Research article

Canada, War and Independent Newfoundland, 1914–1949

  • James K. Hiller (Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John’s, Canada)


This article addresses the impact of war on Newfoundland, including Labrador, while Newfoundland was independent from Canada, and the role of war in the eventual addition of Newfoundland as a province of Canada in 1949. Newfoundland’s small and scattered population meant that it was never a particularly prosperous place, although the railway embodied the hope of the existence of a real future. Locally, some fishing premises and farms performed well, but there was a pervasive opinion, expressed in the degree of outmigration, that one could not do well in the territory. Its leadership went through a number of changes, from responsible government with an elected assembly in 1855 to Commission of Government in the 1930s and 1940s. But the overriding issue was the Canadian Confederation of 1867, and here the Confederates had an overall advantage, given the Canadian welfare state of the late 1940s. After a referendum following the Second World War, Newfoundland joined the union as the tenth province on 30 March 1949.

Keywords: smallest colony, fisheries, First World War, Second World War, Dominion, confederation, Newfoundland, Labrador

How to Cite:

Hiller, J., (2023) “Canada, War and Independent Newfoundland, 1914–1949”, The London Journal of Canadian Studies 37(1), 1–13. doi:

Rights: Copyright © 2023, James K. Hiller



Published on
30 Dec 2023
Peer Reviewed

Introduction: the oldest colony1

Newfoundland has sometimes been regarded as Britain’s oldest colony. It was certainly one of the most vulnerable, which is why the Royal Newfoundland Regiment of Fencible Infantry was formed in 1795. Members of this regiment took part in the War of 1812 and it is recorded that ‘they fought gallantly at Fort George, Fort York, and throughout the Niagara Peninsula, and at Fort Mackinac’.2 However, despite engaging in further wars on the same side as Canada, the people of Newfoundland did not join forces with their Canadian cousins in 1867 and a united confederation was not established until 1949. Why was this? And what part was played by the impact of the two World Wars?

Newfoundland’s territory includes both the island and the continental region of Labrador. It was the smallest of the colonies of settlement to become a self-governing Dominion, in terms of its population, that is, since people were spread out over a large land area – 405,200 km2 – often in isolated pockets. The majority of the population lived in the south-east of the island, where there was a degree of political consciousness, expressed in 1869 by a refusal to confederate with the other British North American provinces that had created the Dominion of Canada in 1867.3 The island and Labrador only received colonial status in 1825, after a long period of direct rule by governors who came (until the early nineteenth century) only in the summers. An assembly and council followed in 1832 and responsible government in 1855. Even in its origins, therefore, Newfoundland was unusual. It was seen in England as a transatlantic fishery, and it took some effort to change the English mind.

Labrador was the home of Inuit, largely converted to Christianity by the Moravian Brethren. They were the most southerly Inuit in Canada. The Innu (formerly Montagnais – Naskapi) once roamed over Quebec and Labrador, but have been centralised now in the villages of Sheshatshiu and Natuashich. There is also a mixed population, characterised as Métis. This group extended towards and beyond the Quebec border, which was set near Blanc Sablon (which is in Quebec) in the south and Cape Chidley in the north, for reasons that are unclear. There is evidence of Aboriginal settlement in the entrance to the Strait of Belle Isle, but the interior boundary was undefined and awaited arbitration (by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council) in 1927 to decide where it lay. In effect, Indigenous people had no status. Labrador was seen on the island as a place to fish, nothing more, and increasing numbers of fishermen went north as the nineteenth century progressed.

The fact that most of the population lived in the south-east of the island reflected the roots of the original European settlers – in south-western England and later in south-eastern Ireland. The main Irish population was on the Avalon Peninsula, with other populations spread over the rest of the island. There was a small Scottish mercantile element, for instance, and there was a reverse migration from Cape Breton to the west coast of the island. There was some French settlement on the west coast, but it was not significant. The main migration had ended by the 1830s; however, it kept alive many memories. It is possible that the migration caused, in part at least, the rejection of confederation in 1869. Nevertheless, more important was the link to the homelands and all that it meant. Newfoundland as the ‘oldest colony’ had a real meaning, and was widely believed to be a fact, although recent scholarship has referenced Ireland.4

