The Smallwood Saga
BESIDES HER codfisheries, pulp forests and iron ore deposits, Newfoundland brought with her into Canada an asset unlisted in the terms of confederation. Not since the emergence of Quebec’s Houde and Duplessis and the retirement of Ontario’s Hepburn has the Dominion turned up a political figure as colorful, volatile and aggressive as Newfoundland’s surprising Joe Smallwood.
What other province ever pushed unblushing into the national spotlight a premier who had been printer, pig farmer, advance man for a foot-loose movie producer, union organizer, writer of Sunday supplement thrillers, sometime dweller in New York flophouses, and creator of a unique one-man soap opera which ran seven years and once included greetings from the King and Queen, a blessing from the Pope and congratulations from Col. Robert R. McCormick of the Chicago Tribune?
Even considered purely as a politician, what other Canadian premier could state with Joseph R. Smallwood that he has stumped the hustings in two countries other than his own (U. S. and U. K.); converted his countrymen almost single-handedly from a bitter suspicion to acceptance of union with a larger nation; and has seen the electors in one district swarm forward to kissebis feet while those in another rushed into coart } charge him with intimidation?
Newspapers in the nine western provinces have not been slow’ to grasp the human interest appeal of Newfoundland’s wonder-working “little man with
the bow tie,” who campaigns by airplane to bring to voters in isolated outports the good news about family allowances, old-age pensions and other boons that come wrapped up with Canadian citizenship. But a mainlander visiting the new province for the first time is liable to get the same rude shock that once awaited the Canadian who innocently w’andered south of the border loud in his cousinly praise of President Roosevelt.
Says the purser on the boat crossing Cabot Strait: “That Joey—he’s the lad!” Says the senior hand from the big paper mill at Corner Brook: “He’s the smartest man in Newfoundland.” Sputters the St. John’s matron, clutching her daughter’s arm against the rocketing of the Newfoundland Express: “Why . . . why, he’s un-
scrupulous!” Declares the Water Street businessman-politician: “The man’s mad.”
After discovering that mere mention of the word “Joe” can inspire tributes and start near-riots, the visitor learns to roll with the punches.
He finds that there are those among the Pro-
This is the big story of a little guy called Joe, our latest and liveliest father of confederation
gressive Conservative opposition who regretted the laying of election charges against their Liberal Premier as an untimely smear upon their new province; and that there are also those who swore “If Smallwood weasels out of this we’ll get him on something else!” Way over on the other extreme the enquirer finds fervent followers whose feelings on the same issue were simply stated in one coastal village: “If they lays a hand on Joey we’ll burn the unprintable town from end to end.”
As this was written, Premier Smallwood still faced opposition charges that he had intimidated voters by threatening that “not one red cent” would be spent from the public chest in the Ferryland district unless the Liberal candidate was elected.
Joey is 48, a 132-pound, five-foot-five-inch bundle of restless and apparently inexhaustible energy. There’s just a fleck of grey to the black hair that sweeps back from a high forehead, from which it has also begun to recede. The furrowed lines across the brow, the sharp wedge of the nose, the eyes that narrow in concentration and the thin, malleable lips that can smile tightly, twist speculatively or purse expressively as he speaks, were all concocted by some good fairy who knew this man was going to stand on platforms and who plotted that no listener should be able to look away.
It is only partly because of this magic touch that the hearty men and women whose homes cluster in the myriad coves and inlets of Newfoundland’s jagged coast have taken Joe Smallwood so enthusiastically to heart.
He was born a “bayman” (at Gambo, Bonavista Bay, on the island’s east coast) and although hauled away to St. John’s while still in diapers he was back among them in his 20’s, organizing the paper mill workers, the railway section hands, and later the fishermen.
One way and another he has visited 1,100 of Newfoundland's 1,300 villages, and legend makes the impossible claim he can call 100,000 of its 321,000 citizens by name.
It is from these people that Joey draws his political strength, and they have a possessive attitude toward the man they voted to power. After his triumphant May 27 election as first Premier of the new province the letters and wires of congratulation poured in by the thousands from all over the island. Among them were messages such as these: From New Harbor: “Please advise if you can give protection to 300 sheep in a pasture now being killed by dogs.”
