Grade 8 Social Studies: Unit Five - Appendix 14

Newfoundland and Labrador in the 19th and 20th Centuries: a Brief Narrative by James K. Hiller, Memorial University

Department of Education Government of Newfoundland and Labrador
June 2005

Introduction and Background

In order to make the past intelligible, historians have to divide it into periods. This can be a somewhat artificial process, but historians usually agree on the major dividing lines. With reference to the history of Newfoundland and Labrador, it is accepted that such a dividing line can be drawn in the early 19th century. There is good reason for this.

In 1815, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars finally came to an end after 22 years of conflict. This long period of warfare had profound implications for Newfoundland which, as one historian has put it, made the transition from fishery to colony. In short, the wars constitute a watershed in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador, and the country emerged from the wars as a rather different place from that which had existed in the late 18th century.

From the 16th century, the island of Newfoundland had been viewed as a place where Europeans came to fish, not to settle. It was not seen as a colony in the same sense as New England, New France or Nova Scotia, even though a resident population took root during the 17th century, and grew steadily, if slowly, during the years that followed. Most of the settlers came from southwest England and southeast Ireland, gradually expanding from the Avalon Peninsula along the south and northeast coasts. They were outnumbered every fishing season by the crews of the migratory fishing vessels which arrived from England, and which fished along the coasts and on the offshore banks.

The English were joined by the French fishing fleet which sailed annually to St. Pierre and Miquelon, the Grand Banks, and to the French Treaty Shore - the part of the coastline where they had a treaty right to fish during the season. The French had established a colony at Plaisance (now Placentia) in 1662, which they evacuated in 1713 when, by the Treaty of Utrecht, France recognized British sovereignty over the island of Newfoundland (but not Labrador). The same treaty established the Treaty Shore.1

Labrador was also originally a destination for migratory European fishers and whalers, and at least the southern part of the Labrador peninsula became an integral part of New France. The area north of what is now called Hamilton Inlet was until 1763 disputed territory between Britain and France.2 After that date Labrador was a British possession, though there was uncertainty about its precise boundaries.3

During the extended period of warfare which ended in 1815, the French temporarily stopped coming to Newfoundland, and the English migratory fishery virtually died out. In its place there developed an expanded resident fishery, which for the most part took place inshore. The settlers also began to exploit the seal fishery more actively than before, and schooners from Conception Bay took to sailing out to the ice floes in the spring to find the herds. The population grew significantly, especially towards the end of the war, when the demand for Newfoundland fish drove up prices to unprecedented levels. Large numbers of immigrants, mainly from Ireland, arrived to take advantage of the work and wages generated by this boom.

Newfoundland in the early 19th Century 4

By 1815, the population of Newfoundland was approximately 40,000, and the place had become a colony in all but name. There were courts, certainly, magistrates, a few clergymen and a small number of permanent officials. There was a customs house, and in St. John’s several fortifications and a military garrison. There was a governor, but he was also the commodore of the Royal Navy squadron which patrolled the coastline each year, and he did not remain for the winter. There were no town councils and no legislature - not even a formal council to advise the governor, who assumed he could rule by issuing proclamations. And there was a degree of uncertainty about which laws were and were not applicable, and about the security of land tenure and inheritance. In short, a substantial colonial society based on the fisheries had become established on the island, but the British government had as yet to provide the administrative and legal framework which that society needed, and which some of its members now vociferously demanded.

The gap between the British theory of Newfoundland as a fishery, and the reality that existed, was highlighted by the crisis which engulfed the island when the wars ended. The price of fish collapsed, causing a wave of bankruptcies and widespread poverty and destitution. There was unrest and violence, aggravated by food shortages, severe winters, and in St. John’s by fires. Yet immigrants continued to arrive, making the situation even worse.

The British government reacted slowly. First, the governor was instructed to stay year-round to deal with the crisis - though the first of these, Sir Francis Pickmore, died in the attempt during the hard winter of 1817-1818. Then, in 1824, Newfoundland became a Crown Colony.5 This move recognized that Newfoundland was no longer just a fishery, and rule by the Royal Navy came to an end. The first civil governor, Sir Thomas Cochrane, took office in 1825, and the present Government House began to rise on the barrens behind the ramshackle town of St. John’s.

Cochrane and his successors were also responsible for the "Coast of Labrador". On the Labrador side of the Strait of Belle Isle, firms based in England and Jersey (Channel Islands) carried on extensive operations based on furring, and the seal and cod fisheries. Permanent European settlement in the area was only beginning. In the interior, Innu bands carried on a largely traditional lifestyle, though they traded regularly at posts on the North Shore of the St. Lawrence and in central Labrador, where they also met Roman Catholic priests.6 The Inuit (once called “Eskimos”) lived along the coast, mainly to the north of Hamilton Inlet, most of them linked to the Moravian mission stations at Nain (1771), Okak (1776), and Hopedale (1782).7 In central Labrador, a mixed European and Inuit population was becoming established, now known as the Southern Inuit of NunatuKavut.

The government in St. John’s had little contact with Labrador, even though increasing numbers of schooners went there each season to fish. It was also remote from the sparsely populated French Treaty Shore, where the French fishing fleet had returned after 1815, and from the small number of settlers on the south coast to the west of Fortune Bay. Mi’kmaq Indians, linked to bands in Nova Scotia, had their main settlement at Conne River. A Mi’kmaq band also lived at St. George’s Bay on the west coast. The Mi’kmaq alone knew the island’s interior, except for the few remaining Beothuk, now on the verge of extinction.

The fate of the Beothuk has attracted a great deal of attention, and a certain amount of romantic myth-making. The encounter with Europeans traumatised Aboriginal peoples everywhere. All of them encountered new epidemic diseases, sometimes hostile and unsympathetic newcomers, and the stress of adjusting to different economic demands. In Atlantic Canada, the Mi’kmaq seem to have adjusted more readily to the new situation than other Aboriginal peoples. In contrast, the Beothuk withdrew from any contact with Europeans, and did not try to develop a trade in furs or other articles. As British use of the northeast coast increased during the 18th century, and as the Mi’kmaq expanded their use of the interior, the Beothuk found themselves increasingly hemmed in. Hostile encounters between the Beothuk and the English only made matters worse, and there can be no doubt that, like all Aboriginal peoples, the Beothuk were inflicted with European diseases. Shanawdithit, so far as we know the last Beothuk, died of tuberculosis in 1829.

