As the likelihood of war increased in the late 1930s, the Canadian government realized that the defence of its own country hinged on the protection of Newfoundland and Labrador. An enemy invasion there would leave Canada’s east coast vulnerable to attack and threaten convoy routes. Furthermore, ore extracted from the mines on Bell Island was vital to Canada’s steel industry, while the airports at Gander and Botwood were at the forefront of transatlantic flight.
Aware that Newfoundland did not possess the resources to properly maintain defences, the British and Canadian governments agreed that Canada would assume responsibility. Addressing Parliament on September 8, 1939, Prime Minister Mackenzie King stated that “the integrity of Newfoundland and Labrador is essential to the security of Canada. By contributing as far as we are able to the defence of Newfoundland … we will not only be defending Canada but we will also be assisting Great Britain.”
In the coming years, and at a cost of approximately $65 million, Canada expanded the airports at Gander and Botwood, built a naval base at St. John’s, a ship repair facility at nearby Bay Bulls, and air bases at Torbay and Goose Bay. Infantry and artillery units were stationed at all these places for additional protection.
Work did not truly get underway until the spring and summer of 1940, after Nazi Germany had defeated France and occupied much of Western Europe. Worried that North America would be next if England could not hold out, the Canadian military obtained permission from the Commission of Government – with British approval – to station air and ground forces at Gander and Botwood in June.
A series of conferences followed, during which Newfoundland and Canada devised a joint defence strategy. Both countries agreed that Canadian troops would be stationed in Newfoundland, that Newfoundland forces would fall under Canadian command, and that Newfoundlanders could be recruited into the Canadian military. The Canadian army and navy would establish headquarters in St. John’s, while the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) would base its operations out of Gander.
The years 1941 and 1942 saw the Canadians expand their bases in Newfoundland and Labrador. Workers added to existing facilities at Gander and Botwood and installed entirely new airfields at Torbay and Goose Bay. The resulting construction boom created thousands of jobs for local residents and helped revitalize the country’s long-suffering economy. From 1943 to 1945, about 16,000 Canadian troops were stationed in Newfoundland and Labrador at any one time.
Relations were generally good between local residents and the visiting Canadians, but some tensions did occur. While many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians benefited from steady employment on the bases, they were paid less than their Canadian co-workers. A general perception of overcrowding in St. John’s created frictions there and prompted the Canadian government to limit the number of dependents Canadian service personnel could bring to the city. Bitterness also arose over Canada’s 99-year lease to Goose Bay, which was obtained without popular consultation.
Aside from the Goose Bay lease, however, the Canadian government did not negotiate long-term claims to its facilities in Newfoundland and Labrador during the war, and instead worked out a series of less formal arrangements with the Commission of Government to deal with specific requirements as they arose. In contrast to this were Newfoundland’s dealings with the United States, which in a single agreement signed on March 27, 1941 obtained 99-year leases for American bases at Stephenville, St. John’s, and Argentia.
Some historians suggest the difference stemmed from the two countries’ wartime policies. Canada had joined the war in 1939 and could be depended on for support, while the United States remained neutral until December 1941. Fearing that American cooperation depended in part on its leased bases deal with Newfoundland, the British government accommodated American desires as much as possible. The Canadians, on the other hand, already had political interests in Newfoundland and Labrador when the war began, and were motivated to help with its defence.
The American presence in Newfoundland and Labrador, however, caused some concern in Ottawa. Canada now recognized that it had lasting interests in Newfoundland and Labrador, but feared the establishment of “another Alaska” on its east coast. To strengthen its relationship, the Canadian government established a High Commission in Newfoundland in July 1941 – an office traditionally reserved for self-governing dominions.
As hostilities declined in Europe, the Canadian and Newfoundland governments revised their defence agreements to adjust to peacetime conditions. The RCAF returned its airports at Botwood and Gander to Newfoundland in exchange for $1 million and emergency military powers. It also transferred the Torbay airfield to the Canadian government, which turned it into a civilian airport in 1946. By the end of that year, Goose Bay was the only base still under RCAF command. The Royal Canadian Navy also reduced its presence in Newfoundland immediately following the war, and handed over its St. John’s base to the British Admiralty.
Although the Second World War plunged Europe into economic and political chaos, it did much to strengthen Newfoundland and Labrador’s ties with Canada.
The establishment of foreign military bases greatly improved Newfoundland and Labrador’s financial situation, and it was assumed the Commission of Government would be replaced soon after the war. Officials in Ottawa, meanwhile, had recognized by the end of 1945 that its eastern neighbour played an important role in the Canadian scheme of things and wanted to bring it into confederation.
This was not undesirable to many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, who in a referendum held on July 22, 1948, voted to become Canada’s tenth province rather than return to responsible government. It is widely believed that the events of the Second World War helped integrate Newfoundland and Labrador into the North American economy, and ultimately acted as a midwife to Confederation.