60 years ago, the Dominion of Newfoundland had just held the first of two referenda that would eventually see it join with Canada. Having been granted self-governing Dominion status in 1907, its government had encountered significant financial problems and in 1933 the Newfoundland Parliament dissolved itself and a commission of 7 persons to run the dominion was appointed by the British Government. Newfoundland is therefore one of a very small group of countries that has voluntarily given up their self-government. But by the end of the Second World War Newfoundland’s economic picture was much improved and pressure grew for a return to what was called Responsible Government. A commission was appointed to determine the way forward and the result was a referendum on June 3rd 1948 in which none of the three options, self-government, confederation with Canada or continuation of the appointed commission achieved more than 50% of the vote. A controversial second referendum was held a few weeks later on July 22nd with only the two most popular choices (self-government or confederation with Canada) on the ballot paper. Newfoundlanders chose confederation by a tiny majority.So what does this have to do with the National Library of Wales?
Well, at the time all this was going on, a Welsh-speaking former Labour MP was the Governor of Newfoundland, and his fascinating archive was recently acquired by the Welsh Political Archive at the National Library of Wales. His name was Gordon MacDonald, he was from Flintshire and served as MP for Ince, before resigning his seat to act as Controller of Fuel and Power for North Wales and the North West of England. While his name still provokes a strong reaction in Newfoundland, today he isn’t so well known in Wales.
When he was appointed as Governor of Newfoundland in January 1946, the future status of the Dominion was at the top of his agenda. The archives contain a variety of material related to his time in Newfoundland, including the visitors books to the Governor’s House, his diaries, speeches (published under the title We Love Thee Newfoundland, correspondence and photographs. The topics covered range from general administration, including strikes on the Newfoundland Railway to files related to the terms of confederation with Canada. The confederation was very controversial and MacDonald was faced with very stiff opposition from those who had favoured returning to self-government. In files marked ‘Top Secret’ we can see the various discussions between MacDonald and Ottowa which led to the eventual terms of confederation as well as warnings from local officials of possible violent protest as a result of referendum.
Following the confederation in 1949, MacDonald returned to the UK, was appointed as Paymaster General and elevated to the peerage as Baron MacDonald of Gwaenysgor. Further files in his archive relate to his later career, including his role as a delegate to the UN General Assembly, chairman of the Broadcasting Council for Wales and election campaigns including another ‘Top Secret’ letter from Prime Minister Clement Attlee warning him that a General Election would be called in October 1951.
Newfoundland has now been part of Canada for 59 years, but there is still plenty of controversy in how that came about. Questions were asked as to the role of the British Government and the local administration, whether the referenda were fair, and even whether the votes were properly counted. The Lord MacDonald of Gwaenysgor papers will no doubt provide a new seam of information to be mined in the study of the history of Canada and Newfoundland but whether it will settle any of the old arguments or open up new discussions remains to be seen.