She spent her last days in St. John’s, by this time the acknowledged capital of the colony. Its heartland was the Avalon Peninsula, but by the mid-1820s an effective year-round British occupation had been established from Notre Dame Bay around to Fortune Bay, and even further west. Mercantile and administrative centres such as Fogo, Twillingate, Bonavista, Trinity, Harbour Grace, Carbonear, Ferryland, St. Mary’s, Burin and Harbour Breton, served as regional “capitals”. In such places, small elite groups of merchants, magistrates and clergymen dominated local affairs, and linked outport Newfoundland to St. John’s which by the 1870s had become the dominant mercantile as well as administrative centre.

The Newfoundland Economy

The colonial economy was based on seals and codfish. At the local level these fisheries were supplemented by catching salmon and other fish and crustaceans, small-scale subsistence agriculture, hunting for caribou8 and birds, trapping fur-bearing animals and cutting wood for fuel and building - the exact nature of the seasonal round depending on time and place. One of the distinguishing features of the economy was the absence of a significant agricultural sector. This made Newfoundland and Labrador a very different place from other British colonies, where growing grain and other crops was centrally important. In most parts of the colony, soils were (and are) thin and acidic, and the growing season short. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians had to import basic foodstuffs, a reality which obviously influenced dietary patterns.9

Seals were very important to the people of Labrador, who used the skins for clothing and other purposes, and consumed both the meat, and oil rendered from the fat. Newfoundlanders also ate the meat, especially the landsmen who caught seals from small boats near the shore, but they would usually sell the skins. The commercial sealing industry on the east coast of Newfoundland, carried out in hundreds of schooners by thousands of men, made its money mainly from the export of seal oil, used for lighting and as a lubricant. Sealers left carcasses on the ice, and brought back only the pelts with the fat attached. Thus the flippers, part of the pelt, became a seasonal culinary delicacy. The industry boomed during the first half of the 19th century, and then began to decline. There were two reasons for this. First, the harp seals were over-exploited, making them more difficult to find and hunt. The merchants’ response was first to buy or build bigger sailing vessels and then, in the 1860s, to buy steamers. This stabilised the industry, but at a reduced level : fewer men and fewer vessels now went to the ice each spring, and the high cost of steamers concentrated the industry in the hands of the merchants of St. John’s and Harbour Grace. A second factor in the decline was that seal oil no longer commanded high prices. Overall, the contraction of the sealing industry was a serious economic blow to outport Newfoundland.

The cod fishery was carried on inshore until the 1880s, when an offshore bank fishery began to develop. Whether a crew fished near home or at Labrador - and the Labrador fishery expanded dramatically during the 19th century - it was family-based and employed both men and women. Men caught the fish and brought them to shore, where the catch was processed - split and salted down. After time in salt bulk, the fish was washed and then dried on flakes or beaches. Looking after the fish as it dried was largely women’s work, and they also had to deal with the house and children, cook meals, wash and mend clothes, and tend the garden. The fishing season brought long hours and immensely hard work.

The Credit System

In the fall, a fisherman’s catch was sold to a merchant. This was not usually a cash transaction. The merchant culled (graded) the fish and assessed its value, which was credited to the fisherman’s account. However, the same merchant had probably advanced supplies to the fisherman earlier in the year, creating a debt which had to paid off by the year’s catch. If a fisherman had done well and prices were good, he could end up with his account in credit, and use the surplus to buy food and other items needed for the winter. But if he ended up in debt, and this was not unusual, then winter supply was at the merchant’s discretion. And if the merchant chose not to make further advances, a fishing family could find itself in difficulties, and might have to seek relief from the government or a charity.

This largely cashless credit system (sometimes called the truck system) has been the subject of much debate. Traditionally, it has been seen as unfair to the producers - the fishermen – because merchants controlled both the price of supplies and the price of fish. Thus they could charge high prices for such essentials as flour and molasses, and buy fish as cheaply as possible. The system allegedly tied fishermen to merchants in an almost feudal relationship, and merchants have been seen as the exploiters, and fishing families as the oppressed. While there is truth in this picture, recent research has emphasized the essential role of merchants in the Newfoundland economy, the many risks involved in the fish business, thin profit margins and, importantly, the ability of fishermen to use the system to their advantage. The credit system certainly had its problems and disadvantages, but it did not lead inevitably to poverty and exploitation. Moreover, this stark view of the past ignores the more complex society that existed in St. John’s and other major towns, and the fact that upward social mobility was certainly possible in 19th century Newfoundland.

Poverty existed, however, and was seen as a major social problem. The basic cause was that Newfoundland had a vulnerable economy, narrowly- based, and wholly dependent on exports. Given its small internal market, Newfoundland exported virtually all it produced - dried cod fish, seal oil, and some by-products. Given its resource base, it imported much of what it consumed, especially foodstuffs and manufactured goods. So if there was a failure or a glut at home, or a market collapse or oversupply abroad, virtually everyone in the colony felt the effects. And these factors could be exacerbated by others - such as potato blight (as in the 1840s), fires, shipwrecks or illness and other personal misfortunes.

The government provided minimal assistance to the worst off, organized make-work projects such as road building, and emphasised the importance of developing agriculture - difficult in a country where the extent of good soil was limited, the growing season short, and all available hands were needed for the summer fishery. Some people simply moved away - outmigration is nothing new - but others managed to live in some comfort. Hard work year-round was a fact of life, however, in both rural and urban areas, and for both women and men.

Politics and Religion

There were those who believed that the colony’s problems could be alleviated if there was a local legislature - if Newfoundlanders could have a more direct say in their own affairs. After a prolonged campaign, the British government agreed in 1832 to institute representative government, the same system that was in place in the mainland colonies. The first House of Assembly was elected that year, with 15 members representing nine districts.10 The actual government of the colony was not elected, but appointed by the Crown, and was known as the Executive Council. Most of its members also sat in the Legislative Council, also appointed, which was the upper house of the legislature. Members of the Assembly had little direct power, other than the ability to impede or defeat legislation. This frustrated those who were ambitious, and led to frequent fights between Assembly and the Council.

