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The last province

Newfoundland fights Ottawa, loves Canada

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The original voices may be fading away, but the words -- and the strong opinions behind them -- echo on, even today.

Sixty years ago on March 31, 1949, Newfoundland and Labrador became the 10th province of Canada.

The choice for Confederation was a narrow one -- 52 per cent in favour, 48 per cent opposed.

And the debate over that decision has never really ended.

"I don't think we could have joined a better country," 90-year-old Rex Collins told the St. John's Telegram. "Canada is a very generous country, a very good country. I don't think we could have done any better."

But opinions differ.

St. John's lawyer James Halley, who died last week at age 86, actively battled the pro-Confederation forces during those turbulent times in the late 1940s.

"Newfoundland has a growing cancer in its system," Halley told the CBC in 2003. "The root of our trouble is centred in the relationship between the two countries, between Newfoundland as a country and Canada."

Strong words, and sentiments that are still not entirely uncommon in the province.

From the wild west of late-night radio open-line shows to the halls of the provincial legislature, nationalist rhetoric is somewhat back in vogue.

The latest rallying cry came in last week's provincial throne speech, which announced that Newfoundland and Labrador plans to represent itself on the world stage, and will not allow Canada to speak on its behalf.

Weeks earlier, Premier Danny Williams had publicly mused about the province inking its own bilateral trade deal with the European Union, claiming the province has been "shafted" in past Canadian negotiations.

This year's throne speech was actually tame -- in 2007, its language paralleled that of Quebec's Quiet Revolution. The people of Newfoundland and Labrador will become "masters of our own house," the speech vowed.

"Our people are proud nationalists who believe it is only by affirming our identity as Newfoundlanders and Labradorians that we will realize our goal of economic equality within the federation."

The relentless focus on populist Newfoundland touchstones -- pride, the rallying of support against perceived enemies, stopping resource "giveaways" -- has paid dividends for Williams, a charismatic and whip-smart politician.

Throughout it all, he has insisted that he is seeking to tamp down any separatist sentiments. "We want to be part of Canada. Canada is a great country," the premier told reporters after the maitres-chez-nous throne speech in 2007. "But we're not going to be repeatedly slapped in the face by federal governments."

The playbook is nothing new for a Newfoundland premier, but Williams is quarterbacking the game plan with skill and panache. Pull down a maple leaf flag here, vilify a prime minister there.

Memorial University historian Sean Cadigan sees a familiar story.

"Since Confederation, politicians have used a particular form of neo-nationalist Ottawa-bashing to distract the people of Newfoundland and Labrador from the failures of provincial policies and to co-opt their support," Cadigan wrote in his just-published book, Newfoundland and Labrador: A History.

"Yet the supposed failings of Confederation for Newfoundland and Labrador -- economic dependency and underdevelopment, the undermining of a 'traditional' outport culture, the depletion of natural resources, and out-migration -- are all problems that predate (Joey) Smallwood and union with Canada."

Studies have found a wide gap between Newfoundlanders' feelings about Canada, and their views of Ottawa.

Perhaps the most comprehensive survey was conducted in 2003, as part of a provincial royal commission sometimes derisively referred to as the "Blame Canada" commission.

Unlike most other provinces, more than seven in 10 of the 1,001 respondents identified themselves as Newfoundlanders or Labradorians first, and Canadians second.

But only 12 per cent of them felt the province should leave Canada and become an independent country.

"Overall, it appears that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians made a distinction between 'Canada' and the 'federal government,'" the pollster concluded.

"More positive associations were attributed to Canada and more negative associations to the federal government. Consequently, more were satisfied with being part of Canada in general than they were with this province's relationship with the federal government... Furthermore, few disagreed that Confederation has been 'a good thing' for this province and very few felt that this province should leave Canada."

Newfoundland went bankrupt in 1933, and remained under a form of British management until joining Canada.

Times were tough. Crushing poverty was prevalent in pre-Confederation Newfoundland. Supporters of Confederation believe that union with Canada dragged Newfoundlanders into the 20th century.

Ed Roberts -- a longtime provincial Liberal cabinet minister and former lieutenant-governor -- recently recounted a story from the 1960s, when he asked then-premier Joey Smallwood about the biggest change pre- and post-Confederation.

"(Smallwood) said, 'You know, the biggest single difference is, since Confederation, I've never seen... a child that wasn't properly clothed,'" Roberts told the St. John's Telegram.

Roberts recalled Smallwood telling him "it was quite common to see children with no socks, just rubber boots, and wearing clothing made of recycled flour sacks" in some remote regions.

Six decades on, the economic times are changing. The province made news this year when it achieved so-called "have" status under the federal equalization program, while Ontario slipped into "have-not" territory.

A mélange of variables, decades in the making, combined to cultivate Newfoundland and Labrador's current economic renaissance. Most importantly, the price of oil hit dizzying heights just as local offshore projects hit peak production.

Politically, Newfoundland may be further from the mainland than ever. The province has no federal MPs on the government side in Ottawa and a poisonous relationship between the two leaders.

In other ways, the province remains unique. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are proud of where they come from -- their culture, their way of life, the sheer and sometimes tragic beauty of their harsh and difficult place.

But Canada has also opened worlds of new opportunities for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. The silent majority of them, it would seem, are happy and grateful to also be Canadian.

Rob Antle is a journalist with the St. John's Telegram.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 1, 2009 A11

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