It was a large place and problematic in various ways. Canada was denied control over the east coast fisheries, and Newfoundland’s sole product – salt codfish – competed with Canadian fish in the Caribbean. Beyond that, Newfoundland was neither a source of a significant number of immigrants nor a significant market for produce. It was largely a backwater, although important in imperial terms for what it brought into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – the old French treaties. These gave the former the use over the so-called French Shore, which extended from Cape St John to Cape Ray and included the French islands of St Pierre and Miquelon that became a smugglers’ utopia.5 It also extended the life of the Anglo-American Convention on fisheries of 1818, which had to be arbitrated in 1908 as a result of the Newfoundland premier’s claims.6 These were serious problems. As Sir Robert Herbert put it in 1890, ‘The affairs of Newfoundland, except where they are insignificant, are imperial.’7 In short, Newfoundland brought into the twentieth century disputes that were nearing the end of their existence – old treaties that sought to regulate a fishery that had existed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The major dispute in the nineteenth century concerned the French Shore. The French held that their right to the Shore was exclusive, if temporary. In season, the Shore was patrolled by a French naval squadron, and the soldiers could with impunity regulate who fished and where they built their fishing establishments. The St John’s view – certainly after 1850 – was that Newfoundlanders could do whatever they wanted on the so-called French Shore so long as the French fishery was not disturbed. The result was a series of prolonged arguments about whether an increasing population should have police and magistrates and be represented in the House of Assembly, whether lobsters were included in the category ‘fish’, where the railway (which was built across the island in the 1880s and 1890s) should run, the application of imperial authority and so on. Not surprisingly, the dispute became a patriotic touchstone and compromise was disparaged. It also provided a scapegoat for a variety of failings.

The St John’s Daily News argued that so long as ‘the most fertile half of the Island is … under French domination … we have not Home Rule, we cannot … so long as there is a dual authority in any part of the Island’.8 In 1900 the then-premier Robert Bond said that the colony’s backwardness was ‘a national disgrace to England’ and Newfoundlanders had no need to be ashamed, ‘for we could not alter it one iota. We have been handicapped in the march of progress by imperial interdiction … and French aggression …’ Thus we ‘have been subjected to an inferiority we neither merit not feel’.9 The argument grew into a struggle against imperial indifference and hostility, symbolised by mythical tyrants – the West Country merchants, the fishing admirals and naval governors who, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, had allegedly harassed the settlers. Newfoundlanders had ‘never had a break in the 450 years of our history’, said a politician in 1947.10 However, such comments coexisted with pride in being part of the British Empire. There were certainly calls for closer relations with the United States from time to time, but the occasional royal visit was welcomed with great enthusiasm. Newfoundlanders were loyal to ‘the backbone’, as a newspaper put it in 1865.11

A British Society existed from 1837. At its peak, the Orange Order, which arrived in 1863, had 190 lodges. The first overseas company of the Church Lads’ Brigade was formed in St John’s in 1892 and the first colonial Royal Naval Reserve contingent followed in 1900. The Boy Scouts and the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire appeared in 1910 and the Legion of Frontiersmen the next year.12 Imperial honours were prized. Roman Catholics perhaps displayed their loyalty less stridently, but the Loyal Toast was drunk at the Benevolent Irish Society’s dinners and no one refused a knighthood.

All Newfoundlanders celebrated with great enthusiasm Queen Victoria’s jubilee and the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s supposed voyage to Bonavista in 1497. Indeed, the main address was given by the Roman Catholic bishop, who stated that Cabot had discovered and given to Britain ‘the New World, and her first and most ancient and loyal colony’.13 There was a royal visit that year, and loyalty to the British Empire was an important component of the Newfoundland identity. Sir Ralph Williams, who was the governor before the Great War engulfed the country, commented in 1911 that Newfoundland was ‘untainted by American ways’. ‘It is British to the core … bound to the mother country far less by ties of interest than by ties of affection.’14

