We tend to define Joseph Roberts “Joey” Smallwood by two roles: as the first premier of Newfoundland and as the self-described last father of Confederation. And it’s true the “little fellow from Gambo,” who measured five feet five inches, was a political firebrand of the highest order. Few Canadian politicians have matched Smallwood’s fiery rhetoric, perpetual enthusiasm, and passionate support for his beloved Rock. As his fellow Newfoundlander Rex Murphy once wrote in the National Post, what Smallwood “lacked in altitude he more than made up for in attitude.”
But the eternal march of history has a tendency to push past some of the more revealing details. Smallwood was also a newspaperman and jack-of-all-trades. He was a hardline socialist (although he later shed aspects of this philosophy) and a left-leaning populist. During his twenty-three-year reign as premier, his folksy persona masked but did not fully hide an autocratic leadership style. While he’s always been a memorable figure, there were other sides to his personality that we can see with a keener eye and sharper focus.
Melvin Baker and Peter Neary’s Joseph Roberts Smallwood is, therefore, an important examination of the early years of Gambo’s favourite son. (The former author is a retired archivist at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and the latter is professor emeritus at Western University, in Ontario.) Although several books have been written about Smallwood — including his own autobiography, I Chose Canada, from 1973 — this volume has a different feel to it. In their preface, Baker and Neary describe Smallwood as “a man of myth — myth of his own making and myth made by others, both friend and enemy.” As they go on to demonstrate, that’s a fair, unvarnished description of a larger-than-life politician who relished using many coats of paint on the canvas of his topsy-turvy story.
The book opens with the Smallwood family, who arrived in St. John’s via Charlottetown. They were tradespeople: Joey’s grandfather, David, was a carpenter, and his father, Charles, was a lumber surveyor. Joey was born on December 24, 1900, on Freshwater Bay. (As a politician, Smallwood “made much of the fact” that he came from an outport.)
Smallwood’s religious upbringing combined Congregationalism (though his father) and Roman Catholicism (on his mother’s side), although he was baptized as a Methodist, a denomination that would “figure prominently” in his intellectual life, as well as in “his extensive career as a book collector.” He later worked as a reporter for the Evening Telegram, where he wrote about everything from crackdowns on local moonshine operations to a scintillating interview with the Canadian-born British correspondent Frederick Arthur McKenzie.
His working-class background helped form his early political leanings, which were heavily rooted in socialism. Indeed, Smallwood’s “radically minded” outlook reflected “youthful convictions about unfair distribution of wealth.” As a boarder at Bishop Feild College, a Church of England school that “exemplified muscular Christianity,” he protested the quality of the food and the punishment of students who “skipped evening service at nearby St. Thomas’ Anglican Church.” When he left St. John’s to seek opportunities in New York, he joined the Socialist Party of America and wrote for The Call. In the magazine’s October 22, 1922, issue, he crafted one particularly bizarre juxtaposition: “I am an imperialist because I am a Socialist. I believe in industrialist expansion throughout the earth because I am eager to see the Co‑operative Commonwealth ushered in.”
It may be hard to picture such a far-left radical evolving into a respected Liberal politician. Yet that’s exactly what began to happen when Smallwood returned to Corner Brook, Newfoundland, in 1925. Initially, he aligned with local leaders and helped launch the Newfoundland Federation of Labour. Much like the British Labour Party leader Ramsay MacDonald, who inspired him greatly, Smallwood foresaw in the movement’s success “the end of capitalism by peaceful, constitutional means.” In early 1926, he started working at the Daily Globe, fully intent on continuing his quest for socialism and union rights.
Then he experienced “an intellectual metamorphosis” and “reconciled his socialist ideals with the practical realities of Newfoundland public life.” He came out the other side as a Liberal, even though the Liberal Party, formerly the party of labour, was then regarded as being indistinguishable from the Tories. But a controversial local lawyer, George W. B. Ayre, convinced Smallwood that the Liberals “could still best serve the workingman’s purpose” and pushed him to find ways to renew the party.
Smallwood took up the daunting challenge with gusto. In his view, if the Liberal Party could “pull itself together, take earnest stock of the situation, and formulate and commit itself to principles and policies of a social reform nature and genuinely advocate them, there need never be a Labor Party in Newfoundland.” And in a 1926 letter to William Coaker, the former leader of the Fishermen’s Protective Union, he suggested that “Laborism” was “an outgrowth of Liberalism,” before connecting progressive policies to working-class sensibilities. This philosophy would serve as a political foundation for the rest of his career.
