The Emperor's Last Stand: A Portrait Of Joey Smaliwood Today
BY IAN ADAMS Illustration by David Blackwood
Smallwood talks as if he were about to suck the telephone right up into his mouth, as if he had the desire to wrap his whole being around those tiny pulsating electronic messages, his own secret power source. All morning I have watched him plug phone calls, tape recordings and intercom systems into himself. And yet, seemingly, he is never listening, except to himself. All that inflow of electricity appears only to feed his demonic energy. And the input of information only serves his own interior responses — running around inside himself, punching up tapes and recordings, Smallwood listening to Smallwood, unplugging the world he no longer needs, because he is, as the acid children say, totally plugged into himself. So much so that, although there are eight other men sitting around this luncheon table — five of them his cabinet ministers — they have all become nonpersons. Silent and morose, they stare down into their plates, munching on their salads, apparently not even listening to the telephone conversation Smallwood is having with one of his favorite high-finance operators, John Shaheen. “Did he say that, John?” he is yelling into the mouthpiece. Later, Smallwood would tell us, his face shining, “President Nixon put his arm around my young friend Shaheen today and asked him, ‘How’s my old pal Joey?’ . . . Imagine that!” Booming across the emptiness of lost egos there is only the overbearing personality of Joseph Smallwood, riding on that incessant, harsh, contrapuntal voice that turns everyone’s brains to glue, and leaving Smallwood, approaching his 70th birthday, on the biggest power trip of his life. THE NEWS FROM Newfoundland was bad. The 1969 fishing season had been worse than usual. A chain reaction of strikes and layoffs created a great deal of unemployment in the Labrador iron mines. The British - owned Electric Reduction Company of Canada, supported by a $ 15-million government loan and a power subsidy that was costing the province $ 1.6million a year, had ended up polluting Placentia Bay with phosphorus, with God
knows what long-term effects on marine life, and immediately putting some 400 fishermen out of business. The unadjusted figures for the early part of the winter indicated that unemployment would probably reach 11 percent. Merchants in such resettlement areas as Arnold’s Cove, where the population was formerly about 200 and now is more than 1,000, reported that 85 percent of the families are scraping by on welfare, and that men were standing around with nothing to do, gazing absently at the sea. The economy of Smallwood’s tight little island kingdom is depressing, the future bleak. The population is a little more than half a million but the total debt is more than $750 million. Between 1971 and 1975 a series of short-term loans for more than $90 million will come due — $30 million to West German moneylenders — and will have to be refinanced at higher interest rates. Newfoundland is approaching the point where it will have to borrow just to pay off interest on loans. Smallwood will need lots of money from the federal government to bail himself out. His province has the lowest wages ($100 in manufacturing compared to a national average of $124), the highest per capita debt ($640 per person) and one of the highest cost-of-living rates in Canada. But he is pressing ahead with his industrialization of Newfoundland and Labrador. He has earmarked $53 million in government-backed loans for a $ 120million linerboard mill in Stephenville, and another $110 million is being sought for an oil refinery at Come-By-Chance. It is this “develop or perish” pursuit of industry that evoked in 1969 the first visible signs of political opposition. They became apparent to everyone in the bitter aftermath of the provincial Liberal leadership convention Smallwood won on November 1. Watching TV, mainlanders who have always thought of Smallwood as a folk hero were shocked to see anti-Smallwood campaigners crowding on to the convention floor, screaming, “Sieg Heil!”, campaign workers weeping bitterly in defeat, and some of the younger ones defiantly burning their Liberal Party membership cards. The deep wounds caused by 20 years of government by patronage had broken open. In a way, the convention had been set up to look like a provincial election, and it might just as well have been. Smallwood’s Liberal Party holds 36 seats in the legislature. The official opposition, the Progressive Conservative Party, holds three seats. One is vacant, one is held by an Independent Liberal and one by the Labrador Independent Party. But any real political opposition comes from what Smallwood calls “the mutineers” and “uppity cabinet ministers” in his party.
The convention is reported to have cost the provincial Liberal Party more than one million dollars. From Smallwood’s point of view it was probably well spent — he won easily with 1,070 convention votes. His chief opponent, John Crosbie, the ex-Minister of Health, received 440, and Alex Hickman, the exMinister of Justice, was a weak third with 187 votes.
And Smallwood revealed in an interview that he was ready to lead the party in two more elections. Reminded that he had created the impression that he wanted to stay in power only until he could groom a successor, he replied, “Ah, but you forget. Everybody forgets, or never notices, the little weasel words from the little weasel politicians. I said I wanted to carry on for at least two years. AT LEAST. Don’t those words mean anything? At least?” But, still, when the dust of the leadership struggle had settled, he was being opposed by eight members originally elected as Liberals.
A fisherman from Placentia Bay once told me, “All we need to beat out Joey is somebody with a big-Jesus gob, because that’s all the little guy has.” As everyone on the island knows, there are few politicians in Canada who could beat Smallwood in a debate. The only heckler who ever bested him is reported to live in Bonne Bay, where at a public meeting Smallwood was rhapsodizing about his love for Newfoundland, how she had been his only mistress, his one love, and if Newfoundland had been a woman he would have married her. “It’s about time,” yelled a fisherman. “You’ve been ----ing her long enough.”