These sometimes bitter and prolonged disputes reflected the divisions that existed in Newfoundland society. These were not only related to social class or status, but also to religion and ethnicity. People of Irish birth or descent were members of the Roman Catholic Church, and in1836 constituted about 51 percent of the population. Those of English and Scottish descent were mainly Protestant, and members of the Church of England (Anglican), or the Presbyterian and Methodist churches.11 This was an age when religion was central to peoples’ lives, and when there was a considerable amount of prejudice between Protestant and Catholic, and English and Irish. These tensions became reflected in public life, since by the mid-1830s the Councils were composed of mainly upper-class Protestants, while the Assembly contained a majority of Catholics who resented their exclusion from power and patronage - backed by their active and outspoken bishop, Michael Anthony Fleming, whose monument is the Roman Catholic cathedral in St. John’s.12

These problems came to a head during the middle years of the century. The central issue at that time was the introduction of responsible government,13 which the Liberal party supported and the Conservatives opposed. The Liberals represented Roman Catholic districts, and in the 1850s were supported by many Methodists as well, since they also felt excluded from power. After some very tense and stormy years, responsible government came into operation in 1855, and the Liberals formed the first administration.14 They soon ran into problems, though, and in 1861 Governor Bannerman dismissed the government (now led by John Kent) and installed the Conservatives, who very narrowly won the election that followed. There was violence in Harbour Grace and Harbour Main districts, and on the day the new Assembly met, there was a serious riot in St. John’s in which three people were killed and 20 wounded.

Newfoundlanders were shocked by what had happened. Violence at elections, which had happened frequently in some districts since 1832, now became rare.15 The major Churches largely withdrew from open political involvement, and religious and political leaders agreed on an unwritten formula designed to end denominational rivalries. Each denomination would have, according to its strength, the appropriate number and seniority of seats in the Executive Council (cabinet), the legislature and the public service.

The same principle was applied to the education system. In 1836 the legislature established a non-denominational public school system. However, it was widely believed that religion and education were inseparable, and an 1842 act created separate Roman Catholic and Protestant schools. This did not satisfy Bishop Edward Feild of the Church of England, who felt that members of his church should have their own schools. After a prolonged and at times bitter debate, in 1874 the Protestant education grant was divided, giving Methodists and Anglicans their own schools. This denominational school system was to last (mutatis mutandis) until 1997.

Confederation: the 1860s

The decade of the 1860s was dominated by two issues: poverty and confederation. Failures in the seal and cod fisheries, and difficult market conditions, caused widespread hardship. There were increasing demands for relief payments, which the government did its best to limit while at the same time looking for ways to strengthen the economy. The development of land-based resources was seen as the way to do this, and new legislation encouraged agriculture and the diversification of the rural economy. In order to find out about those resources, the government established a Geological Survey in 1864 under the leadership of Alexander Murray, who was succeeded by James P. Howley. The detailed exploration and mapping of the Newfoundland interior now began, as well as of parts of the coastline which seemed to have economic potential - such as the Baie Verte Peninsula and Notre Dame Bay, where an important copper mine opened at Tilt Cove in 1864. There was also growing interest in the promise of the island’s west coast, where the population was beginning to grow significantly. Many of the settlers came from other parts of Newfoundland, but Scots from Cape Breton settled in the Codroy Valley, Acadians in St. George’s Bay, and deserters from French fishing vessels on the Port-au-Port Peninsula. However, the coast was part of the French Treaty Shore, and the French government objected to economic development there on the grounds that it would interfere with their coastal fishery, small as that was by the later 19th century.

For all the enthusiasm about Newfoundland’s economic potential, there were those who thought that the colony might be better off if it joined the confederation of the British North American colonies that began to take shape in 1864. The Newfoundland government was invited to send representatives to the Quebec Conference that year. Frederic Carter and Ambrose Shea, who are now seen as Fathers of Confederation, signed the Quebec resolutions, and returned to St. John’s as supporters of the proposed confederation. But there was considerable opposition, mainly from the merchants and the Roman Catholic population. The former feared that their usual trading patterns would be disrupted, and that taxation would rise significantly, mainly to benefit mainlanders. The latter feared for the denominational school system, and being of Irish descent, associated confederation with the hated union of Ireland and England (1801). The opposition was strong enough to prevent the colony from joining the confederation when it was formed in 1867, and the issue was put to the vote in the 1869 general election. The confederates, led by Carter, were massively defeated by the anti-confederates led by Charles Fox Bennett. The result showed that Newfoundlanders believed that confederation held out few advantages for them, and that their country had all the human and natural resources that it needed to support a viable independence.16

Economic Development and the Railway

From the early 1870s to the late 1890s, the colony’s economy faced some serious difficulties. Fish and seal prices were falling, and catches were not reliable. There were few employment opportunities outside the fisheries, and out-migration was becoming a serious problem in some areas. Hence the controversial decision to build a railway which, it was hoped, would open up land-based resources to development, and stimulate mining, forest industries and agriculture - quite apart from dramatically improving communications. The contract was awarded to the New York-based Newfoundland Railway Company, and work on a narrow-gauge line to Hall’s Bay began in St. John’s in 1881.17 The company soon ran into difficulties, and in 1890 the Liberal government of Sir William Whiteway made a new deal with the Scottish-Canadian contractor Robert G. Reid. He agreed to complete the line - which had barely reached the Isthmus of Avalon - for the price of $15,600 per mile. Three years later the route was changed. Instead of going to Hall’s Bay, the line would run from the Exploits Valley across the Topsails to Deer Lake and the Bay of Islands, and on to Port aux Basques. At the same time, Reid agreed to operate the railway for ten years in return for land grants of 5,000 acres per mile. He finished the line in 1897, and the first train ran from St. John’s to Port aux Basques in June 1898. There were already branch lines to Harbour Grace and Placentia, and others were soon added.18 The railway was Newfoundland’s first megaproject.

Another strategy to improve the economy focussed on the French Treaty Shore. Whiteway wanted to see economic development there, in spite of the official French view that since their fishery was exclusive, settlement was strictly illegal, and any land-based activities were an interference with their rights. The British and Newfoundland governments contested such assertions, and during the 1870s and 1880s the Shore was brought under the control of St. John’s. Settlers received political representation, magistrates were appointed, and monies were available for schools and roads.19 Very few French vessels used the Shore by this time – the French fishery was now concentrated at St. Pierre and on the offshore banks - but so long as the ancient treaties existed, so did uncertainty.

