When Newfoundland became Canada’s 10th province 70 years ago

This year marks 70 years since Newfoundland (officially Newfoundland and Labrador since 2001), entered into Confederation with Canada, and became the country’s tenth province.

The historic event was the culmination of negotiations which saw a squeaker yes-vote for Confederation, making the decision a contentious one.

But on Dec. 11, 1948, Joseph Smallwood, who was described by a CBC reporter on the province’s first day as the “peppery little apostle of Confederation,” signed the agreement to move forward.

The Union came into effect just before midnight on March 31, 1949. The next day ceremonies and dignitaries marked the event.

A dip into the CBC Archives tells us that from Day One, there would be some puzzlement over some of the colourful words of the newest Canadians, but the first question was just how to say the word Newfoundland properly.

CBC Radio broadcast a special, To Welcome Newfoundland, featuring music and guests, including E.J. Pratt, who hailed from Newfoundland and was introduced as the “unofficial poet laureate” of Canada.

Getting straight to the matter of language, he spoke about his fellow Newfoundlanders, whose “dialect” was “almost a closed book” to the “outsider.”

As for how to say the name of the place itself, Pratt said he’d been asked that question “at least a thousand times.”

“It must always be Newfoundland, with the accent on the last syllable, and the first ‘d’ hardly in evidence,” Pratt said.

Over the decades many Newfoundlanders have provided a simple rhyming word for remembering how to have the word roll off the tongue — “understand.”

‘Last syllable’

One such lesson came from Bob Cole. In 1967, the announcer, who would go on to be a familiar voice to Hockey Night in Canada fans, was working for the summer in Toronto.

Host Elwood Glover called upon the expertise of the St. John’s native for how to say his province’s name correctly.

“I never can get this straight,” Glover said, stumbling over the word.

Leaning on the table and looking into the camera, Cole told the audience “I understand you’re from Newfoundland.”

“Last syllable,” Glover said.

“You got it,” Cole agreed.

A dictionary of its own

In 1982, The National‘s Knowlton Nash announced that Canadians from parts other than Newfoundland would now stand a chance at deciphering some of the language unique to the province, thanks to the publication of a new dictionary.

Twenty years in the making, The Dictionary of Newfoundland English was meant to let all Canadians into the secrets of Newfoundland speech.

Dictionary editor George Story explained the origin of the Newfoundland dialect that is “just a little different.”

“You’ve got comparatively few changes in the makeup of the Newfoundland people,” Story said, adding that 98 per cent of Newfoundlanders were of Irish or west country English descent.

The dictionary, which was selling at $45 a copy — about $115 today — was looking sure to sell well. Most of the copies, however, were going to Newfoundland bookstores, and few on the mainland were interested.

However, a second, updated and much thicker version was published in 1990, and remains in print. So if, as Pratt discussed back in 1949, Canadians are puzzling over the meaning of words like “brewis” and or “hert,” it’s all there for the finding.

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