Citizenship and Newfoundland’s Decision to Join Canada

by Raymond Blake

Why Newfoundland chose in 1948 the status of a province of Canada rather than independence has long been debated. It is time we extend our gaze from the machinations of politicians and bureaucrats to rhetoric or, more specifically, to consider the role of new notions of citizenship in the lead-up to the 1948 referenda. Changing perceptions of citizenship is the central medium through which we can explain Newfoundland’s decision to vote for Canada.

By the early 20th century citizenship came to signify something more than civil, legal and political rights, more than membership in a particular national community; it came to mean that citizens were entitled to certain social and material rights by virtue of their common status as citizens. This was the emergence of social citizenship, associated with social rights that came largely with the emergence of the welfare state that promised not only a measure of economic security but also the provision of improved public services that came to include electrification, health care, adequate public education, adequate transportation, and running water and flush toilets, or the right to participate fully in the modern standards then prevailing in society.

When combined with the other types of rights, social rights provided for a full and complete integration of the citizen into the wider social order. The citizen was no longer simply the abstract voter but instead becomes an individual with material needs and with the expectation that society will cater to those needs not only in circumstances of deprivation or disability but in the normal course of life. Social citizenship became an important instrument of statecraft and entitlement in contemporary society.

Although Newfoundland had a budgetary surplus spawned by wartime spending, Newfoundland’s was largely a culture of poverty at the time of Confederation. Despite the wartime boom there had been “no new productive capacity to help sustain the economy in peacetime” and no new alternative sources of employment.[1] Any indices that are considered – employment rates, income per capita, education levels, hospital beds, electrification, number of indoor flush toilets – Newfoundland was poorer than any jurisdiction in Canada. What the war had done, though, was make people in Newfoundland aware of their poverty and their lack of public services compared to other political communities.

These notions of social citizenship can be traced to Coaker’s Fishermen’s Protective Union, some of the work of Commission Government, but they are most evident in the debates in the National Convention, elected in 1946, to examine Newfoundland’s economic and social conditions and then recommend to the British the forms of governments to be placed before the electorate in a national referendum. Social citizenship became a critical issue in the debates over Confederation in 1948.


Joseph Smallwood signing Newfoundland into Confederation. Image source: Library and Archives Canada/PA-1280.

A small group within the National Convention — whose debates were broadcast nightly — focussed on the problems facing the country and demanded for citizens social rights. Joseph R. Smallwood was among this group. His first speech, which might be titled “We are not a Nation,” fully embraced the necessity of a new social citizenship. “Compared with the mainland of North America,” he said, “we are fifty years … behind the times. Our struggle is tougher, more naked, more hopeless … Newfoundland bears the reputation of having the lowest standards of life, of being the least progressive and advanced of the whole [North American] family.”[2] He was the first person since William Coaker to tell people that the conditions and hardships they endured were not “ordained by Providence” but were the result of an exploitative economic and political system that could be changed.[3]

The hopes of a new citizenship and a new form of engagement between citizen and state are evident in ten committees appointed by the National Convention to enquire into aspects of Newfoundland’s economy and society. The Public Health and Welfare Report noted that the public’s perception of the role of the state had changed since 1933, and the state can no longer take such little interest in people’s well-being. “The modern concept of the state is that of the “social welfare state [and] … this responsibility must be assumed by our modern government.”[4]

The proponents of Confederation in the Convention, notably Smallwood and F. Gordon Bradley, but others too, were imbued with the transnational political discourse that called for the expansion of social rights to citizens – otherwise known as the debate about social security.[5] United Church minister Lester Burry said the people from Labrador whom he represented “are not concerned with constitutional government, but with a government that will give them a decent living for the labour they put into their work.”[6] William Keough added that there was a certain minimum standard of living that was consistent with human dignity and Newfoundlanders “cannot be satisfied in conscience with less than that minimum.”[7] Smallwood said the people are “completely uninterested in far-fetched and high-faluting questions of types and forms of government…they are preoccupied with questions of bread and butter.”[8]

Others in the National Convention demanded only the immediate return of responsible government that had been surrendered in 1933. They failed to realize how notions of citizenship had changed. The Finance Committee of the National Convention, most of whose members wanted the return of responsible government, chastised the Commission of Government for its spending on social and public welfare during the 1930s.[9] Peter Cashin, a former finance minister, criticized Canada’s social programs as immoral.[10]

The Responsible Government League never embraced any notions of social citizenship then circulating throughout much of the developed world. J.S. Currie, the owner of the Daily News and stalwart advocate for independence, said that “people should accept the responsibility of self-government with the restraints and discipline that it should impose on the individual.”[11] He and others worried that “materialism” that came with social programmes would breeds selfishness and greed among the people and give rise to avaricious politicians.[12]

The supporters of Confederation made social citizenship the focus of their campaign for union with Canada while the supporters of responsible government argued for a citizenship based on legal and political rights which meant that self-government had to be returned immediately. Those arguing for a new social citizenship prevailed in a narrow victory.

Approaching the constitutional politics of Newfoundland in the 1940s from the perspective of the rhetoric surrounding citizenship provides a multi-dimensional framework that allows us to see how a majority of voters who had not traditionally imagined themselves as citizens demanded in the political debates of the 1940s certain protections, to secure certain benefits, and to be guaranteed particular capacities. It was on the basis of the discursive framework of citizenship that voters made claims on their political community. In this, voters in Newfoundland were no different than those throughout Canada, Britain or Australia, for instance, who wanted better quality education, better health care and better public services. After the Second World War, Newfoundland, like societies elsewhere, insisted that citizenship in liberal democracies had to bring real material benefits and provide a measure of security to all citizens and that may have been the main determining factor in Newfoundland’s decision to choose Canada.

Raymond Blake is Professor of History at the University of Regina.


[1] S..J.R. Noel, Politics in Newfoundland (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973), 263.

[2] Joseph R. Smallwood, I Chose Canada. The Memoirs of the Honourable Joseph R. “Joey” Smallwood (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1973), 255-61.  Also quoted in Jeff Webb, Newfoundland’s National Convention, 1946-48. Masters thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1987; and The Rooms, Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, GN 10, National Convention Proceedings, 28 October 1946.

[3] Noel, Politics in Newfoundland, 252.

[4] Webb, National Convention, p.107, and “Report on Public Health and Welfare.” James K. Hiller and Michael Harrington, eds. The Newfoundland National Convention, 1946-1948. Volume 2. Reports and Paper (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995), 251-312.

[5] See, for example, Linda White, “The Rev Lester Burry Collection, United Church Conference Archives,” Newfoundland Quarterly (Fall 2012): 10.

[6] Hiller and Harrington, eds. The Newfoundland National Convention, 1946-1948. Volume 1. Debates (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995), 37.

[7] Hiller and Harrington, Volume 1. Debates, 35.

[8] Hiller and Michael Harrington, Volume 1. Debates, 35.

[9] Webb, National Convention, 112-114.

[10] Webb, National Convention, 133, and Centre for Newfoundland Studies, GN 10, National Convention Proceedings, 26b January 1948

[11] Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives, Memorial University, Senator John G. Higgins Collection, Coll 0-87, Box 19, file 3.01.032, Speech by J.S. Currie, 14 February 1948.

[12] Higgins Collection, Coll 0-87, Box 19, file 3.01.033, Radio Speech, F.W. Marshall, Dominion President of the Great War Veterans’ Association, 5 May 1948.

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