The French Treaty Shore problem was eventually solved in 1904, as part of a general settlement of imperial and colonial disputes between Britain and France known as the entente cordiale. France agreed to give up its rights under the treaties in return for financial compensation for fishermen still using the Shore, and territorial compensation in west Africa. The French presence on the Treaty Shore had been a major cause of friction between the Newfoundland and British governments. Many Newfoundlanders deeply resented the fact that the treaties, and French pretensions, limited the colony’s sovereignty in significant ways, and prevented the full development of the island’s resources.20 Thus the French Treaty Shore dispute became a focus for the Newfoundland nationalism which was emerging in this period. Its termination in 1904 prompted popular celebrations.

Labrador and Grenfell

By the end of the 19th century, there was increasing interest in Labrador as well. Its iron deposits, water powers and forests had been identified, and only remoteness prevented their exploitation - that, and the dispute between Newfoundland and Canada over the location of the interior Labrador boundary. For most of the 19th century, though, Newfoundland treated Labrador as a place to fish, but provided very little in the way of government and administration. The population, both Aboriginal and European, was left largely to its own devices. The Hudson’s Bay Company [HBC] expanded its operations from North West River and Rigolet along the northern coast, competing in places with the trade stores run by the Moravian Mission, which also built new stations, extending its influence from Makkovik to Killinek (Port Burwell).

Another reason why Labrador was becoming better known was the publicity provided by Dr. Wilfred Grenfell. He arrived in St John’s in 1892 - to find the town in smouldering ruins after the great fire on July 8 - and sailed on to Labrador to start his lifetime of medical work among Labradorians and visiting Newfoundland fishers. He eventually established a chain of hospitals and nursing stations stretching from North West River to the Northern Peninsula, with a headquarters at St. Anthony. He spoke about Newfoundland and Labrador on the lecture circuit in North America and Britain, and wrote many books and articles. He was often critical of the colony’s leaders, and as a result was not especially popular in St. John’s.

Before Grenfell’s arrival, there were no hospitals outside St. John’s. Health care for most people was limited or non-existent, and they had often to rely on traditional remedies. Tuberculosis was rampant, and diseases linked to vitamin deficiencies widespread. Grenfell and his staff found numerous cases of beri-beri and rickets, for example, and they criticised a local diet which included - they thought - too much tea and salt, and too few vegetables. After 1900 health care in both Newfoundland and Labrador gradually improved, and there was a determined effort to deal with the tuberculosis epidemic.

New Industries: Newsprint

The years before the outbreak of war in 1914 were relatively prosperous. Fish prices improved from the late 1890s. The Bell Island iron mines provided much-needed employment, exporting ore to the steel mills at Sydney, Cape Breton. The saw milling industry expanded significantly in northeastern Newfoundland, with mills being established both on the coast (Botwood, Campbellton) and along the railway line (Benton, Terra Nova, Glenwood). The bestremembered entrepreneur is Lewis Miller, a Scot who founded Millertown and Lewisporte, and was instrumental in attracting the British newspaper magnates, the Harmsworth brothers, to Newfoundland.

The Harmsworths were looking for a secure supply of newsprint, and after lengthy negotiations with the Newfoundland government and the Reid Newfoundland Company21, decided to build a mill at Grand Falls. The legislation introduced in 1905 by the Liberal government of Sir Robert Bond gave the Harmsworths’ Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company [AND] a generous - some would say overly generous - deal.22 As with the railway contracts, it is difficult to say when the justified concession becomes a sellout. In this case, the agreement ensured that the colony had a third staple industry, and it effectively created the central Newfoundland region that we know today. The Grand Falls mill opened in 1909. The English papermaker A.E. Reed built a pulp mill at Bishop’s Falls, which opened in 1911.23

The Fishermen’s Protective Union

These deals were not uncontroversial. One of the most vocal critics was William Ford Coaker, who founded the Fishermen’s Protective Union [FPU] at Herring Neck (Notre Dame Bay) in 1908. A charismatic populist, Coaker argued that it was time that the working people of rural Newfoundland received a fair return for their labour - the union’s motto was Suum Cuique, ‘to each his own”. Coaker therefore demanded fisheries reform, and that fishermen and their families should receive fair and considerate treatment from both merchants and the government. He rapidly signed up members along the island’s northeast coast, but the FPU was opposed by the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, with the result that the union gained few members in predominantly Catholic areas. Nor were there many members on the south and west coasts, where Coaker never organized membership campaigns. Mercantile interests in St. John’s remained implacably opposed to his agenda.

Nevertheless, the FPU was for some time a force to be reckoned with. The union elected eight members to the House of Assembly in 1913, published a newspaper, and even built its own town at Port Union, Trinity Bay. The union’s successful trading company had its headquarters there, and residents had electricity long before most areas of rural Newfoundland. The FPU might have achieved more, had it not been for the outbreak of war between Britain and Germany in 1914.

The First World War

As a member of the British Empire, Newfoundland was automatically at war as well. The colony’s contribution to the war effort was remarkable. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians served with distinction in the Royal Naval Reserve, the Forestry Corps, and most famously in the Newfoundland Regiment.24 Losses were heavy, however, and the Regiment was severely damaged at Beaumont Hamel on 1 July, 1916, when its soldiers were ordered to advance into concentrated German machine gun fire. The anniversary of the battle is commemorated annually. At home, there was an enthusiastic and effective volunteer movement, which involved women throughout the country.25 However, the government had to deal with the heavy financial cost of maintaining the Regiment, the increasing difficulty of finding enough volunteers to keep it up to strength, and the strains which war placed upon society and the economy.

