How Joey Smallwood is remembered 20 years after his death

Steve Bartlett sbartlett@thetelegram.com
Published on December 10, 2011
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."

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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)."

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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."

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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.

sbartlett@thetelegram.com Twitter: bartlett_steve