Joey Smallwood

July 1 1998

Joey Smallwood

July 1 1998

Joey Smallwood

He was the most . engaging of tyrants

No list of important Canadians would be complete without a few rogues and weirdos. Canada has had its full share of oddballs, some of whom have influenced national affairs. Maclean's has picked one Character who almost singlehandedly changed the map of Canada—and who may have been the most adroit politician in the land.

Did Canada ever have such a character as Joey Smallwood? The little giant from Gambo, Nfld., was the funniest, toughest, most persistent and possibly smartest politician in Canadian history, a man with an unstoppable gift of the gab and the chutzpah of a Broadway agent He was also, from 1949 to 1991, Canada’s “only living Father of Confederation” and the man who brought Canada to 10 provinces by leading and cajoling a reluctant Newfoundland into the nation. That his governments had as many failures as successes, that he practised one-man rule of a type rivalled only by Quebec’s Maurice Duplessis, scarcely tarnishes his legend.

“The poorest boy . . . from the poorest family,” as he described himself, he made his way to Bishop Feild School in St. John’s, did not finish his education, and worked at a variety of jobs in a variety of cities. Smallwood was a journalist in St John’s, Boston and New York, a union organizer in Newfoundland, a newspaper editor, a backroom politico, and even an unsuccessful candidate for the British Liberal party. What he was, above all, was a socialist, convinced that the system favored the rich, and he developed his amazing oratorical skills preaching socialist gospel to countless ill-attended meetings.

During the Great Depression and the period of prosperity that the Second World War brought to Newfoundland,




1. Joey Smallwood


2. William Aberhart (1878-1943)

3. Joseph Martin (1852-1923)

4. Grey Owl (1888-1938)

5. Mrs. Bleaney (dates unknown)

6. Father Charles Chiniquy (1809-1899)

7. Mitchell Hepburn (1896-1953) and Maurice Duplessis (1890-1959)

8. Amor de Cosmos (1825-1897)

(c. 1650-1703)

10. Gerda Munsinger (b. 1929)

9. Jean Rattier

Smallwood found success as a radio broadcaster and failure as a pig farmer. The arrival of tens of thousands of high-spending Canadian and U.S. servicemen on the island persuaded him that the future of Newfoundland had to be better than its past; that forced him to look to Canada as the salvation of his country. This was no foregone conclusion. Britain was running Newfoundland as a dominion whose self-government had been suspended, and there were many who thought joining the United States was a preferable option. Still others wanted to regain the independence Newfoundland had lost when it went broke in the 1930s. The future course would be decided at a national convention.

Badly outnumbered, the confederate Smallwood simply argued everyone else into the ground. Using radio to reach beyond St. John’s, arguing continuously for the great social welfare benefits that would fall like manna from Ottawa to the outports, Smallwood got Confederation on the ballot as an option in the 1948 referendum. In the second or runoff referendum, he won the narrow majority (just 7,000 votes) he needed.

He was the only choice for premier of the new province, and he had shrewdly allied himself with the Liberal party of Louis Saint-Laurent and forged an alliance with Jack Pickersgill, the wily mandarin who entered the Saint-Laurent cabinet as a Newfoundland MP. Smallwood worked to solidify his support among what he called “the ragged-ass artillery” so successfully that he held power for 23 years.

His concern for the “toiling masses” was genuine, but always it was he, and he alone, who knew best what was good for them. Countless outports were virtually eliminated, their populations relocated. The province needed industry and economic development, so a succession of sinister European and American sharpsters turned up with schemes that enriched no one but themselves and a few of Smallwood’s cronies. Unionized woodworkers threatened to ruin an industry, or so he argued, and the old socialist unhesitatingly used the RCMP to crush the strike. He made a deal with Quebec to develop the hydro resources of Churchill Falls in Labrador, but the arrangement quickly soured as electricity rates rose while the proceeds flowing to Newfoundland did not. Even so, Smallwood succeeded in eliminating the starvation and isolation that had characterized Newfoundland barely a decade before Confederation.

His political protégés rose and fell at his whim, and they began to turn against him. His campaigns were ever more shameless in their self-glorification, and his grip on power eventually began to fail as he hung on too long. By January, 1972, he was gone at last, though he stayed around as the ghost who ruined Liberal chances for another five years.

Yet Smallwood was irrepressible and much loved. Prone to corruption, his government was often enmeshed in scandal and frequently an outrageous travesty of democracy, but it was never dull. And he dominated the public stage like no one before or since. A Memorial University student—working in an institution that Smallwood had largely created—demonstrated that he understood Newfoundland’s political realities under Smallwood when he answered a question on how to go about setting up a research program on giant squid: “Show strong Liberal tendencies.” That said it all.