The First World War

The French problem was solved in 1904 with the entente cordiale and the American difficulty by arbitration in 1908. These solutions ended disputes over foreign fishing privileges in Newfoundland waters, with the exception of St Pierre and Miquelon that remain to this day as a French exception – with fishing rights.15 But that aside, the colony had far less to complain about. And given the background, there was no question that it would send a regiment to the First World War. The governor, Sir Walter Davidson, played an unusually prominent role in that he became Chair of the Newfoundland Patriotic Association, a non-denominational, non-partisan body that managed the war effort until 1917.16 Other Newfoundlanders served as foresters in Scotland and in the Royal Navy. But the main attention has been on the appalling losses suffered by the Newfoundland Regiment on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Since then, 1 July has been observed as a special day of recollection, and the forget-me-not as a flower of remembrance.

Sir Edward Morris – later ennobled as Baron Morris – looked after these affairs.17 He was present at meetings of the Imperial War Cabinet and the Imperial War Conference, a sign that Newfoundland was accepted as an equal by other self-governing members of the Empire. But this was to change. In 1919, the fragility of the country’s position was exposed. Manoeuvring between the objections of the United States to separate Dominion representation and the justifiable expectations of the other Dominions themselves, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George decided to sacrifice the claims of Newfoundland, the least influential Dominion. The prime minister, Sir William Lloyd, returned home.

Newfoundland was not among the signatories of the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1919, nor was it on the original list of members of the League of Nations. Lloyd could be criticised for his lack of ability, but the die had already been cast. Newfoundland was obviously subordinate. As a Foreign Office official noted in 1923, ‘There are two types of British Dominion status: the major type, as exists in Canada etc. … and the minor of which hitherto Newfoundland has been unique.’18

In the colony – it did not formally change its name to ‘Dominion’ – there was no overt objection to what was really a change in status. Prime ministers continued to attend imperial conferences, but often made deprecatory remarks. Newfoundland did not apply for League membership, and allowed its foreign relations to be handled by the imperial government. Thus, Newfoundland was a member of the Commonwealth for internal purposes but had no separate international status. This was an instance in which the Great War did not mark a coming of age. There was great pride in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, as it was known from 1917, and memorials were erected at home and in Europe. The national war memorial in St John’s was unveiled by Field Marshal Douglas Hague in 1924, and ‘the fighting Newfoundlander’ certainly entered the pantheon, but the war did not create a national identity. That already existed. In fact, Newfoundland never recovered from the war.

It left a sad legacy of loss, instability and debt. Newfoundlanders turned in on themselves and, preoccupied with the country’s dismal economic and financial state, politicians had little interest in international and imperial affairs. In 1931, when the draft Statute of Westminster came before the legislature, there was much talk of strengthening, rather than loosening, ties: ‘Let the Oldest Colony once more take the lead in showing staunch and unswerving fealty in act as well as in word of mouth to Britain’s Crown.’19 The result was that Newfoundland exercised the New Zealand option and did not ratify the statute.

The critical road to confederation

By the early 1930s, Newfoundland was unable to continue full payments on a public debt of about $100 million, one-third of which represented the cost of the Great War. Alarm bells rang in Ottawa and London. It was unheard of that a British Dominion should default. Thus, the imperial government had to act, sensing that this was not a wholly Canadian affair. Indeed, the Canadian government made it clear that it was not interested in Newfoundland becoming a province or in providing a financial bailout.20

The Newfoundland Royal Commission met in 1933, chaired by Baron Amulree, and its recommendations followed a Whitehall script.21 The Newfoundland debt would be rescheduled and guaranteed by the British government – a disguised default. But since financial intervention was incompatible with Dominion status, responsible government would have to be suspended and replaced by an appointed commission that would last until the country was again self-supporting and there was a request from the people for constitutional change. It remained, legally, a Dominion. In February 1934, a commission of three Newfoundlanders and three British officials took over, and most people were prepared to accept the failure of independence. It was a unique experiment in imperial administration.22

However, the experiment had not been adequately thought through, and by the late 1930s the commission was widely unpopular, mainly because it was secretive and had failed to fulfil the inflated expectations that had accompanied its inauguration. The British government would perhaps have had to reform the system, but the Second World War intervened. And the war brought prosperity and full employment, with the building of American and Canadian military bases on the island and in Labrador. Overall, there were higher disposable incomes than ever before, and the government had a surplus large enough to make interest-free loans to the United Kingdom. There was no question that the country was once again self-supporting and that direct rule had to end. The events that followed have spawned an extensive literature, and a controversy that lasts to this day.

