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Atlantic East Coast Report

Newfoundland's Blossoming Separation Movement

By Myles Higgins
Thursday, June 30, 2005

Since Newfoundland and Labrador entered the Dominion of Canada in 1949, some in the province have questioned whether or not that decision was the right one. Fifty-six years later there are still many who wonder if, "the fix was in", so to speak, or "what would Newfoundland and Labrador be like today if we were an independent country again"?

For those too young to remember, there were two public votes on the subject of Confederation, not one. In the first vote the outcome did not see the population choose to join Canada. The ballot that year contained three options:

Confederation with Canada;

Responsible Government (Independence); and

Commission of Government,(Outside appointed rule).

The result of that vote was 44.6% for Responsible Government, 41.1% for Confederation and 14.3% for Commission of Government.

Although Responsible Government received the most votes, neither of the options had won a clear majority of public support, as a result, Commission of Government, the lowest in the poll, was dropped from the ballot and a second referendum was scheduled.

This time the result was 52.3% for Confederation and 47.7% for Responsible Government, hardly a resounding show of support. Factor in as well rumors of vote buying and ballot box tampering and the fact that a couple of ballot boxes turned up years later still unopened and uncounted. The table was set for decades of debate.

When you add it all up, the result is a situation where questioning the referendum result, and our place in Canada, has become a major pastime in the province.

Separatist rumblings have been growing in the province since the day the ballots were counted. Today you can see green white and pink Newfoundland Republic flags, which have become a symbol of separatist sentiment, flying from homes in all parts of the province. Lately, more and more people have been re-examining the contents of the Terms of Union itself. This document, signed by the governments of the province and the country, contains the official terms by which Newfoundland and Labrador’s union with Canada was formed.

Examination of the document from a legal perspective is an interesting exercise and even a cursory reading would lead one to believe that perhaps the federal government has not lived up to many of its obligations to the province as set out half a century ago.

Perhaps one of the most obvious situations is related to resource royalties in the province. Many people throughout Canada are familiar with recent changes to the Atlantic Accord which, which just passed through the senate yesterday, will see NL receive billions in revenues from offshore oil. What most people don’t realize however is that this accounts for less than 50% of the overall royalties, the remainder still goes into the federal purse. In addition to this, the province makes very little, if any revenue, from other natural resources like nickel, gold and iron ore, even though article 37 of the Terms of Union clearly states:

"All lands, mines, minerals, and royalties belonging to Newfoundland at the date of Union, and all sums then due or payable for such lands, mines, minerals, or royalties, shall belong to the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador"

Another point clearly defined, this time in article 44 of the document, clearly states:

"Canada will provide for the maintenance in the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador of appropriate reserve units of the Canadian defense forces, which will include the Newfoundland Regiment".

Currently this article is of major interest to many in the province. The town of Happy Valley Goose Bay is desparately struggling to convince the Canadian government that the military base at 5 Wing should be maintained and utilized by our own forces. As things stand today, it is clear that the spirit of this particular article is not being met. There are currently more McDonalds employees in this province than there are armed forces personnel. This might be fine if the province is attacked by the Hamburglar, but not so good if a foreign force decides Canada’s east coast would make a good entry portal to the rest of North America.

Article 32 of the act deals with the gulf ferry service. It states:

"Canada will maintain in accordance with the traffic offering a freight and passenger steamship service between North Sydney and Port aux Basques, which, on completion of a motor highway between Corner Brook and Port aux Basques, will include suitable provision for the carriage of motor vehicles"

As recently as a few years ago, Ottawa had been entertaining the notion of privatizing this ferry service, a service which provides the primary physical link between the province and the rest of the country. This ferry service is considered to be a part of the TCH itself yet just a few days ago it was prevented from running by protesting fishermen in Nova Scotia. The federal government did nothing to stop the protest. Would they have done something if a section of the TCH leading into one of the other provinces was blocked by a protest group for the best part of a day?

