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While the debate over the nature of Newfoundland’s future began in Newfoundland, the Canadian and British governments began their work in negotiating the Terms of Union. The Department of External Affairs headed the newly formed Interdepartmental Committee of Canada-Newfoundland Relations (ICCNR), whose purpose was to develop the Terms of Union that Canada could offer to Newfoundland. The advantages for Canada, revealed by the work of this committee, included increased population, land and natural resources along with a better strategic position in the North Atlantic triangle. On November 6, 1947, the Terms of Union were announced to the public and the debate rose in its intensity. The terms announced included the right of Newfoundland to be a province like others and to be entitled to all of the social benefits that that entailed. It also included federal government takeover of such public services as the Newfoundland Railway, Gander Airport, public broadcasting, and telegraph and ferry service.

A major stumbling block occurred when the National Convention voted that the plebiscite to be presented to the people of Newfoundland would not include confederation. The options they wanted presented were twofold — a return to responsible government or a return to the Commission Government. The Newfoundlanders who favored confederation, led by Joey Smallwood, opposed this in the National convention and took this opposition to the British government. On March 11, 1948, the British government agreed, and confederation was placed on the ballot along with the other two options.


Prime Minister Louis S. St. Laurent cuts the first line on the shield of the Arch of the Peace Tower that will bear the coat of arms of Newfoundland. Cleophas Soucy, sculptor of the Arch, and F.G. Bradley look on.

The campaign began in early spring with the pre-confederation side headed by Joey Smallwood. The opposition was divided among those who wanted responsible government, those who wanted commercial union with the United States, and those who favored full independence. The results of the first plebiscite were 44% for responsible government, 41% for confederation and 14% for Commission Government. The second vote was only between the choice for confederation and that for responsible government. The bitterness that had characterized the first referendum was intensified throughout the second campaign. The island became divided over religious, geographical and economic lines. The final vote on July 22 saw 52% voting for confederation with Canada and 47% for responsible government. The confederates had won, but the celebrations were muted by the small number of votes separating the two sides. The negotiations began again in earnest, and the Terms of Union finally agreed upon on December 11, 1948. Confederation was declared on March 31, 1949.

The debate over Newfoundland’s march to confederation continued even after it became Canada’s tenth province. The split in the population along with its historic differences have left many Newfoundlanders even today questioning their union with Canada. Without the changes brought on by World War II, it is hard to believe that confederation would have occurred in 1949. The Canadian government, especially the Department of External Affairs, realized Newfoundland’s importance in the post-war period, and believed that Canada needed the inclusion of Newfoundland in order to enhance Canada’s international position. The records of this story are well covered in the holding of the Government Archives Division of the National Archives of Canada. The majority of the records can be found in the papers of the Department of External Affairs (Record Group 25), of the Privy Council Office (Record Group 2), and of the Department of Finance (Record Group 19).

Paulette Dozois
Government Archives Division

First published in The Archivist, Magazine of the National Archives of Canada,
November-December 1989 Vol. 16 - No. 6.