It is now time to begin our look at the premiers of Newfoundland, the most recent province to join Confederation. While in this series we have seen premiers who have had minor roles in their provinces, things are kicking off big with one of the most important premiers in Newfoundland’s history, Joey Smallwood.
Joey Smallwood was born on Dec. 24, 1900 in Gambo, Newfoundland, the eldest of 13 children. His grandfather was David Smallwood, who established a popular business making boots in St. John’s.
Growing up, his family was not well off, and dealt with poverty throughout his youth. His father was a drinker, and for much of his life, Smallwood never drank.
When he was 15, Smallwood left school to begin working at the Plaindealer, the local newspaper in St. John’s. He self-taught himself the newspaper industry, and by 1919 was one of the top journalists in the city.
He left Newfoundland in 1920 and lived in New York for the next five years where he worked for The New York Call and The New Dealer. He also did some work for The New York Times.
In 1924, Smallwood campaigned for the Socialist Party of America.
Smallwood came back to Newfoundland in 1925 and that same year, founded a newspaper in Corner Brook. It was also around this time he became a union organizer. He also married Clara Oates that year, with whom he had three children.
Back in Newfoundland, he became involved in politics for the first time. He was going to run as the Liberal candidate for Humber but stepped aside so Sir Richard Squires could run. Instead he served as the campaign manager for Squires, the Prime Minister of Newfoundland in 1928.
After Squires was elected, Smallwood became the justice of the peace for his area.
Four years later in 1932, he ran for the colonial government in Newfoundland but failed to win.
Throughout The Great Depression, Smallwood worked for various newspapers and also helped raise his profile through his popular radio program, The Barrelman, which debuted in 1937. His show spoke with pride about Newfoundland’s culture and history.
At the same time, the government and economy of the colony is in ruins. It gets bad enough that in 1934, six commissioners, three from Newfoundland and three from Britain, are made into a governing committee. This is the end of self-government for Newfoundland.
Smallwood remained with the program until 1943 when he left to start a pig farm but the show continued on the air for several more years after.
Around this time, there was talk of joining Confederation as the colony’s finances were in shambles and its population of only 313,000 was too small to be an independent colony.
Smallwood was very well known now and in 1945 he became a leading figure in pushing Newfoundland to join Canada and move away from being under British rule.
“We are not a nation. We are a medium-sized municipality, left far behind in the march of time.”
In 1946, the British government announces that there will be an election for the Newfoundland National Convention, and this convention will help the British government decide what it will do with the colony.
At the time, there are two options for Newfoundland, return to self-governing, or be ruled by a commission.
In 1946, Smallwood was elected to the Newfoundland National Convention, and was a delegate in London to talk about the future of Newfoundland. He used the proceedings to broadcast why it was a good idea for Newfoundland to join Canada, presenting a third option for residents.
This idea quickly begins to catch on throughout the island, especially among the rural residents.
In 1947, he was part of the first delegation sent to Ottawa to discuss the terms of Newfoundland joining Canada.
Smallwood then founded the Confederate Association that supported joining Canada and the Confederation option at the 1948 Newfoundland Referendums.
“Today, we are more disposed to feel that our very manhood, our very creation by God, entitles us to standards of life no lower than our brothers on the mainland.”
All of this results in his opponents calling Smallwood a traitor to the island. He states that his opponents don’t care about patriotism, they care about the money they are making off the backs of Newfoundlanders. He adds that most of those pushing for responsible government are dominated by the wealthy merchant class on the island.
“If you are not a millionaire, vote for Confederation. We are not a nation.”
On Feb. 21, 1948, Smallwood was the campaign manager for the Confederate Association, and he edited its newspaper, The Confederate. Smallwood through the party campaigned for employment insurance, family allowances, a lower cost of living and stronger pensions.
Through his efforts and charisma, he was able to push the Canada option on the ballot and that led to the referendums that voted 41.1 per cent in favour of joining Confederation. This was not enough, so a second referendum was held on July 22. In that vote, 52.3 per cent voted in favour of joining confederation.
Smallwood was then involved in the negotiating of the Terms of Union with Canada.
By this point, Smallwood was very famous and the leading political figure in the colony. In 1949, he was made the leader of the Liberal Party and in 1949, became the first premier of Newfoundland.
Years later he said,
“I didn’t want Confederation so that I could become a Canadian. Becoming a Canadian was a necessary component of Confederation but what I wanted as the uplift of the Newfoundland people.”
