The political wranglings that led to Confederation with Canada were won almost solely through the efforts of Joseph Smallwood - efforts which played off the silent class tensions that bubbled just beneath the surface of Newfoundland society since the days of William Coaker.
When the National Convention opened in 1946, almost two thirds of the delegates were solidly anti-Confederate, including the entire bloc from St. John's. After his motion to send a delegation to Ottawa to discuss terms of union with Canada was defeated in late 1946, Smallwood came to the conclusion that if the crusade for Confederation was to be won, it would have to be taken out of the Colonial Building in St. John's and directly to the people themselves.
His opportunity to do so came when the Commission of Government decided to record the Convention's proceedings, and then have them played over the radio every evening. Smallwood, a former radio personality, took full advantage of this development and turned the Convention into a spectacle. Solidifying the position of the pro-Confederation movement among the populace, Smallwood responded to anti-Confederate attempts to remove the microphones by stating that “to despise these microphones is to despise the people of Newfoundland.” [Peter Cashin would later label Smallwood "a communist."] Smallwood's motion to send a delegation to Ottawa eventually passed at the Convention on March 1 1947, and it was the negotiations that occurred at that time which formed the basic terms of union to be voted on as the Confederation option.
With preliminary negotiations in Ottawa on the Confederation question completed, it was now left to the National Convention to decide on Newfoundland's fate. A few days before the final vote, Smallwood made another populist plea to the microphones in the Colonial Building:
...this is not 1869. This time the people are going to know the truth. They are not going to be smothered with the lies and propaganda of 1869. It was easy enough in 1869 to bluff the people [...] but this time the anticonfederates are not going to get away with it, not even if every millionaire, half-millionaire and quarter-millionaire in the country rallies to the side of the anticonfederates. The day is gone when their money-bags will tell our people how to vote. That day is gone, and we live in a different age. Our people are no longer in the mood to bow down and worship a man just because he has somehow or other to make a great fortune for himself. They no longer measure a man's patriotism or his loyal heart by the money he has in the bank. When we say we have a stake in the country we no longer mean how much money a man has, but how many children he has, what is the size of his family, what is his love for the country. When we talk of “men of substance” today, we mean something more than money. Our people are on the march in the tens of thousands. They have formed great trade unions and co-operative societies, and cannot so easily be bluffed anymore. They have learned alot over the past few years, and they ask questions, questions they never dared ask in the bad old days. They ask questions about our vicious system of taxation. They ask questions about the cruel and oppressive cost of living. They ask questions about a system of taxation and of government that has held them down and made it impossible for a working man to live decently and rear a family by his honest earnings. Yes, our people are in the mood to ask many questions today that they never asked before. They are not so easy to bluff as our forefathers were in 1869, and our anticonfederates are going to find that out in 1948 when the referendum takes place.
But Smallwood's efforts were largely wasted on the delegates at the National Convention. The Confederation question was defeated on the floor by a vote of 29-16 the last day the Convention sat, and on January 29 1948 it was promptly dissolved. Undaunted, two days later Confederate magnate Gordon Bradley took to the airwaves with a speech written by Smallwood that damned the Convention politicians who had “thwarted the peoples' right to decide [on Confederation] for themselves,” and urged people in the outports to make their will known via a mass petition. When the petition (containing almost 50,000 names) was collected and sent to London, the British government announced on March 10 that “it would not be right to deprive the people of the opportunity of considering the matter,” and a popular referendum on Confederation was scheduled for June 3, 1948. [For their own part, the British were extremely eager to do whatever it took to get Newfoundland off its hands.]
The referendum campaigns of 1948 saw the class tensions in Newfoundland come to a head as the Confederation question was polarised between two blocs - Smallwood and the Confederates, who campaigned tirelessly across the island and appealed directly to the fishermen and other workers in the outports in a radically (by Newfoundland's standards) grassroots fashion; and the anti-Confederates, who consisted of “almost the entire business and professional class of St. John's,” as well as the Island's two pulp-and-paper companies in Grand Falls and Corner Brook (who feared an end to corporate tax exemptions should Confederation pass). Echoing Newfoundland's oldest home-grown revolutionary Sir William Coaker, Smallwood declared prior to the first referendum that “we don't expect the support of the merchant class, but we can do without them.” The Confederation debate was in many ways an open class conflict.
Unfortunately for both sides, the June 3 referendum failed to produce any clear decision, and the vote breakdown revealed just how polarising the Confederation question was:
• Responsible Government - 69,400
• Confederation - 64,006
• Commission of Government - 22,311
Following the stalemate, Commission of Government was dropped from the ballot, and a second referendum was slated for July 22, 1948. For another seven weeks the campaigns raged on (now with Newfoundland's perennial sectarian conflict between [anti-Confederate] Catholics and [Confederate] Protestants mixed into the fray), but with a turnout of 84.89%, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians at the end of July delivered the final results:
• Confederation - 78,323 [57.24%]
• Responsible Government - 71,334 [47.76%]
Confederation had barely squeaked by, but the referendum results were officially accepted by both the Canadian and British governments. Much to the dismay of the Newfoundland merchant class and Catholic nationalists in St. John's, the independent state of Newfoundland vanished forever and on April Fools' Day, 1949, Newfoundland formally became Canada's tenth province. It was one of the few instances in the island's history that the popular classes had beaten the merchants at their own political game.
As for Joey Smallwood, the man behind Confederation's curtain, biographer Richard Gwyn frames his position in the immediate aftermath of the July referendum:
Virtually single-handed, [Smallwood] had dragged Newfoundland into the twentieth century. The crazy radical had become, as Ewart Young had predicted, “the hero of the hour and of Newfoundland history.” He had also become the most powerful man on the island. Those who had once laughed at Smallwood as a “crazy radical” would have to turn to him now for patronage, position, and prestige.
This “crazy radical” would remain Newfoundland's Premier for 23 years. By the time he would leave office in 1972, so many boats had been burned under his watch that Newfoundland was unrecognisable.