BORN: Gambo, Newfoundland • 24 December 1900
DIED: St John’s, Newfoundland • 17 December 1991
In the late 1950s, or so the story goes, federal Liberals approached Joey Smallwood to ask him to seek the leadership of their party. Why should he do such a thing, the Newfoundland premier asked. “I am king ofmy own little island, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted to be.”
Born into poverty, Smallwood pulled himself up by dint of his extraordinary energy. With the help of a prosperous uncle, he attended Bishop Feild College as the “poorest boy in the school, from the poorest family,” and he emerged a socialist after a truncated academic career.
He worked for newspapers in Newfoundland, in Boston, and later in New York, where he lived in flophouses while he developed his mesmerizing oratorical style by preaching the socialist gospel in countless meeting halls.
Then it was back to Newfoundland as an indifferently successful union organizer, newspaper editor, aspiring political wheeler-dealer, and, after a brief stay in England, an unsuccessful Liberal Party candidate.
The Great Depression hit Newfoundland very hard, and the dominion was obliged to abandon its self-governing status for a British-appointed Commission of Government that ruled through the Second World War.Smallwood passed these years writing the encyclopedic Boo\ ofNewfoundland, establishing himself as a popular six-nights-a-week broadcaster, and running pig farms near St John’s and Gander.
The end of the war saw Britain, itself financially strapped, anxious to be rid of the Newfoundland burden, and London decreed that a national convention should be called to decide on the island’s future.
Smallwood soon decided that confederation with Canada was the only answer to his country’s problems, and, as the sole out-and-out confederate, he won election to the convention.Badly outnumbered, Smallwood still dominated the convention, thanks largely to his effective stump debating style and the radio coverage of the sessions.
The convoluted history of events between 1946 and 1948 included negotiations with Ottawa, two referenda, and constant political infighting, but Smallwood triumphed against the odds, achieved confederation on good terms, and became Newfoundland’s premier in 1949. He had ensured his place in history for moving Canada’s boundaries eastward into the North Atlantic.
Thus began an extraordinary political career.
Capitalizing on the money that flowed from Ottawa and his long and close relationship with Liberal minister Jack Pickersgill, Smallwood won the affection and improved the life of the “toiling masses” in six elections.
He remained in power for twenty-three years and created an extraordinarily effective political and patronage machine. He tried every conceivable method to bring Newfoundland out of poverty, forcing measures on the population that he knew would be beneficial, whether they wanted them or not.
His methods were rough and almost never effective, as he naively chased after the god of industrialization, only to see his great projects end in scandal or failure.He sought to move people from the outports to more viable settlements, with the result, too often, that he transferred proud and independent fishermen from isolated poverty to urban slums.
In 1969 he struck a deal to sell the hydroelectric power of Labrador’s Churchill Falls to Quebec, but the sixty-five-year contract, though it seemed favourable at the time, turned out to be a drain on Newfoundland’s public finances.
Inevitably, by the late 1960s Smallwood’s long reign had created the impression that he was simultaneously “a deadly serious clown,” a bullying dictator, and yesterday’s man. Knowing full well that he was telling a humorous truth, he told Prime Minister Mike Pearson to wave as their car passed a cemetery: “Some of your most faithful voters are in there.
”With less fun and more ruthlessness, the old socialist used the power of the state in 1959 to crush a loggers’ union; the educated class he had created by building up Memorial University increasingly viewed him as an anachronistic throwback. He stayed too long, and after the October 1971 election Joey was gone—following an agonizing and intrigue-filled campaign.
He resigned in February 1972 but tried to come back, his efforts succeeding only in scuppering his successor’s chances to form a government. In 1977 he retired from politics once more and turned to the publication of the Encyclopedia ofNewfoundland and Labrador.
This great, expensive project nearly ended in tragic farce when Smallwood, felled by a stroke that cruelly left him without the power of speech in 1984, was slapped with writs for the printer’s bills.
Friends rallied and raised money to complete the project, but Joey died in 1991 after only three of the projected five volumes had been published.Smallwood’s energy, passion, and strong streak of puri- tanism had combined to create a unique political genius.
This last father of Confederation was one of a kind in his oratorical flair, his passion for books and learning, his polit¬ ical unscrupulousness, and his devotion to Newfoundland and “Great Canada.” We shall not see his like again.