He would lead the province for the next 23 years, longer than anyone else in its history. He would go through six elections, ever having to face more than eight opposition MHAs in that time thanks to his massive majorities.
Almost immediately, Smallwood became known for his ability to go toe-to-toe with Ottawa. The year that Newfoundland joined Canada, was the same year that the Trans-Canada Highway Act was signed and construction began.
For the next 15 years, little progress was made on the highway in the province as Smallwood pushed back against Ottawa on the agreement. When the Trans-Canada was opened by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in B.C. in 1962, 600 kilometres of the 980 kilometre portion in Newfoundland wasn’t paved.
In 1964, Smallwood told the federal government that the province could not afford construction and it was concentrating on putting its money into other things, such as schools and hospitals. In the end, the government of Lester B. Pearson agreed to pay 90 per cent of the cost.
“That will do nicely.”
He then promised the people of the province that the highway would be finished in the province in 1965, and it was, on Nov. 27, 1965 when two convoys of cars drove over the last strip of asphalt. Smallwood was in one of those cars, while Pearson was in the other, and they met halfway on the road.
In 1949, he elevated Memorial University in St. John’s to full university status through the Memorial University Act. This proved to be a major accomplishment that lives on long after Smallwood’s death. The university is now the largest university east of Montreal.
In 1951, Smallwood launched his Economic Development Plan, which championed a welfare state in the province and was well received across the country.
His government pushed for the modernization of education and attracting outsiders through an excellent transportation network on the island. He also worked closely with industrial tycoons in the oil and mining industries, which sometimes resulted in the government ignoring shady dealings by some companies.
As premier, some criticized him for being autocratic. He sued The Telegram several times and threatened to pull advertising over stories. He also kept a strong reign on ministers and during his time the House of Assembly did not have a question period. He would attack press critics, union leaders, anyone who disagreed with him on a matter. He was also skilled with speaking, and many opposing politicians experienced his acid tongue first-hand in the House of Assembly.
Charles Lynch had been a major supporter of Smallwood for many years, part of the so-called media fan club. After he wrote a critical piece about him though, Smallwood never spoke to him again and refused to appear in any radio or television program that Lynch was a part of.
In the lane leading up from the parking lot to his house, he had hidden microphones set up so he could hear what people said about him after they left his home.
His home, called Russwood Ranch, sat on 1,400 hectares of Crown Land that Smallwood had taken for his own use. The house was paid for and furnished by friends and associates. Many would ask how Smallwood, who only made $50,000 per year, was able to afford a $1 million home.
He also had a special switchboard in his office that allowed him to plug into any conversation of his ministers without them knowing about it. He chose every candidate in every riding for the Liberals and even appointed the president of the Liberal Association in the province. In each office of his ministers, there was a loudspeaker that he could use to summon them to his office. The system only went one way though, the ministers could never ask him a question.
When Myles Murray was appointed to the cabinet, he went to his first cabinet meeting and talked about every matter that came up with enthusiasm. After the meeting, Smallwood asked if he enjoyed the meeting. Murray said he did. Smallwood then said,
“Oh, and here I thought you hadn’t enjoyed it, you were talking so much.”
Murray seldom opened his mouth afterwards at a cabinet meeting for the next 12 years.
In another incident, when a team of researchers from the national museum were sent to get several Newfoundland artifacts for a special exhibit in Ottawa, Smallwood told them they could do so. Then, once they assembled everything for shipment, he seized it and put it into a museum in Newfoundland.
He was described as a man who loved praise, and a man who wanted to be listened to.
For many in the province, Smallwood held almost a saint-level admiration among residents. His daughter remembers seeing people trying to reach out and touch him.
Smallwood would say himself in 1951,
“I’d like to go down as the greatest Newfoundlander who ever lived.”
Of course, there were those that didn’t like him and it wasn’t unusual for his house to be pelted with eggs.
In 1959, the Badger Riot occurred during the Newfoundland Loggers Strike when loggers asked the International Woodworkers of America to replace the Newfoundland Loggers Association as their representative. In response, Smallwood decertified the IWA and created legislation that nullified the right to collective bargaining rights of loggers and trade unions. The IWA then led a strike that the loggers joined.
On March 10, 1959, a member of the Newfoundland Constabulary clubbed a striker who later died. Smallwood was condemned by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and the Canadian Labour Congress over the matter. Smallwood had enough power in the province that he forbade Donald Fleming, the federal finance minister, from speaking in the province and the speech didn’t happen.
Most consider 1959 to be the most difficult year of his time as premier and it represented the beginning of a long decline in his power in the province. From this point on, there would be a split in the party and the party’s popularity would slowly decline.
