I have a feeling I would have enjoyed a journalistic assignment to interview Peter Cashin, to shadow “The Fighting Major,” as he was called, and write a newspaper feature or produce a television documentary on the exploits of one of the most fascinating figures in Newfoundland history.
But, of course, without the science fiction help of Jules Verne’s time machine or Michael J. Fox’s DeLorean from “Back to the Future” (or some mind-blowing drug not yet on the market), I won’t be sitting down any day soon with Cashin, scribbling notes or being cued by a cameraman to start asking questions.
At least now, though, I can give some thought as to what the assignment might have been like, given my total immersion during the past week or so in the recently published “Peter Cashin: My Fight for Newfoundland,” a fascinating glimpse into the colourful political career of a consummate patriot; a detailed, unbridled account of one man’s incredible, seemingly unending, efforts to help Newfoundland maintain its independence.
Not withstanding the fact that, invariably, memoirs are highly subjective and that Cashin may have embellished a recollection or
two (understatement was not his modus operandi), you’d still be hard pressed not to acknowledge a couple of points. The Fighting Major was totally and unabashedly dedicated to his country; he was convinced that skulduggery, dishonesty and amorality led to Newfoundland’s scandalous decision to give up its independence in 1934 and hand over the running of its affairs to Commission of Government; and that that move ultimately led to the despicable manoeuvring that prevented the country from returning to its responsible government status in the late ’40s and being force-fed the ethically challenged referendums that made us part of Canada.
Cashin was called the Fighting Major because of his wartime efforts with the Newfoundland Regiment in the First World War and
he escaped the bloodbath at Beaumont Hamel only because he was recovering from a shrapnel wound to the head.
But it seems to me, after reading his memoirs, that the Major was forever in a racket, especially when his opponents showed themselves as political, church and judicial leaders treating their fellow Newfoundlanders with, in Cashin’s view, unbelievable contempt and condescension.
If you didn’t know any different, you’d swear Cashin was a product of the ’60s, a flower child, a Bob Dylan, a Jack Kerouac, carrying a placard, having a toke of weed and demonstrating against those wielding too much power in society.
But it was the second quarter of the last century that was his era of influence and he didn’t operate from some disadvantageous point of ignorance or naivete or gullibility. Cashin was a businessman, a minister of finance, the son of a prime minister.
He was familiar with the landscape occupied by the powerful.
Specifically, it was his recollection of the two events that shaped his legacy — the relinquishment of responsible government and the battle between independence and Confederation — that I found to be just a terrific, page-turning, informative and entertaining read.
Handing over the reigns of government to an appointed commission in 1934 has often been cited as one of the more embarrassing events to take place in Newfoundland, a country actually giving up its independence without so much as a whimper, a cry of protest.
And, as Cashin points out continuously (he can be repetitive), the people of Newfoundland had been promised they would be consulted before responsible government was tampered with. Of course, as we know, no vote, no plebiscite, nothing of the sort, took place.
But it was even worse than that. There was bribery and skulduggery of unimaginable proportions, with politicians, according to Cashin, being paid off handsomely to turn a blind eye to Britain’s plan to have Commission of Government run Newfoundland’s affairs.
In fact, Cashin’s bluntness got him in legal trouble: he was tried for libel and acquitted. His speech to the jury in his own defence was scintillating and dramatic; reading it now made me want to have been there.
Job well done
Ed Roberts should be given full marks here for conducting himself as an unobtrusive editor of Cashin’s memoirs, a role that must have been difficult for a lifelong politician with strong opinions about Newfoundland’s past.
But Roberts graciously leaves the material in the capable hands of Major Cashin, providing just the right amount of contextual information to help readers like me tag along for the ride.
There’s a wonderful cast of characters compiled by Roberts at the end of the book, an encapsulated history of the people who played any kind of role in Cashin’s public life, a list that is a great read in and of itself. (One of the surprises for me was the revelation that Wick Collins, a close friend of mine in the ’70s, a fiercely independent and highly principled man, was secretary to the responsible government movement.)
And there are a lot more on that list, friends and foes alike of Peter Cashin.
Finally, I couldn’t help but wonder what Cashin would think if he was able to observe Newfoundland in the 21st century.
I came to the conclusion that he would recognize the independence he so cherished and fought for, and mourned when it disappeared, in 1934 and 1949, has continued to manifest itself in the personality and psyche of Newfoundlanders to this day — that, according to every poll I’ve ever seen, the vast majority of people in this province (Cashin’s “country”) consider themselves Newfoundlanders first and Canadians second.
Nothing can erase that.
Cashin’s memoirs should be required reading for anyone claiming to have a genuine interest in Newfoundland history.
Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.