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Author Ted Rowe on how ex-Newfoundland PM Robert Bond became ‘the greatest’ Islander

By Ted Rowe      

Ted Rowe is shortlisted for the Writers’ Trust’s Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing for his book Robert Bond: The Greatest Newfoundlander.

Author Ted Rowe chronicles the life of former Newfoundland prime minister Robert Bond in his book nominated for the $25,000 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, awarded annually for a nonfiction work. Photograph courtesy of the Writers' Trust of Canada
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The banking crisis of 1894 had been building for years. Newfoundland’s two commercial banks were unregulated, and they had been allowed to deplete their cash reserves and borrow, from the government Savings Bank and lenders in England, to fund their loans. St. John’s fish merchants appointed as bank directors (including Augustus Goodridge) were approving outsize overdrafts and loans to their own overextended businesses, and those of their colleagues.

Bond, for one, had seen the crisis coming. “There is danger great and terrible looming up in the distance not far remote,” he had warned the legislature earlier that year, “and honourable gentlemen opposite will see it when too late.”

Word of the failure of the Commercial Bank spread like wildfire that morning of Dec. 10, and depositors rushed to get their money out of the Union Bank and Savings Bank, forcing them to close their doors as well. The Savings Bank, conservatively run for over half a century, had sufficient cash to weather the storm and re-opened in a few days. The other two never did.

Bond had no money in the local banks, but still the crisis wore on his nerves. He was in to see Dr. Sinclair Tait at the beginning of 1895 complaining of dizziness and irregular heartbeat and worried about his bladder and kidneys. Tait reassured him that he had no organic problems: “Your chief trouble is nervous dyspepsia, which is causing the tumbling feeling in the region of your heart.”

Financially, Bond was secure. He and his mother had their money invested in Canadian bank stocks, worth about $25,000, which in today’s currency would not have left much change out of $1-million. Bond also had The Grange and shares in the land development company and sawmill business in Whitbourne. With his colonial secretary’s salary and presumably compensation for managing the Whitbourne company, he was able to sail through the bank failures with his wealth intact. This was significant in a shattered economy where many upper-class families had their wealth wiped out or severely impaired.

Despite his nervousness, he was free from the weight of financial pressure, allowing him as colonial secretary to keep a clear focus on solutions rather than problems, a distinct advantage in moving forward. Others, including [onetime prime minister William] Whiteway, were not so fortunate. He tried to shield himself, in part at least, from the financial fallout by a last-minute transfer of his Commercial Bank shares to a distant relative, unsuccessfully as it turned out.

The government was desperate to find new financing to bolster an economy in shambles and meet an interest payment due June 30. Britain would help, but only if Newfoundland would agree to an unrestricted commission of enquiry into its finances. Whiteway, knowing that could very well mean the end of responsible government, did not want that to happen. He turned to Canada and Mackenzie Bowell, and by the end of February worked out an arrangement for a conference on confederation.

Not everyone in the Liberal Party favoured union with Canada, but Whiteway coerced them all to get behind him, threatening to resign if they didn’t. He also had the backing of confederates like Donald Morison and, of course, [Alfred Bishop] Morine on the other side of the House. Public opinion was decidedly mixed. In fact, a full-blown anticonfederate campaign was gathering steam, along with support for Britain’s royal commission. Annexation with the United States was also an idea that had some traction, especially among those of Irish heritage with relatives in the “Boston states.”

When the time came to go to Ottawa to talk confederation, Whiteway was in no shape to head the delegation. The governor had sent word to Britain the year before that Whiteway had “gone off his head.” Now, pushed to the breaking point by events of the past few months, he was going through a full-blown nervous breakdown and under doctor’s orders to take a complete rest. Bond, just getting over a bout of nervousness himself, led the Ottawa delegation, made up of Edward Morris, Speaker George H. Emerson, and William H. Horwood, a quiet, level-headed MHA who had escaped the election trials and served as colonial secretary in the temporary [Daniel Joseph] Greene administration. All three were lawyers.

As they pushed off for Ottawa, a crowd of some 500 anti-confederates gathered at the wharf, waving the Union Jack and a crepe-draped pink, white, and green, showing their disapproval by their “grave and silent demeanour.” The leader of the Annexation Party proposed a jeer for the delegation. With that kind of send-off, the delegates may have been less than fully motivated to strike a deal with Canada.