As Dominions Secretary, Clement Attlee visited Newfoundland in 1942 and sent out a ‘goodwill’ mission of three Members of Parliament in 1943. The MPs agreed that most Newfoundlanders opposed a return to full responsible government and that confederation was out of the question. As Lord Cranbourne, Atlee’s successor, put it, Newfoundlanders wanted to have their cake and eat it.23 British policy at this stage assumed that confederation could not happen for some time, and Canadian policy was extremely cautious. The change came in 1945, when P. A. Clutterbuck of the Dominions Office was sent to Ottawa. He was bluntly told that there was little useful assistance that Canada could offer, but was asked about confederation.

Could it be achieved without a return to responsible government? From this point on, the meeting was absorbed by the issue of confederation and an official statement was issued on 11 December 1945. There would be a national convention in which Newfoundlanders could ‘come to a free and informed decision as to their future form of government’.24 It was a calculated gamble, since all would depend on how public opinion developed in Newfoundland. The National Convention Act, passed in mid-May, provided for 45 candidates from 39 districts – and Labrador was included for the first time.

It was a strange election. Very few candidates made definite statements about where they stood, and only Joseph R. Smallwood openly espoused confederation. The voter turnout was generally low, apart from St John’s, despite Newfoundland’s growing population (see Table 1). All members had to reside in their districts. There was also a change in governor; Sir Humphrey Walwyn was replaced by Sir Gordon Macdonald, a religious, teetotal Welshman, a former Labour MP and a friend of Attlee. He was very much in favour of confederation, reflecting the views of the British government. The Canadians had established the Interdepartmental Committee on Canada–Newfoundland Relations, which was soon in touch with the small group of elected members of the Convention who favoured confederation, through the High Commissioner in St John’s who had been in place since 1941. The responsible government supporters were, in contrast, divided and disorganised; this state of affairs was to continue mutatis mutandis throughout the Convention.

Table 1

Population of Newfoundland: Selected years, 1869–2021.

Years Population
1869 146,536
1874 161,374
1884 197,335
1891 202,040
1901 220,984
1911 242,619
1921 263,033
1935 289,588
1945 321,416
1951 361,416
1966 493,396
1976 557,725
1986 568,349
1996 552,000 (estimated)
2016 519,716
2021 510,550

    Note: The French Shore population may be underestimated in the censuses prior to 1874, and that of Labrador before 1945.

The first intervention by Smallwood (Bonavista Centre) was to suggest sending a delegation to Ottawa for 28 October 1946. It was the same day that the debates of the Convention began to be broadcast, of which Smallwood was well aware. The attack on the motion was led by Michael Harrington (St John’s West), who called it premature; others followed, expressing indignation at Smallwood’s alleged insults to Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders. Finally, Smallwood’s motion was defeated and discussion was postponed until 1947. Then the Chair, Judge Fox, died on 16 November. The Convention was asked if it wanted to elect one of its members as Chair; they chose F. Gordon Bradley (Bonavista East), who had been a Confederate for many years.

The debate on Smallwood’s motion changed the atmosphere of the Convention. It created clear divisions and injected bitterness and acrimony. The Responsible Government League finally got to work, but it did not invite Peter Cashin, a leading anti-Confederate, to join, and continued to think that the British government would never allow confederation to be placed on the ballot as an alternative to responsible government. It was a bad mistake.

Many of those who favoured the resumption of responsible government were sympathetic to the argument that Newfoundland should seek close economic ties with the United States. The idea of reciprocity with the US had a long history, and many voters would sympathise with it. However, the Commission of Government refused to allow the Convention to look at tariff matters, since it was outside its terms of reference. In the end, a London delegation was elected on 19 March, of which Bradley (as Chair) was to be a member. The only other Confederate sympathiser was William J. Keough (St George’s).