And yet, weeks after the leadership convention, I found middle-aged waitresses in the greasy spoons on Duckworth and Water Streets still wearing “Joey” buttons. Some even carried pictures of him in their wallets. “He’s our Joey,” they said. “Without him we would still have nothing. But now, well, at least he’s got the pension for us.” As I moved up, through the lesser civil servants who owed their jobs to him and into the younger and more educated groups, I found more and more people bitterly opposed to him.
I found John Crosbie, the man who had led the strongest opposition against Smallwood, in a second-floor walk-up over a dry-cleaning store — a modest campaign headquarters for a man re-
puted to come from the wealthiest family on the island. He is a tall, heavy man of 39. He has an unfortunate manner for a lawyer; his words tumble hesitantly and never really in the right order. It was easy to see how Smallwood would make mincemeat out of him in a political debate. But for all that, a certain bluntness of manner comes through the soft images. Crosbie answers questions as straightforwardly as he can, which gives a human and likable dimension to his political personality: “Let’s face it — one of the reasons we didn’t get the vote from the delegates is that we had a lot of middle-class people who didn’t get off their arse and work. They just didn’t know how to go about it like the people in Smallwood’s machine.”
Crosbie took an enormous financial beating. He admits personal spending of $400,000; the St. John’s Evening Telegram claims it was more than one million dollars. But, no, he wasn’t giving up. “The priorities for the 1970s are first that Smallwood has to go, and then we have to get down to cleaning up the economic mess we're in.”
THE LITTLE MAN got out of the big, black Chrysler Imperial with its 1001 license plates and began to climb the wide, empty stairs into Confederation Building. It was only in those brief moments that he ever looked vulnerable and alone. I met him half way up the steps and introduced myself. He was a little taken aback at my intrusion, but he was courteous, and invited me to accompany him into his private elevator up to his office. I found it strange that, even as he was unlocking the elevator controls, he was already telling me that a friend of his who owned his own plane had flown him down the day before from Toronto.
As soon as we stepped into his office we were surrounded by deputy ministers and their assistants who had obviously been summoned to await his arrival. The office was a long, dark, cluttered room, Smallwood’s desk a haphazard pile of papers. Facing it, a long, dark, leather couch and matching chairs. The men did not sit, but stood uneasily as if attempting to gauge Smallwood’s humor. It turned out their problem was that, in order to build a spur line to a factory site, Smallwood had told them to expropriate the necessary property. However, they had found the land was already owned by Smallwood.
“You already own the land, sir,” one
man pointed out cautiously. Smallwood launched into a rhetorical rebuttal. “I don’t own the land, the province owns the land. It may just be in my name, but that’s Crown land. The Crown owns it but it just happens to be in the name of the Minister of Economic Development, and that’s me. Right?”
Somehow he solved their problem, complimented himself on his wisdom and then dismissed them with a wave. They left, thankful for his good humor.
I wanted to interview him but it quickly became apparent that you don’t interview Smallwood; he holds an audience. When I asked him a question he just unplugged himself and turned to something else. And in a few minutes he politely asked me to leave. But I sat down in his outer office and, because for the most part he kept his doors open, it was possible to witness Smallwood going through a fantastic performance. And yet, as his secretary said, it was just another day.
Her office, an outer waiting room and the sofa by the elevator lobby were filled with the daily flow of supplicants. There were students who were flunking out and wanted a job or a handout, and party supporters seeking favors. Smallwood saw them all, and in between he answered phone calls, listened to his daily morning radio interview over VOCM (sneering a little at the reporter’s questions), m^de statements to the local press over the phone, and kept up a series of running consultations with various departments. It looked like total confusion. But underneath, running like a powerful current, it was just as obvious that Smallwood had total control. And it was the strangest kind of control, as if he immediately and instinctively understood the limitations of personality and flaws in everyone around him. And the people around him gave an unspoken, tacit acknowledgement of his perception. It was hypnotic to watch.
There were times when it seemed like Alice In Wonderland. Smallwood would come out to read a letter from his mail on the secretary’s desk, smile and grunt with pleasure. “Send this man $34 for 12 volumes of The Life of Christ.” The next moment he was answering a telephone call from a Mrs. Fergus Brown in the outport of Mortier. Her son Michael was getting married next week and the barge company was bringing a house over that very morning from Oderin.
The barge company wanted $1,200 cash for moving the house and Michael had only $800. Would the Premier fix things so that the Browns could owe the money? it was a godsend to happen in front of a reporter and Smallwood milked it for all it was worth, repeating her side of the story to make sure I understood. Then he phoned an official in one of his departments to fix it up and, when the man balked, he quickly put him down: “Are you against marriage? No? Well, this boy needs a house, today! He’s getting married this weekend! Take care of it and phone the woman back to let her know.” I had ostentatiously taken notes, which obviously pleased Smallwood. Gratified, he came over and invited me to have lunch with him and some members of his cabinet.