At one point, a civil servant he hired personally defrauded the government for $200,000. His activities with the Javelin International Ltd. company would dog him even after his retirement as well.
Yet he still had accomplishments during the 1960s, including the Trans-Canada Highway agreement. He was also successful in the federal government agreeing to give unemployment insurance for fishermen, making them the only self-employed workers in Canada eligible for such benefits. He also built hospitals, refineries and factories. While some were successful, others were not.
Many promoters soon found that Newfoundland was a great place to head if you had some sort of scheme, because the government often gave out loans easier than in other provinces.
In Newfoundland’s first five years, Smallwood’s government adopted a policy of subsidizing rapid economic development. In that time, 20 new secondary industries were developed, 16 by firms from Germany.
It was estimated that the province lost hundreds of millions in these projects, including the oil refinery at Come By Chance.
Lester B. Pearson would call Smallwood the most complete political animal he ever met.
In 1969, Smallwood signed an agreement with Quebec that involved selling electricity from a dam at Churchill’s Falls in Labrador at a locked in rate until 2041. That fixed rate is now one-tenth the market price. Many considered this a perfect example of the greatest weakness of Smallwood, economic development. One reason for this was he didn’t like feasibility studies because he felt they put up obstacles.
That same year, Smallwood decided to retire but chose not to and ran for the leadership of the party against John Crosbie. Smallwood had his cabinet ministers attend delegate selection meetings to detail who voted for which slate of delegates. Any Crosbie delegates were brought to Smallwood’s home and told to sign affidavits supporting Smallwood.
Crosbie said later,
“You couldn’t call that campaign dirty. It transcended the word.”
When Smallwood won, one of his opponents, Ed Roberts, yelled Sieg Heil! And gave a Nazi salute at him.
By 1971, Smallwood’s government had become complacent and tired by all accounts. In the election that year, his Liberals won 20 seats and the Progressive Conservatives won 21 seats. Tom Burgess, the lone MHA from the Labrador Party, supported Smallwood, creating a deadlock in the province that lasted for three months.
Finally, in January 1972, Smallwood resigned and Progressive Conservative leader Frank Moores took over.
Smallwood was voted out as Liberal soon after.
While no longer premier, he still held an important spot in the minds of many in the province. He attended the inauguration of Richard Nixon and met Neil Armstrong there. He also greeted Cuban leader Fidel Castro when he landed in Gander in May 1973.
In 1975, he and some of his followers formed the Newfoundland Reform Liberal Party but they won only four seats in the 1975 election.
At this point, Smallwood retired for good. He said,
“No man should retire until he is buried. And when they bury me, they better put a few tons of rocks on top or I’ll be back.”
In his retirement, Smallwood wrote several books including I Chose Canada, the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador, which was a five volume work he was unable to complete before his death. Over the course of his life, he had written about 30 books on a variety of subjects.
The years after his time as premier were not always happy. Money troubles plagued him, he was sued by a printing company and then in 1984, he suffered a stroke, which would impact his health for the rest of the decade.
He was in the middle of working on the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador when it happened, and the stroke itself took his ability to speak away.
In 1986, he was awarded the Order of Canada but he felt that for bringing Newfoundland into Confederation, he should be rewarded with The Right Honourable title, as well as a knighthood.
He said of that lasting legacy in 1979,
“Of course I would have to declare instantly and emphatically, if I were
asked for my own opinion of the biggest achievement of my public life: Confederation; my part in introducing the issue and my effort in helping to bring it about.”
On Dec. 17, 1991, Smallwood died at the age of 90, having been ill health for several years.
Premier Clyde Wells said,
“No other person in our long history contributed even a fraction of what he did to the overall wellbeing of the people of this province.”
Canadian acting legend Gordon Pinsent said,
“Smallwood certainly made things happen and in this country, we don’t often see that amongst us.”
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said,
“One of Canada’s most eloquent, dynamic and forceful public figures.”
Upon his death, he was called the last Father of Confederation. His body would lie in state in the Legislature Chamber for two days. Throughout the province, flags were put at half mast.
But, his role in bringing Newfoundland into Confederation was still debated when he died. Some were happy about it, some wanted to join the United States, and some wanted to remain an independent colony or country in its own right.
Information Canadian History Museum, Canadian Encyclopedia, Canadian Personalities, Wikipedia, Heritage Newfoundland, CBC, National Post, Washington Post, Macleans, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Kingston Whig Standard, Ottawa Citizen,