The Interwar Years

The need to win the war, high prices for the country’s exports, and pride in the success of the war effort helped maintain stability, in spite of bitter arguments over conscription (introduced in 1918) and accusations of profiteering by merchants, shipowners and the Reid Newfoundland Company, which operated the railway and coastal steamers. When the war ended though, it did not take long for serious problems to emerge. Fish prices began to fall, markets became tight, banks restricted credit,26 and many businesses found themselves in difficulties. The cost of the war had driven up the public debt by a large amount, and the government’s ability to respond constructively to poverty and unemployment was constrained by the cost of meeting interest payments. Even so, the colony continued to borrow. Political life became increasingly bitter and unstable, leading some Newfoundlanders to question the viability of responsible government. The arrival of a bleak period was also signalled by the Spanish Flu epidemic which devastated the Labrador coast, wiping out the Moravian mission settlement at Okak.

Nevertheless, there were positive aspects to the postwar years. In the early 1920s, a second large newsprint mill was built at Corner Brook, largely as a result of the efforts of the Reid Newfoundland Company. The project created thousands of new jobs, a new town, and transformed the economy of western Newfoundland. In central Newfoundland, the mine at Buchans opened in 1928. In 1927, the Labrador boundary dispute was settled in Newfoundland’s favour - and a number of unsuccessful attempts were then made to sell the territory in order to stabilise the colony’s finances. Canada thought the asking price was too high. Women scored a major victory when, in 1925, the legislature agreed that they could both vote and stand for election to the Assembly. This was the culmination of a long women’s suffrage campaign which had started in the late 19th century. There had been a great deal of resistance from men to this reform on the grounds that politics was a male business, and women should stay in the domestic sphere. The first woman to be elected to the legislature was Lady Helena Squires in 1928, the wife of the prime minister, Sir Richard Squires, who had himself been an opponent of women’s suffrage.

The Great Depression and Political Crisis

It was the Squires government which had to face the onslaught of the Great Depression, which began in 1929. The impact was devastating everywhere in North America. In Newfoundland and Labrador it made a bad situation worse as prices for the colony’s exports tumbled. Unemployment rose, especially in the towns, and there were increasing demands on the government for relief and make-work projects. But the government found itself in a financial mess. Its revenues, largely derived from customs duties, were hard hit as trade contracted. Yet it had to maintain payments on an ever-increasing public debt, as well as carry on the everyday business of the country. As the Depression deepened, borrowing money became more difficult, and in the end impossible. So the government slashed expenditures, laid off employees, and in this way itself contributed to the worsening crisis.

In St. John’s especially, the unemployed became increasingly restive. When accusations of corruption surfaced against Squires and some of his allies, a major demonstration took place outside the Colonial Building on April 5, 1932. It turned into a violent riot, and Squires was lucky to escape unharmed. He and his party were driven from power in the election which followed by the United Newfoundland Party led by Frederick Alderdice.

The Amulree Report

The new administration rapidly concluded that its only option was to reduce payments on the public debt (“partial default”), which now stood at about $100 million. Worried at this prospect, the British government intervened, and insisted that Newfoundland accept a royal commission of inquiry. Chaired by Lord Amulree, the royal commission reported in October 1933. In brief, it blamed the financial crisis on mismanagement, corruption, extravagance and irresponsibility, and recommended that the British government should provide financial assistance by rescheduling and guaranteeing the public debt.27 Because such intervention was incompatible with responsible government, the country should be governed by an appointed commission until it was once again “self-supporting”. Such a “rest from politics” would also provide the opportunity for the reform and reorganization of the government.

These recommendations were accepted without protest. Most Newfoundlanders, it seems, were so devastated by the Depression, and had so little faith in their politicians, that they welcomed and were thankful for help from Britain, even if it meant temporarily giving up responsible government - and everyone assumed that once the country was financially stable, responsible government would be restored. There seemed to be no other way out of the crisis. Thus the Alderdice government rammed the royal commission’s recommendations through the legislature, allowing a minimum of debate. In February 1934 the Commission of Government took office. It consisted of three Newfoundlanders and three British civil servants, and was chaired by the governor.28

The analysis provided in the Amulree Report was not altogether fair. Newfoundland faced default in the early 1930s because the public debt was too large, in the sense that the economy was unable to generate the revenues to continue full payments. Two thirds of the debt was represented by two items: building, maintaining and operating the railway, and the cost of participation in the First World War. These expenditures cannot be called irresponsible. And if the economy could not sustain the debt, this was not for want of trying. Indeed, the railway debt was the result of a major, and to some extent successful effort to diversify the economy. Moreover, the royal commission did not adequately take into account the cost of the First World War, and the unfavourable economic situation which the country had faced since 1919, and especially since 1929.29

Commission of Government

Faulty though the Amulree report was, most people were confident that the Commission government could, with British help, turn the situation around. In fact, it was as powerless as its predecessors. The government certainly promoted cooperatives, reformed the public service, and organized an expensive and controversial land settlement scheme designed to promote agriculture. Eight new settlements were created under the programme.30 It also created the Newfoundland Ranger Force, modelled on the R.C.M.P. The Rangers were stationed throughout rural Newfoundland and Labrador, and in addition to police duties, had many other responsibilities as representatives of the central government. They saw at first hand the impact of the Depression, which continued to cause severe suffering in parts of the country throughout the 1930s. Perhaps the keenest memory of the period is the six-cent dole in rural areas,31 and the indignity of being forced to eat brown flour. Dissatisfaction with the Commission government grew, and there was an explosion of anger when it allowed Bowaters - the English firm which bought the Corner Brook mill in 1938 - to acquire extensive forest lands in the Gander River area without having to build the mill there that everyone had expected.

The Second World War

The situation changed dramatically with the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Newfoundland and Labrador suddenly became prosperous places. The main reason for this was the enormous expenditures on defence installations, and the employment this generated. The Canadian government, which had overall responsibility for the defence of the region, took over the airfield at Gander and the seaplane base at Botwood, and built what is now St. John’s Airport. The Canadians later built a huge air base at Goose Bay (begun in 1941). When the United States entered the war, major bases were built at St. John’s, Argentia and Stephenville, and American detachments were also stationed at Goose Bay and Gander. By 1943 there were some 10,000 American and 6,000 Canadian personnel in Newfoundland and Labrador. Base construction provided some 20,000 jobs. Many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians enlisted in the armed forces, and many found work on the mainland. There was virtually full employment, and the government accounts climbed into surplus.

