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The Fishermen's Protective Union: Newfoundland's most radical political party


Ed Roberts

Newfoundland has known many political parties since 1832, when our ancestors elected the members of the first House of Assembly.

But no party - indeed, no organization - has ever been the equal of William Coaker's Fishermen's Protective Union. Born in the Orange Lodge at Herring Neck on New World Island on Nov. 3, 1908, when 19 fishermen responded to his call to join in forming a union of the "toilers," the FPU rapidly became a dominant force in Newfoundland's political and social life.

Coaker, buoyed by the response to his call, set off at once on a whirl-wind organizational tour of the northeast coast. Roused by his rhetoric and inspired by his vision, thousands rallied quickly to the FPU's banner - "a sea-blue background with a white codfish, surrounded with a red U."

By 1914, the union claimed the support of 20,000 men - one-third of the entire workforce of the island. They were organized into 206 councils between St. Barbe and Brigus.

Although Coaker called the FPU a union, he intended from the start that it would be a political party. The 1910 Supreme Council meeting was held in Catalina. The delegates declared their union a political party.

Coaker's vision was clear: "We must therefore use our powers, as electors, to elect a dozen union members to the House of Assembly ... No other course is open to us in the face of the treatment that has been accorded our requests."

Then he sounded a clarion call, one that resonates to this day in Newfoundland's politics.

"Too much attention is being paid by our rulers to matters in connection with speculation in interior development, and too little attention given to reforms and requirements of the outports and the fisheries."

Coaker and the FPU moved quickly into the political arena. The next year, delegates to the 1911 Supreme Council in Greenspond roared their approval of a draft election manifesto.

A year later, in Bonavista, the FPU's "Friends" - the word they used to address each other - adopted the most progressive platform ever put forward by any Newfoundland political party.

Fishery reforms led the list, but the delegates also called for schools to be built in every settlement with more than 20 children; free and compulsory education; old age pensions for all over 70; and for the election of school boards and municipal councils.

They agreed, too, that members of the House should be paid a sessional indemnity. That would make it possible for any Newfoundlander, no matter how much he earned, to stand for election. (Members of the British House of Commons were not paid a salary until 1911).

A general election was due in 1913. Coaker realized that, notwithstanding its huge membership, the FPU alone could not elect enough MHAs to form a government.

Early in 1913, he formed an alliance with Robert Bond, Leader of the Liberal Opposition. The districts along the northeast coast, the FPU's heartland, returned 13 of the 36 members of the House.

Under the deal with Bond and the Liberals, the union nominated 10 of the 13 who would stand in 1913. Nine of them won, along with three Liberals, one of them Bond, who held their seats because of the FPU's support. Only three Liberals were elected elsewhere. Edward Morris and his People's Party won re-election, with 21 of the 36 seats in the House.

The next general election, delayed by the First World War, was not held until 1919. Coaker renewed his alliance with the Liberals, by now led by Richard Squires. They swept to victory, winning 24 of the 36 seats. Eleven of the 12 candidates sponsored by the FPU won. Coaker became minister of marine and fisheries, the second man in the government and almost the equal of the prime minister, Squires.

Driven by Coaker, the new government immediately adopted the so-called Coaker Regulations, the boldest attempt ever to reform the Newfoundland fisheries. They were an attempt to control the price that Newfoundland's salt-fish commanded in the European markets. They failed, because Newfoundland was too small a player and because the Newfoundland export houses - "the Water Street merchants" - withdrew their support for the plan.

But the fishermen stood by Coaker and the FPU. All 11 union candidates were returned in the 1923 general election. In 1924, in the wake of the Liquor Store scandal that cost Squires the prime ministership, the union again sponsored 11 candidates.

Although Coaker did not seek re-election, eight of them won. The FPU returned to the fray in 1928, when the Conservatives were thrown out of office. Thirteen of the union's 14 candidates, Coaker among them, took their seats in the new House of Assembly.

The FPU faded away as a political force after 1928, although it survived as an organization until well into the 1930's. Its enemies claimed that the movement was a failure. But the sounder judgment is that it made Newfoundland a far better place in which to live and work, and improved the lives of all those whom it sought to serve.

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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