How Joey Smallwood is remembered 20 years after his death

Steve Bartlett
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Even 20 years after his death, opinion is still mixed on Joey Smallwood and his legacy. As writer Wayne Johnston says, when it comes to Smallwood, You either loved the guy or you hated the guy. Telegram file photos

Joey Smallwood is alive on Twitter as "1st_Premier_NL." The social media website lists his location as "In the hearts of NLders."

The father of Confederation lives on in the pages of The Telegram, too. Punch his name into the archives and he's been referenced in 47 articles - news and opinion, even entertainment and sports - so far in 2011.

And Smallwood still exists in the dialogue of some Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, especially with the proposed development of Muskrat Falls constantly generating news.

Discussion about the hydroelectric project inevitably leads to a battle cry or pledge to not repeat history - a reference to the lopsided Upper Churchill power pact signed on Smallwood's watch.

With its first premier still part of the province's psyche, it's apropos to wonder how history is treating the little man from Gambo as the 20th anniversary of his death approaches Dec. 17.

Smallwood is, after all, quoted as saying, "I'd like to go down as the greatest Newfoundlander that ever lived."

Years ago mentioning his name ignited fiery debate.

Joe Walsh, a retired Telegram editor and reporter, says St. John's was traditionally "anti-Joey," while rural areas loved him to the point "it wasn't unusual to see his picture in the hall right next to the Sacred Heart."

Newfoundland-born author Wayne Johnston used Smallwood as the main character in the 1998 work of historical fiction, "The Colony of Unrequited Dreams," which became a national bestseller.

He says it was impossible to feel lukewarm about Smallwood.

"You either loved the guy or you hated the guy," he says from Toronto, adding that seems to also be true of Smallwood's legacy.

"People either look back upon him as being larger than life and other people look back upon him as being the worst thing that ever happened to Newfoundland."

Johnston doesn't think 20 years is long enough to change such sentiments.

"It might take 100 years. It might take 200. It might take a few more novels about Smallwood, not that I'm writing them, but anyone who wants to should feel free."

Others interviewed think time is being relatively kind to Smallwood. They point to Confederation with Canada, and the accompanying benefits, as part of his positive legacy.

Ed Roberts, a former lieutenant governor and a politician who served in Smallwood's cabinet during the late '60s, thinks people are realizing Smallwood wasn't perfect, but did the best he could.

"There's an acknowledgement, perhaps unwilling on the part of some people, that Newfoundland is a better place, Newfoundlanders are better off, because of what he did in his life," Roberts says.

John Crosbie, current lieutenant governor and a former politician who resigned from Smallwood's cabinet over a disagreement in 1967, thinks Smallwood is generally looked upon positively.

"Although I had my differences with Mr. Smallwood at the time, as of course others did, there is no doubt that he's a very significant figure in our history both before Confederation and afterwards," he says.

Dale Russell FitzPatrick, Smallwood's granddaughter, believes he's remembered both positively and negatively.

She admits it bothers her that, because so much time has passed, people can now say what they like and there aren't many alive to question it.

As a result, she finds ridiculous statement are made about, or attributed to, Smallwood.

Russell FitzPatrick recalls attending a conference last year and listening to speaker focus on how devious her grandfather was during some of the events leading to Confederation.

She says he chastised Smallwood for meeting national convention delegates at the train to try and get them to join the confederates.

"Couldn't you also look at this and say what an astute politician?" she wonders, admitting "Maybe I'm touchier than most because he was related."

Paul Sparkes, who writes a history column for The Telegram and covered the latter years of the Smallwood administration for the old Daily News, offers a different take on how the years have treated Smallwood's legacy.

He doesn't think there's a lot of remembering going on.

"He doesn't come up in general circles. That's probably only to be expected. He's been dead 20 years."


Opinions may vary on how history is treating Smallwood, but an associate professor at Memorial University is noticing younger generations know less and less about the first premier.

Jeff Webb says the 20-year-olds he teaches only have a surface knowledge.

"They will know him as the man who brought Newfoundland and Labrador into Confederation, or they might say he screwed up on the Upper Churchill, although not likely," he says.

Webb also notes that Wayne Johnston's novels - Smallwood was also a character in "The Custodian of Paradise" - have altered public knowledge, even though the works are fiction.

"He has shaped a great deal about how Smallwood is thought of," Webb says. "Most readers, they can't tell when Johnston is reflecting what really happened and when it is a flight of fancy. They know some is true and they know some is made up, but they don't know where the line is."

