Chances are that if you’re reading this, you are sitting (or standing) in or around St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. Congratulations! You’re in a magical world of multicoloured houses, fog, and city streets that make no sense. This city is the birthplace of British imperialism, the wireless telegraph, and our Lord and Saviour Danny Williams. Newfoundland and Labrador’s biggest exports include labour power for the Alberta oil sands, Republic of Doyle, and most recently, equalization payments to subsidize our poor cousins in Ontario.
Historically, of course, things weren’t always so rosy. The quality of life in much of the province before Confederation in 1949 could generously be described as ‘medieval’. Unemployment has been a problem here since they started keeping records, and there is also an unfortunate piece of local history where the indigenous Beothuk people go extinct. Most of downtown St. John’s has burned down a good two or three or five times too.
From its discovery until well into the 19th century, the only reason anyone came to this jagged rock off the coast of North America was its location next to one of the world’s richest fisheries. Fishing, of course, is a hard living, and it didn’t help that the economy was almost entirely structured around having fishers remain perpetually in debt to a handful of fish merchants. Also, the only thing there was to do for fun was go to church and start fights with people who don’t go to the same church—that is, unless it was Christmas, in which case you would dress up in ridiculous clothes and go around drinking other people’s booze. This is called mummering, and it’s amazing.
If the province’s economic history is a story about the fishery, its political history is one about trying to get away from it. It’s pretty much impossible to collect taxes from fishermen if the industry ensures they literally never have cash, and we know how much politicians love collecting your money. Unfortunately, the historical method of development here has generally been to find the richest industrialist(s) around, give them a bunch of land and subsidies, and hope for the best. That’s how we got the (now defunct) railway, the (now defunct) paper mill in Grand Falls, and the (probably soon-to-be defunct) paper mill in Corner Brook.
Also, for some reason, voters in the 1920s and early 1930s kept electing Sir Richard Squires as the Prime Minister despite the fact that he and his government were routinely getting busted for corruption. They were apparently willing to let it slide until the Depression hit, and in April 1932 something like 10,000 people rioted in the streets of St. John’s. They stormed the Colonial Building on Military Road and smashed everything inside, and Squires barely escaped with his life out one of the back windows.
The government that succeeded him took one look at the mess the country was in and decided they wanted nothing to do with it: in perhaps the smartest move ever undertaken by Newfoundland’s politicians, they voted themselves out of existence in 1934.
By the time World War 2 was over, the island was a lot more prosperous and people were ready for a go at politics again. The first thing that happened was an epic showdown over whether or not to join Canada. In one corner, repping “the People” and a hilarious assortment of bowties was Joseph R. “Joey” Smallwood, local radio host, pig farmer, and union activist (he once walked the entire length of the island’s railway doing a recruiting drive); in the other were the St. John’s merchants and the local branch of the Catholic Church. After two extremely close referendums, Confederation won by the tiniest of margins and, against everyone’s better judgement, Joey Smallwood became our first Premier.
Smallwood was determined to modernize the hell out of Newfoundland, and by God did he ever try. Sometimes—okay, most of the time—a little too hard. The first thing Joey did upon assuming absolute power was hire a Latvian con-artist named Alfred Valdmanis who helped him track down German industrialists to build random factories everywhere. Literally. Didn’t matter what they made or whether or not the products were even any good; if you would actually build your factory in Newfoundland, Joey would subsidize it. During the 1950s the man built everything from a rubber boot factory to a chocolate bar factory to an ugly sweater factory and even a machine manufacturing plant that Joey was convinced would create over 10,000 jobs. It didn’t: almost every single one of these plants was closed by 1960, because, as it turns out, you can’t actually just build random factories everywhere for no reason and expect them to make any money.
Not that this put a damper on Smallwood, of course: the man was always bursting with good ideas. A few of his unrealized dreams fill up a whole chapter in his autobiography: at various points in his tenure, it turns out, he considered other brilliant ideas like building a replica German town filled with actual non-English speaking Germans out in the bay somewhere as a tourist trap, swapping oil from the Come-by-Chance refinery (one of the largest bankruptcies in Canadian history, by the way) for orange juice, and introducing a herd of bison to a small island off the south coast (this last one actually happened, and it went over about as well as you’d think). Never let it be said he wasn’t one for thinking outside the box. Oh, and his government also pretty much gave Quebec a century of free hydro electricity, but this last one’s kind of a minor point that never comes up.
After almost a quarter-century of this nonsense, Comrade Smallwood was finally turfed in the early 1970s by the dashing young Frank Moores, a man dedicated to throwing sexy parties and corporatizing the fishery. But provincial politics eventually put a damper on the sexy parties, and being a man whose priorities were in order, Moores resigned a few years later. His successor was the significantly less dashing Brian Peckford, who is arguably Newfoundland’s greatest proponent of healthy eating. When Peckford wasn’t fighting with Ottawa for offshore oil rights, he was a big cucumber enthusiast; so big, in fact, he was seduced by a sales pitch that promised Newfoundland and Labrador would be the world capital of cucumbers if he’d just build a giant hydroponic greenhouse in Mount Pearl. Seriously. Sprung Greenhouse cost $23 million dollars, the cucumbers were outrageously expensive, and no one had bothered to check into the market research which showed that Newfoundlanders, on average, ate one cucumber a year. I honestly don’t know why they didn’t just grow pot, because someone in the Premier’s office was obviously high.
Unfortunately for the Tory government at the time, Peckford’s Pickle Palace wasn’t the hit they were hoping for, and they were swept out of office in the next election. Even more unfortunately for the Liberals who replaced them, they came into power just in time for the cod fishery to collapse in 1992; apparently, if hundreds of factory trawlers spend two decades razing the ocean floor, you’ll eventually catch all the fish? This probably would have been it for the province if they hadn’t also discovered oil off the coast in 1979, even though the province wouldn’t really start seeing a lot of revenue until around the millennium. In the meantime, Premier Clyde Wells metaphorically flipped off Brian Mulroney by torpedoing the Meech Lake Accord, Premier Brian Tobin sold the Marystown shipyard for a dollar before deciding to spontaneously bail on being the Premier, and Premier Roger Grimes managed to get the province’s name changed from ‘Newfoundland’ to ‘Newfoundland and Labrador’ before the party was tossed out of power by Danny Williams heading into the most prosperous time the province has ever known.
Danny Williams, of course, is probably the most popular Premier we ever had: we liked the guy as much as we liked Joey, except Danny also had the foresight to quit the game before degenerating into senility. Say what you will about him (and there are a lot of things to say), but anyone who literally runs a national campaign against Stephen Harper, motivated entirely out of spite, is pretty all right on in my books. But his achievements since leaving politics overshadow anything he did in office: dude brought the AHL back to Town. He got us hockey, b’ys! How wicked is that?This is probably also the part where I should mention what Kathy Dunderdale’s new government has been doing, but mostly, they just don’t.
And here we are. Newfoundland and Labrador’s story is still unfolding, but if this transparently glib interpretation of history teaches us anything, it’s that whatever is in store next is guaranteed to be hilarious. Especially now that our politicians are on Twitter. Can you imagine if John Crosbie was tweeting back in the 70s? Iron Sheik, eat your heart out.