Newfoundland Becomes Canada’s Tenth Province Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The entry of Newfoundland as Canada’s tenth province completed the process of Canadian confederation that had begun in 1867. It also concluded the process of determining Newfoundland’s status, which had included periods as a separate, self-governing dominion within the British system, as well as government by an appointed commission.

Summary of Event

Located off the eastern coast of Canada and often referred to as England’s first overseas colony, Newfoundland was the tenth and last province to enter the Canadian confederation. This event took place on March 31, 1949, and was the result of a long and often contentious historical process. Newfoundland Canada;expansion [kw]Newfoundland Becomes Canada’s Tenth Province (Mar. 31, 1949) [kw]Canada’s Tenth Province, Newfoundland Becomes (Mar. 31, 1949)[Canadas Tenth Province, Newfoundland Becomes] [kw]Province, Newfoundland Becomes Canada’s Tenth (Mar. 31, 1949) Newfoundland Canada;expansion [g]North America;Mar. 31, 1949: Newfoundland Becomes Canada’s Tenth Province[02900] [g]Canada;Mar. 31, 1949: Newfoundland Becomes Canada’s Tenth Province[02900] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Mar. 31, 1949: Newfoundland Becomes Canada’s Tenth Province[02900] Smallwood, Joseph Roberts King, William Lyon Mackenzie St. Laurent, Louis Amulree, first Baron Duplessis, Maurice

England’s colonial presence in the region dated from the arrival of Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1583. Although Newfoundland was important during its early history for its role in the Grand Banks fisheries, permanent settlement developed slowly. By the early nineteenth century, however, its population had grown to forty thousand. In 1832, representative government was established, and in 1855, responsible government was granted. (This latter term refers to a pattern of government that began in British North America in the 1830’s and 1840’s and allowed colonies located there full control over their domestic affairs.)

When Canadian confederation occurred in 1867, Newfoundland elected not to join and thereafter retained separate status within the British system. In the years that followed, five provinces—Manitoba (1870), British Columbia (1871), Prince Edward Island (1873), Alberta (1905), and Saskatchewan (1905)—joined the four original provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario, but Newfoundland remained separate.

Newfoundland’s economy, based on fishing, lumbering, and mining, flourished until the late 1920’s, when its public debt—resulting from railway construction, the costs of raising a regiment to fight in World War I, and general fiscal mismanagement—grew significantly. After the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, the situation became critical, and in 1933 a royal commission, led by the first Baron Amulree, was created by the British parliament to investigate the situation. The report that followed recommended that Newfoundland’s self-governing, dominion status be replaced by a commission form of government, in return for British financial aid. This recommendation was instituted in 1934, and during the fifteen years that followed, Newfoundland was governed by an appointed governor and six commissioners—three British and three from the colony.

By the end of the 1930’s, Newfoundland’s financial situation had undergone considerable improvement. The onset of World War II continued the process, and in 1943 a second parliamentary commission was sent to provide an updated report. Although this did not automatically lead to a change in political status, it was determined that that question should be examined again when the war ended. In 1946, another group was sent and a white paper was eventually issued that reaffirmed Newfoundland’s return to financial stability. The British government then determined that a national convention should be formed in Newfoundland to debate, and eventually put forth recommendations regarding, the future status of the area. Elections for members of the National Convention were held in June of 1946, and the process of debate and decision continued over the course of the next two years.

The debate that took place indicated strong opposition to the continuation of commission government. The two primary alternatives to this were, on one hand, a return to the responsible government and separate status that had existed prior to 1934 or, on the other hand, confederation with Canada. The chief proponent of the latter course of action was Joseph Roberts Smallwood, a local journalist and political leader, who put forward a motion in February of 1947 to send delegates to Ottawa to investigate the possible terms for confederation.

Although Smallwood’s motion passed by a 24-16 vote and communications were opened with the government of then-Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, anticonfederation sentiments remained strong. In late February, a delegation from the convention was sent to Great Britain to determine the degree of British financial assistance available should responsible government be reestablished. The results of this inquiry were not favorable. There was also at this time some support for federal union with the United States, although a motion put forward to investigate this possibility by its supporters failed by a vote of 34 to 3.

