An Anniversary, An Election, and Resurgent Regionalism: The Canadian Nation-State in 2019

By Shannon Conway

To mark Newfoundland’s 35th anniversary of confederation in 1984, Newfoundland philosopher F.L. Jackson, published Newfoundland in Canada: A People in Search of a Polity, wherein he laid forth a polemic on the paltry development of Newfoundland society after Confederation. Building his core argument around culture, the book concluded that the province was “simply not making a go of it.”[1]

This year marks Newfoundland and Labrador’s 70th anniversary of union with Canada. Newfoundland in Canada still reads as if it were a recent publication.[2]

Jackson’s take is not just relevant for Newfoundland and Labrador today, but for any province concerned about regional identities and economies. Last month’s election and its aftermath, for example, witnessed a rise in regional alienation, from the West (notably Alberta and Saskatchewan) and Quebec.

This resurgent regionalism is ‘nothing new’ in Canada, more cyclical than an aberration.[3] Nevertheless, it raises concerns of national unity and how to handle the perennial issue of regionalism within Canada.

While Newfoundland has not been a focus of current challenges, Newfoundland and Labrador are no strangers to tense regional politics. Jackson’s work from the 1980s speaks to this directly when raising what he believed to be the only political issue in Newfoundland: can the province make a go if it on its own.[4] The centrality of this question becomes clear when considering the historical agency of the province, given the political transfer of power from Great Britain to Canada; when rule over the island moved from one external power to another.

Considering the history of Newfoundland as the only Canadian province that had “previously achieved full statehood as a Dominion” before joining the larger nation-state, Jackson argued that because of this series of events Newfoundlanders “possess a strong ready-made sense of political identity and cultural uniqueness.” Jackson saw Newfoundland’s history as repeating itself “in a new context,” as the promises of Confederation had not come to fruition in the time since and he wondered whether Newfoundlanders would ever “take up the challenge to make Confederation a success.”[5]

Jackson insisted that the attitude of Newfoundlanders was limiting the development of province’s society, by holding mythic conceptions concerning economic capacity, culture, and politics.[6] Jackson stressed that Newfoundlanders must put aside “old illusions which speak of British and Canadian conspiracies” and accept that they have not “taken full responsibility for, and advantage of, the rights and privileges” as a province. This was considered to be the way forward for Newfoundland and how to make a go of it in Canada.[7]

In the 1980s, Newfoundland (as well as Quebec and Alberta) was fighting what surely felt like a losing battle with Ottawa regarding their political autonomy and cultural distinction, as the federal government at the time viewed regionalism akin to separatism, which made their rebellious use of cultural nationalism in the time since confederation readily understandable.

As Jackson steadfastly made clear, when Newfoundlanders “re-tribalise” it is seen as regionalism but when Ontario does the same it is understood to be “National Unity”; arguably this is also true for the Québécois and Albertans. With this, Jackson criticized what the “fabricators of Canadian Identity” (the federal government and policy makers) found to be appropriate “to include in their saga of the great emerging Canadian nation;” elements of regionalism rarely made the cut despite there ever-present nature in Canadian society.[8]

Regionalism can be used as a political tactic that can lie dormant and resurface when needed, hinging on a “shared outlook that can be summoned up when other structures […] fail.”[9] During the 2019 election, provinces that had historically used regionalism in this way during periods of contention with Ottawa, like Alberta and Quebec, were once again employing this tactic and it largely worked as the two provinces were, arguably, given the most media attention.

Juxtapose how these places were treated with others, such as Newfoundland, who did not deploy this tactic. Rather than fanning regional differences, Newfoundlander and Labrador expressed worry about their dire financial state, which will only worsen in coming years; they received little to no attention during the election.[10]

Tensions over regional identities have increased since the election, but, as has been repeatedly pointed out, there is a long history of this in Canada.[11] Highlights include Quebec’s secession referendums in 1980 and 1995, as well as Alberta’s heightened expression of Western alienation during the 1970s and 1980s. Yet, despite a long history of regionalism, it is new to some, particularly young and newer Canadians.

While ‘nothing new’, regionalist sentiment from the West has experienced a strong resurgence in the past year, particularly since the election began and ended, and that means something. With this resurgence, Canadian unity is on shaky ground. The West rejection of the Liberals is not new, but this seems to be less about elected seats and more about regional and national identities that go beyond party politics. So, while it may not be novel, it is not something that Ottawa can ignore; national unity is at stake when secessionist sentiment festers.

