June 26, 1948
It was no secret that Archbishop Edward Patrick Roche, the leader of the Catholic Church in St. John’s during the referendum debates in Newfoundland in 1948 was strongly opposed to Newfoundland joining Confederation. He took every opportunity that he could to encourage “his people” to vote for Responsible Government.
The anti-confederate forces were divided between the Responsible Government League [RGL] and the Economic Union Party [EUP]. The RGL advocated a simple return to the status Newfoundland had held in 1933. A group of younger anti-confederates formed the EUP, led by Chesley Crosbie, which promoted the idea of a special economic relationship with the United States.
In contrast, the Confederate Association under Joey Smallwood and Gordon Bradley was better funded, better organized, and had an effective island-wide network. They campaigned hard and with considerable skill and confidence.
On June 3, 1948 the results of the first referendum were released. Confederation received 64,066 votes, 41.1 percent of the total, Responsible government with 69,400 votes (44.6 percent) and Commission government was last, with 22,311 votes (14.3 percent).
A second referendum was set for 22 July 1948, with Commission dropped from the ballot.
Archbishop Roche was not a happy man. He looked at the results of the first referendum only to find that areas of the province that had a significant Catholic population had voted for Confederation. He was especially displeased with the people of Marystown on the Burin peninsula who had voted for Confederation with Canada. He laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of the parish priest Reverend John Fleming.
On June 26, 1948 he wrote to the Reverend Fleming:
“Words are cheap; actions speak. In the recent referendum your people of Marystown – a majority of them – aligned themselves against the rest of the Diocese. This was due largely either to your misguided leadership or to your masterly inactivity.” 200/F/2/1
The Confederation option won a small majority over the Responsible Government choice, Confederation winning by 78,323 votes or 52.34 per cent over 71,344 or 47.66 per cent over the latter. Voter turnout was 84.89 per cent of the registered electors.
The Responsible Government option carried in seven districts, all on the Avalon Peninsula, and the Confederate vote carried in the remaining districts. The Confederates successfully picked up the vote previously given in the first referendum to the Commission of Government option. The same regional voting pattern evident in the first referendum was also present in the second referendum, with the Roman Catholic vote off the Avalon Peninsula having played a significant role in the Confederate vote.
Reverend John Fleming was not the only Catholic priest to advocate for Confederation. It is said that Joey Smallwood in 1964 on the death of the Reverend William Collins who had served in many parishes in Placentia Bay attended the wake service of Reverend Collins. At the service it is alleged that Smallwood said:
“When I die and go to the pearly gates, I will greet St. Peter and I will ask if Father Collins is sitting on the heavenly throne , if this good Confederation supporter, this priest has not been welcomed into the heavens, I too will refuse to enter.”
With the death of Joey Smallwood in 1991 the Government of Newfoundland asked the Roman Catholic Basilica parish, where Archbishop Roche is buried in the crypt, if they would host the funeral for the former premier. The Basilica parish agreed. It was the first time that the two were in the same building. The choir director said to one of the choir members, “Would you go down into the crypt and sit on Archbishop Roche’s coffin, for surely he is spinning in his grave that they have allowed Joey in his church.”
Recommended Reading: Newfoundland in the North Atlantic World, 1929-1949. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996. Peter Neary surveys the history of the commission and weighs the constitutional decision of 1949 against developments in Newfoundland during the preceding twenty years
Recommended Reading: Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders: The True Story of Newfoundland’s Confederation with Canada by Greg Malone. 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.
Recommended Reading: Newfoundland at the Crossroads by Dr. John FitzGerald. A guide through original documents to key issues in Newfoundland’s 20th-century constitutional history. This book reveals the desires of Britain and Canada to bring about Newfoundland’s union with Canada, and shows their close co-operation and the fascinating inner political workings of the confederation campaigns.
Recommended Reading: “As Loved Our Fathers” by Tom Cahill, 1974, Breakwater Books (Portugal Cove, Nfld). This play deals with emotional reaction of the members of several Newfoundland families on the night of the 1948 Referendum on the issue of Responsible Government.
Recommended Website: The 1948 Referendums: http://www.heritage.nf.ca/law/referendums.html