Notes on 44th Text for Reading Field: Neary

Canadian History, Week  7

tidal wave

“Tidal wave disaster in Newfoundland,” dated November 1929. Source: Library and Archives Canada / C-026492.

Peter Neary. Newfoundland in the North Atlantic World, 1929-1949. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, c.1988. [Google Books limited preview,].

Peter Neary supplies a detailed and thought provoking chronicle of Newfoundland’s changing national status: from a country with responsible self-government, to a dependency overseen by the British-appointed Commission of Government, to the tenth province of Canada. Those with little exposure to Newfoundland or its historiography will find this to be a fascinating glimpse of an exceptional history. In Neary’s view, outcomes in Newfoundland’s past were not inevitable. In his account, the collapse of Newfoundland’s own representative institutions due to virtual if not formal bankruptcy by 1934 may have rested as much on Imperial Britain’s notions of proper international form – previously, no British holding had ever defaulted on a loan — as it did on concrete necessity. Yet, he notes, oft-made and racialized observations along the lines that “Newfoundland represented the ‘only failure in the history of the British Empire of our own people to govern themselves’,” were embarrassing to Newfoundlanders. The implicit suggestion is that perceptions of what constituted ‘good form’ that was worth maintaining varied within the Empire and that not everyone’s perceptions were entirely accommodated with the installation of the Commission.[1] However, Neary commits to describing what was done, not speculating over ‘what might have been.’ Although his focus is on the Commission era, ultimately his goal is to illuminate more fully the context surrounding Newfoundland’s entry into Confederation.

Much of Neary’s description is devoted to government policy and international negotiation. The old Newfoundland government comes across as corrupt and inept. The six member Commission (three from Newfoundland and three from the United Kingdom) with its governor (also appointed), is presented as intrinsically conservative and competent, if at times unpopular and most of the time resented. Perhaps not surprisingly, its popularity was less an issue when the outbreak of war in 1939 ushered in a period of prosperity. However, as Newfoundland’s location in the North Atlantic World became a marketable attribute, questions of sovereignty were raised in light of the stature of the parties interested in staking out military airbases.


“Admiral Sir Humphrey Walwyn (left), Governor of Newfoundland, at R.C.A.F. Station, Gander, Newfoundland, 14 October 1941.” Source: Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-191244.

Postwar, the National Convention was elected, determining in 1948 that the Newfoundland electorate would decide whether to return to responsible government, maintain the Commission, or join Canada. Neary’s account implies Confederation was a foregone conclusion (from as early as 1945) – largely because Britain was determined to meet its own financial exigencies by cutting back on commitments of colonial support. Canada, it would seem, though not particularly enamoured with Newfoundland, was averse to being bracketed by the United States all the way up through Labrador. Nevertheless, Neary rejects the thesis that Confederation was no more than an Anglo-Canadian plot. In his view Newfoundlanders had a determining say in a “complex diplomatic, constitutional, and political event.”[2] Responsible government as a Canadian province was won on the basis of a Newfoundland choice. If there was some reticence (very nearly half the vote went against Confederation), it was democratically laid aside by 1949. The new federal government, Neary suggests, was distant and cold; the new provincial government was subject to secular and class antagonisms latent to the island, but was made up of individuals with a shared consciousness of a distinct identity and proud and protective of place.

smalwood confed

Mr. Joseph Smallwood signing the agreement which admitted Newfoundland into Confederation. Hon. A.J. Walsh, chairman of the Newfoundland delegation, is at the right,” dated 11 Dec. 1948. Source: NFB / Library and Archives Canada / PA-128080.

Notably, among the forces and behaviours that shaped the political trajectory that Neary describes, national economies and capitalist power loom large. He makes it clear that the economic depression and war were defining events. Although Neary does not make the point, in my opinion his description suggests that Newfoundland’s principal problem was one of scale: the country was simply too small – in terms of population, resource base, trade prospects, and hence economy, to cope alone with upheavals capable of reducing much larger or wealthier countries to near desperation. Local merchants and politicians of the old government or lobbying for the opportunity to begin a new one (for the most part cut from the same cloth, and associated with the financiers on Water Street) appear to have been oblivious to Newfoundland’s vulnerability and thus, wittingly or not, effectively played the role of obstructionists – if not to the development of prosperous nationhood, at least to coherent development.

I suspect that larger or wealthier countries had equally oblivious and self-interested men of means, but the limited number of people in Newfoundland, and the simpler or sparser field and scope for financial manoeuvrings simply make those men easier for historians – and very likely made it easier for their contemporaries — to spot and single them out for censure. The common people of Newfoundland – those whose ambitions did no extend far beyond seeing family members survive with the hope that they would thrive – appear in Neary’s account as stalwart and patient victims of circumstance: sometimes buffeted, sometimes lulled by forces beyond their control (and, some would argue, purposely kept beyond their control). Given that, unlike most other polities with which theirs’ was affiliated, Newfoundlanders inhabited an economically diminutive island bereft of international clout and without a margin for absorbing error, the shape of their political history is understandable.

A question that Neary’s account raises for me is whether Newfoundland’s cultural history needs greater exploration. As an outsider, I was struck by what I perceive to be differences in perspective. By virtue of a distinct history, though they may have been ‘of Britain’s own,’ Newfoundlanders were very much Newfoundland’s own people. The North Atlantic, rather than the North American land base, shaped their ‘world view.’ In addition, I found Neary’s adherence to chronology and the characterization of various forces as arrayed against the island reminiscent of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.[3] One the one hand I am left wondering if Neary adheres to a set of valuations that are culturally determined, and on the other I am left with a sense that his is an insider voicing of trials and tribulations that may be heard more fully, or perhaps with a different nuance, by insiders than by outsiders.

[1] Peter Neary, Newfoundland in the North Atlantic World, 1929-1949 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988), 346.

[2] Ibid., 344.

[3] See Anne Savage, trans., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles: The authentic voices of England, from the time of Julius Caesar to the Coronation of Henry II (London: Salamander Books, 1995).


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes, Canadian History, Week 7 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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