Webb notes he's even had a person from outside the province ask about Sheilagh Fielding, a character in both "Colony" and "Custodian."

Johnston says he's never met the people Webb is referring to.

"Even up here in Toronto, people tend to know the difference or know how to find out. I don't think I'm altering what's known as the historical record, gaffed and inaccurate as that record may be at times.

If what Webb says is true, Johnston adds. people are being hyper-naive about how to read a work of fiction.

"You don't intend to go from that into doing a history exam, and you keep the two separate. I don't think most people have any trouble keeping these two things separate in their minds. There are biographies of Smallwood. There's an auto-biography of Smallwood. I would read them all with a grain of salt, but they have a different intent and purpose (than a novel)."


There was a consensus about one point among most interviewed for this story - as the years pass, the Upper Churchill remains the biggest blemish on Smallwood's record.

The hydro-electric deal reached by the Smallwood-initiated British Newfoundland Corporation (Brinco) sees Churchill Falls power sold to Hydro-Québec at fixed prices until 2041.

The pact contained no provision for escalating power prices and the Quebec utility has raked in billions while this province currently generates about $68 million a year.

It remains a head-shaker for many in Newfoundland and Labrador, but opinions differ about how much Smallwood's legacy should wear it.

"There's a lot of things happened that he could never foresee," says Walsh, who, as a reporter, conducted a lengthy interview in the early '80s with Smallwood.

Roberts concurs.

"Churchill Falls, looking back, was a mistake," he says. "But, in fairness, I'll say two things. Smallwood didn't actually negotiate the deal. It was done by Brinco. He didn't sign the deal. Secondly, at the time, absolutely no one saw the problem coming."

Crosbie, however, thinks the criticism over the Upper Churchill is justified.

"That was a major catastrophe associated with his government and it was his personal responsibility, mainly because he kept what was going on to himself and didn't consult with (others in government)," he said.

Russell FitzPatrick's opinion on the Upper Churchill is polar to Crosbie's.

She acknowledges a few of the clauses could have been better, but she thinks the administration believed they got the best financial advice available and that the contract was a good one.

"There's nothing like rose-coloured, 20/20 vision looking in the past," she says, adding she doesn't think Ottawa has done enough to help Newfoundland and Labrador develop its hydro resources.

"Every other province in this land of ours can have a pipeline going across whether they like it or lump it, but we can't move our electricity across Quebec. Ottawa has let us down more so than Joey Smallwood has."


Webb says there is still a lot of interest in Smallwood amongst scholars.

He says there are a number of younger researchers looking at different aspects of Smallwood's tenure and a more balanced history of that period will emerge from their efforts.

One factor is that they were born after Smallwood was premier or were only children when he was in office.

"Enough time has passed that, for them, he's just another historical figure. They lack the kind of emotional reaction that for a long time made it difficult. People tended to be either a defender of Smallwood or a critical of Smallwood."

Webb also figures a lot more will be written about Smallwood because once-closed government records are available and historians are turning their attention to the post-Confederation period.

"It used to be that Newfoundland history was before '49 and things that happened after that were sociology and political science."

While historians might be starting to focus on the early days of Newfoundland and Labrador as a province, Roberts is about to add to the annals of pre-Confederation.

Early next year, he'll release the memoirs of Peter Cashin, one of Smallwood's main antagonists in the Confederation debate.

The book includes a lot of information from the period, including Cashin's thoughts on his personal and political relationship with Smallwood.

While that info might potentially add a little to how Smallwood is viewed, Russell FitzPatrick knows how she's like her grandfather remembered in years to come.

"I think he was a visionary," she says. "He had to be extraordinary to do all the things he did in one lifetime."

Sparkes - whose father was the first speaker in the House of Assembly after the province joined Canada - points out that there can't be a campaign to remember more.

"What he's done will cause us to remember if it's due that," he says. "We can't say remember him. He'll be picked up in our history. We'll learn something about him and we'll move on."

Incidentally, there was no response to an interview request sent to 1st_Premier_NL. Twitter: bartlett_steve


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Recent comments

  • darren
    December 22, 2013 - 16:22


  • Turry from town
    December 12, 2011 - 05:56

    Joey was a good politition but a bad businessman. He had all the bayman hypnotized,like deer in the headlights,with his ranting,roaring,rambling and all the theatrics that went with it.These peasants voted for him because he could read and write and he was one of "wee fellars"

  • iamwrite
    December 12, 2011 - 00:27

    Too bad Joey loved NL so much. He should have moved to to Attawapiskat where he'd be appreciated more. I bet he could get them rfood, unning water, indoor toilets and roads so it wouldn't take days to get to a location only five hours away.