The delegation left in late April 1947. In summary, the British government offered to forgive the 1917 loan (£400,000) and try to convert this sterling debt to a lower interest rate, but there was no question of any other debt adjustments. With reference to the American military bases, which had been mentioned, there was no expectation that the US would renegotiate the agreement. And there was a limit to the amount of fish and iron ore that Britain could purchase. In short, the Convention’s requests had been dismissed out of hand. ‘I hope,’ said Lord Addison (yet another Dominions Secretary), ‘you will think of us as kindly as you can when you get back.’25

The delegation to Ottawa left Newfoundland on 19 June. Bradley and Smallwood were determined to drag out the talks, obtain generous terms of union and delay the referendum until 1948. The Canadian position was initially less clear, and there were reservations about offering terms at all. However, that changed in July and draft terms gradually emerged. The central issue was financial, in that the Canadians did not want to be accused of over-generosity or else there would be political repercussions in federal–provincial relations. The delegation finally left Ottawa without final terms on 30 September, to enter a hostile environment. The Convention resumed its meetings on 10 October, and Bradley resigned as Chair in a dramatic flourish. He was replaced by John McEvoy, the third Confederate Chair.

The draft terms of union were handled by Smallwood, who dominated proceedings from 20 November until 12 December and after the Christmas break until late January. It was agreed that responsible and Commission government should be on the ballot paper, and then Smallwood moved the motion to place confederation there as well. Early in the morning of 28 January, the motion was defeated by 29 votes to 16. In fact, the number of confirmed Confederates was 12. The Convention dissolved on 29 January. As Smallwood had predicted, confederation was placed on the ballot anyway and the Confederate Association was launched.

The anti-Confederates were outraged. The British action was seen as a breach of the 1934 ‘contract’ and a repudiation of the National Convention. It made no difference. Then the Economic Union Party emerged as a rival to the Responsible Government League, seeking closer relations with the United States. It was backed by the Sunday Herald and did quite well until it became clear that there was no statement of interest from any responsible American official and in fact some hostility. Nevertheless, the League could count on numerous votes, including those of many Roman Catholics. Archbishop E. P. Roche, a Roman Catholic, had been an anti-Confederate all of his life; he feared that ‘a simple God-fearing way of life’ would be destroyed by materialism and a Protestant-based morality that would encourage divorce and mixed marriage. The Monitor, the voice of the archdiocese, called the placing of confederation on the ballot a political crime.

On 3 June, the referendum showed responsible government at 44.6, confederation at 41.1 and Commission at 14.3 per cent support. It was immediately clear that victory for the Confederates was within reach in a second referendum, and a splinter group of members of elite groups emerged, but without allegiance to Smallwood and Bradley. It was these two who fought in the second referendum, which was much dirtier than the first. The Confederates played the Catholic card, mobilising the Orange Order, and attacked the Economic Union Party, mainly for being anti-British.

The second campaign was nasty and brutish. But the final count showed 52.3 per cent votes for confederation and 47.7 for responsible government. As before, most districts off the Avalon Peninsula voted for confederation. The Economic Union Party collapsed. There were a number of attempts in London to use legalisms to dispute the result, but in the end the Confederates had a famous, if narrow, victory.

Conclusion: tied to Canada

As a result of the referendum, the independent Newfoundland came to an end. However, becoming a province did not stop its problems. Most Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans accepted the new dispensation without argument, but there was a pervasive uncertainty about the way in which it was done and accusations of skulduggery persisted for years.26 This was not without a reluctant respect for the autocratic regime that Smallwood had put in place. He was the king of Newfoundland and made himself felt in national as well as local politics. But the centre had shifted to the west, the province was virtually bankrupt, the future of the fisheries was very uncertain and mining and offshore oil seemed to be the only promising areas.

In these circumstances, there is a tendency to look back at the Smallwood years and blame him for extravagance and arguably corrupt companions, from Alfred Valdmanis to John Doyle.27 This is true enough, but there was a real problem in representing a relatively small population spread out over a huge area where so much had to be done and in a country where historical knowledge was uneven.