The impact of the war on the people of Newfoundland and Labrador was profound. Household incomes increased, and living standards and public health improved. The bases provided showcases of the North American way of life, and relations between the military and civilians were generally good - there was a significant number of marriages between local women and servicemen, for instance. The building of the base at Goose Bay attracted people from central and southern Labrador, who created the new town of Happy Valley which was to become Labrador’s capital. The creation of the base is seen, rightly, as marking the end of “Old Labrador.”

The National Convention

At the end of the war in 1945 there was no question that Newfoundland was “self-supporting,” and some voices began to demand the return of responsible government. However, the British government decided that this should not happen before Newfoundlanders and Labradorians had a chance carefully to consider their options - and there is no doubt that the British and Canadian governments both hoped that Confederation would emerge as a viable alternative to the restoration of responsible government. Britain wanted to be free of responsibility for Newfoundland, and during the war Canada had come to see that it had important permanent interests on the island and in Labrador, which would be best safeguarded by political union. Thus the British government announced that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians (the latter granted the franchise for the first time) would elect a national convention which would study the country’s condition, and then recommend the constitutional options to be placed on the ballot in a referendum.

Elected in June 1946, the Convention began its sessions the following September and closed in January 1948. Quite early on the members split into pro- and anti-confederate groups. Those who favoured Newfoundland joining Canada were the minority, led by Joseph R. Smallwood and F. Gordon Bradley. Those who favoured the county returning to responsible government had no clear leader, but the dominant personality was Peter J. Cashin. The Convention sent delegations to London and to Ottawa, and after long and emotional debates, finally recommended that the choice on the referendum ballot should be between responsible government and continuation of Commission government. The majority of Convention members defeated a motion by Smallwood to place confederation on the ballot as well. To the fury of the anti-confederates, the British government effectively rejected the Convention’s recommendation, and did what the confederates wanted: confederation was on the ballot.

The Referendums and Confederation

Two hard-fought and highly divisive referendums followed. The confederates argued that joining Canada was the only way to safeguard the economic gains made during the war. If people wanted to maintain and improve their standard of living, then they should rely on the Canadian welfare state, which was then coming into existence and was more generous than anything Newfoundland could afford. The anti-confederates appealed to nationalism, and argued that the country could do just as well on its own, preferably with a trade agreement with the United States. There was no need to sell out to the Canadians. At the very least, Newfoundland should negotiate confederation as an independent country, and not while it was under direct British rule.

In the first referendum, held on June 3 ,1948, responsible government won, but failed to gain an overall majority. Commission government was therefore dropped as a choice, and a second referendum took place on July 22. This time, confederation won by a 4.6 per cent majority.32 Broadly speaking, the Avalon Peninsula voted against confederation (except for the districts of Trinity South and Carbonear-Bay de Verde), and the rest of the island and Labrador in favour. After some hesitation because of the narrow majority, the Canadian government agreed to negotiate terms of union, which were settled in December. Newfoundland and Labrador33 became a new province of Canada just before midnight on March 31, 1949.

It is sometimes alleged that there was a secret plan to bring Newfoundland and Labrador into confederation, and that the second referendum was in some way rigged to produce a confederate majority. It is true that both the British and Canadian governments favoured confederation, and influenced the course of events, sometimes not very discreetly. But it has to be remembered that in the end it was Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who made the decision, and there is no evidence to support the contention that the vote was “fixed”.34

The Smallwood Government and Economic Development

The victorious confederates founded the provincial Liberal party, won the first provincial election, and formed the first provincial government, with Smallwood as premier. The demoralized anti-confederates became Progressive Conservatives,35 and did not form a government until 1972. For over 20 years, Smallwood and the Liberals reigned supreme, overseeing the integration of Newfoundland and Labrador into the Canadian federation, and seeking to modernize and industrialize a province which had fallen behind.

In terms of economic development, there were great hopes for the potential of the Labrador interior - the huge iron ore deposits, and the hydro power which could be generated by the Churchill Falls.36 Smallwood also wanted a third newsprint mill, a cement mill near Corner Brook, hydro-electric developments, and any other industries that his government could attract to the province. He promoted the continued modernization of the fisheries - as did the federal government, which has jurisdiction over this resource - and the move away from the production of saltfish to fresh frozen fish.37 The government’s ambitious agenda also included road building, electrification, and improved social services - primarily health and education. This was an agenda of forced growth, in which the provincial government was to take a lead role, assisted by federal money.

Impatient for results, Smallwood turned to the Latvian economist Alfred Valdmanis for assistance in attracting European - especially German - industrialists to invest in the province. Later, he became closely associated with two promoters from the United States, John C. Doyle and John Shaheen. To get Labrador developments off the ground, Smallwood courted British investors, particularly the eminent merchant bankers N.M. Rothschild and Sons.

The achievement was mixed. Valdmanis was caught taking kickbacks in 1954 and imprisoned, and many of the “new industries” he helped start ultimately failed, but gypsum and cement plants on the island’s west coast worked successfully for many years. Doyle - who later became a fugitive from justice in Panama - successfully developed the iron ore mine at Wabush, and later built a linerboard mill at Stephenville (early 1970s).38 Shaheen built the oil refinery at Come by Chance (completed 1976), before becoming embroiled in bankruptcy and a flurry of lawsuits. In many of these projects, however, the provincial government, and sometimes the federal government as well, invested millions of dollars, and gave additional incentives. This was the case, for instance, with the phosphorous plant at Long Harbour (1968).

Churchill Falls

Labrador seemed a different story. The iron mining industry boomed in western Labrador, where the Iron Ore Company of Canada opened a mine at Carol Lake in 1962, followed by Wabush in 1965.39 Two new towns - Labrador City and Wabush - were the result. There was also initial optimism when in 1969 the British Newfoundland Corporation (BRINCO), which controlled Churchill Falls, signed a long-term power sales contract with Hydro-Québec.40 Energy prices were low at that time, the deal seemed reasonable, and construction created thousands of short-term jobs. The deal turned sour in the mid-1970s. Energy prices began to rise steeply, but the price for Churchill Falls power is fixed until 2041. The result has been huge windfall profits for Hydro-Québec, and an inadequate return for the province, which had placed great hopes on this development. It should be noted that the project went ahead without consultation with the Innu people, who lost well over 2,000 square miles of their trapping and hunting areas to reservoirs.

