Smallwood, Joseph Roberts

  Joseph Roberts Smallwood, journalist, politician, premier of Newfoundland 1949-72 (b at Gambo, Nfld 24 Dec 1900; d at St John's, Nfld 17 Dec 1991). As a bright young man, he became a journalist and covered the 1919 transatlantic flights. In New York, 1920-25, he worked for a left-wing daily and campaigned for the Progressive Party; subsequently, he called himself a "socialist."

Back in Newfoundland, he became a union organizer, radio broadcaster and an unsuccessful candidate in the 1932 election; during WWII he ran a piggery at the air base at GANDER. His political chance came when Britain's new Labour government announced that Newfoundlanders, then ruled by an appointed COMMISSION OF GOVERNMENT, could elect representatives to a convention which was to advise the government on the choice to be put to the electorate in a referendum about their political future. Smallwood, who favoured CONFEDERATION with Canada, was elected to the Convention in 1946.

For the next 3 years, he demonstrated the willpower, courage, ruthlessness and mastery of populist propaganda that made him one of the most remarkable of contemporary politicians. Despite opposition from influential St John's merchants who accused him of betraying Newfoundland for arguing that it should not retain its independence, he dominated the convention debates, there delivering his finest speech, in which he told Newfoundlanders the bitter truth: "We are not a nation. We are a medium-sized municipality ... left far behind the march of time."

With the bait of family allowances-welcome hard cash for many Newfoundlanders-he won the second of 2 hard-fought and close referenda on 22 July 1948. He was appointed premier of the interim government 1 Apr 1949, elected leader of the Liberal Party, and won the first provincial election in May 1949. He was not seriously challenged for 2 decades.

Smallwood's early years in power alternated between farce and tragedy. An attempt at forced industrialization ended in bankruptcy for most of his manufacturing plants and in the imprisonment for embezzlement of his economic adviser, the mysterious Latvian Alfred A. Valdmanis. The tragedy happened in Mar 1959 at the small town of Badger where striking loggers clashed with police officers; in the melee, one member of the Newfoundland constabulary was clubbed and later died. Smallwood, who had opposed the strike and decertified the union a few days before, made him into a martyr.

No longer a socialist, except in his rhetoric, Smallwood from then on consorted with corporate tycoons such as John C. Doyle and John Shaheen and devoted himself to large industrial endeavours like the CHURCHILL FALLS power project, at the same time encouraging Newfoundlanders to leave isolated outports for new "resettlement" communities. He retained power through the 1960s because he, and Newfoundlanders, benefited from lavish new federal spending schemes.

The progress proved his undoing as a new, educated and relatively affluent generation of Newfoundlanders came of age. He survived his first challenge, by disaffected Cabinet minister John CROSBIE, at the 1969 Liberal leadership convention. But in the Oct 1971 election, the Conservatives led by Frank MOORES won 21 seats, Smallwood 20, and the New Labrador Party one. He resigned 18 Jan 1972 after 3 tense and intrigue-ridden months.

Characteristically, Smallwood refused to give up. He tried to win back the Liberal leadership in 1974 and to form a new party, the Liberal Reform Party. Only after both attempts failed did he give up politics. He resigned his seat in 1977 to take on a new role as elder statesman and return to writing, most notably in his planned Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador (vol 1, 1981; vol 2, 1984); 3 remaining volumes were published posthumously (vol 3, 1991; vol 4, 1993; vol 5, 1994) by the Joseph R. Smallwood Heritage Foundation and their proceeds were given to the Smallwood Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University. Smallwood was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1986.