Little Bay West: “Sent registration for family allowances March but have not yet received it. Kindly give it your attention.”
English Harbor West: “Could you intercede get me work on St. Jaques highroad? Reply.”
Despite the years he has lived and worked there Joe does not “belong” in St. John’s, where established folk are inclined to ask of a man suddenly risen to prominence, “Who was his father?” and “What did this fellow ever do before now?”
The answers in this case being that Joe’s father was a lumber surveyor and that Joe has done just about everything, the comment as often as not is a snort.
Ralph Herder, publisher with his brother of the St. John’s Evening Telegram, and not unfriendly to Smallwood, was forced to confess that his paper had never done a life story of the Premier. “I guess we always took Joe for granted—-he was just a fellow who used to work on the paper,” grins Herder.
One of the things that the golf and fishing club set perhaps hold most against their new Premier is that he doesn’t act like one. Joseph R. (“Call me Joe”) Smallwood donned morning coat and striped trousers for the formal confederation ceremonies last April 1, when he was sworn in as interim Premier, and Mrs. Smallwood was also on hand, primped and proud, for the big occasion.
But the great day over, the head of government went back to his blue serge suit, flashy bow ties, and the well-worn grey fedora pinched to a jaunty peak in front. His wife went back to handing orders of tea-and-a-sandwich through the crack in the sliding doors which separate Joe Smallwood’s living room headquarters from the family dining room
whenever the Premier got a chance for a snack between or during interviews.
The Smallwoods—Mr., Mrs., son Bill, 21, and daughter Clara, 19—share a cramped five-room apartment in an extremely plain house at 61 Duckworth Street with what at times seems like most of the provincial Liberal Party, advisers, newspapermen and curious voters corne for a look at the head of the household. (Elder son Ramsay works at Gander airfield.) Waiters in the main dining room of the Newfoundland Hotel, just up the hill, can point out the Premier’s flat to interested tourists.
An official suite of offices in the House of Assembly building was placed at Joey’s disposal April l, when he was appointed interim Premier. But even after his May 27 election he was inclined, when the pressure at the assembly building became too great, to duck out to Duckworth Street.
Here with an informality bordering on dishabille, the Premier could be found holding shirt-sleeved court in the living room. St. Laurent and Smallwood posters (“Vote for Joe, the man in the Know”) hung in the street-side bay window. Favorite newsphotos of campaign highlights were mounted, framed, upon the walls above bookcases containing everything from politics to whodunits.
Tired from arduous weeks of campaigning at a rate that might well faze a Churchill in his prime, Smallwood lounged in complete relaxation, his slight figure almost lost in a large, chintz-covered chair, and chatted easily with several interviewers at once. Those present included two magazine men and two M.P.’s; his close friend, shadow and special courier, Ray Petten; son Bill, saying nothing from a window seat; and daughter Clara playing with a baby turtle in a water-filled dish. (The family touch is not always lacking even in the Premier’s offices. Young Clara is said once to have swished in upon a cabinet meeting in riding togs and to have volunteered her disagreement with certain portfolio appointments before being almost forcibly ejected by her irate father.)
As some of the callers departed others arrived, like a come-and-go tea party, and interruptions spawned within interruptions, but the little man in the big chair gave patient ear to all comers and their problems—including those poured into his troubled ear via the frequently ringing telephone.
Among other points of distinction, Joe is surely the only head of government anywhere who does state business over a party telephone line (2413-A).
In all fairness it must be realized that Smallwood was only elected in May, was fighting a hot federal campaign until the end of June, and his first assembly wasn’t called until July. If it is still a bit early to size up Hon. Joseph R. Smallwood in the job of chief executive, there’s plenty of evidence at hand as to his performance in earlier roles.
The Smallwood restlessness is shown as early as his school days; in Newfoundland, where every school is a separate school, Joe tried them all— Roman Catholic, Church of England, Methodist (he lists himself today as United Church)—but quit school at 15.
