on by Bond's opponents to resign in 1907 and in 1908 formed the People's Party, winning the 1909 election. In the same year, fuelled by the stirring in rural Canada by the Progressive party, an institutional expression in Newfoundland was formed. This was the emergence of the Fisherman's Protective Union (FPU) lead by William Coaker.
Sir Robert Bond was a devoted Protestant and ensured that his Liberal administration during their reign of power from 1901-1909 focused much of their attention and financial resources on railway building and the promotion and development of land based industries. They saw that Newfoundland needed to diversify its economic base and expand beyond the staple fishing industry. He strongly supported and advocated for a reciprocal free trade agreement with the United States, and he promoted American investment to the thriving island community.
Newfoundland was on the crest of an economic wave in 1909 when Sir Edward Morris and his People's party first came to power. The prosperity associated with his administration was the result of the scheduled construction of the Grand Falls pulp and paper mill the following year, established by the Bond administration. As Melvin Baker stressed, "local prosperity was also artificially-induced because of Morris' economically unsound, but politically popular, branch railway line policy". The mismanagement of public finances resulted in Newfoundland's rising National debt of $23 million in 1909 to $32 million in 1915.
Coaker knew that if the FPU was to achieve a lasting social and economic reform it would need influence within the government. The FPU quickly moved into politics, displaying an egalitarian spirit and esprit de corps that no other political movement in Newfoundland had ever shown. The FPU was the first "˜class-based' political party which attempted to provide fisherman with a greater share of the wealth that their work produced. In spite of the absence of local government in rural Newfoundland at the time, they had established fraternal organizations like the Orange Lodge which provided the fishermen with experience working in a democratic structure. The FPU built on this structure. As a result of the aggressive campaigning done in the rural outposts where the electorate base of the FPU resided, they took center stage in the 1913 election by becoming the official Opposition in all but name. The Union chose to put forward only enough candidates to win a block of seats in the Assembly, not a majority which would have enabled it to form the government. By design, this presence in the government allowed the FPU to choose which of the main parties it would support depending on what was in the best interests of the fishermen. The Roman Catholic Church tried to discourage enrollment in the FPU, the church felt that because the Union was formed in Protestant Orange Lodge halls that they were secretly anti-Catholic.
When the war broke out in August 1914, the Morris government was in a weak political position as the opposition party capitalized on discontent caused by profiteering and mismanagement. It was at this time Morris decided that the management of the war effort should not be handled by his People's party. His solution was the appointment of the extra parliamentary, non-denominational Newfoundland Patriotic Association (NPA) to manage the war effort. The NPA primarily consisted of Liberal politicians, leading business men and even William Coaker. Morris hoped that this broad political unity would divert public attention from the widespread commercial and economic dislocations and inflation that would certainly follow as a result of war.
Newfoundland had no military resources upon which to draw other then a local branch of the Royal Naval Reserve and the St. John's Rifle Club. However, the decision was made to contribute to the British war effort by raising forces of both land and sea. The Newfoundland government undertook the financial responsibility for the troops overseas. The total direct cost of the war, to the end of the period of demobilization, was approximately $13,000,000 of which $10,000,000 was added to the national debt . The indirect costs associated with the war were much greater. The NPA was accused on many occasions of favoritism when issuing commission to the recruits: St. John's men at the expense of outport men, Protestants at the expense of Roman Catholics, the scions of well-off families at the expense of those from the working class. The force that had been raised sustained heavy casualties. Approximately 1600 of the 8500 enrolled in the armed forces were casualties and a further 2500 were disabled and returned home. Accordingly, the Newfoundland government saw its pensions and disability allowances that were to be paid to the veterans, rise to half a million dollars annually. In the post-war period the loss of all these men deprived the dominion of the services of some of its best men. It is said that every home in Newfoundland either knew or was related to a man that enlisted throughout the campaign. The enlisted men represented nearly 10 percent of the total male population, or 35.6 percent of the young men between the ages of 19 and 35.
During the trying period of The Great War, the economic picture of Newfoundland found itself in a pleasant state of turmoil. As young men eagerly flocked to enlist and don uniforms the inhabitants saw their initial negative views of war quickly replaced with improved economic prospects. With the opening of markets in allied nations, the worldwide demand for Newfoundland fish and raw materials increased dramatically. The Newfoundland government had a record surplus of revenue over expenditure four years in a row during the war which provided exceptional prosperity to the island inhabitants.
As the demand and price of Newfoundland exports increased, concerns about the health of the staple industries and supply of men to work began to surface as their absence due to conscription would have resulted in ruin. The critical link between Newfoundland and its distant markets lay in the shipping industry. The economy of Newfoundland was based on the production of staple goods for export rather than production of consumers' goods for the home market. In 1915, Water Street merchants began selling off local steel vessels to the Russians at a substantial profit, thereby threatening both incoming and outgoing commerce. As a result of merchant greed and limited shipping capabilities, coal and salt were in short supply. The government was left to arrange shipments of these commodities which where then sold at inflated profit margins by these very merchants. In the spring of 1917 the Morris government established a commission on the high cost of living; the outcome was the exposure of profiteering by St. John's elite class. At this time, demands for the conscription of manpower gave way to calls for the conscription of wealth. The Morris government had promised regular elections when it came to power failed to make plans for an autumn election. Morris government desired to prolong its life in power, but, the opposition became irate and threatened revolt by the people if they did not hold an election. The outcome, after four weeks of parliamentary obstruction, was not an election but rather an all-party National government. This united all three of the assembly political parties into one with the intention of managing the state's affairs with minimal opposition. Their first order of business was to respond to the call for conscription of wealth. The newly formed Ministry of Shipping and the Food Control Board introduced a business tax profit and imposed state intervention in the traditional economic sphere of Water Street merchants, who had previously controlled the importing, exporting and retailing of goods. The National government was created and returned harmony back to the island, resembling the pre-war state of affairs. When the war ended the coalition government remained intact until its collapse in May 1919. This was the beginning of a period of political instability which would not end until the Commission of Government in 1934.
