Newfoundland's Little Giant
[For the source of this document, see the end of the text.]
Joseph Roberts Smallwood, the little man who almost single handed brought Newfoundland into Confederation, has the same kind of reaction on people, which, in his much larger sphere, Roosevelt had. Mention his name in certain layers of society in St. John's and the result is a paranoic [sic] torrent of abuse; mention it in others and you have something very close to reverence. There is no half-way
Nor is this surprising for this pint-sized figure - weight around 135 pounds - with nervous birdlike gestures, quick smile and ready wit, contains a personality as forceful and attractive as any in Canadian politics.
More it is a personality given to taking on the big battalions where ever they arise and with no particular thought to the consequences. As leader of the provincial Liberal party in the island he will be a difficult man to beat as he has shown not only in the last referendum, which resulted in a confederation majority, but also when he was campaign manager for Sir Richard Squires in 1928.
One of a Few
One of his few political losses was suffered in the election following this, when he was personally defeated in Bonavista South. At that, his beating was no disgrace since, as a comparative unknown, he had challenged one of the most successful and popular of Newfoundland politicians.
But politics is just one side of his character. He has been as well a union organizer at a time when unions were none too popular in Newfoundland, an author with at least four books to his credit, a newspaperman of skill and vigor, a pig farmer and one of the most successful broadcasters in his country.
His pig business was an outcome of the war and he managed two and a half years to raise 4,000 of the ani mals at a t ime when demand and price were both good. There are cynics who say that Smallwood will always go with the market and that his conversion to Confederation came only when he saw this market too was good. They point to his long record as the "blind patriot" of Newfoundland, so named because he was unyielding in his belief in the future of the island. But there is no conflict between his patriotism and his support of union.
He believes sincerely that the future of Newfoundland is more secure and brighter within the confederation than it would be as a lonely little country poised off the coast of the American continent, of it but not in it.
His period of most ardent patriotism coincided also with that period when his country was at one of the low ebbs of its uneven history . Responsible government had collapsed in the great depression, there was widespread unemployment and migration. Faith in Newfoundland was selling way below par.
It was then he took to the air to preach a new vigor and a new hope and if much of it was light stuff it was also stuff which people like to hear when their world has crashed about them and their future seems to have vanished with the markets which kept them alive.
War brought prosperity to Newfoundland as it did to many places and it brought also Canadian troops, the American bases and the realization to Smallwood that there was no place in the post-war world for a tiny country with a scattered population and undeveloped and meager resources.
Having made that decision, he plunged into the National Convention campaign, won his seat by the largest majority of any candidate - 89 per cent. - and became one of the most effective debaters in the two-year Convention called to decide the political future of the island.
Against heavy opposition, he succeeded in getting a majority vote in favor of sending a delegation to Ottawa to discuss under what terms the Domination would accept Newfoundland, as the tenth province. The result was the statement of October, 1947.
But whatever the popular opinion, opinion in the Convention was still preponderantly against union with Canada . The final draft of the Convention ignored Confederation as an alternative, calling only for a vote on two issues: responsible government or a continuation of commission.
In a Few Weeks
The skilled organizer in Joseph Smallwood then showed what could be done even in a country with a population scattered over 6,000 miles of rugged terrain. In a few weeks he had 50,000 signatures on a petition, the British Government had added confederation as an alternative and the road was open to union.
The two referendum campaigns were themselves remarkable demonstrations of the capacity for work and endurance of this slight and rather frail looking man. In addition to the radio addresses and political rallies, he produced a weekly newspaper which pointed in simple figures the material advantages to be had from confederation. For weeks on end, he worked 16 and 17 hours a day, running rings around the more cumbersome political machine of his opponents.
It is too early to assess his stature in terms of the history of the country but it is safe to say that a list of men who contributed to the present shape of the nation, who have been its nation builders, will not be complete without the name of this highly skilled, vigorous politician who combines what all successful politics must combine - an eye towards the sky and a pair of feet well down in solid earth.
Source: F. B. W., "Newfoundland's Little Giant", Winnipeg Free Press, December 14, 1948, p. 13. Text transcribed by Jonathan Kusek. Revision by Claude Bélanger.
© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College