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Don't Tell the Newfoundlanders: The…

Don't Tell the Newfoundlanders: The True Story of Newfoundland's… (2012)

by Greg Malone

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The name of this book is not "The Lost Cause," but it should be.

An historical review: When Canada became a nation in the 1860s, Newfoundland chose not to be part of it. It remained an independent island, gradually developing its government institutions. This despite a society that was sharply divided between Protestants of English ancestry and Catholics from Ireland, as well as between "townies" (residents of St. John's, the island's only settlement larger than a village) and "baymen" (the people who lived in the "outports" along the coast away from St. John's).

The government did not always do a very effective job. The Newfoundland Railway, for instance, was a government project that required such large subsidies that it almost amounted to handing the island over to the developer, and they still didn't get very good service (Chadwick, pp. 141-142, 151, 156-157, etc.; for references, see the Bibliography below). All of this inefficiency was funded by borrowing, of a sort very reminiscent of, say, Greece in the early 2000. The bill would come due; the only question was when.

The answer turned out to be, 1933 (Noel, pp. 188-189). Newfoundland had few internal industries, little productive land, and only one real export, cod, and when the depression killed off world cod demand, Newfoundland had no income, and no ability to raise more loans, and a debt that was due at once. Without some sort of bailout, it would default. There was no way out; the depression was so bad that more than a quarter of the population was on relief (Keir, 334; Noel, p. 242).

The British didn't want a Dominion of the British Empire to go bankrupt, and so -- in effect -- Newfoundland sold itself back to Britain. The British took over the debt at a lower rate of interest, and the Dominion of Newfoundland once again became a colony. The British Colonial Office appointed a commission to run the island, hence the title "Commission of Government" (Chadwick, pp. 161-162; Noel, p. 203).

Newfoundland's position made it a key Allied base in World War II. The very fact that Newfoundland was so important to the war caused a massive improvement in the standard of living. Plus, after the war, Attlee's British government didn't want to be running any more colonies. It was time to do... something... with Newfoundland. Attlee's solution was a National Convention to decide the island's fate (Neary/O'Flaherty, p. 161). The Convention proposed two alternatives, with the people to decide in a plebiscite: A return to 1933, or continued Commission of Government. The British understandably didn't trust the former (why would a people who hadn't been able to govern themselves before, and now had gone fifteen years without a government, do any better now?) and didn't want the task of the latter. So, helped by the maneuverings of certain Newfoundlanders, of whom Joseph Smallwood was the most important, they added a third option to the referendum: Joining Canada ("Confederation"). On the first ballot, the return to 1933 won a plurality but not a majority, and the Confederation supporters managed to force a second referendum, between 1933 and Confederation -- and Confederation won. Newfoundland went on to become Canada's "Tenth Province."

For many years, many in the anti-Confederation movement insisted that there had been some sort of cheating (Long, pp. 149-150). And even now, with all those involved in the events of the time long dead, the argument continues. And Greg Malone, the author of this book, is one of those convinced that the whole thing was a set-up job.

There is some superficial evidence that this is so. There is no question but that the British put their thumbs on the scale -- hard. But this is what governments do -- they try to get the people to accept the policies of that particular government. And the rest of Malone's argument is, flatly, flawed.

For starters, he is of the opinion that Newfoundland was economically viable and capable of self-government all along; on page 4, he declares "[Newfoundland] enjoyed both good government and prosperity throughout the early decades of the twentieth century." But that is exactly what it had not done; as we saw, the debt was unsustainable, and the whole population remained mostly illiterate and was so poor that cash hardly existed outside St. John's.

When the collapse came, Malone maintains that Britain wanted to take Newfoundland back: a commission's "report... gave the British government the pretext it required to resume direct control over the Island." Malone makes it sound like the British created an excuse for occupying Newfoundland. But the report merely made a case why British control would help; it took a lot of effort to get the idea through the British parliament (Chadwick, p. 164fff.). Malone's logic is silly -- why would the British government (itself in dire financial straits) want to take on the debt of Newfoundland in return for the dubious pleasure of trying to govern a bunch of short-sighted isolationist hotheads like Mr. Malone? There was little opposition in bankrupt Newfoundland (Noel, p. 213), and Newfoundland's government approved its dissolution. It is true that premier Alderdice had said he would consult the people, and he didn't, but that promise had no force of law. The Newfoundland legislature approved its dissolution (Chadwick, p. 163).