Newfoundland and Labrador were never vital to the old empire except in terms of geographical location. They may have been first in various ways and placed proud emphasis on their loyalty, but geography was always an essential component. If Marconi was the first to receive transatlantic transmissions in 1901, it was because Newfoundland was the closest place to England – just as the early international fishing fleets had come across to exploit what the ‘New Isle’ had to offer. There followed aviation and the Second World War. However, it was Britishness and proximity that counted. Today, without readily available help, there are real problems in terms of population, health care, education – indeed, in all the basic services. Let us hope that something short of commission government is the eventual answer.

Note on contributor

James K. Hiller came to Newfoundland as a graduate student in the mid-1960s and became a member of the Department of History of Memorial University of Newfoundland in 1972. He retired as University Research Professor in 2007 and was appointed Professor Emeritus in 2010. In 2011, he received the Newfoundland and Labrador Historical Society’s Heritage Award. James has been widely recognised for his contributions to the history of both Newfoundland and Labrador. He is a past president of the Newfoundland Historical Society, and was the academic co-ordinator of the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website. He was co-editor with Peter Neary of Newfoundland in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: Essays in Interpretation (1980). Among his other works are, with Margaret Conrad, Atlantic Canada: A Region in the Making (2001) and Robert Bond: A Political Biography (2019).

Declarations and conflicts of interest

Research ethics statement

Not applicable to this article.

Consent for publication statement

Not applicable to this article.

Conflicts of interest statement

The author declares no conflict of interest with this work. All efforts to sufficiently anonymise the author during peer review of this article have been made. The author declares no further conflicts with this article.


  1. This article is an updated version based on my two previous works: Hiller, ‘Status without stature’ and Hiller, Confederation of Newfoundland and Canada.
  2. Blake and Baker, Where Once They Stood, 21–2.
  3. Hiller, ‘Confederation defeated’.
  4. Bannister, The Rule of the Admirals.
  5. Thompson, The French Shore Problem.
  6. United Nations, ‘The North Atlantic Coast Fisheries Case’.
  7. Minute by Herbert, 21 January 1890, National Archives, London, CO 194/212, 625.
  8. The St John’s Daily News, 13 June 1898.
  9. Bond in Assembly debate, 10 March 1900, Evening Herald, 19 March 1900. See also Hiller, Robert Bond.
  10. ‘J. R. Smallwood in the National Convention’.
  11. St John’s The Patriot, 18 July 1865.
  12. Smallwood, ed., Encyclopedia, vols 1–2; Poole, ed., Encyclopedia, vols 3–4; vol. 1: 236, 267, 437–40, vol. 2: 426–7, vol. 3: 66, 381–6, and vol. 4: 27–9.
  13. Quoted in Smrz, ‘Cabot 400’, 24.
  14. Williams to Harcourt, conf., 24 April 1911, CO 194/283, 158.
  15. See Janzen, ‘France–Canada maritime boundary dispute’. The decision was controversial.
  16. O’Brien, ‘The Newfoundland Patriotic Association’.
  17. Hiller, ‘Morris, Edward Patrick’ and Hiller, ‘Lloyd, Sir William Frederick’.
  18. Addam, minute, 3 January 1923, quoted in Gilmore, Newfoundland and Dominion Status, 102.
  19. St John’s Evening Telegram, 13 March 1931.
  20. See Neary, Newfoundland in the North Atlantic World.
  21. Newfoundland Royal Commission, 1933: Report. Chaired by Baron Amulree. [London: HMSO], 1933 (Amulree Report).
  22. O’Flaherty, Lost Country.
  23. Memorandum by Cranbourne, 8 November 1943, in Bridle, ed., Documents, vol. 2, part I: 81. Much of what follows relies on this source.
  24. Statement, Hansard, Parliamentary Debates (Commons), 5th Series, 11 December 1945, 210–11.
  25. Transcript of third meeting, 7 May 1947. Hiller and Harrington, eds, The Newfoundland National Convention, vol. 2: 509.
  26. In 2001, the government changed the name of the province from Newfoundland to Newfoundland and Labrador. See, for example, Malone, Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders.
  27. Bassler, Alfred Valdmanis.


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