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‘Escape Hatch’ a character-driven account of the history of N.L.’s New Industries


Everybody “knows” that former Premier J. R. Smallwood went on an industrial spending spree in the 1950s, a madcap scheme of attracting a variety of primarily German businesses, enabled by his slick and shady Latvian adviser, Alfred Valdmanis.

And everybody “knows” they were prone to spectacular flameouts, embarrassing, prolific and costly failures.

But really, what we don’t know would fill a book.

"Escape Hatch — Newfoundland's Quest for German Industry and Immigration, 1950-1970

This book, in fact.
Gerhard Bassler’s new publication is the first real account and investigation of those New Industries. His research is thorough and ranging (including within German archives) and he also conducted 100 invaluable personal interviews in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, which included Smallwood and Latvian and German immigrants.
The title comes from Smallwood. In Newfoundland it was post-Confederation, and economically hopeful period, but in Germany, Latvia and Austria it was post-Second World War with the communist threat looming and the Cold War icily sparking awake. “Beggars cannot be choosers,” Smallwood told Bassler. “We wanted companies ... I was the first public visitor who came to Germany from any company. The leaders of the German companies all spoke excellent English. I was impressed. ‘I’ve got an escape hatch for you, get established in my part of Canada, start a branch of your company in Newfoundland so you can have an escape hatch.”

 

Three sections

The book is divided into three sections. The first places the New Industries in historical context, the second gives the narratives of each of the 17 projects, and the third deals with the actual people behind these physical projects.

In filling this public and historical knowledge gap, Bassler also challenges the prevailing assumptions that this industrial experiment was an economic farce. “The surprise was, therefore, not that a few of these industries died in Newfoundland as soon as they had been set up, and that many of the immigrants returned to Germany or moved on to the mainland after the Korean War ended. What is surprising is that some of the New Industries survived for decades ...”  Bassler also explores the affect the immigrants had on their new (however temporary) home, and vice versa; for a fair amount of time German was the third largest ethic group in the province.

The chapters track the intricacies of Newfoundland-Canada-Latvia-Germany-US business, the deals and the incentives and the loans. And the author makes it interesting. For what is at its core an in-depth probe into several decades of industrial development, “Escape Hatch” has a lot of personality.

A lot was character-driven, of course, by Smallwood himself, and he has a great presence here. Just two stories as illustration: on an early exploratory trip, staying at a German resort hotel, he saw a plasterer training an apprentice, both up on a scaffold. When the young man made a mistake the older one struck him so hard across the face the apprentice almost fell to the ground. Far from being appalled, Smallwood thought it an example of excellent training: “The young fellow will never do that again.”

Then, a few years later, Smallwood was visiting Adler Chocolates factory in Bay Roberts when Emmie Crane, who was supposed to offer him a tray of samples, accidentally dropped them at his feet. She was mortified, but he told her, “everyone has blunders. You know, you’ve got an eraser on your pencil. And if you didn’t make mistakes you wouldn’t need it.”

There are many more character sketches, not just of Smallwood but also of how the Germans, Austrians and Latvians who came affected “construction, education, horticulture, gastronomy, conservation, and the arts ... In 1950, (Newfoundland) was the first Canadian province to welcome Germans ... Most were unable to obtain any meaningful information about the geography, the weather, and the living conditions of their destination before their departure.” But they had a firm idea of Canada as a land of the future.

Their collective culture shock upon arrival is summed up in the next subhead: “Oh my God!” Snowstorms in April, no symphony orchestra, no dial phones, no rye bread. No fashionable shopping, no busy cafés. Liquor purchases were limited to three bottles per week and the selection of wines non-existent. Anti-German feeling could run high, with any immigrants presumed spies or war criminals (all foreigners were more or less classed as “German”). Once their work contracts were up, almost one-third opted to return home, and half moved on to the mainland. For the Latvians in particular, Montreal was the only possible place to live. But others loved the political freedom, the lack of social hierarchy, and the wild natural beauty.

Bassler concludes that “Few contemporary observers and later critics have realized against what great odds Smallwood and Valdmanis managed to attract the New Industries to Newfoundland ... Despite the serious start-up problems, contemporaries did not perceive all of the New Industries from German-speaking Europe as failures ... the exposure of Newfoundland to non-British cultural traditions might also be considered one of the spinoffs.”

 “Escape Hatch” includes illustrations, an extensive bibliography and source list, and a very handy index of names. Even a reader with a minor interest in the subject will find it absorbing; anyone more engaged with it will find it invaluable.

 

Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.

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