Joey signs the document bringing Newfoundland into Confederation. Photo credit: Wikipedia.
Reporter, radio personality, and farmer, Joey Smallwood’s passion for union with Canada was a major factor in bringing Newfoundland into Confederation in 1949.
Joey held the office of premier for nearly 25 years after union, and continues to be a controversial figure to this day. He also produced The Book of Newfoundland, and began the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Joseph Roberts Smallwood was born in Gambo, Newfoundland, the son of Charles Smallwood and Mary Devanna. When he was five months old, his family moved to St. John’s, where he grew up in abject poverty. He attended neighbourhood day schools, and later Bishop Feild College, but dropped out before completing his studies. At the age of 15 he became a printer’s apprentice at the St. John’s Plaindealer, and spent the next few years gaining experience as a reporter with various papers.
In 1920, he moved to New York City, where he worked for the New York Call, a socialist newspaper. He also met Clara Oates, whom he married in 1925. Soon after, he returned to Newfoundland to act as a union organizer; he founded the newspaper Labour Outlook before joining the staff of the St. John’s Daily Globe. After that paper went bankrupt, Smallwood travelled to England in 1926, before returning to Newfoundland and settling at Corner Brook where he founded the Humber Herald.
His first venture into politics was in 1928, when he planned to run as a Liberal candidate for Humber. However, when the party leader Sir Richard Squires expressed an interest in that same seat, Smallwood stepped aside to act as district campaign manager. His successes were rewarded with an appointment as a justice of the peace. After the election he returned to St. John’s, founding the Liberal newspaper The Watchdog and becoming a confidant of Squires. A supporter of the suspension of responsible government, Smallwood ran unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate for Bonavista South in 1932. After that election, he acted as an adviser for the remaining two Liberal members in the legislature, F. Gordon Bradley and Roland Starkes.
After the suspension of responsible government, Smallwood moved from St. John’s to Bonavista, where he tried to establish the Fishermen’s Cooperative Union. By 1936 he had returned to St. John’s, and begun compiling the first two volumes of The Book of Newfoundland. He also began writing the column “From the Masthead” in the St. John’s Daily News, using the byline “The Barrelman.” This column evolved into the radio program of the same title, which aired on the government radio station VONF (Voice of Newfoundland) from 1937 to 1943. In 1939, he established a pig farm on the outskirts of St. John’s, moving it to Gander in 1943.
Smallwood’s second chance at a political career came with the announcement of the National Convention in 1946. He was elected as a delegate for Bonavista Centre. Convinced that Confederation was the means for Newfoundland’s salvation, he wasted no time in asserting these views in a speech to the Convention on October 28, 1946. He used radio broadcasts of the Convention proceedings to further the cause of Confederation, and his own prominence, across the island. He was a member of the first Ottawa delegation, sent to inquire about union possibilities. By the time the delegation returned to Newfoundland late in 1947, he had solidified his position as a Confederation leader. Smallwood was a major force behind the movement to include Confederation as a referendum option. During the referendum campaign, he was a key figure, acting as editor of The Confederate, the Confederate Association’s campaign newspaper. He was also a member of the negotiating team sent to Ottawa to create the final terms of union, and was invited to be the leader of the first provincial government in 1949.
In the provincial election in May of that year, Smallwood and the Liberal party won a decisive victory. He remained premier for almost the next quarter-century. As minister for economic development, he had almost total control over industrialization and development in the province. Unfortunately, many of the development efforts were failures, suffering from a combination of poor timing and poor planning.
In 1968, Smallwood announced his retirement as Liberal leader. However, two weeks after a leadership convention was announced, he gave notice of his intention to seek the job again. He won, in a battle that caused many in the party to throw their support behind the Progressive Conservatives. After an election loss to the Conservatives in 1971, Smallwood again announced his intention to retire, officially giving up the leadership on January 18, 1972, and his seat in the legislature soon thereafter. Two years later he changed his mind once again. After a failed attempt to win back the leadership, Smallwood formed the Liberal Reform party, which won four seats in the 1975 election. He rejoined the Liberals in 1977, but resigned his seat for the third (and final) time in June of that year.
Smallwood’s later years were devoted to the production of the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador. The first two volumes were published in 1981 and 1984, respectively. The project soon ran into financial difficulties that were aggravated when Smallwood suffered a stroke in 1984. The image of Smallwood being served with a writ in 1987 for unpaid bills concerning the Encyclopedia drew nationwide attention, and gave new life to the project. By 1988, the J. R. Smallwood Foundation was established in order to complete the publication of the work, and to establish the Smallwood Institute of Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University. Smallwood did not live to see the completion of the Encyclopedia, dying at his home in St. John’s.
Source: Library and Archives Canada