Newfoundland’s political history has been marked by strong, even violent language, and searing personal attacks, both during debates in the House of Assembly and during political campaigns. But physical assaults — actual violence — have been few and far between.
Joseph Smallwood and Peter Cashin exchanged blows during a meeting of one of the National Convention Committees, and there have been several instances since Confederation when one member has struck another. But perhaps the strangest incident was the row between William Coaker and Alfred Morine one night in 1919.
Political passions had risen high that spring. The First World War had ended six months earlier, in November 1918, and all concerned knew a general election was not very far away. The wartime coalition formed by Edward Morris in July 1917 had survived his departure, when he accepted a British peerage on New Year’s Day 1918. He was succeeded by William Lloyd, who led an uneasy combination of men elected in 1913 under the banners of the People’s Party, the Liberals, and the Fishermen’s Protective Union.
Lloyd’s coalition collapsed early in May 1919, a few days after Michael Cashin (Peter’s father) presented the 1919-1920 budget. The next time the House met, Cashin stood in his place among the cabinet ministers and moved “no confidence” in the government. After a long pause, during which the Speaker looked around the House and members looked at each other, William Lloyd, the prime minister, rose to second the motion. Not surprisingly, it carried unanimously.
Cashin became prime minister a few days later. He promptly appointed Alfred B. Morine as the justice minister. Morine, a prominent figure in Newfoundland politics and public life for nearly 40 years at that point, may well have been the greatest scoundrel ever to hold office in Newfoundland’s often turbulent political history.
To Coaker and his FPU colleagues, Morine’s appointment was an insult and a provocation. To say they despised Morine is to put the point gently. Coaker was quick to say so. He rose to his feet on May 27, the first time the House met after Cashin took office. Sir Michael’s son, Peter, was in the public gallery that afternoon. Coaker spoke until 6 p.m., Peter recalled.
His entire speech was devoted to the denunciation of Morine with all the vigour and bitterness which Coaker could command. Not once did Morine interrupt ... [he] merely took notes and appeared unconcerned.
But he and the other Cashin supporters defeated Coaker’s attempt to adjourn the House until the next day.
Peter Cashin continued: "I went back after supper to hear Morine. He literally tore Coaker to pieces. He drove him to desperation and had Coaker jumping off his seat calling to the prime minister, my father, and the Speaker, Mr. [W.J.] Higgins to stop Morine. They merely laughed at him. Morine said, ‘you sit down now and take your medicine.'"
Those were the days when the public galleries were frequently filled by partisans of one side or another. That night, they were filled with Coaker’s supporters, who heckled Morine. Nothing undaunted, Morine defied them.
Again, in Cashin’s words: "He told those hecklers in no uncertain language that he, Morine, was trying to free them from the slavery which he felt Coaker was trying to inflict on them."
Coaker was driven to fury by Morine’s verbal assault. He lost his temper, and was unable to control himself. He became so angry that he picked up the inkwell on his desk and tried to throw it at Morine, across the House. He succeeded only in splattering ink all over himself and his clothes.
For whatever reason Hansard, the official record of the House debates, published no accounts of the proceedings that day. But the Daily News, a strident and vociferous opponent of Coaker and the Fishermen’s Union, was not so reticent.
The next morning, its front page story told the world: "[Coaker] entirely lost his head and forgot both the dignity of the House and that of his own position as Leader of the Opposition. His language was not only unparliamentary, but extremely vulgar, and he swore with a vehemence that was as disgusting as it was amazing ... At one point Mr. Coaker took up the ink-well ... and at another he threatened to throw the desk at him; at another he threatened to go across [the House] and choke him. And all the while he acted like a madman while Mr. Morine made fun at him, and went through the action of pulling a string to make him dance still higher and higher. ... And Mr. Coaker brought it all on himself."
Coaker’s paper, the Fishermen’s Advocate, made no mention at all of the incident.
Morine loses election
But Coaker had his revenge, just a few months later. Morine, perhaps bravely but certainly foolishly, sought to win a seat in Bonavista Bay, which returned three members to the House of Assembly. He had been elected there in a November 1914 byelection, unopposed and with FPU support, when Coaker stood down to seek election in the Twillingate seat left vacant by Sir Robert Bond’s resignation.
But he soon learned that the electors supported Coaker, and not him. Coaker and his two Fishermen’s Protective Union colleagues were returned at the head of the poll in Bonavista. Morine finished sixth, with fewer votes than any other candidate. Coaker got more than 10 votes to every four cast for Morine.
Edward Roberts has had a lifelong interest in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the province's lieutenant-governor from 2002 to 2008.