Fisheries Modernization and Resettlement

The industrialization of the fisheries was based on a new product: quick frozen fish fillets and blocks produced in fish plants. The plant owners were also the owners of the trawlers which caught the fish to be processed, though they also bought directly from inshore crews. The traditional salt fishery declined rapidly, and the Newfoundland industry became almost entirely dependent on North American markets. Another major change was that people employed in the fishery, whether at sea or on land, were now paid in cash and the credit system disappeared. The fishery expanded in terms of numbers of vessels and geographical range, and catching methods became increasingly sophisticated and efficient. But the total fishing effort - Canadian and foreign - in Newfoundland and Labrador waters ultimately became so large that the fish stocks were devastated. A moratorium on cod fishing was eventually imposed in 1992.

The modernization of the fishery was associated with the controversial decision to resettle a large number of small communities, since part of the rationale was the provision of a work force in designated growth centres. Another, equally important reason was the government’s aim to provide a high level of services to as many people as possible - roads, schools, hospitals, electricity, telephones and so on. This could be done more effectively if the population became less scattered. Between 1954 and 1975, some 263 communities were abandoned, and their inhabitants relocated.41 The upheaval was profound, and not all those who moved were able to find steady employment. However, many seem to have appreciated the services which they found in their new communities.

Resettlement also occurred in Labrador, the most famous example probably being the closure of the Inuit village at Hebron in 1959, a joint decision of the provincial government and the Moravian Church. The Inuit were moved to the more southerly settlements of Nain, Hopedale and Makkovik where they adjusted only with difficulty. The stated reasons for the closure were the shortage of firewood in the Hebron area, and the difficulty of providing services so far north. During the same period, hitherto largely migratory Innu bands were encouraged to settle at Sheshatshiu and Davis Inlet.42 This dramatic change in lifestyle brought with it serious social problems.

Social and Political Change

There can be no doubt though, that in general, and despite the stresses and strains caused by resettlement, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians began to enjoy a higher standard of living and a better level of services. Family allowances and unemployment insurance boosted family incomes, the welfare safety net improved, and there was a massive investment in basic infrastructure - roads,43 rural electrification,44 schools and colleges, health facilities, water and sewer projects. Such developments, and the opportunity to work in fish plants and the service sector, had a dramatic impact on the lives of women. Their opportunities expanded, their lives became less restricted and dominated by sheer hard work, and their families became much smaller.

Smallwood’s Liberal government enjoyed great popularity as a result of the changes it administered, and it was not until the late 1960s that its hold on power began to slip. After a narrow defeat in the 1971 election, Smallwood resigned in 1972 to be replaced by the Progressive Conservatives led by Frank Moores until 1979, when he was succeeded by Brian Peckford. A major issue facing these administrations was the development and ownership of offshore oil. Exploration of the continental shelf had been going on for some time before the existence of the Hibernia field was confirmed in 1979. There was widespread hope that this new industry would end Newfoundland’s status as a “have-not province”, especially if it owned and controlled the resource. The government argued that Newfoundland had entered confederation as an independent country, and brought with it natural resources offshore, which it had not given up. Thus offshore oil and gas were the property of the province. The federal Liberal government refused to accept this position, and the question of ownership was put to the courts, which ruled in 1984 that the resource was federal. However, the federal-provincial Atlantic Accord (1985, revised 2005) provided for joint management, and the continued development of offshore oil has brought considerable economic gains to some parts of the island.

Reasserting Identities

If the Smallwood years were a period when Newfoundland and Labrador became “Canadianized”, the 70s and 80s saw a cultural revival which asserted local distinctiveness. The new provincial flag45 which replaced the Union Jack in 1980 was designed by Newfoundland artist Christopher Pratt, perhaps the best known of a group of highly talented artists who emerged in this period. The traditional music of Newfoundland and Labrador was studied and widely performed, often on non-traditional instruments, and there was an outpouring of writing on local subjects. The level of cultural activity in the province remains impressive, and it has become linked with a widespread interest in, and appreciation of the province’s history and heritage. In turn, these developments have stimulated new economic sectors, and helped the remarkable growth of the tourism industry.

The province’s Aboriginal peoples have also developed a new sense of their distinct identities, a process that began in 1972 with the foundation of the Native Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (NANL). The association included representation from the Mi’kmaq, Innu, as well as Inuit from communities of northern Labrador. The purpose of the NANL was to achieve recognition by the Federal government. Its creation marked an important turning point in the struggle for Aboriginal rights in the province.46 The pursuit of Aboriginal land claims on the island and in Labrador has cemented these identities, and has led to an impressive amount of scientific, historical and archaeological research. The first claim to be settled was that of the Labrador Inuit Association, which has signed a modern treaty with the federal and provincial governments allowing a significant degree of self-government within the territory called Nunatsiavut.

At the same time, society in Newfoundland and Labrador has become more diverse. Certainly, before confederation there were Jewish, Lebanese and Chinese communities, as well as French settlements in the St. George’s Bay and Port au Port area, but since 1949 the so-called “ethnic” component of the population has expanded to include people from Asia and Europe, and people of varied backgrounds from other Canadian provinces. Francophones have been particularly active in defending their language and culture from assimilation, and there is a growing interest in the province’s French heritage.

But while many people have chosen to come to live in Newfoundland and Labrador, many others have found it necessary to leave, or at least to move from rural areas to urban centres. One of the most striking developments of the recent past has been the urbanisation of Newfoundland society. The bulk of the island’s population now lives in the northeast Avalon Peninsula and along what has been called “the Trans-Canada Highway corridor,” making Newfoundland and Labrador the most urbanised of all the Atlantic provinces. This demographic shift reflects the blow given to the rural economy by the cod moratorium, related fishery problems, and downsizing in the woods industry,47 and the fact that new job opportunities are largely urban, or concentrated on the Avalon Peninsula.

For all the transformations that have taken place since 1949, the province still faces a economic and financial problems. Nevertheless, the oil and gas industry holds great promise, as do Labrador’s mineral resources and its hydro-electric potential. In addition, “high tech” industries, tourism and an expanding service sector, as well as a reconfigured fishery, are ushering in a new period in the province’s history. The human capital is here also, well-educated, and firmly attached to a very distinctive place with a history that shows a talent for adaptation, survival and creativity.


