Newfoundland historian’s book offers new angles on Coaker

Published on November 16, 2013
Historian Sean Cadigan explores  the character of Sir William Ford Coaker in a new book. — Photo by Shawn Hayward/The Packet

Union leader Sir William Ford Coaker is considered by many to be a hero of Newfoundland history who fought for the rights of common fishermen against the domination of the merchants.

But a new book by Newfoundland historian Sean Cadigan presents Coaker as a more controversial figure.

“Death on Two Fronts: Newfoundland Tragedies and the Fate of Democracy in Newfoundland, 1914-1934” looks at the First World War and the sealing disasters of 1914, and how they affected Newfoundland’s political development.

When the war began, Coaker was a member of the House of Assembly representing the Fisheries Protective Union (FPU). It was the same year that 77 sealers died after being left on the ice by the SS Newfoundland, and another sealing ship, the SS Southern Cross, sank with 173 men aboard.

Coaker used the sealing deaths of 1914 to gain support for himself and the FPU among fishermen who felt the tragedies could have been prevented. Coaker fought a battle to place blame for the tragedy on the sealing captains into the next year.

“You can see the message he’s getting out in a banner that starts to be printed at the end page of the Advocate that says we must put an end to class rule in Newfoundland,” says Cadigan.

Coaker had a complicated stance on the war, one that defied the patriotic spirit of the time. He was against the formation of a Newfoundland regiment funded by the then Dominion of Newfoundland because he believed the Dominion couldn’t afford it. Instead he encouraged young men to fight for the British Empire by joining the Royal Naval Reserve.

In the end Coaker was right about raising a regiment — it brought the public debt to $35 million by the end of the war, $469 million in today’s dollars. The economic collapse that followed contributed to Newfoundland abandoning home government in 1934.

“What he always pointed out was it’s not just the cost, but who is going to pay for the pensions, and the care for all of the people who come back wounded and damaged from war, and who is going to pay for pensions of the widows and orphans?” says Cadigan.

Coaker was inspired by the way the British got directly involved in private industry to make sure the country produced enough materials to win the war.

He recommended Newfoundland’s government get more involved in the fishery by making rules and regulations that protected fishermen.

Coaker eventually got his way and was attacked by his opponents, who said he was betraying the freedom the Allies had fought for. He later showed support for a new form of government similar to that of Benito Mussolini, the Italian fascist dictator, because of the corruption he saw in Newfoundland democracy.

As for his personal character, Cadigan says Coaker didn’t take opposition well and wasn’t as smart a political tactician as people believe.

“He could be a very caustic individual,” he says. “He had almost no ability to tolerate criticism of himself and responded very bitterly.”

Cadigan says it’s important to look at the entire lives of historical figures, not just a few key moments that sum up their careers. Coaker was an advocate for fishermen at a time when they had very little rights, and performed a dangerous job for a poor income.

He helped found Port Union, North America’s only union-built community, as a way to provide a better standard of living for his people. But like the rest of us, he wasn’t perfect.

“For any historical character, you have to be careful you don’t generalize, from the moments or points in their career you really like, to their entire career,” says Cadigan. “His importance to Newfoundland history is undeniable, but I’d say there are very few real heroes. There are people who achieve heroic things, but that shouldn’t blind us to the fact they can do things that aren’t very heroic.”

The Packet