This Week in History


Canada’s Last Father of Confederation

For the week of Monday December 24, 2007

On December 24, 1900, Joseph “Joey” Smallwood, Newfoundland’s first, post-Confederation premier, was born in Gambo, Newfoundland. A journalist, radio broadcaster and politician, Smallwood was an active proponent and supporter of Newfoundland and Confederation.

Canadian stamp commemorating Joseph Smallwood
© Canada Post Corporation {2007}
The man dubbed ‘the Last Father of Confederation’ grew up poor in St. John’s. He dropped out of school and became a printer’s apprentice for the St. John’s newspaper the Plaindealer at the age of 15. He moved to New York City in 1920 to work for a socialist newspaper, but returned to Newfoundland five years later where he became a union organizer and married Clara Oates.

Smallwood first entered politics in 1928 when he became the district campaign manager for the Liberal candidate, Sir Richard Squires. In 1936 he returned to St. John’s and was very active in publishing and journalism. He began compiling the first two volumes of the Book of Newfoundland and later hosted a radio program from 1937 to 1943, called the Barrelman.

Smallwood signing the agreement which entered Newfoundland into Confederation
© NFB / Library and Archives Canada / PA 128080
Smallwood’s second venture in politics came in 1946 when he was elected as a delegate to the National Convention set up by Britain to enable Newfoundlanders to discuss their constitutional future. He made a personal trip to Ottawa to explore the possibility of entering Confederation, and became the leader of the movement to convince Newfoundlanders to join Canada as a province. After the Confederation option was chosen in the (second) referendum in 1948, by the narrowest of margins, he led the team that negotiated the final terms of the union. Smallwood was appointed interim premier and elected as Premier in the first provincial election in 1949.

During his more than two decades as Premier, Smallwood attempted a program of rapid industrialization that failed spectacularly. More successfully, he established the province’s first university, Memorial. Most of the social legislation he enacted was progressive, but in response to a major loggers strike in 1959, he turned away from his previous socialist ideals and intervened on the side of management. He was charming, eloquent and witty, and was possessed of exceptional energy that enabled him to completely dominate public life. He continued as premier until 1971 when he lost his first election; not long after, he retired from politics.

In retirement, Joseph “Joey” Smallwood returned to his first love of writing, publishing the well-regarded Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador. He died on December 18, 1991. Smallwood himself, as well as Confederation, remain controversial subjects to many Newfoundlanders.

For more information about Newfoundland’s entry into Confederation, please see the story "And Then There Were Ten"   in the This Week in History Archives.

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