  • robert
    December 11, 2011 - 19:26

    How do I remember Joey? Corrupt, deceitful, arrogant and most obviously totally unqualifed for the job he held. A man who repeatedly preyed on rural Newfoundlanders with the promise of make work and prosperity that he knew could never be realized. It kept getting him elected. The generation past, todays generation and tomorrows will be victim to this mans incompetence. We have come a long way since Joey's rule, but we still have mountains to climb!

  • William Power
    December 11, 2011 - 12:18

    Many titles come to mind when I think of Smallwood; most not suitable to print; but the words Traitor, Incompetent, Dictator, Sell-out (also see Traitor), Fool, Patsy, and particularly Stupid, quickly come to mind. Besides selling our our country's freedom and independance (no doubt for more then 30 pieces of silver), and giving away our country's rights to the Fishery and off shore resources to Canada, we also just have to remember such things as the rubber boot factory, the hockey stick factory, the linerboard mill, as well as such names as John Sheehen, John C Doyle, Valmannis, etc., to get the full measure of Smallwood. The Churchill Falls deal was just the culmination of a long history of incompetence and stupidity. And, unfortunately, it's a legacy that will last until the year 2041; that even our grandchildren will be paying for.

  • Cynthia Elson Reeves
    December 11, 2011 - 11:47

    Cannot believe that with the rich history that Newfoundland & Labrador has to be proud of, that such a NARCISSISTIC man would be honoured.

  • K Hillyard
    December 11, 2011 - 11:10

    Thanks for this article it was very useful. I am a grade 10 student from Newfoundland currently living in Ontario and my class is writing essays on Joey Smallwood and this article is very helpful for my essay. Thanks. :)

  • Jeremiah
    December 11, 2011 - 08:59

    Frank Moores made a mistake when he shut down an investigation into Smallwood's activities (1972) and Peckford made a mistake when he allowed Smallwood to regain ownership of the Roache's line property. What Joey got away with would not be tolerated today and, in all probability, charges would be laid. Smallwood was a joke surrounded by clowns and we will pay for their mistakes for some time to come.

  • Anthony Cashin
    December 10, 2011 - 19:38

    I am proud of my great uncle - Major Peter Cashin!!!!! He was great person I met him.

  • David
    December 10, 2011 - 13:55

    Joey is single-handedly responsible for the incineration of the one-time financial windfall that came with confederation, and the permanent collateral damage of having every single Newfoundlander developing an undue contempt of anything to do with corporations or business. That stigma has forever doomed this province to being hopelessly backwards economically --- over-unionized, unambitious, look-to-government for all answers. He may have saved a generation from poverty, but the cost has been paid by every generation since.