As a reporter, the career he chose after two years as a printer’s apprentice, he received $25 a week from the St. John’s Evening Telegram for covering trans-Atlantic flights (he lived with Alcock and Brown while they prepared for the first nonstop hop to Ireland) and raids on rum runners.
Then setting out to see the world he was staff man or free lance for papers in Halifax, Boston, New York and London for eight years. He reported on religious fanatics for American Sunday supplements and interviewed touring Commonwealth prime ministers for Empire-minded Fleet Street editors.
But he was never wholeheartedly a newspaperman. His jobs were merely designed to provide bed and board; his free time he spent in public libraries (studying, for instance, the causation of crime) and attending the rallies of every political party and splinter group.
He soon became possessed of what was then coining to be known as a social conscience. Joining the American Labor Party he harangued street comer groups to support strikers. Campaigning for the short-lived U. S. Progressive Party’s “Fighting Bob”
La Follette in the presidential election of 1924 he politely shared a police permit to hold a meeting in the Poughkeepsie town square with a
Democratic Party speaker named Eleanor Roosevelt.
In 1925 Joe was home reorganizing a local of the International Brotherhood of Pulp, Sulphite and Paper Mill Workers at Grand Falls, Newfoundland, and starting a new one at Corner Brook.
Then one day, short-cutting from his boardinghouse to the Corner Brook mill along the railway track, he encountered a section hand who lowered his pick, straightened a weary back, and asked, “Joe—why don’t you organize us?”
“Why do you need a union?” asked Smallwood.
The government-owned Newfoundland Railway, explained the section hand, was going to cut maintenance gang pay from 25 to 22V¿ cents an hour for a 10-hour day.
Joe said he’d see what he could do. A section is eight miles of track with a crew of four men to guard and repair the right of way, and there were 66 sections along the tortuous 527-mile route the Newfoundland Railway takes from St. John’s across the island to Port-aux-Basques.
Joe Smallwood signed up section crew 66 at Port-aux-Basques and started walking east in the early August heat. Three months and three pairs of boots later he limped into the station at Avondale, 36 miles short of St. John’s, in a late October snow flurry. On his paid-up list he had the names of every maintenance man with one exception (“He refused point-blank”).
In the Avondale station he encountered the chairman of the Newfoundland Railway Commission and the line’s general manager.
“We settled it right there on the station platform,” recalls the pick swinger’s friend. The big brass agreed to cut the pay cut, Joe gave in to his feet and rode a train the rest of the way into St. John’s.
A few months later he was back into politics—in England this time. He got on the hustings to support a Labor candidate in a by-election.
A Movie, a Biography
Joe’s final fling as a labor organizer came some years later during the depression when conditions were desperate among Newfoundland’s fishermen. He went among them organizing sellers’ strikes to force up the price of fish. Then at a village called Pouch Cove, he organized a fisherman’s co-operative which was later taken over by the government.
Smallwood the reporter and Smallwood the labor organizer were never more than a heartbeat removed from Smallwood the native son. During the years of exile he always had a map of Newfoundland to unfurl on each rooming house wall.
Down in the States he met Ernest Shipman, roving Canadian film producer of “The Man From Glengarry” and “Cameron of the Royal Mounted.” Joe talked him into making a picture in Newfoundland. This involved Joe’s agreeing to make a trip home himself and raise funds locally for the production.
Again, while in London, he published a biography of Sir William Coaker, the first man to try to help Newfoundland’s fishermen through co-operatives, and the inspiration for Joe’s own subsequent venture into this field.
Back home again in 1931 he published “The New Newfoundland,” and in 1936 an ambitious two-volume, morocco - bound book of knowledge called “The Book of Newfoundland.” The research required for this project started its editor on an entirely new career. While compiling “The Book” he became fascinated with the stories of adventure and heroism that naturally abound in a near-wilderness land surrounded by seas. He approached F. M. O’Leary, St. John’s wholesale merchant, with a brain wave. How about putting Joe Smallwood on the air to tell Newfoundland yarns and legends? Call him the Barrelman (like the lookout on a sealing boat), urge listeners to buy O’Leary-handled soaps and other products, and . . .
