Life in a British Colony Transcript


Bernice Morgan: Confederation is a civil war. Like the South never forgot the Civil War. Just people in Newfoundland never forgot the Confederation bell. Everybody had an opinion. I mean, some people actually argued about it and thought about it. And there were people who left home in a rage and slammed the doors. I presume they reconciled with their families afterwards. But it was it was really emotional.


Kate Jaimet: In 1948, the people in the British colony of Newfoundland faced a choice. They could become an independent country within the British Commonwealth, or they could vote to join Canada in Confederation. 

Kathleen Knowling: St. John’s was an anti Confederate headquarters. 

Richard Cashin: Bishop O'Reilly in Corner Brook, a Irishman himself, was very pro Confederate. 

Bernice Morgan: I remember my father saying that Canadians were just Americans with the varnish rubbed off.


Kate Jaimet: How did that debate go down? Who was for independence? Who was in favor of joining Canada? And did Newfoundlanders make the right decision? This is Stories Behind the History.

Welcome to Stories Behind the History. I'm Kate Jaimet, senior editor of Canada's History Magazine. In this podcast, I speak with leading historians and witnesses to history to discover the people and events that shaped our nation. 

The year 2024 marks the 75th anniversary of Newfoundland joining Canada. It happened on March 31st, 1949. After months of passionate debate and an extremely close vote.

There are people in Newfoundland and Labrador today who remember when it was still a British colony and who lived through the referendum on Confederation. 

For this special series of episodes, I traveled to St John's, Newfoundland to interview former Premier Clyde Wells, best-selling author Bernice Morgan, artist Kathleen Knowling and former federal MP Richard Cashin, about their memories of pre confederation Newfoundland and to ask them if they think Newfoundlanders made the right choice when they joined Canada.


Flight Attendant: We do requested to remain seated with your seatbelt securely fastened until the captain has turned off that seatbelt sign and it is safe to stand on your feet. On behalf of the Porter team, we thank you for your time with us. We wish you a wonderful evening here at the Snowy St. John’s. 

Kate Jaimet: It was just before Christmas when I visited St John's, and the city looked just like it does in all the postcards with the steep and slippery snow covered streets lined with colorful wooden houses, the big ships in the harbor. And on the other side of the harbor, a rocky hill covered with evergreens. 

Before I jumped into the Confederation debate, I wanted to find out what Newfoundland was like in the 1930s and 1940s. The years leading up to the referendum. 


Clyde Wells: My name is Clyde Wells. I was born in the centre of the island of Newfoundland at a small community called Buchan's Junction. But most of my earlier life was at stations along the railway line. My father worked for the railroad in and we lived in Bishop’s Falls, and ultimately in 1944 we moved to Stephenville Crossing on the West Coast. 

We weren't landed gentry or anything and didn't know family wealth or anything of it. My father, he didn't earn very much money. I'm the second oldest of nine children. My father had found a means of building his own house by going in the woods and cutting the logs and floating them down the river and getting a saw miller to saw them by sharing half with the mill for doing it and keep other half. And out of it he built our house. So we weren't. I didn't grow up with a silver spoon. So it was there were difficult and challenging times. 

Kate Jaimet: Clyde Wells explained to me that because the British colony of Newfoundland had originated as a fishing station in the North Atlantic, the island's population of about 300,000 people were scattered along the coastline and on nearshore islands in more than a thousand small communities.


Clyde Wells: You may not have noticed Newfoundland has no counties. In Newfoundland, we operated on bays. So you had an address Greenspon Trinity Bay, Base and George, Notre Dame Bay. And the transportation — There were no roads at all in 1949. The transportation was by coastal boat. Railway ran a coastal boat service all around. So in addition to operating the railway, the railway company had the responsibility to provide transportation to all the bays and foodstuffs and freight for all of these communities that weren't connected.

So there weren't many roads. And those were really mostly horse carts. If you go outside Cornerbrook, Grand Falls and St John's, St John's was the only city in that state. Outside those three, there were not ten miles of pavement in the entire territory. 


Kate Jaimet: The depression of the 1930s hit these small outport communities hard. Looking to escape from poverty many people moved into St John's. 