Prime Minister Bowell, a diligent but unimaginative administrative type, seemingly with a limited grasp of the issues, headed the Canadian delegation. He was not keen to have Canada take on the financial burden of Newfoundland even though it meant gaining control of the East Coast fishing grounds, and was even less keen on having to take over the hornet’s nest that was the French Shore.

Robert Bond: The Greatest Newfoundlander, by Ted Rowe, Creative Book Publishing/Breakwater Books, March 20, 2017, 250 pp., $19.95.

With neither side especially fired with enthusiasm the conference convened in Bowell’s office on Parliament Hill on the morning of April 4. After they had all settled themselves around the table, the Newfoundland delegation put forward the terms offered by Sir Charles Tupper on his flying visit to St. John’s in 1887 as the starting point for negotiations. Those terms, by which Ottawa would assume Newfoundland’s debt and finance completion of the railway, had come from Sir John A. Macdonald, a visionary and nation builder bent on putting in place the final piece of a Canada extending from sea to sea. As the Newfoundland delegates were soon to find, Bowell was no Macdonald.

The Canadians refused Tupper’s terms and the talks bogged down right away on the question of financial benefits. Simply put, Bond had calculated the colony’s debt at $15.8-million, including contractual obligations relating to the railway. Bowell offered to take over $10.4-million, leaving the remainder for Newfoundland to service on her own. Furthermore, he wanted nothing to do with completing the railway. He offered to pay Newfoundland an annual subsidy of $465,000 upon joining the union, but by Bond’s calculation it would take some $650,000 a year just to provide the services required of a new province. They did reach agreement on a number of side issues and the Newfoundland team apparently came close to accepting Ottawa’s terms, but in the final analysis the financial gap turned out to be the deal breaker.

Canada refused to budge on the numbers, and Bond had not come to Ottawa to negotiate from a position of weakness. “Let it not be supposed for a moment that the colony is bankrupt,” he told a banquet given for the Newfoundland delegates. They were in Ottawa, he said, to find out what Canada was prepared to offer them to become part of the Dominion. “I have seen it asserted somewhere that ‘Newfoundland is today knocking at the door of the Dominion.’ That is a mistake. There is no need for her to ‘knock at the door.’ The door has been thrown open wide for twenty-eight years, and ever and anon we have heard the kindly invitation ‘Won’t you come in and join us.’” In other words, if the talks fail, it will be as much on you as on us.

Whiteway, edgy and full of anxiety, trying to deal with the anti-confederates and annexationists, was pacing back and forth in St. John’s waiting for news from Ottawa.

“When do you leave? Answer immediately,” he cabled on April 15. Then the next day: “Your presence here necessary. What causes delay in bringing conference to conclusion? Can you not get definite answer? Reply immediately as damage will be done to cause by further delay.”

The hold-up was in trying to get Britain to bridge the gap in settling Newfoundland’s debt. This part of the discussion dragged on. Finally, Canada agreed to keep up the pressure on the Colonial Office and the Newfoundland delegates packed away their papers and headed home. Britain, whose solution to the Newfoundland problem was to take control and run it as a Crown colony, turned down the request for assistance. On May 15, Morris stood in the House of Assembly to report that negotiations with Canada had failed. Confederation was off the table and Newfoundland was back to trying to repair its finances on its own. Bond had already left for Montreal on a quest to make that happen.

Ted Rowe is a real estate broker, musician, traveller, food and wine enthusiast, and community volunteer. He has written two books about Heart’s Content, North America’s pioneer telegraph cable town: Heroes & Rogues and the Story of Heart’s Content, and Connecting the Continents: Heart’s Content and the Atlantic Cable. In Newfoundland, he divides his time between St. John’s and Heart’s Content, and he spends the winter in Palm Desert, California. This piece has been excerpted and adapted from Robert Bond: The Greatest Newfoundlander, copyright © 2017 Ted Rowe. Published by Creative Book Publishing/Breakwater Books. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. The Shaughnessy Cohen Prize winner will be announced at the Politics & the Pen gala in Ottawa on May 9. writerstrust.com.

The Hill Times 

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