O’Leary, a bluff St. John’s Irishman whose interest in increased sales does not detract from his sincere enthusiasm for his country, was delighted.
On the air went Joe the Barrelman at $45 a week. His gradually developing warmth and color of delivery soon had Newfoundland ears affixed to their radios at 6.45 nightly from Cape Race to Cape Ray to Cape Bauld.
For nearly seven years Joey yarned and chatted and made friends with the lonely, isolated families of Newfoundland’s countless coves and bays and inlets. In 1,752 nights on the air, he told them close to 10,000 stories and anecdotes which gave them a new appreciation of their own land, their own achievements, and a new pride in being Newfoundlanders. In return they wrote him 60,000 letters, called him 15,000 times by telephone, welcomed him to 700 of their settlements, and 12,000 of them came to the studios to see him.
From Microphone to Pigsty
No one has forgotten how the Barrelman helped old Mrs. Carrol of Norih River celebrate her 111th, 112th and 113th birthdays. The last was the gala occasion and only Joe would have thought to summon a noble lord to read greetings from the King and Queen, the Monsignor to impart a special papal blessing, and someone else to read a letter of congratulations from Col. McCormick of The Chicago Tribune.
“Joe was as proud of that show as he was later to win the country for Confederation,” swears an associate who was there.
The Barrelman quit his radio perch abruptly during the war, in another one of his sudden shifts, to raise pigs. He stuck at this until the war ended and the cause of confederation called.
However the debate may rage (and in St. John’s it rages constantly) as to Smallwood’s success or failure in his earlier manifestations, his severest critic won’t waste breath denying his brilliance as a political in-fighter, and above all as a public campaigner.
He managed his first election campaign, for the then Labor Party, in the Newfoundland general election of 1919; Labor lost. When he managed the Liberals under Rt. Hon. Sir Richard Squires in 1928, the Liberals won by a landslide.
But four years later the avalanche tumbled in the opposite direction: Smallwood himself was defeated, and the Conservatives swept into power just as the country went bankrupt.
The new administration appointed a royal commission to find a way out and in 1933 accepted with relief its recommendations for a political moratorium during which Newfoundland should be ruled by a commission of government directed from London. The nonelected commissioners were destined to stay in power 16 years
During these 16 years politics took a holiday until on Dec. 16, 1945, British Prime Minister Attlee announced that Newfoundlanders would be asked to elect delegates to a nationál convention at which the merits of various forms of self-government could be debated, the
final decision to be made by the people in a national referendum.
At last the generally detested commission government was to go and government by the people again supplant rule from above. But should Newfoundland become a Dominion again? Join Canada? Make a deal with the United States?
The political armistice disrupted with all the uproar of warring beliefs and opinions which had been too long dammed back—and in the middle of it all was Joe Smallwood.
A Magic Wand at Ottawa
An intensive, two months’ study convinced him that confederation with Canada offered the best future to the country he loved. A fast-moving, threeyear campaign, probably unequaled in Canadian politics, saw Convert Smallwood win over to the confederation idea a people bitterly opposed to it for 80 years and end up with a personal following the strength of which few leaders anywhere could rival.
His first stunt was to announce his conversion in a series of 11 letters to the editor of the St. John’s Daily News outlining the advantages of union with Canada.
Next he got elected to the national convention from Bonavista Centre. The anti-Confederates were astounded when the convention opened in September, 1946, and the gentleman from Bonavista Centre had the nerve to suggest sending a delegation to Ottawa to ask terms. By the time he wore them down almost a year later and himself went to Ottawa as secretary of the investigating committee in June, 1947, the fight had really begun.
Canada took a hands-off attitude toward the great Newfoundland debate and had no intention of offering terms until and if her easterly cousins declared unmistakably for union. Precisely how Smallwood plucked the document he so dearly desired out of Ottawa’s hat is a trick of sleight of hand that few people even in the Canadian capital ever clearly understood. True, he had a canny assistant —convention and delegation chairman Gordon F. Bradley—but it was Joe’s magic wand that did the trick.