Bernice Morgan: My name is Bernice Morgan. I was born here in St John's where I'm still living. I was born in 1935, February the eighth. And my parents, my father from Random Island and my mother from Cape Island, Buena Vista North fishing community, lumbering community. Came in to St John's during the Depression, young people, to work.

I had read a book. It said that there were only two kinds of people in St John's, the very extremely rich and the extremely poor. And that's not true. There was a working class and that's what we were. We had a nice two storey house. We were never hungry. We didn't have a car, we didn't have any money to spend on luxuries. But we were well-fed and well-clothed. 

Kate Jaimet: Do you remember when you were small, or did you think of yourself as being a Newfoundlander, or did you think of yourself as being part of the British Empire? Like, how did people see themselves? 

Bernice Morgan: We were very much a part of the British Empire, especially in St John's. Almost everything imported came from England. Anything good — English tweed, English suits, English Coal was better than anything you get from Canada. It was better made. The coal burned better. The war came and our people joined up. I had uncles in the Navy — British Navy. And the flags were the Union Jack. We sang God Save the King. I could still tear up singing There'll Always be an England. Yes, Yes. We were very, very British here in certainly in St John's.


Kate Jaimet: Bernice Morgan mentioned that even during the Depression there were poor people and rich people in St John's. Among those considered rich were a handful of merchant families. 

Kathleen Knowling: My name is Kathleen Knowling. I was born on December the 10th, 1927. I was born in St John's and my family owned a department store, Air and Sons. We were fortunate and I my mother was an excellent manager, but we were also fortunate because my father had a regular job and local terms. It was a very good job because he was a director of the family business. 

Outside of Newfoundland, we weren't actually that affluent, but we could run to a car. We had three meals a day and afternoon tea because that, of course, was the era when ladies had afternoon tea and you had the silver service. 

The maids at that time, you see, they had morning dresses which were colored by kind of covering apron. In the afternoon they wore black uniform dresses with a very pretty little lacy cap and the kind of fancy apron. Our maids usually came from Branch. And the girls, they had an uncle on a schooner or something. They would tie up on the wharf and then the skipper would come up to the private office and say, “My niece is on board and she's looking for a job at St John’s.” Because they were literally starving in the out course was very people were very, very poor.

As a matter of fact, one of the girls my mother had, I was saying, came from a Branch which is down the southern shore, but there was failure of fishery along the whole south coast and my mother trained her to make how to make soup, how to cook, because if you don't have food, you don't know how to cook.


Kate Jaimet: Do you remember when you were growing up? Did you feel a connection to Canada? Did you feel a connection to Great Britain and the Empire? Or did you just feel yourselves to be just Newfoundlanders? What was sort of the feeling, do you think? 

Kathleen Knowling: I think we felt very much, certainly in St. John's, and I went to church in England school, although we were Methodist, but we were taught to think that England was the the place where you had to be loyal to England.

One of my teachers I remember, visited Halifax and she came back absolutely horrified. They're not even loyal to England. 

Kate Jaimet: Do you think that was a common sentiment in St John's? 

Kathleen Knowling: I think it was probably more common in that school. I think the Roman Catholic schools had a lot of Irish nuns, so they kind of tended to think of Ireland as the kind of, you know, heaven on earth.


Richard Cashin: Richard Cashin. Born in 1937 in The Salvation Army Hospital in St John's, Newfoundland. 

Kate Jaimet: Richard Cashin comes from a prominent political family in Newfoundland and he served as a Federal Member of Parliament in the 1960s. 

Richard Cashin: My father used to say my grandfather, my great great grandfather came from New Ross Wexford shortly after the rising in Wexford. Which is the way we did come here.

Kate Jaimet: Yeah. So there was no no love of Great Britain? 

Richard Cashin: No. No particular... No. 

Kate Jaimet: Did you feel any connection to Canada? 

Richard Cashin: No connection to Canada whatsoever. Okay. No, absolutely none. Why didn't you ask me about Iran? We had nothing with them either.


Kate Jaimet: At this point, I was getting confused. If Newfoundlanders hadn't felt any particular connection to Canada, then why did they end up having a referendum on whether to join the country? To understand that I had to jump back to the mid-19th century. Newfoundland was a British colony and like the other British North American colonies, it had an elected lower house of Parliament and a system of responsible government.

But the vast colony, which including Labrador, was twice the size of Great Britain, had a unique problem. It had a small population. By 1890, there were only about 200,000 people, and that population was spread out in many hundreds of little communities scattered along the coast and on coastal islands. 

Outside of main centres like St John's. There were fewer no roads linking the communities together. And so, in the late 1800s, the government decided to build a railroad, and that was the beginning of financial ruin. I'll let Clyde Wells explain it from here. He was the Premier of Newfoundland from 1989 to 1996, and he knows a lot about the history of the province. 


Clyde Wells: There were three reasons for the public debt getting beyond the ability to service it. One was foolishly undertaking the building of a major railroad with less than 300,000 people. The railway went northwest up and then west along the northern coast, Notre Dame Bay, and then it turned southwest more down by Deer Lake, Corner Brook, and on down through Stephenville Crossing to Port aux Basques. And government ended up paying for it in the end. Although it was built by RG Reid, a private entrepreneur.

And the cost the railroad debt became excessively burdensome. On top of the railroad debt that had been accumulated, Newfoundland accumulated massive debts during the First World War because it financed a regiment, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was put together and financed by the government of Newfoundland.


Kate Jaimet: I find that unfair. You know, you were fighting for the British Empire. They should have financed it. 

Clyde Wells: But so was the rest of Canada. But the rest of Canada had a greater mass to do that. Newfoundland with less than 300,000 people at the time and with major losses at the Battle of Beaumont Hamel. It engenders and fosters patriotism. It would be unpatriotic not to be supportive when people were your allies. And so, that was a big part of it. 

And there was a third element. And the third element was local politics. The pressure to have expenditures and some politicians giving way to it. And when they built that railroad, to add to it, they then built these branch lines. You know, if you look at the map of Newfoundland, a branch line down the Bonavista Peninsula could never, ever make money. Branch line down to Placentia could never ever make money. Branch line down to Trinity could never ever make money. 


Kate Jaimet: On top of the existing debts and the unaffordable railroad came the Great Depression of the 1930s.

By 1932, Newfoundland owed $97 million, mainly to a syndicate of Canadian banks. The year before, in 1931, the British Parliament had passed the Statute of Westminster, which officially recognized Newfoundland, along with Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as self-governing, independent dominions within the British Commonwealth. 

But Newfoundland was on the verge of bankruptcy. Canada and Britain agreed to help fund Newfoundland's debt payments, while an Imperial Royal Commission of Inquiry was called to look into the situation. That Royal Commission recommended that responsible government should be suspended until Newfoundland was once again financially solvent. 

And so in 1933, the Newfoundland legislature voted to dissolve itself. 

Richard Cashin: Newfoundland was the only, as far as I know, country or region ever to voluntarily give up self-government, regardless of race or creed in 1934. 

Kate Jaimet: By early 1934, Newfoundland once again became a colony ruled by a commission of government that was made up of a governor and six commissioners, all appointed by Britain.

No one I spoke to in Newfoundland had a high opinion of those commissioners. Here's Kathleen Knowling. 


Kathleen Knowling: They were all mini dictators and, you know, they were English civil servants. They ended up here. This was probably their last posting. They lived in the Newfoundland Hotel. Mean as old boots, the whole lot of them. They had the same to have this inbred kind of meanness and snobbery.

You know, they'd have breakfast in the hotel dining room and then they'd take the milk jugs and everything back to their rooms and have a kettle there, and they'd have afternoon tea and use the milk and sugar from the breakfast. You know, that kind of petty thing there.

Kate Jaimet: But five years into the commissioner's rule came another twist of fate. The Second World War broke out in 1939, and that changed everything for Newfoundland. 

Join me for the next episode of Stories Behind the History to find out what the Second World War meant for Newfoundland and how it led to a referendum on confederation with Canada. 

The Stories Behind the History podcast is produced by Canada's History Society. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the podcast and leave us a rating or a review. It really helps others to find us. 

If you'd like to read more stories about Canadian history, why not subscribe to Canada's History Magazine? Our beautifully illustrated glossy magazine will be delivered to your home six times a year, chock full of fascinating stories written by Canada's top historians and journalists.

To subscribe to the magazine, go to Our theme music is the Red River Jig performed by Alex Kusturok from his album Métis Fiddling for Dancing. 

I’m Kate Jaimet, thanks for joining me.