Relations with Canada, 1870-1895

Newfoundland might have rejected confederation with Canada in 1869, but it still had to get along with its neighbour to the west. Both countries were part of the British Empire, shared common constitutional and political traditions, spoke the same languages, and had many cultural similarities. They shared a common, but largely undefined boundary in Labrador, and had to deal with each other on such matters as fisheries, and trade relations with the United States.

Though many Newfoundlanders suspected that the "Canadian wolf" was anxious to absorb their country, this was not in fact the case. So far as Ottawa was concerned, Newfoundland's continued independence was quite satisfactory, so long as the colony did not take any action which might harm Canadian interests. Only then did federal politicians raise the issue.

The Canadian government took the initiative in the 1880s and early 1890s because Newfoundland adopted a policy of trying to negotiate an independent, bi-lateral trade agreement with the United States. Fearful of American expansionism, the Canadians thought it important that Canada and Newfoundland should maintain a common front against Washington on the linked issues of trade and fisheries. As a result the federal government did what it could to stop Newfoundland from making such an agreement, while at the same time exploring the possibility of confederation. It was a tense period in Newfoundland - Canadian relations.

In 1888 the Canadian government invited a Newfoundland delegation to visit Ottawa to discuss confederation, but none was sent. Two years later, a senior member of the Newfoundland government, Robert Bond negotiated a draft trade deal with the United States administration. This became known as the Bond-Blaine convention. The Canadian government successfully torpedoed the deal by persuading the British government to refuse consent.

This action caused a serious rift. The Newfoundland government refused to allow Nova Scotian banking vessels to purchase bait fishes in colonial waters, and then imposed duties on imports from Canada. In retaliation, the Canadian government imposed surcharges on its imports from Newfoundland, and threatened other sanctions. Newfoundland brushed off renewed confederation overtures.

Eventually the row subsided, and the two sides agreed to meet in November 1892. The Halifax Conference settled nothing, however, and confederation was only briefly discussed. Canada refused to withdraw its objections to the Bond-Blaine convention.

Sir John Thompson, 1891
Sir John Thompson, 1891
Sir John Thompson was one of the Canadian representatives at the Halifax Conference in 1892.
Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada, C-68645.

A real chance to negotiate confederation came early in 1895. In December 1894, the colony's two banks had collapsed. As a result, the government's financial situation was precarious - in fact, the colony faced bankruptcy. One way out seemed to be confederation, and Robert Bond led a delegation to Ottawa. These negotiations failed, and the colony managed to survive by obtaining a loan. There were to be no more formal negotiations for over 50 years.

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Video: The Winding Road to Confederation Part II: Relations with Canada, 1870-1939