Even if all of Malone's contentions about the Newfoundlanders' hatred of Canada were true, he really only has a case if Newfoundland were economically viable. But his own quotes show that it wasn't. On pp. 126, 183, etc., he prints economic analyses that show that Newfoundland could expect perpetual deficits; it would be a burden on the Canadian treasury. On page 202 he admits that the island's social services were inadequate and the province needed vast amounts of money. Malone seems to think a proper tax system would solve this. But you can't tax income that isn't there -- and the income wasn't there, and the cod fishery was soon to collapse....

Malone also takes a swing at the whole referendum campaign, correctly pointing out (p. 186) that many Newfoundlanders, especially in the outports, were illiterate. (And which is a big part of why Newfoundland was so dang poor in the first place!) The illiteracy of the population meant that vote-gatherers had to help them vote -- and Malone thinks the electoral officials cheated. His evidence is that the votes for Confederation came mostly from the outports, where more people were illiterate -- and more people were poor, and stood to gain more from Confederation. He has no evidence of cheating, and logic is not on his side -- if the pro-Confederation forces were going to cheat, would they not have cheated in the first referendum, which came very close to returning Newfoundland to 1933? The whole claim, frankly, makes no sense.

Newfoundland was an independent culture, and Confederation damaged their cultural heritage. This is tragic. I hate what Confederation did to Newfoundland, too. I wish the island had found a way to maintain its heritage, rather than letting Joey Smallwood (who ran Newfoundland for decades after it joined Canada, and who did his best to run it into the ground; Long, pp. 151-152, etc.) ruin it. But I am not deceived: Newfoundland needed an economic union with someone, and it couldn't be Britain, and the United States would have swamped it; Canada was the best choice available. The real answer would have been to have someone other than Smallwood take charge after that.

Malone's book really does resemble "Lost Cause" sorts of history (just as pro-Confederate historians deny that the South seceded because of slavery, Malone denies that Newfoundland went broke because it simply wasn't a viable independent state), plus it is littered with conspiracy theories. Much that he calls "secret" was in fact done above board. Much of what he calls illegal was in fact legal (Newfoundland dissolved itself, and handing Newfoundland over to Canada did not violate the Atlantic Charter -- even if the Charter had been international law, which it wasn't, Newfoundland did vote). It's a very uncomfortable book to read, at least if you aren't a Newfoundland Conspiracist yourself -- angry, aggressive, sloppy with facts, and utterly self-righteous.

If you are still interested in reading the book, I'll give you a warning: Malone builds a great deal of his argument on government documents. This is, in one way, the best part of the book; he clearly did a lot of work digging these up (and, I suspect, at least twice as much work figuring out which ones to not print). But they aren't a good read at all.

Mr. Malone claims to make his living as a satirist. Satire is supposed to be funny. This book simply isn't. When it isn't angry, it's sad.

Chadwick: St John Chadwick, Newfoundland: Island Into Province, Cambridge University Press, 1967
Keir: David Keir, The Bowring Story, The Bodley Head, 1962
Long: Gene Long, Suspended State: Newfoundland before Canada, Breakwater Books, 1999
Neary/O'Flaherty: Peter Neary and Patrick O'Flaherty, Part of the Main: An Illustrated History of Newfoundland and Labrador, Breakwater Books, 1983
Noel: S. J. R. Noel, Politics in Newfoundland, University of Toronto Press, 1971 ( )
  waltzmn | Jan 15, 2019 |
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This book is dedicated to James T. Halley,
a great Newfoundlander who believed that
his countrymen and all Canadians deserve the truth.
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"In December 1945 when the big announcement came from London, I was a law student at Dalhousie University in Halifax," James Haldley told me.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307401332, Hardcover)

The true story, drawn from official documents and hours of personal interviews, of how Newfoundland and Labrador joined Confederation and became Canada's tenth province in 1949. A rich cast of characters--hailing from Britain, America, Canada and Newfoundland--battle it out for the prize of the resource-rich, financially solvent, militarily strategic island. The twists and turns are as dramatic as any spy novel and extremely surprising, since the "official" version of Newfoundland history has held for over fifty years almost without question. Don't Tell the Newfoundlanders will change all that.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:34 -0400)

An account of how Newfoundland and Labrador became Canada's tenth province.

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