The Debate: Confederation Rejected, 1864 - 1869
The first formal conference to discuss a union of the British North American colonies was held at Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, in September 1864. The meeting was organized by the three Maritime Provinces to discuss a union among themselves. Significantly, the Newfoundland government was invited only as an afterthought and did not send delegates. A Canadian delegation asked to attend. Led by John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier, the Canadians argued for a wider, federal union. They did this so convincingly that the Maritimers abandoned the idea of Maritime union, and agreed to work on the Canadian proposal. The delegates adjourned on 7 September, and agreed to reconvene at Québec on 10 October. This time Newfoundland delegates were present.
The Conservative government in Newfoundland, led by Hugh Hoyles decided to send two delegates to the Quebec Conference: Frederic Carter, Speaker of the House of Assembly; and Ambrose Shea, leader of the Liberal opposition. Although they did not have the power to commit the colony in any way, Carter and Shea became caught up in the spirit of the occasion. They signed the Quebec Resolutions ("as individuals"), which laid out a proposed framework for the new federation, and became enthusiastic confederates. In their official report, the Newfoundland delegates wrote that "the welfare of the colony will be promoted by entering the Union ... and ... we cannot reject it without aggravating the injurious consequences of our present isolation."
When the resolutions were published in St. John's, a vigorous debate began. Very quickly, two groups showed hostility to the idea of confederation - the Roman Catholic population of Irish descent, and many of the merchants.
The Roman Catholic community, composed mostly of people of Irish descent, was suspicious of confederation. They argued that Ireland's problems derived almost exclusively from its union with England. Why should the same mistake be repeated? In Newfoundland, people of Irish descent had gained home rule, state-funded separate schools and a fair share of government patronage. Why put all this at risk by uniting with Upper Canada, seen as a hotbed of militant anti-Catholicism? Union had meant ruin for the homeland: it could do the same for Newfoundland.
As for the merchants, they could see no economic or financial advantage to the proposed federation. They predicted a significant increase in taxation, imposed by mainlanders for mainland purposes, which would increase the cost of doing business. In addition, they thought that a federal tariff would be designed to protect mainland industries, and that this would restrict their ability to buy and sell where they wanted. Newfoundland businesses and its economy could therefore be harmed by confederation, not helped as some claimed. There was simply no evidence that confederation would be of any real advantage to the colony. The anti-confederates reflected the view that Newfoundland was part of a North Atlantic world, rather than part of the North American continent. In the words of the famous song:
Men, hurrah for our own native isle, Newfoundland, Not a stranger shall hold one inch of her strand; Her face turns to Britain, her back to the Gulf, Come near at your peril, Canadian Wolf.
Against this, the confederates thought that, in the long term, the colony's future was inevitably linked to that of the mainland colonies, if only because Britain no longer had any particular interest in Newfoundland - "We deceive ourselves in supposing that we have any value in the eyes of Great Britain that would induce an exceptional policy in our case", said Shea to the House of Assembly in 1865. "It is not now with us as in times of old, when this colony was a nursery for seamen .... England has no need of us in that respect ...." (The Newfoundlander, 2 March 1865)
Confederates forecast that union would lower taxation, improve public services and strengthen the economy. There would be closer links with the mainland, better communications, and investment would be encouraged. Above all, Newfoundland would no longer be isolated and alone, but part of a great new dominion which held out exciting opportunities.
Coming to a Decision
However, the opposition to confederation was so vocal that the government decided against asking the House of Assembly to vote on the Quebec resolutions in the 1865 session. Nor was confederation made a central issue in the general election that year. The debate rumbled on for the next four years. Persistent economic depression seemed to prove the confederate argument that change was badly needed, and by early 1869 the government - now led by Frederic Carter - thought it could carry the day.
Terms of Union were settled between the Newfoundland and Canadian governments. One crucial provision was that they would have to be endorsed by the electorate that year. And this the electorate, by an overwhelming majority, refused to do. The seal and cod fisheries improved significantly in 1869, and the anti-confederates regrouped around the leadership of Charles Fox Bennett. Public opinion swung in their favour, enabling them to win a famous victory.