1. The French also abandoned St. Pierre and Miquelon in 1713. Britain returned the islands to France by the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The French Treaty Shore, from 1783 to 1904, extended from Cape St. John, on the Baie Verte Peninsula, around to Cape Ray. Before that, the limits had been at Cape Bonavista and Pointe Riche.
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2. That is, France claimed the whole Labrador peninsula, but Britain claimed the northern part.
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3. From 1825, the southern boundary of Labrador was defined as a line extending due north from the harbour of Blanc Sablon to meet the 52nd parallel, where the line extended west to the River St. John. The northern terminus was vaguely placed at the entrance to “Hudson’s Streights”. The interior boundary was not defined.
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4. The name “Newfoundland” applied both to the island and Labrador until 2001, when the name of the province was changed to “Newfoundland and Labrador.”
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5. A Crown Colony was administered by a governor and an appointed council, directly responsible to the British government. There was no legislature.
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6. The Innu were known formerly as the Montagnais and Naskapi Indians.
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7. The Moravians later established other stations at Hebron (1830), Zoar (1864), Ramah (1871), Makkovik (1896) and Killinek. (1905).
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8. Moose were introduced into Newfoundland in 1878, and then again in 1904.
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9. Root vegetables and cabbage were grown locally, and some livestock were kept - sheep, goats, cows. But hay could be in short supply, grains were not grown, and there was a heavy dependence on imported meat (salted), flour, tea and molasses. Hard bread was imported during the first half of the 19th century.
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10. No representation was provided for the south coast west of Fortune Bay, the French Treaty Shore, and Labrador. The vote was restricted to males resident in the colony for at least one year, who owned or rented a dwelling.
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11. The Methodist Church in Newfoundland became part of the United Church of Canada in 1925. There were also a few Congregational churches.
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12. Raised to the rank of Basilica in 1955.
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13. Responsible government, in essence, is the system that is in place today: The government is formed by the political party with the largest number of seats in the Assembly, and remains in power until it loses that majority, usually as a result of a general election.
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14. The first premier (the title Prime Minister was not used until 1909) was Phillip Francis Little, a lawyer who had come to Newfoundland from Prince Edward Island.
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15. Remember that the secret ballot was not introduced until 1888. Until then voting was open, each voter declaring his preference to the returning officer.
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16. Labradorians and settlers on the French Treaty Shore still had no representation in the legislature, and therefore did not vote.
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17. Narrow gauge (3.5 feet) was cheaper to build than standard gauge.
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18. A branch line programme between 1909 and 1914 added lines to Trepassey, Bonavista, Grates Cove, and Heart’s Content. A start was made on lines to Bonne Bay and the Burin Peninsula.
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19. Residents also had to pay taxes (customs duties) for the first time. There was a short-lived tax revolt at Sandy Point, then the major centre in St. George’s Bay.
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20. It should be noted that, on the whole, settlers living on the Treaty Shore got on reasonably well with the visiting French fishers.
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21. The company controlled the Grand Falls on the Exploits River, held extensive land grants in the area, and of course operated the railway which made central Newfoundland accessible.
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22. AND held 2,700 square miles of forest land, with mineral rights, on a 99-year, low-rental lease. It did not have to pay stumpage on pulpwood, and received other tax concessions.
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23. The Bishop’s Falls operation was later taken over by AND.
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24. The designation “Royal” was granted in 1917 - no other regiment received this distinction during the Great War.
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25. A few Newfoundland women served overseas as nurses.
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26. The two local private banks, the Union and the Commercial, failed in December 1894. Canadian banks immediately moved in, and Newfoundland currency became tied to the Canadian dollar.
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27. This means that the debt was to be reorganized in such a way as to reduce interest payments, but investors received a British government guarantee on their principal.
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28. It should be noted that there was a general trend towards authoritarian government during the crisis-ridden years of the 1930s. Germany, Italy and Spain are prime examples. There was a National Government in Britain, and the New Deal expanded presidential powers in the United States.
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29. The financial deficit run by the government between 1919 and 1934 approximately equalled the cost of servicing the debt accumulated during the First World War. The Amulree Commission did not point this out.
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30. Markland, Haricot, Lourdes, Brown’s Arm, Midland, Sandringham, Winterland, Point au Mal.
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31. Relief paid at the rate six cents per person per day. This was similar to the rates paid in some parts of the Maritime Provinces.
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32. First referendum: responsible, 44.6%; confederation, 41.1%; commission, 14.3%. Second referendum: responsible, 47.7%; confederation, 52.3%.
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33. The province’s official name from the year 2001. Before that time it was simply “Newfoundland”.
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34. The theme of the movie “Secret Nation”.
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35. The Commonwealth Cooperative Federation (CCF, later the New Democratic Party) was unable to establish a foothold in the new province.
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36. In 1949 these were known as the Hamilton or Grand Falls. The names Churchill Falls and Churchill River were adopted in 1965.
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37. There is no evidence that Smallwood told Newfoundlanders to “burn their boats”.
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38. Later sold to Abitibi-Price for conversion to a paper mill.
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39. IOC had started operations at Knob Lake (Schefferville), on the Québec side of the border, in 1954.
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40. Québec refused to allow Newfoundland to transmit power across its territory to other markets. The federal government would not intervene, though power (and oil and gas) is freely transmitted across other provincial boundaries. Thus the province, through BRINCO, was forced to deal with a single purchaser.
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41. The areas most affected were the southwest coast, the islands of Placentia Bay, and Bonavista and Notre Dame bays.
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42. The Davis Inlet Innu have now moved to a new settlement named Natuashish.
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43. The Trans-Canada Highway was completed in 1965. This heralded the death of the Newfoundland Railway.
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44. Made possible by the huge hydro project at Bay d’Espoir (1967).
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45. The Labrador flag was designed by Michael Martin of Cartwright in 1974.
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46. In 1975, the Innu and Inuit formed their own organizations and in 1976 NANL became incorporated as the Federation of Newfoundland Indians (FNI). The Samiajij Miawpukek reserve (Conne River) withdrew from the Federation in 1983.
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47. Also damaging to rural Newfoundland and Labrador has been the sustained attack by animal rights groups on seal harvesting.
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