In 1925, Smallwood met Clara Oates, who came from a well-established family in a town with a “strong entrepreneurial and maritime tradition.” They soon wed, and their union was, by most accounts, a strong one. Indeed, the unconventional Smallwood “was fortunate to marry into a conventional Newfoundland family adept at the business of making a living.” Later, Smallwood became the editor of a new Corner Brook weekly, the Humber Herald, and managed the Newfoundland Liberal leader Richard Squires’s successful 1928 campaign for the House of Assembly. Smallwood had intended to run in Humber himself, but Squires — who had served as prime minister of Newfoundland in the early 1920s before resigning in disgrace, over allegations of bribery within his own caucus — desired the seat. Smallwood had to “content himself” with campaigning alongside the politically rehabilitated Liberal leader, although the final result “was greatly to his satisfaction.”
Smallwood developed a relationship with the new prime minister and become a “well-established Squires operative.” He intended to run for office himself. Alas, his timing coincided with the height of the Great Depression. The island struggled mightily, Smallwood declared insolvency, and Squires’s popularity collapsed since he was “now considered in official circles as the personification of everything that had gone wrong in Newfoundland.” Smallwood lost his election bid for the Bonavista South seat in 1932, and the Liberal government he had helped build was nearly obliterated by the right-leaning United Newfoundland Party.
In their book’s second section, Baker and Neary look at the period 1934 to 1945, when Smallwood turned into something of an Odd Job Joe. He worked for several newspapers and transformed a tabloid, the Barrelman, into a successful radio program, where he mostly eschewed “flagrant partisan-political discourse” and favoured a combination of local stories and dashes of “consciousness-raising.” This was the platform that brought him into the living rooms of captive audiences, made him a household name, and launched his own political mythology. He also edited the two volumes of The Book of Newfoundland, worked for the Broadcasting Corporation of Newfoundland, and wrote about the joys of berry picking. He even went into pig farming and managed an “RAF piggery” in Gander.
Throughout it all, politics remained his first love, and in 1943 a unique opportunity to re-enter it presented itself “in spectacular fashion.” The British government announced that Newfoundlanders would be allowed to “decide their own constitutional future once the war in Europe was over.” The “forward-looking masthead Newfoundlander,” as Baker and Neary describe Smallwood, was about to become something akin to royalty.
With their final section, the authors explore how Smallwood evolved into a veritable champion for Confederation and enthusiastically made every conceivable argument to join Canada. As “a polished performer on the airwaves,” he took centre stage during a tense moment. Encountering “stiff resistance” and “raucous debate,” he was accused of offering bribes and attempting to “railroad the convention” that was charged with preparing the ground for a referendum. One of Smallwood’s great opponents was Chesley Arthur Crosbie, who launched the Economic Union Party in 1947, advocating responsible government, which would make Newfoundland an independent dominion that could move “toward negotiating a free trade agreement with the United States.” (Decades later, Ches’s son, John Crosbie, became the long-time Newfoundland and Labrador cabinet minister who helped usher in North American free trade, with the Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney.)
When it came time to vote, the first ballot had responsible government slightly ahead of Confederation — by 45 percent to 41 percent. A second ballot was needed to get a majority. Wearing his signature bow ties, Smallwood was “flying high but attracted strong personal attack as an unscrupulous operator, a ne’er‑do-well, and a traitor to his country.” He was a polarizing figure, but he refused to back down without a few verbal jousts — and his supporters were there for him when things got physical.
Smallwood was known for getting along with people from different backgrounds, and he refused to divide his compatriots. Ultimately, his efforts helped Confederation win with 52 percent of the vote, and he became the first premier of the province of Newfoundland on April 1, 1949.
Baker and Neary depict Joey Smallwood as an “audacious political chameleon” who was “always his own man and could never be taken for granted.” At the same time, he “stood apart and had about him the touch of destiny. He took to power like a fish to water and in office sought to build the new Newfoundland of his dreams.” And these qualities enabled the eccentric and memorable little fellow from Gambo to leave behind a gigantic legacy.