The booming economy made it easy to secure external funds and Newfoundland saw their national debt rise considerably to $42 million in 1919 up from $30 million in 1913. As the economy went from boom to bust and the demand for exports began to dry up, Newfoundland found itself with an insurmountable debt. The Newfoundland Railway, after years of unsuccessful financing was finally unable to carry on and in 1923 was taken over by the Government. Even though the railroad was never a profitable enterprise the government of Newfoundland continued to pour over $1,000,000 annually over the next ten years into its operation. Newfoundland had very close ties to Canada in terms of finances. In 1895 Canadian chartered banks established branch offices in Newfoundland, ever since then the Newfoundland currency had been tied to the Canadian dollar and not the pound sterling. As global economic conditions worsened and the pound sterling fell below parity with the Canadian dollar, Newfoundland suffered severely since the primary markets for exports were countries whose currencies were tied to the pound sterling. Times were extremely tough for Newfoundland, between 1920 and 1932 the public debt doubled. By 1932, 56 percent of the average revenue was needed to meet interest charges as 95 percent of the debt was held externally. Newfoundland found itself on the brink of collapsing and defaulting on its National debt. It was as this time that the newly elected Conservative government lead by Frederick Alderdice came to grips with the fact that a simple change in party allegiance could not stop the downward economic spiral. The National debt had reached $97 million and in 1933, the new government requested the United Kingdom Government appoint a Royal Commission to investigate the financial situation and make recommendations. The Alderdice government found that they could not reduce expenses any further or receive any further credit as the banks were imposing severe restrictions. They feared that the only way it could get the finances of Newfoundland in order would be to have an externally appointed Commission audit of the government. The objective was to examine the future of Newfoundland and in particular report on the financial situation and prospects therein. The Commission was chaired by Lord Amulree and in 1934 recommended the suspension of responsible government, effectively ending the 79 year political reign. Newfoundland gave up her Dominion status and the elected assembly was replaced by a Commission of Government appointed by London. This would be Newfoundland's governing body until 1949 when they conceded to union with Canada.
The island had narrowly avoided economic ruin and over the next decade began the long and arduous task of re-establishing themselves as a stand alone entity in the mighty Empire until the time they became self-sufficient again. In 1945 Britain's newly elected Labour Government had neither the capacity nor the desire to continue to govern
a far-flung colonial empire. The Commission of Government was too be ratified at the end of the WW II and Britain was quite sure that the only way they would be relieved of the responsibility for Newfoundland was if the island became apart of another country. Fearing a return to "˜responsible government' and a post war depression, Britain dreaded they might have to provide financial assistance to Newfoundland again in the future. Although Newfoundland was solvent, they did not have substantial reserves. A policy was put forth and a restructuring plan was to be voted on by Newfoundlanders in a referendum. Many believed that this would be the fairest possible start for their future. The difficulty was in the cost; it was estimated at $100 million and Britain could not afford to allocate so many scarce dollars to Newfoundland. By 1946 the reconstruction plan fell out of favour and both Britain and Canada encouraged Newfoundland to join Confederation. Newfoundlanders were faced with three choices; they could continue under direct British rule with Commission of Government for a period of five years; Confederation with Canada; Responsible Government as it existed in 1933.
Newfoundland had no structured political parties since 1934; however, in 1946 Joe Smallwood who idolized William Coaker of the FPU began to rally for Confederation. He headed the Newfoundland Confederate Association and allied with a former Grand Master of the Orange Order Lodge, F. Gordon Bradley. In Smallwood's eyes confederation was the panacea for all Newfoundland's economic ills, the only hope of providing the island people with a decent future in the post-war world. The island colony was still very much divided between Protestant and Catholic religions, with each favoring Confederation and Responsible Government respectively.
After three years of emotional debate, Newfoundland narrowly decided by a two ballot referendum vote on joining Canada with 52.34% of the voters chose Confederation and 47.66% for Responsible Government with 84.9% voting public turnout. Many Newfoundlanders realized that economically their future growth was not going to be originating across the Atlantic, but rather by strengthening ties in continental North America. This awareness resulted in the rejection of the choice of continuing under direct British rule. Newfoundlanders also feared that if they returned to an independent colony status with "˜responsible government' that they would find themselves with massive debt similar to that which had been witnessed following WW I. Although the merchant and professional classes of St. John's favored this political arrangement, the merchant-fisherman cleavage resulted in a further sectarian influence during the voting.
The Confederates, like Coaker, convinced the electorate that their hardships were not ordained by Providence but were the result of an exploitative man-made political and economic order that could be changed. The apprehension of potential reckless government spending coupled with the promise of increased wages and services persuaded the bare majority of Newfoundlanders to vote in favor of Confederation "“ an option that had been strongly opposed on many occasions since the first attempt in 1839 resulting from the Durham Report.
In conclusion, Newfoundland might have continued as a separate colony in the British Empire had the political leaders in the early 20th century been aware of the possibility of post-war collapse and budgeted accordingly during WW I. As a result of fiscal mismanagement Newfoundland experienced years of depression, faltering economic conditions and political shame. The religious and class divisions on the island in conjunction with economic and political influences and pressures laid the foundation during The Great War for the entrance into Confederation and union with Canada.
ad 4
Copyright 2011 EssayTrader.net All Rights Reserved