“What fair and equitable basis may exist for federal union of Newfoundland and Canada?” Seventy years ago, Newfoundland decided to ask Ottawa that question.
Spelled out in the Terms of Union was the continuation of Newfoundland’s denominational school system and the right to sell margarine. The status of the Mi’kmaq of the island and the Innu and Inuit of Labrador? Not a mention.
The Constitution Act (1867) in Section 91(24) says that the federal government has jurisdiction over “Indians, and lands reserved for the Indians”. In this instance, “Indians” includes Inuit. So you’d think that the Canadian government would assume responsibility for the indigenous peoples of the new province whether or not there was explicit mention in the Terms of Union. But it didn’t happen, creating a Canadian anomaly. A province without officially recognized indigenous populations.
It isn’t that no one thought about it during negotiations. Here’s what happened, from my Putting It Back Together (1983:116).
“Subsequent to Union”
During the two weeks following September 29, 1947, the section which dealt with the Indian Act was removed, reintroduced, and then pencilled out in three different versions of the National Convention subcommittee report. No decision was made by the time of Confederation, and it was agreed to establish an Interdepartmental Committee on Newfoundland Indians and Eskimos which could “more appropriately” discuss the matter “subsequent to Union.” This committee sought an opinion “as to the precise legal extent of the federal government’s responsibility insofar as Indians and Eskimos residing in Newfoundland and Labrador are concerned” from the federal Department of Justice. In the reply of April 14, 1951, the Justice Department said, “It is the responsibility of the federal government to formulate and carry out all policies that are directed at dealing with Indian or Indian problems [sic].”
[Public Archives of Canada: Claxton Papers, Min. of Justice, Min. of Mines and Resources, 1949-1951]
So why didn’t Ottawa assume its responsibility? Joseph Smallwood said in a 1982 radio interview that he intended the Indian Act to apply. But he did not want people to lose the vote and other rights of citizenship that went with that. However, the federal government reformed the Indian Act soon after, giving status Indians most of the rights of other citizens.
The Canadian government was actively pursuing assimilation of indigenous peoples in policies and practices. So perhaps it served the purposes of both nations. Newfoundland did not lose control over people and lands to Canada. And Canada did not have to add to its responsibility toward indigenous peoples. It didn’t exactly work out as planned, as the next 70 years showed.