  • fintip
    December 10, 2011 - 11:29

    The problem when it comes to rating Smallwood as a premier is that there is no handy universal scale. There are those who saw him as an evil dictator and others (especially his contemporaries) who were convinced he wore a halo. Neither of course is true. Webb notes that with greater research, a more balanced view will emerge. Possibly it will be more balanced but I doubt it will be more accurate. Historians do their best with what they have to work with, but unfortunately the public record of public figures often presents a sanitized version of the real man. Joey was what is often referred to these days as a 'control freak'. He wasn't satisfied to lead, he had to impose his judgment on the widest and most basic level of decision making in government. This is not unusual in business and politics - indeed, we have had two premiers since who exhibited that trait. Electing leaders who have such a need to dominate and control is a risky business from a public policy perspective. It usually means the normal checks and balances have been switched off. The result is that all of our eggs, so to speak, are being kept in one basket. In the case of Danny Williams, as luck would have it, the province may have actually done better on balance for a period of time than it might have without him. His force of personality, his stamina and his intellect may have worked in our favor on several high level, high value matters of state. Mind you, there were also some less impressive moments along the way and it might be argued that that, if we are to have such leaders from time to time, it is better that their tenure be on the short side as it was with Danny. And therein lies much of the problem with Joey. Had he vacated office sooner, he might have wrought much less damage and therefore been remembered more favorably. Instead Joey spent 23 years in power - much of that time functioning as a one man wrecking ball almost unchecked by the cowed, handpicked band of 'yes-men' around him or by the small ragged-arse artillery across the floor that he so regularly abused. Great leaders inspire and invigorate those around them. They are open to views counter to their own. Instead Joey sought out people who agreed with him and told him whatever he wanted to hear. Indeed he really didn't think very highly of any of his local contemporaries. He was far more impressed by characters from outside the province even if, like Valdmanis, they were more snake oil salesman than guru. The job of keeping Joey's power even a little in check fell to a handful of honest politicians (those left standing after Smallwood was through villifying them) and a few lone souls in the media. Notable among the latter was Ray Guy whose column was an extraordinarily popular feature in this paper in the days when it was a very substantial, influential medium. When it comes to Churchill Falls - Joey's crowning faux-pas - he actually has some defenders. They point out that the single error that caused it to be an economic disaster from Newfoundland's point of view - the absence of an inflation clause - went unforeseen by a great many financial and legal experts largely because inflation had been a negligible economic factor up to that time. True, but Smallwood's missteps on the Upper Churchill go much deeper than the fine print in the Brinco agreement. Unlike Williams who showed himself to be a tough, shrewd negotiator, Smallwood was the opposite. His propensity for announcing projects as fait-accompli long before he even sat down to negotiate gave a huge advantage to the crowd on the other side of the table. He invariably hemmed himself in and his adversaries exploited that to great advantage. Many Newfoundlanders are inclined to see Quebec as the villain in this bit of Greek tragedy. And while Quebec may not have acquitted itself in the most honorable manner, the real culprit (other than Smallwood) was the Government of Canada. Had any other province than Newfoundland been asking for federal intervention to allow its goods to be brought to market unmolested at the border, or had the subject of the intervention been any other province than Quebec, the federal government would have stepped in. Mind you, had Smallwood succeeded on Churchill Falls, he might well have found some other way to squander the wealth it would have generated. The side of Smallwood that historians are more likely to miss (and have generally missed thus far) is the often nasty, devious, small-minded, vengeful, corrupt, abusive leader who would do, and did, almost anything to remain in power and to stifle criticism of his administration. He took few prisoners and if you crossed him, it was just as well you pack your bags and head for the mainland. No doubt some of the reports of his skullduggery are exaggerated but many others are rooted in fact and there are still those alive today with the scars to prove it. I sympathize with his granddaughter. All of us like to remember our parents and grandparents fondly. Indeed in his personal life, the worst thing that is sometimes said of him is that he neglected his family as leaders of all stripes who treat politics as a blood sport are wont to do. Otherwise he may have been a fine grandparent. And there is no doubt that he was, and will always be, an important figure in Newfoundland history. But that is not the same as saying he was a great premier. On that score, sadly he fell well short of the mark.

  • sealcove
    December 10, 2011 - 10:39

    Still paying for joeys mistakes

  • Don II
    December 10, 2011 - 09:48

    Without a doubt Joey Smallwood, by sheer force of will and a gift of oratory, dragged Newfoundland and Labrador out of the 17th century and into the 20th century. Regrettably, it appears that Smallwood failed to live up to his full potential due to his peculiar personality which vacillated between genius and megalomania or between innate intellect and paranoia. A man without much formal education, Smallwood was naturally intelligent and energetic. However, there were those of us who suffered at his hand when he meted out punitive edicts because he failed to be fair in his judgements. People like me, who were the victims of his dictatorial style of governing the Province greatly disliked him while admiring him at the same time. I worked hard to thwart him and defeat him at every opportunity and was ultimately pleased at his downfall. Smallwood could be so cold in his treatment of those whom he disliked or considered his enemies, rightly or more often, wrongly. We were not forgiving or compassionate toward him in his later years as he declined in power and health. I know it must have been devastating for Joey when he lost his power of speech after a debilitating stroke in his later years. Smallwood made many mistakes during his time in office and chose his advisers or partners poorly such as Valdmanis and the economic development fiasco, Doyle and Government fraud , Shaheen and the Come by Chance Oil refinery debacle, the Upper Churchill project and Newfoundland Liquor store rental contracts, etc. I have no doubt that his heart was in the right place and he tried to improve the economic and social conditions for all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians. Regrettably, his dictatorial and bombastic style of governing was his ultimate downfall. Sadly, for those of us whom he abused and punished, it is still impossible to forgive and forget, even 20 years after his passing.

  • Mark
    December 10, 2011 - 07:59

    Ironically, neither Crosbie or Roberts had the popularity or ability to become a Premier, having to rely instead on appointments to ceremonial posts to be noticed at all.