The Prime Minister hardly slowed down in the front room of 66 Colonial St., barely nodded toward the startled residents, before he exited their back door into a small garden, then scaled a fence, crossed another backyard, clambered into a waiting taxi one street over, and vanished into what would be a long and noisy night in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
It was the evening of April 5, 1932, a memorable day, even in the country’s long history of raucous politics. The Prime Minister, Sir Richard A. Squires, was running from the remnants of what had been a mob of nearly 10,000 angry citizens. Behind him, the Colonial Building, the seat of democratic government, lay sacked and shattered. The nominal democracy he led had entered a death spiral and, in little more than a year, would vanish altogether.
In the aftermath of a punishing world war, an earthquake, a tsunami, the collapse of the fishery and on the brink of bankruptcy, his little country would soon disappear. For 15 years, the public business of Newfoundland would be administered by a seven-member team of bureaucrats, hand-picked by the British government.
Democracy would not return until April 1, 1949 – a date that, for some cynics, would forever be associated with the frivolity of April Fools.
After centuries of “nationhood” – an indelible identity, even while a British colony – Newfoundland would henceforth be a part of Canada, just another province, one of 10, distinguished mainly by geographic isolation and economic desperation. April 1, 1949, would become, for years, a divisive observation, but a time for serious reflection on a unique and never-boring chapter in human history.
Because most Newfoundlanders are indefatigable storytellers, the island narrative, which spans more than 500 years, has been well reported in folklore, academic scholarship and a wealth of literature. A sampling.
For a highly accessible overview, The Newfoundland Historical Society’s A Short History of Newfoundland and Labrador, with contributions from a distinguished list of Newfoundland historians, including James Hiller, Olaf Janzen, Peter Pope and Lisa Rankin.
The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston, a vivid fictionalized account of Joey Smallwood’s long campaign to make the island part of Canada, a bold exploration of the mind and personality of one of Canada’s most persuasive, sometimes erratic, always mesmerizing politicians.
Newfoundland in the North Atlantic World, 1929-1949, by the eminent Newfoundland historian, Peter Neary. His gift is an ability to leaven academic authority with anecdote and insight that bring long-dead characters to life and past events to current relevance; to enliven history with a glimmering humanity and humour.
Sean Cadigan’s Newfoundland and Labrador, A History. A tinder-dry book-title obscures what is a dramatic account of the first six decades of Newfoundland’s experience as a part of Canada – the tumultuous reign of Smallwood, self-described, before he died in 1991, as “Canada’s only living father of Confederation,” an array of sometimes bizarre initiatives in economic development, and the collapse of the fishery that had lured the first permanent settlers to the island and sustained its fragile economy for centuries.
Michael Crummey, among Newfoundland’s most accomplished fiction writers, provides, in Sweetland, a deeply human insight into one of the most painful chapters of Newfoundland’s post-Confederation history – the evacuation of residents in small, remote outport communities, through persuasion and manipulation, for resettlement in larger and more central towns and cities.
Lisa Moore’s February is a stark account, again through fiction, of a very real disaster, the sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig in February, 1982 – a reminder that, for Newfoundlanders, the North Atlantic has throughout their history been a fickle, often violent, partner in survival.
Scotiabank Giller Prize–winning Linden MacIntyre was born in St. Lawrence, Nfld., and raised in Port Hastings, Cape Breton. His next book, The Wake: The Deadly Legacy of A Tsunami, will be published by HarperCollins this fall.
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