Recalling one of this province's great political mysteries

Published on November 20, 2012
Past Imperfect Columnist Ed Roberts

Kenneth Mackenzie Brown was a commanding figure in Newfoundland's politics for many years. He played a major role in the union movement and in the tumultuous political battles of the 1920s and 1930s. And he was at the centre of probably the most dramatic moment in the 15 months during which the National Convention debated Newfoundland's future during the prelude to Confederation.

Brown grew up in King's Cove, on the south side of Bonavista Bay. He went to British Columbia as a young man, studied navigation at the Vancouver Nautical Academy, and eventually became master of several ships before returning to Newfoundland to work with the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company in the paper mill at Grand Falls.

He became a public figure in 1921, when he took a leading role in a strike at the Grand Falls Mill. (The International Brotherhood of Pulp, Sulfite and Paper Mill workers went on strike in April, when the company "laid off workers, reduced wages and hours of work, and stopped providing town families with free coal," in the words of Newfoundland historian Dr. Sean Cadigan. The strike ended in August with a partial victory for the union.)

Became disillusioned

Two years later, Brown entered the House of Assembly as one of the three members elected in the District of Twillingate, which then included Grand Falls. All three stood as candidates for the Liberal-Fishermen's Protective Union coalition. He led the polls in that election, and again in 1924, when he was re-elected. He won a third victory in Twillingate, by then a one-member seat, again as a Liberal, in the 1928 election that saw Sir Richard Squires return to power as prime minister.

But Brown quickly became disillusioned, as the administration led by Squires disintegrated under the onset of the Depression. He stood for re-election in Grand Falls as a Conservative in 1932, and won a fourth term in the House of Assembly by a two-to-one victory over his Liberal opponent. (The Conservatives, led by Frederick Alderdice, won all but three seats in that election.) He served in Alderdice's cabinet as Newfoundland's first minister of labour.

Brown became active in the labour movement again in the years after the suspension of Responsible Government in 1934. He was elected president of the Fishermen's Protective Union in October 1936. The FPU, greatly diminished from its glory days under William Coaker's leadership, was nonetheless still a powerful force in Newfoundland life and politics. And he founded the Newfoundland Seaman's Union in 1946.

The British decision to call the National Convention gave Brown an opportunity to return to elective politics. He was elected by acclamation in his home district of Bonavista South in June, 1946. Although his colleagues from Bonavista Bay - Joseph Smallwood, Gordon Bradley and Samuel Vincent - were all ardent Confederates, Brown soon emerged as an equally strong proponent of the return to Responsible Government.

Ken Brown won his unique place in Newfoundland's parliamentary history in the Convention in the fall of 1946.

A piece of paper

On Oct. 28, the 45 members began to debate Smallwood's motion to send a delegation of its members to Ottawa "to ascertain the terms and conditions on the basis of which the Government of Canada consider that [a] federal union [between Newfoundland and Canada] might be effected." Smallwood spoke in support of the motion. He was followed by Michael Harrington and several other members, all of whom spoke against it.

Ken Brown then "caught the chairman's eye" and was given the floor. He declared at once that "whatever reason or whatever sympathy I would have with joining forces with Canada, Mr. Smallwood has killed it all in his address here this afternoon."

Brown spoke again during the debate, this time on an amendment, on Oct. 30. He repeated his opposition to Smallwood's motion, saying it was premature. "Therefore," he said, "I am in duty bound to vote against the Resolution ..."

A few moments later, he electrified the chamber by declaring that: "I have a piece of paper in my pocket now, I won't read it, but if I did I doubt if there would be 10 men in this House who would vote for this resolution. Let it go. I will not read it now, I will leave it to some other time. I am not jumping to any conclusions, I know where I stand."

He carried on, praising another anti-Confederate member of the convention, Albert Penny, for moving the amendment. "Thank you for seeing fit to bring in this amendment," he said. "I think that in doing so you are doing no injustice ..."

Those were the last words that Brown ever uttered in the chamber. The convention's official report records that "Mr. Brown collapsed at this point. The convention adjourned."

Felled by a stroke

Brown had been felled by a stroke. Peter Cashin, another member of the convention, recorded in his memoirs that "I was sitting opposite to Mr. Brown at the time and rushed to unbutton his collar and give him some air, while someone else telephoned for the ambulance, which took him to the hospital."

The next day, Oct. 31, Cashin moved that the House adjourn, noting that Brown, "who dropped here yesterday afternoon at his post, ... [today] lies stricken and unconscious in the General Hospital." The motion was supported by every member.

Brown recovered from his stroke, to some degree. While he never returned to the convention, members agreed to allow him to cast his vote "by letter or by telegram." An anti-Confederate to the end, he voted against the motion to place Confederation on the ballot, and in the final poll of the members of the convention, on Jan. 30, 1948, stated his preference for Responsible Government against either Confederation or Commission of Government.

Ken Brown, appointed an Officer of the British Empire in 1949, played no further part in Newfoundland's public life before his death in 1955. But to this day, nobody knows what was written on "the piece of paper in my pocket."

It will remain forever one of the great mysteries of our political history.

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. He can be reached by email at the following: