BOOKS

Witness to history

A canny account of Newfoundland politics

MARY JANIGAN February 12 1990
BOOKS

Witness to history

A canny account of Newfoundland politics

MARY JANIGAN February 12 1990

Witness to history

A canny account of Newfoundland politics

BOOKS

NO PLACE FOR FOOLS

By Don Jamieson

(Breakwater Books, 213 pages, $24.95)

It was an acrimonious, three-year debate that set Roman Catholics against Protestants, city dwellers against rural residents, Establishment businessmen against an upstart journalist named Joseph Smallwood. When it ended on March 31, 1949, Newfoundland was Canada’s 10th province, while the irrepressible Smallwood had become

its interim leader—and the only living Father of Confederation. Don Jamieson, who later served as a federal Liberal cabinet minister and high commissioner to Britain, witnessed those turbulent times as a St. John’s businessman, then broadcaster, and as an active member of the anti-Confederation forces. No Place for Fools, the first volume in his two-part autobiography, chronicles that dramatic battle over Newfoundland’s fate and Smallwood’s subsequent quixotic quest throughout the 1950s to lure small industry to his beloved island. Completed in 1986, shortly before Jamieson’s death, the account is a canny and delightfully wry observation on politics and its players, hard-lost battles and harder-won lessons.

Born in the Newfoundland capital in 1921 as the eldest of six children, Jamieson lived through Newfoundland’s liveliest era. His father, Charles, was the editor of The Watchman, the city’s Conservative-leaning newspaper; Smallwood edited the pro-Liberal Daily

Globe. When the two men walked home together at night, amiably squabbling, the tiny Jamieson would tag along, he recalls, “one hand in my father’s and the other in Smallwood’s.” In February, 1934, overwhelmed by the Depression, the Dominion of Newfoundland voted itself out of existence and accepted a Britishappointed commission to run the island. Two months later, Jamieson’s father died of septic poisoning. His widow, Isabelle, pushed her eldest son into a high-school business course, which eventually led to a job with the Crosbie

family’s shipping and manufacturing empire.

That job positioned Jamieson for an insider’s view of the Confederation debate. In 1946, Britain called for an elected convention to recommend alternatives for a referendum on Newfoundland’s fate. Smallwood, an advocate of Confederation, won a convention seat; Chesley Crosbie, dean of the Crosbie empire and an advocate of economic union with the United States, also won. Fascinated, Jamieson, then 25, began a nightly radio commentary on the proceedings, which lasted 17 months.

When the commission finally adjourned, Newfoundlanders were ferociously divided. The Catholic Archbishop of St. John’s advised his flock to oppose Confederation because he feared that exposure to the outside world would tempt them away from the faith and endanger funding for the Catholic school system. Outraged, the Orange Order, whose members lived mainly in rural areas, chose to support unification with Canada. In two refer-

endums, only 52 per cent of Newfoundlanders opted for Confederation. Almost 40 years later, Jamieson criticized the excessive rhetoric: “Even at the time, there were those, myself included, who saw with regret how ineptness, suspicion, bigotry and mean-mindedness—often in high places—reduced the argument to pathetically low levels.”

The mercurial Smallwood emerged victorious, confirmed in office through a provincial election and committed to an ambitious and ultimately doomed development program. Jamieson watched the headstrong premier attract a bizarre assortment of scoundrels and dreamers who exploited his passionate devotion to Newfoundland. On one occasion, a government-funded leather-goods factory presented Smallwood and his colleagues with heavy, green, double-breasted overcoats with wide belts and unfashionably huge lapels. “It looked like ... a cast-off Nazi ss uniform,” Jamieson writes. “When in each other’s company, they resembled a burlesque take-off of the German high command.” Still, Jamieson was equally ready to admit his own failures. “I was falling victim,” he writes, “to the one evil Smallwood feared and fought against more than any other—an acceptance of Newfoundland’s inability to surmount the odds.”

It is that fairness, that striking ability to evaluate politics and players, that distinguishes No Place for Fools. With shrewd analysis and deft anecdotes, Jamieson crafted both a delicious view of his times and an invaluable, if chastening, guide for any aspiring politician.

MARY JANIGAN