Then he summoned his factotums from the Surveys and Highways departments. They came sloping in, a dozen men, apprehensive and awkward with shoulders stooped. Smallwood treated them like dropouts from a remedial reading class. “All right, gentlemen, ONE!” he bellowed, pacing up and down in front of them. “Money is available from Ottawa under regional development for two kinds of highway construction: interservice
feeder routes and trunk roads. TWO! The following amounts will be available this year for these service routes,” and he read off a long list. “THREE! For trunk roads ...” and he read off the highways from his list again, but this time one man tried to interrupt.
“Mr. Knight, later!”
“Not now, Mr. Knight!”
“But Mr. Premier?”
“Mr. Knight, please be silent! I know what I’m talking about. I received this information last night from a young man called Don Jamieson.” Knight sank back into his chair and waited for Smallwood to finish reading off the list. Then Knight raised his hand. “Mr. Premier, may I please ask a question now?” “Yes, Mr. Knight?” (wearily).
“There must be some mistake, sir. The road from Marystown to Burin is already paved.”
Smallwood waved him aside impatiently. “Now, FOUR! You will see that the money available for the coming year, $14 million of a proposed $20million, is all going to be spent in one riding. That of Mr. Don Jamieson, federal Minister of Transport.” Silence.
Jamieson is the sole federal Liberal MP from Newfoundland. The other seats are held by Progressive Conservatives. “Now I want you to go away,” Smallwood continued, “and make up a map on which you will show me how many of these routes fall within the already designated areas of regional redevelopment and those which do not. I want this information available by tomorrow afternoon. Mr. Trudeau, the Prime Minister, has asked me to come up to Ottawa. He is sending his special plane for me.” A few minutes after they had left, a young man named Jenkins approached Smallwood. “Mr. Premier, a man from Mr. Trudeau’s office called Haché or Hachette keeps phoning. He says the Prime Minister wants to know why you’re going up there and what you want to talk about ...”
About 10 minutes later the second remedial reading class was held for the men in the municipal-development projects. Smallwood pointed out to them that there was a long string of a dozen heavily populated communities in a 20mile stretch from Topsail to Holyrood on Conception Bay. They all used septictank systems and pollution had become a serious problem. He gave the men the impossible and absurd time of 24 hours to supply figures on how much it would cost to put in water and sewers. “There may be $30 million, perhaps up to $80 million available for this program under the regional redevelopment program. But I want to have some figures available — I know they’ll be rough — before I go up to Ottawa on Wednesday. The Prime Minister has sent for me . . .” At this point Jenkins made another appearance. “Mr. Premier, this Haché fellow keeps phoning ...”
EARLIER I HAD ASKED Smallwood what sort of promise the 1970s held for Newfoundland. He hadn’t answered me, but now he came over and said we would talk about it during lunch. The private dining room was on the ground floor. Smallwood scooped up a glass of Harvey’s Shooting Sherry and immediately plugged himself into the 1 p.m. newscast on the radio. His ministers milled around the room. They seemed wary of each other and even warier of Smallwood, buffaloes nervously scenting the political winds. For the most part they were ponderous, thick-waisted men, middle-aged and with thinning hair.
Oliver L. (AÍ) Vardy was also there, a heavy, enigmatic man. Vardy ran
briefly and successfully for political office in the early 1950s, but then resigned to become Smallwood’s crony and silent first lieutenant, traveling everywhere with him, in on all the international wheeling and dealing. He is now Smallwood’s Deputy Minister of Economic Development.
The luncheon didn’t go well. First of all there was that long phone call from Shaheen, after which Smallwood retreated into dark brooding. All the while he ate hastily. He suddenly emerged from his brooding to deliver a brief, disjointed prediction that the 1970s would bring ‘total economic collapse for the country, “probably the worst depression that has ever taken place. But it will be good for the system, let a lot of air out of it. And it will bring home to many people that there is a direct connection between hard work and income.”
I asked him if there was any way in which this economic collapse could be averted. No, there were not enough statesmen in the world of finance. “But then,” he mused, “perhaps if the right ones get together ...” Bang! you could see it right there in his mind’s eye: Joseph Smallwood, statesman of finance, saving the Western world from economic collapse in the 1970s.
The meal was over and the cabinet ministers quickly scattered. Soon only Vardy and Smallwood were left. The “man of the people” was curled up like a squirrel in a big white-leather Barcalounger, sipping Benedictine. Beside him, Vardy, heavy, pear-shaped, read aloud, stumbling through all the letters from the fast-buck operators: a letter from a man who wanted to start a hovercraft plant, another wanted to try a fishmeal operation, and a long woolly one from a local professor who claimed the government could make $10 million a year profit by issuing Newfoundland coinage, minted in the LJ.S., for numismatists around the world. Immediately Smallwood was enthusiastic. “That's crazy,” he said, “let's do it. In the estimates we'll just put down an expected million dollars, not $10 million. I’ll get Nixon to handle the minting down there — I’ve never asked him for a favor yet.”
It was time to go. In saying good-by,
I asked Smallwood what did he intend to do about his “uppity ex-cabinet ministers.”
“Why should I worry about them?” he replied. “They have more troubles than I have.” □