The reassembled convention tried to blast the whole project but Joe promptly swapped his magic wand for a radio microphone. The mike was available to all delegates, of course, but it was the ex-Barrelman whose voice won instant recognition among Newfoundlanders, and it was he who knew how to put the air time to best use.
One listener who undoubtedly realized that the talkative Smallwood wasn’t just filibustering into the mike was F. M. O’Leary, who became president of the Responsible Government League and one of confederation’s most redoubtable foes. It must have dawned on O’Leary just about this time that in sponsoring Joey as the radio Barrelman for seven years he had paid good money to help him become the best known voice and personality in Newfoundland.
“The bargain was fair enough,” the famous Barrelman has been known to comment. “I built him a milliondollar business.”
When the convention adjourned in March, 1948, Smallwood’s teammate Gordon Bradley promptly went on the air in a special broadcast which brought in 50,000 signed demands that confederation be put on the ballot along with responsible government (Dominion status) and continuation of the commission regime. The British Government acceded, and the referendum fight was on.
After one stalemate vote, union with Canada won handily in July, after which the tide really turned toward the diminutive father of confederation. It ended with his triumphant election as Premier of Newfoundland’s first provincial government last May.
How Joe Smallwood won the country put his previous political performances in shadow. He was shrewd enough to realize that a painstaking job of education was necessary to make his countrymen understand Canada’s complex federal system, so far removed from their own simple island setup. He himself has often described the technique by which he translated his case for confederation into simple terms:
This Is a Cat, Not a Do¿
“This is a black cat. It is not a white cat. It is not a black cat with white paws. It is not a dog. It is a cat. It is a black cat ...”
Joe talked and traveled, worked and wrote 18 hours a day to drive home his simplified, reiterated arguments.
Name callers branded him Judas Iscariot and Quisling, but Joe was here, there and everywhere by car, train, boat and plane, calling people by name and telling them the great news about social security and new opportunities he was sure confederation would bring them.
Very early Joe perfected aerial support as a political weapon. “A plane is the most spectacular form of campaigning,” he says. “You circle over a little village and come down on the sea. The plane coasts in as the people rush down to the shore.
“During the referendum campaign I seldom went ashore. We’d put up a horn on each wing of the little float plane and I’d speak into the mike with my head stuck out the door. As I’d start to talk, boats would put off all along the beach and soon the plane would be surrounded with people sitting there silently in their drifting skiffs, elbows on arms, chins in cupped hands, listening.”
Smallwood’s pilot during the provincial election, Capt. Francis Fleming of Maritime Central Airways, recalls that he developed a case of operational twitch the first time he circled an outport with the Liberal leader aboard. To his horror menacing puffs of smoke began popping all about his wingtips.
“I set down on the sea as fast as I could and as we coasted in to shore the whole village came rushing to meet us, the men all brandishing these fiendish-looking sealing guns muzzleloading jobs with barrels seven feet long.”
The outside observer gathers that no self-respecting bayman or outporter would think of attending any kind of public function unless thus armed and with plenty of black powder in the horn. The idea is to blast away as frequently as possible in tribute to the distinguished visitor of the moment.
“And the nearer they can get to the victim when they let go, the prettier the compliment,” explains Fleming in wonder.
So mounted the triumphal tour. At Hearts Delight children showered Joey with flower petals. At Green’s Harbor, it was rice. In the Bay de Verde district women pushed forward to kiss his feet, and often tears gleamed in every eye.
“Some of those meetings were so packed with emotion,” Smallwood remarked recently, “that it made you fill up yourself. Then you can really pull out all the stops.”
Hearing Joe Smallwood talk with all or even most of the stops pulled out is a refreshing experience. When not
campaigning by air, the Premier usually arrives at the town where a meeting is scheduled at the tail end of a 50-car cavalcade. The cars are all prodigally plastered with orange and red posters shouting “This time let’s all be on the winning side—vote Liberal.” (The same poster was reportedly seen on trucks of the provincial highways department shortly before the federal election.
