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Remembering Newfoundland’s Joey Smallwood

His name may not be a household word, but Joey Smallwood ranks as one of the most durable figures in Canadian nation-building — our last “Father of Confederation” and the first Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Joey Smallwood died 20 years ago, on December 17, 1991, just a week shy of his 91st birthday. He’d had an epic life, spanning all but the last decade of the 20th century. He is being remembered in Newfoundland mostly for his almost single-handed achievement in winning his people’s consent to throw in their lot with Confederation in 1949.

I’ve always been intrigued with this remarkable character, and I always learned something new about Joey whenever I went to Newfoundland. I’ve collected the gleanings — together with material from countless interviews, articles and books written about Joey, into a new biography I have just finished writing.

Joey Smallwood: Schemer and Dreamer, will be published in August 2012 by Dundurn Press, in their Quest biography series. Here’s a bit of a peek:

“The physical grandeur of Newfoundland and the splendour of its nearly thirty thousand kilometer coastline, the irrepressible character of its people, and its wealth of resources make it a land like no other. The label of The Rock fits the place well, and in few other places in the world could a man like Joey Smallwood, driven by impulsiveness, self-assurance and blind faith, have overcome such obstacles and attained such heights of power as he did here.

“Geography, ethnicity, language and religion have produced a Newfoundland that for most of its history has stubbornly resisted the pull of mainstream North American culture. From Inuit migrants of four thousand years ago to the Beothuk hunter-gatherers killed off by white settlers in the nineteenth century, this often inhospitable land has drawn ocean voyagers from time immemorial. The Vikings were here a thousand years ago with their short-lived settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, today a World Heritage Site. The English, French and Portuguese fishermen who followed in the wake of John Cabot’s 1497 “discovery” treated the waters of Newfoundland as nothing more than a vast cauldron teeming with fish, ready for the taking.

“The Newfoundland into which Joseph Roberts Smallwood was born on December 24, 1900, was a country that still lived by the cod, its great ocean resource that the Fishing Admirals of Great Britain, along with adventurous sailors from many nations, had plundered for more than three hundred years. Generations of Newfoundlanders lived out their lives in tiny outports nestled on the rocky shores of countless fjords and bays that indented the island’s coast. Descendants of mostly poor working class families from the south of Ireland and the west of England, their men fished the icy waters from small dories that either went out on their own, or were launched from Banking Schooners miles offshore. Equipped only with hand lines and small nets, they returned with plentiful catches that would be smoked and dried, ready for shipment to overseas markets. For thousands of Newfoundland men, the only variation in this dangerous and bitterly hard way of life came in the sealing hunt that drew fleets of boats to the Icefields every Spring, an equally hazardous and uncertain undertaking.

“Over all this during Joey Smallwood’s early years reigned a thin lawyer of mercantile society, concentrated in the grubby, ramshackle and makeshift seaport of St. John’s, whose twenty thousand or so inhabitants boasted of it being the oldest European settlement in North America. Its harbour was filled with vessels from Europe, the United States and Caribbean. Its main business street, Water Street, was paved with stone but most streets were nothing more than dirt passages lined with small wood frame buildings. The more successful merchants were raising handsome homes on outer streets like King’s Bridge Road. They sent their sons to Bishop Feild College, an Anglican boarding school on Colonial Street that was the only decent academic institution on the island. In time, it would produce fifteen Rhodes Scholars and an alumnus that would include Joey Smallwood, a student there for five years, his way paid by a generous uncle.

“This was the Newfoundland that together with its mainland territory of Labrador, faced the crucial choice in 1948: to continue with Commission government, to reclaim its status as a self-governing Dominion and perhaps throw in with the United States – if the Americans would have it – or to join in Confederation with Canada.

“Into this maelstrom of uncertainty stepped Joey Smallwood, proffering a dream of unimagined wellbeing and security to a people rich in the traditions of home, family and church, but bereft of the affluence by then common in the postwar world. Like other young men of colonial upbringing, Smallwood had gone abroad to work and learn, and returned home determined to make a difference. For Newfoundland, Smallwood came to believe, economic betterment and democratic rule would be found in union with Canada. In pursuing this goal, he showed himself guilty of the excesses of all men carried off by grand ideas: absolute belief in the rightness of his mission, the conviction that he alone could fulfill it, and the illusion that he would earn the undying gratitude of his countrymen for his efforts.

“Twenty years after Newfoundland joined Canada, the Prime Minister of the day, Pierre Trudeau, said of Joey Smallwood that he had “changed the destiny of a people, and thereby carved his mark on history.” Today, the Newfoundland and Labrador that Trudeau in 1969 described as “a distinct society” (well before the term was applied to Quebec), has transformed itself into an energy power whose economic strength is the envy of the rest of Canada. In examining the life and legacy of Joey Smallwood, one has to ask: How much of Newfoundland’s present day confidence can be laid to what he set in motion? Or did his eagerness to throw in with Canada, combined with his autocratic rule and reckless spending on schemes of doubtful value, lead Newfoundland astray? These are some of the questions to which this book seeks answers. We set out to find them in the thicket of facts, myth and legend that has grown up around the mystique of the man remembered as Canada’s last Father of Confederation.”

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