In the aftermath of the election, Alberta’s outrage was largely projected onto Newfoundlanders.[12] While many Canadians refused to vote for a Conservative party that does not uphold their political beliefs, Newfoundlanders took the brunt of this from Albertans. Claims were made that the Atlantic province is indebted to them because of the recent history of Newfoundland migration to the West. The contention between the two is quite amusing; their respective issues within Confederation are quite similar, from regional expressions of alienation to jurisdictional battles over natural resource revenue.

Though apart of Canada, Newfoundland remains on the fringes culturally, politically, socially, and economically, even after 70 years together.

The shifting national context since their union factors in as well. Canada has always struggled with its national identity, but it has been a significant focal point since the immediate postwar period when changes in the nature of states were taking place rapidly. Newfoundland joined Confederation during the early years of this era, when Canada began to re-evaluate, and take greater control over, its  national identity. Various royal commissions and task forces were rolled out by the federal government between 1950 and 1990, in an attempt to attain an unspecified, but desired, level of national unity and to ascribe a cohesive identity that began with an element of Britishness and ultimately came to be understood as multiculturalism.[13]

Jackson’s argument that Newfoundland cannot move forward in Canada if “dependency, and the cultural mentality that goes with it, remain the status quo,” remains as relevant at the province’s 70th anniversary as it did on its 35th.[14] What makes Newfoundland culture and people unique should continue, as in any province, but while moving forward the province should rid itself of its isolationist tendency toward the rest of Canada.

For the duration of Newfoundland and Labrador’s first 70 years in Canada, it has been just that – in Canada – but perhaps now the province can become a part of Canada. This notion feels equally applicable to Alberta, where instead of working in contrast to the rest of Canada perhaps the Western province can move forward and work to better be a part of Canada. Jackson’s Newfoundland in Canada sets out some reference points for how we might make this happen.

Shannon Conway is a PhD candidate in the History program at the University of Ottawa. 

[1] FL Jackson, Newfoundland in Canada: A People in Search of a Polity, (St John’s, NL: H. Cuff Publications, 1984), v. At the time of this publication Jackson was a professor in Memorial University’s Philosophy Department. Jackson followed up the publication with an updated second edition, Surviving Confederation, (St. John’s, NL: H. Cuff Publications, 1986).

[2] The province’s official name was Newfoundland until 2001 when it was changed to Newfoundland and Labrador. I adhere to the provincial name used during the period in question.

[3] Scott Matthews, “Regionalism is Nothing New,” Maclean’s, 28 October 2019, and Rosemary Barton, “Ottawa and the West – it’s déjà vu all over again,” CBC News: Politics, 7 November 2019,

[4] Jackson, Newfoundland in Canada, 9.

[5] Jackson, Newfoundland in Canada, 29 and 47.

[6] Jackson, Newfoundland in Canada, 81.

[7] Jackson, Newfoundland in Canada, 96 and 100.

[8] Jackson, Surviving Confederation, 30-31.

[9] Margaret R. Conrad and James K. Hiller, Atlantic Canada: A Region in the Making, (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2001), 6.

[10] Bob Hallett, “Here’s why Ottawa has a moral obligation to save N.L. from the fiscal cliff,” CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, 12 October 2019, Also see CBC News “Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh first to respond to Premier Dwight Ball,” CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, 17 October 2019

[11] Matthews, “Regionalism is Nothing New” and Barton, “Ottawa and the West – it’s déjà vu all over again.”

[12] Stephanie Tobin, “Online name-calling between Alberta, N.L an unexpected post-election fallout,” CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 23 October 2019,

[13] Such as: The Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences (Massey Commission), 1950-1951; the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, 1963-1969; the Task Force on Canadian Unity, 1977-1979; and the Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future (Spicer Commission), 1990-1991. As well, Canada’s multiculturalism policy was announced in 1971 and the Canadian Multiculturalism Act was passed in 1988.

[14] Jackson, Newfoundland in Canada, v; Hallett, “Here’s why Ottawa has a moral obligation to save N.L. from the fiscal cliff,” and “Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh first to respond to Premier Dwight Ball.”

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