The next-to-last car carries a brace of loud-speaker horns and as the first houses come into view these begin a monotonous metallic chant: “The car behind contains the Honorable Joseph R. Smallwood, Premier of Newfoundland. The car behind contains . . .”
Nearly every front yard produces its quota of waving hands, babies being held up for a good look and youngsters who run along in the dust beside the slow-moving parade, as the famous Joey does his best to wave back at everybody.
Winding down to the sea between white frame houses, the cars finally cluster in front of a two-story building. Upstairs is a small hall in which perhaps 200 men, women and children have already gathered; outside is an overflow throng of at least as many again.
The Premier is introduced, walks to the front of the platform, takes a small microphone in one hand and raises it to within a few inches of his mouth, and begins to speak with his easy practiced flow.
On the night in June when he spoke in the town of Placentia, on a cliff above which stand the ruins of forts established after the Treaty of Utrecht put Newfoundland briefly into the hands of the French, Joe Smallwood told his audience that this was the proudest moment of his life. “. . . To be received into the hearts of the people of the ancient and honorable capital of Newfoundland, this town of saints and scholars, a town whose sons have achieved fame in arts and letters and diplomacy—this is the proudest moment of my life.
“I may be unworthy of it but I pledge you my honor—I will not let you down.”
The Promise of a Fair Future
His audience was warming up. Their sweaty faces glowed red in the longevening sunlight.
The little man in the campaignweary blue serge suit with the wrinkled pinstripe, talked on, chopping and slashing at the stifling air with his mike-free hand. He told them how sorry he was that their fellow townsman, the Liberal candidate for the riding in the provincial election, had been defeated. But he pointed out that there was “still a chance to get on the winning side—the Liberal side” in the forthcoming federal election.)
And then he got to the heart of the matter—the bridge across the narrow salt-water gut that separates the people of Placentia from the settlement
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across the way, known as Jersey Side.
Joey reminded them that bridging the gut was a dream born in the hearts of their forefathers before anyone in the room was alive. He recalled telling their ill-fated provincial candidate that the bridge would be forthcoming should he win the riding, and he had lost.
“But how can I come here to this warm reception,” he asked as tension mounted in the hall until the place was almost radioactive, “and not give you my assurance that win, lose or draw in this next election—please God—we will put the bridge there, and span the gut!”
The cheering within and without the hall must have echoed upward to bounce among the ruins of the French forts and startle the ghosts of weary warriors. And that didn’t end it: there was still to repeat once again the confederation story, explaining which matters are the concern of the federal government and which the concern of the provincial. (“This is a black cat, not a white cat . . .”)
Through it all ran the promise of a future in which the basic securities of life would be underwritten by the new land of which their country had now become a part—securities guaranteed as they never had been before to these people, come feast, come famine, come depression, come disaster at sea.
That Deft Smallwood Touch
To illustrate how Newfoundlanders had for centuries toiled their lives away hoping for no more than this, he stopped in full tilt to stretch a hand toward a white-headed old man in the front row.
“You, sir,” he said courteously, leaning forward, “you know what it is to have toiled your life away for your loved ones. Why, you must be in your seventies, sir—”
“Eighty-one,” came a determined croak from the bent figure close to the platform.
Joe straightened abruptly, stared his whole audience full in the face and raised his arms in a gesture of disbelief.
“Eighty-one!” He echoed the words quietly but in italics, his voice filled with simple awe and wonderment.
And somehow, just in the way he said it, that simple fact became a splendid shining thing in the reflection of which the ancient citadel of Placentia took on new honor, the brave and rugged island of Newfoundland acquired a finer heritage, Canada herself grew in stature another cubit.
It was all over a moment later, with cheering and horn honking and laughing and back slapping and old ladies and little children being led up the aisle “to shake Mr. Smallwood’s hand.”
The woman who knew everybody in the hall by name was sizable, hearty and Irish, and as she kept the line moving she looked around at a visitor and exclaimed hugely, “Isn’t he wonderful, our Joey?” it