Public opinion in Canada was generally favorable regarding the incorporation of Newfoundland. Prime Minister King expressed a clear willingness to begin negotiating the terms of entry into the confederation. The strongest dissenting voice, outside Newfoundland itself, came from the provincial government of Quebec under the leadership of its premier, Maurice Duplessis, but this dissent was by no means sufficient to derail the process if Newfoundlanders themselves chose confederation.

In June of 1948, the first of two referendums was held in Newfoundland on the question of the region’s future status. The referendum contained three alternatives: extension of commission government for another five years, confederation with Canada, and return to responsible government as it had existed prior to 1934. The results were: 14 percent for continuation of commission government, 41 percent for confederation, and 44 percent for return to responsible government. A second referendum was held in July with the commission government option removed from the ballot, and this time the results were 52 percent in favor of confederation and 47 percent in favor of return to responsible government.

Following the July referendum, full discussion of the terms of confederation began with the Canadian government in Ottawa. Among the most important arrangements was the inclusion of Labrador (which had been awarded to Newfoundland as a dependency in 1927) as a part of the new province. Various other special terms—including special educational rights, special recognition of Newfoundland’s fishery laws for a period of five years, and a number of federal subsidies—were also negotiated. On December 11, 1948, the Terms of Union were officially signed, and on March 31, 1949, the enabling federal legislation was passed. The following day, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent officially led the celebration welcoming Newfoundland as Canada’s tenth province. At the same time, Smallwood, the local leader of the confederation movement, was sworn in as the province’s first premier. The entry of Newfoundland into the Dominion of Canada was now complete.

Significance

When Canadian confederation occurred in 1867, Newfoundland elected not to join. In the years that followed, a number of new provinces joined the confederation, but Newfoundland remained separate. The political events that began in 1946 and finally brought Newfoundland into the confederation three years later completed the process of uniting Canada that had started over eighty years before.

In addition, the events that culminated on March 31, 1949, brought final resolution to the question of the status of Newfoundland, which had gone through a period of responsible government and separate status within the British system (from 1855 to 1934), and a period of government by appointed commission (from 1934 to 1949). Newfoundland Canada;expansion

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blake, Raymond B. Canadians at Last: Canada Integrates Newfoundland as a Province. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1994. Covers both the historical process that led to Newfoundland joining confederation as well the history of its first decade as a province.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chadwick, St. John. Newfoundland: Island into Province. London: Cambridge University Press, 1967. Places the events surrounding Newfoundland’s joining Canadian confederation within the context of the area’s larger history, dating back to its beginnings as an English colony in the sixteenth century. Written by an individual personally involved in the events of 1946-1949.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gwyn, Richard. Smallwood: The Unlikely Revolutionary. Toronto, Ont.: McClelland and Stewart, 1968. Biography of a key figure in the events surrounding Newfoundland’s entry into Canadian confederation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnston, Penelope. “Newfoundland’s Twin Celebrations.” History Today 49, no. 12 (December, 1999): 7-8. Offers a brief summary of the events surrounding confederation, placing them in the context of the region’s history dating back to the arrival of the Vikings a thousand years earlier.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacKenzie, David. Inside the Atlantic Triangle: Canada and the Entrance of Newfoundland into Confederation, 1939-1949. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1986. Focuses on the strategic importance of Newfoundland for Canada, Great Britain and the U.S. during the period from 1939 to 1949, including the establishment of American military bases there during World War II. Provides an additional perspective for understanding the confederation process.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mayo, H. B. “Newfoundland’s Entry into the Dominion.” The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 15, no. 4 (November, 1949): 505-522. Good, concise summary of the events leading to confederation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Neary, Peter. Newfoundland in the North Atlantic World, 1929-1949. Kingston, Ont.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988. Gives special attention to the period of commission government in Newfoundland and its role in bringing about confederation.

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