A defining speech

Hans
Hans Rollmann
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Today I want to draw our attention to the involvement of one individual in the National Convention, which met from 1946 to 1948 to examine Newfoundland's and Labrador's constitutional options.

William J. (Bill) Keough, as the representative for St. George's, made a defining speech 62 years ago today, on February 28, 1947. From this memorable address one phrase in particular has burned itself indelibly into the collective conscience of our province: his plea not to forget, in all of the deliberations, that "last forgotten fisherman on the Bill of Cape St. George."

This month, 60 years ago, one minute before midnight - so that people might never call it an April Fools' Joke - on March 31, 1949, Newfoundland entered Confederation with Canada.

Much has been written on the union of this youngest Canadian province, including a series on the churches and Confederation, with which I commenced my columns in The Telegram one decade ago.

Bill Keough

Today I want to draw our attention to the involvement of one individual in the National Convention, which met from 1946 to 1948 to examine Newfoundland's and Labrador's constitutional options.

William J. (Bill) Keough, as the representative for St. George's, made a defining speech 62 years ago today, on February 28, 1947. From this memorable address one phrase in particular has burned itself indelibly into the collective conscience of our province: his plea not to forget, in all of the deliberations, that "last forgotten fisherman on the Bill of Cape St. George."

Often a simplistic picture emerges of the involvement of churches in the campaign for Confederation.

The Roman Catholic Church, held such a view, opposed to Confederation, and the Protestants supported it. This is simply not the case, even if Archbishop Roche and many Roman Catholics on the Avalon objected to this marriage of Newfoundland with Canada.

Roche's west-coast colleague, Bishop Michael O'Reilly of St. George's, was a strong supporter of Confederation, as was his friend, Keough.

Both men hoped for economic betterment through Confederation, and the final referendum results for St. George's-Port-au-Port testified to their electoral success: 57 per cent for and 43 per cent against Confederation with Canada.

Social and ethical issues

Two religiously motivated members of the National Convention, the Labrador representative and United Church minister Leland Lester Burry and the committed Roman Catholic labour activist Keough, elevated a merely constitutional and economic discussion into a debate that also included social and ethical issues.

Burry and Keough were supported by two co-operative fieldworkers and members of the convention, Ike Newell, a poet and future English professor, and Michael J. McCarthy. Harold Horwood later called this group "Joey's angry young men."

Keough, educated both at St. Bon's and St. Pat's, already straddled in his education two Newfoundland social strata: that of the St. Bonaventure-educated elite and the St. Patrick's-trained working class.

Perhaps it was his childhood spent amidst cod-traps and dories on the south side of St. John's harbour, where his maternal grandfather, a fisherman and planter, lived, that made the difference. Later, as minister of fisheries in the Smallwood government, Keough recalled that he had "made more quintals of salt cod with my own hands than most of the sea-lawyers who, today, are sounding off about the salt cod fishery ever saw."

Concern for the 'little fellow'

Keough's first published essay of 1929 - "The Statesman versus the Soldier," in the St. Bon's magazine "The Adelphian" - signalled his concern for the "little fellow."

Here, he valued the statesman over the soldier and saw in the vocation of a politician an opportunity "to protect the weak against the strong" and of "securing for the people their rights and ... ameliorate their condition," while "raising the common people to a higher plane."

Keough's subsequent professional engagement underscored this social passion, from being a co-operative fieldworker and auditor to editor-in-chief of the "Labour Herald."

On Newfoundland's west coast he met the person who would share with him this outlook and her life, his future wife Gertrude Clara O'Brien, a native of Cape Broyle who had become school principal in Lourdes. Much later she would serve as Newfoundland's first human rights commissioner.

The other important individual he met at Lourdes was the parish priest Michael O'Reilly, the future bishop, in whose apartment a group of active Roman Catholics discussed Newfoundland's social problems and political choices.

O'Reilly, a progressive Catholic on social questions, had been tutored in some of his initiatives by the Reverend Moses Coady of Antigonish, the father of the co-operative movement in Atlantic Canada.

Even as editor of the "Labour Herald," Keough revealed how strongly he was influenced by the social philosophy of Roman Catholicism, notably the encyclicals of popes Leo XIII and Pius XI.

Another Newfoundland labour leader, Alphonsus Duggan, the driving force behind the Newfoundland Federation of Labour, shared these influences. Keough rejected "a philosophy of life based upon greed and selfishness run amok" and argued passionately for a '"Common Good' Economics," regulated by the state but aimed at ensuring economic justice for all.

'The last forgotten fisherman'

These social and economic concerns also moved Keough as he prepared to address the National Convention in his defining speech of February 28, 1947.

The former co-operative fieldworker felt strongly that all options - Confederation, Responsible Government, and Commission of Government - should be put on the ballot even if there was only "one solitary individual" supporting it.

He ended his speech by giving the convention the "solemn warning ... that the names of all of us will go down to historic dishonour, if we do not prove as solicitous for the wishes of that last forgotten fisherman on the Bill of Cape St. George, as for the wishes of Mr. Joseph Smallwood, or Major Peter Cashin or anybody else..."

Later, he remembered the origin of his famous phrase.

"As I watched the man in the little yellow dory there came suddenly into my mind the words: 'The last forgotten fisherman on the Bill of Cape St. George.' I saw him as symbolic of all fishermen who had never had enough to feed their families through the coming winter when they came to settle up in the fall. I saw him as symbolic for the miseries that had shredded the souls of our fishing people down through the centuries, and then and there I decided to use those words in the National Convention."

Hans Rollmann is professor of Religious Studies at MUN and can be reached by e-mail: hrollman@mun.ca.

Organizations: National Convention, Roman Catholic Church, United Church Newfoundland Federation of Labour Commission of Government

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Atlantic Canada, St. George's St. George's-Port St. John's Smallwood Cape Broyle

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