Our Greatest Debates?

Reconstructed records provide political peek at suspension of responsible government, Colonial Building riot

Steve Bartlett sbartlett@thetelegram.com
Published on May 31, 2011

Accusations of corruption once led to a major riot at the Colonial Building and heavy debt resulted in the decision to suspend self-governance.

These major events occurred in the early 1930s, and insight into what happened during this turbulent period of the province’s history is contained in newly reconstructed records released Monday.

“Debates of Newfoundland Legislature, 1932 and 1933” detail the last three sessions of responsible government, a 79-year period when Newfoundland was its own country.

The historian who compiled the documents believes they fill a significant gap.

“That’s why I worked on it, because I thought it was important,” James Hiller told reporters after the two volumes, each more than 650 pages, were unveiled during a ceremony at Government House in St. John’s Monday.

A professor emeritus with Memorial’s history department who has worked on numerous publications, Hiller picked away at the project over a number of years, working on it “a month here and a month there.”

To reconstruct the debates, he and the students who helped him brought together several sources — original transcripts that weren’t in great shape, journals from legislatures and reports from The Evening Telegram and the now defunct Daily News.

It was slow going, because every detail gleaned had to fall in the right order.

“I’m not sure if I recorded everything, but I think it’s as good as it’s going to get,” Hiller said during the ceremony.

Leading up to the ’32 and ’33 sessions, the Newfoundland economy was in crisis due to the costs of the First World War and the railway.

However, in 1932, the fiscal turmoil took a back seat to the resignation of finance minister Peter Cashin. He lobbed accusations of corruption at Sir Richard Squires, prime minister at the time, and others in government.

On April 5, a demonstration that stemmed from demands for a probe into the allegations escalated into a riot.

Hiller thinks the corruption was exaggerated, that it was only small stuff.

The riot, he suggested, was the result of a public feeling that “the whole ship of state was rotten.”

Squires soon resigned and merchant Frederick Alderdice won the election that followed.

Hiller said it was clear in the ’32 session that things were very fractured, but he adds the situation calmed down after the riot.

“It was though that was the lancing of the boil, if you like,” he said.

The newly released debates include press clippings of the riot.

The first session of ’33 was a regular one, focusing on the continuing financial crisis as well as standardizing consistency in processing cod.

The year’s second session, however, was dominated by discussions on the Amulree Royal Commission’s findings.

Appointed by the British government, its main recommendation was to suspend  responsible government and allow Britain to run Newfoundland through a commission.

The government, which had an opposition of just two, promptly voted to do so.

“We know what we give up; but when we have to choose between self-government on one hand, and a release from financial abyss into which we are plunged on the other, who would for a moment hesitate in his choice?” Alderdice told the legislature during 1933’s second session.

“When we have had a chance laid upon to us to maintain our people in comfort, to release them from the state of semi-starvation, which is their lot today, would we not give up almost anything?”

Hiller said the debate on the Amulree Report was remarkably brief; it was clear to politicians there would be a major crisis if they didn’t accept it.

“It was the kind of recommendation that they weren’t allowed to refuse,” he said.

Asked what he learned from the reconstruction, Hiller said he was familiar with the outline of the events, but still found some details intriguing.

“All of these men having to vote themselves out of existence ... it was interesting to read all of that,” he said.

Seeing Squires squirm under the pressure was also interesting.

There are many more topics in the debates besides the Colonial Building riot and the suspension of responsible government, including the right of police to stop cars and the licensing of alcohol.

Roger Fitzgerald, the speaker of the House of Assembly, was one of many current and former politicians at Monday’s unveiling.

He thanked Hiller for his interest in the importance of having the debates reconstructed.

“Both volumes will now complete the historical records of our legislature,” he said.

Lt-Gov. John Crosbie, who was presented with a copy of the debates, lauded the historian’s efforts.

“It’s a tremendous achievement and I’m delighted to have a chance to say today how much the Newfoundland people should congratulate and thank him for the tremendous work he has put into all aspects of the history of our island and Labrador.”

The suspension of responsible government was supposed to be temporary, but lasted 15 years, until Confederation with Canada.


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Demonstrators outside the Colonial Building in St. John’s before the protest broke down into violence in the late afternoon and early evening of April 5, 1932. — Courtesy The Rooms Provincial Archives, A 19-22