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How Joey became Newfoundland's first premier


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Transcontinental Media columnist Ed Roberts

Joseph R. Smallwood — "Joey," as he was known to his fellow Newfoundlanders — was premier of our province for more than 22 years. He held the job for so long that many thought he had always held it - and some that he always would. By then, nobody remembered how he had come to become premier in the first place, on April 1, 1949, the day that Newfoundland became Canada's tenth province. There is quite a story behind that.

Newfoundland's political system, like Canada's, followed the British practice — the so-called Westminster system. Under it, appointment of a premier or a prime minister falls to the Crown — to the King or Queen in England, to the Governor General in Ottawa, and to the lieutenant-governors in the provinces. Long-established and well-known rules govern their choice, of course.

Nobody challenges the right of the man or woman whose party wins an election to become the premier. But these rules were no help in 1949. Canada's constitution required that a lieutenant-governor be appointed by the Governor General of Canada on the day we became a province. That was clear. But who was to become Newfoundland's first provincial premier? Newfoundlanders hadn't elected Members of the House of Assembly since 1932, and they hadn't had a premier (then called prime minister) since February 1934, when the Commission of Government took office.

Joey Smallwood and Gordon Bradley, the two men who led the Confederation movement to victory in the 1948 referendums, had already made a deal. Bradley would go to Ottawa, and become Newfoundland's minister in the federal cabinet led by Louis St. Laurent. Smallwood would become premier.

The matter was settled, as far as they were concerned. Smallwood told the prime minister so, when they met informally in Ottawa at the end of January 1949, two months before the union became official. Indeed, he even went so far as to tell a newspaper reporter about the arrangement. The story appeared in the St. John's Daily News on Jan. 31.

While civil servants busied themselves with the arrangements to merge their counterparts in an independent Newfoundland into the Canadian federal system, the politicians turned their attention to the appointment of the lieutenant-governor - the man who would actually appoint the premier. The Commission of Government would be gone on the first of April, but the new House of Assembly could not be elected for several months. Since there would be no members until an election had been held, who should the lieutenant-governor ask to take on the job of being the interim premier?

Suggestions that a figurehead premier be appointed were quickly set aside. For once, the lieutenant-governor would have real power.

The first suggestion was that Sir Edward Emerson, the chief justice, be asked to take the job. He told the prime minister, however, by letter late in February 1949, that "I hope that I shall not have to serve." Smallwood, in an interview with the St. John's Sunday Herald, then announced early in March that Sir Leonard Outerbridge was his personal choice. Outerbridge, a man with a very distinguished public record, was one of the three Newfoundlanders who were given knighthoods in the final round of British honours (the others were Sir Albert Walsh and Sir Brian Dunfield). All those sounded out by the prime minister's emissaries to Newfoundland agreed that he would be a splendid choice.

That's when the problem became obvious. The difficulty was that Outerbridge would not commit himself to appoint Smallwood unless he was formally instructed to do so by the federal cabinet. The prime minister was not prepared to issue any such directive, although both Bradley and Smallwood were "strongly pro-Outerbridge."

While St. Laurent felt that "Smallwood was the person who should be called upon to form a provincial administration we [the federal Cabinet] do not wish to dictate this view to the new lieutenant-governor." Albert Walsh, for his part, expressed the strong opinion that "Smallwood is the inevitable leader."

The prime minister postponed his decision until March 25, less than a week before the date of union. Finally, he offered the job to Walsh, who said he would take it, but only for a term of not more than five months. St. Laurent agreed. Outerbridge was told officially that the Government of Canada "accept at face value his reluctance to make political decisions without direct instructions from the Government" of Canada, but was promised that he would be appointed lieutenant-governor when Walsh relinquished the office.

And that is exactly what happened. Sir Albert Walsh became the first lieutenant-governor of Newfoundland on April 1. He promptly sent for Joseph Smallwood, and asked him to accept appointment as premier. Smallwood agreed, and the first cabinet of the new province were sworn in at Government House later that morning.

Walsh duly retired as lieutenant-governor on Sept. 1 and became chief justice, filling the office vacated by Sir Edward Emerson's death in May 1949. He was succeeded by Outerbridge, who served with great distinction until his retirement in 1957.

Smallwood never looked back. He went on to win the general election that June and five that followed it. He resigned as premier in January 1972, when the Supreme Court declared that Frank Moores and the Progressive Conservatives had in fact won the October 1971 general election.

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.

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