Another point of contention is article 31. This article encompasses most public services in the province and specifies that the government of Canada would assume responsibility for the following:

(a) the Newfoundland Railway, including steamship and other marine services;

(b) The Newfoundland Hotel, if requested by the Government of the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador within six months from the date of Union:

(c) postal and publicly owned telecommunication services;

(d) civil aviation, including Gander Airport;

(e) customs and excise;

(f) defense;

(g) protection and encouragement of fisheries and operation of bait services;

(h) geological, topographical, geodetic, and hydrographic surveys;

(i) lighthouses, fog alarms, buoys, beacons, and other public works and services in aid of navigation and shipping;

(j) marine hospitals, quarantine, and the care of shipwrecked crews;

(k) the public radio broadcasting system; and

(I) other public services similar in kind to those provided at the date of Union for the people of Canada generally.

This article contains many key areas of concern to those in the province.

Section (a) clearly identifies the railway as being one of the services to be managed by the federal government after Confederation. As many in the province will remember, when it was decided by Ottawa that the running of this railway was no longer feasible, the government of the day was obligated to make reparations to the province for its retirement. In exchange for provincial agreement to dismantle rail services the federa l government instituted the "Roads for Rails" program. This saw money flow from Ottawa to improve the provinces road network in preparation for the loss of the railway.

Clearly the federal government at the time was fully aware of its obligations as set out in article 31 of the Terms of Union. But what about their obligations related to some of the other items identified in the same article?

Section (b) The Newfoundland hotel. This hotel was privatized years ago.

Section (c) Postal and Publicly owned telecommunications services. Currently most postal outlets are privately run in the province and in recent years, when some of these have shut down, the federal government has not stepped in to replace them and the provinces telecommunications systems are now privately run.

Section (d) Civil aviation, including Gander Airport. Civil aviation in the province is a private enterprise. Gander airport itself was sold by the federal government. What guarantee s or concessions did the province get for this breach of contract?

Section (f) defense. The level of defense, as addressed previously, is a clear issue in the province and one that could have a detrimental effect on the entire nation and the continent as a whole. It is clear that we are a nation who’s front door is wide open to anyone who would like to use it.

Section (g) protection and encouragement of fisheries and operation of bait services. This particular section is a sore point for many separatists and anyone else in the province who feels they have been wronged by Ottawa.

The argument people in the province are making is that Ottawa has not provided adequate protection or management of this valuable and renewable resource, and in fact, has mismanaged it to the point where the cod fishery, which was the backbone of Newfoundland’s economy at the time of confederation, is now dead. Rather than protect these stocks, Ottawa issued quota after quota to foreign fleets in exchange for auto plants, textile products and aerospace contracts in other parts of the country.

When the fishery was closed in 1992 income support for those displaced by the loss of the industry was provided to cover the 10 years it was expected to take for the stocks to rebuild. That time has come and gone and still there is no viable cod industry. In fact, the switch to other species like crab, at the encouragement of the federal government, has seen those stocks dwindle as well.

Section (i) lighthouses, fog alarms, buoys, beacons, and other public works and services in aid of navigation and shipping. This section clearly identifies, "works and services in aid of navigation and shipping", yet lighthouses have been closed and marine weather services have been moved out of the province to other locales. Every year the number of federal employees in the province becomes less and less.

There are many other examples like these throughout our short hist ory as a Canadian province, the list is a long one. Some feel that material and multiple breeches of contract have taken place and are continuing. The current feeling is that Ottawa should be pushed to rectify the situation so the province can become an equal partner in Confederation or that a case for nullification of the Terms of Union should be brought before the Supreme Court of Canada.

While there has always been a segment of the population who feel that we do not belong in this country, most would simply like to see the kind of fair and ethical treatment that is to be expected from a nation like Canada. Times were hard when the decision was made to become a part of the Dominion of Canada, but they were hard everywhere. The great depression had just ended a little over a decade before and Newfoundland was suffering from the fallout of WWII.

Times have changed a lot since then and as a result, it is difficult for many to believe that a Newfoundland and Labrador, which entered Canada with a financial surplus in 1949, is somehow better off fifty-six years later while running yearly deficits and staggering under an $11 billion debt.