How Joey be­came New­found­land’s first premier


Joseph R. Small­wood — “ Joey,” as he was known to his fel­low New­found­lan­ders — was premier of our prov­ince for more than 22 years. He held the job for so long that many thought he had al­ways held it — and some that he al­ways would. By then, no­body re­mem­bered how he had come to be­come premier in the first place, on April 1, 1949, the day that New­found­land be­came Canada’s tenth prov­ince. There is quite a story be­hind that.

New­found­land’s po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, like Canada’s, fol­lowed the Bri­tish prac­tice — the so-called West­min­ster sys­tem. Un­der it, ap­point­ment of a premier or a prime min­is­ter falls to the Crown — to the King or Queen in Eng­land, to the Gov­er­nor Gen­eral in Ot­tawa, and to the lieu­tenant-gov­er­nors in the prov­inces. Long-es­tab­lished and well-known rules gov­ern their choice, of course.

No­body chal­lenges the right of the man or wo­man whose party wins an elec­tion to be­come the premier. But these rules were no help in 1949. Canada’s const i tu­tion re­quired that a lieu­tenant-gov­er­nor be ap­pointed by the Gov­er­nor Gen­era l of Canada on th e day we be­came a prov­ince. That was clear. But who was to be­come New­found­land’s first provin­cial premier? New­found­lan­ders hadn’t elected Mem- bers of the House of Assem­bly since 1932, and they hadn’t had a premier (then called prime min­is­ter) since Fe­bru­ary 1934, when the Com­mis­sion of Govern­ment took of­fice.

Joey Small­wood and Gor­don Bradley, the two men who led the Con­fed­er­a­tion move­ment to vic­tory in the 1948 ref­er­en­dums, had al­ready made a deal. Bradley would go to Ot­tawa, and be­come New­found­land’s min­is­ter in the fed­eral cabi­net led by Louis St. Lau­rent. Small­wood would be­come premier.

The mat­ter was set­tled, as far as they were con­cerned. Small­wood told the prime min­is­ter so, when they met in­for­mally in Ot­tawa at the end of Jan­uary 1949, two months be­fore the union be­came of­fi­cial. In­deed, he even went so far as to tell a news­pa­per reporter about the ar­range­ment. The story ap­peared in the St. John’s Daily News on Jan. 31.

While civil ser­vants bus­ied them­selves with the ar­range­ments to merge their coun­ter­parts in an independent New­found­land into the Cana­dian fed­eral sys­tem, the politi­cians turned their at­ten­tion to the ap­point­ment of the lieu­tenant­gov­er­nor — the man who would ac­tu­ally ap­point the premier. The Com­mis­sion of Govern­ment would be gone on the first of April, but the new House of Assem­bly could not be elected for sev­eral months. Since there would be no mem­bers un­til an elec­tion had been held, who should the lieu­tenant-gov­er­nor ask to take on the job of be­ing the in­terim premier?

Sug­ges­tions that a fig­ure­head premier be ap­pointed were quickly set aside. For once, the lieu­tenant­gov­er­nor would have real power.

The first sug­ges­tion was that Sir Ed­ward Emer­son, the chief jus­tice, be asked to take the job. He told the prime min­is­ter, how­ever, by let­ter late in Fe­bru­ary 1949, that “ I hope that I shall not have to serve.” Small­wood, in an in­ter­view with the St. John’s Sun­day He ra l d , then an­nounced early in March that Sir Leonard Outer­bridge was his per­sonal choice. Outer­bridge, a man with a very dis­tin­guished pub­lic record, was one of the three New­found­lan­ders who were given knight­hoods in the fi­nal round of Bri­tish hon­ours (the oth­ers were Sir Al­bert Walsh and Sir Brian Dun- field). All those sounded out by the prime min­is­ter’s emis­saries to New­found­land agreed that he would be a splen­did choice.

That’s when the prob­lem be­came ob­vi­ous. The dif­fi­culty was that Outer­bridge would not com­mit him­self to ap­point Small­wood un­less he was for­mally in­structed to do so by the fed­eral cabi­net. The prime min­is­ter was not pre­pared to is­sue any such di­rec­tive, although both Bradley and Small­wood were “strongly proOuter­bridge.”

Whi l e S t . Lau­rent felt that “ Small­wood was the per­son who should be called upon to form a provin­cial ad­min­is­tra­tion we [ the fed­eral Cabi­net] do not wish to dic­tate this view to the new lieu­tenant­gov­er­nor.” Al­bert Walsh, for his part, ex­pressed the strong opinion that “Small­wood is the in­evitable leader.”

The prime min­is­ter post­poned his de­ci­sion un­til March 25, less than a week be­fore the date of union. Fi­nally, he of­fered the job to Walsh, who said he would take it, but only for a term of not more than five months. St. Lau­rent agreed. Outer­bridge was told of­fi­cially that the Govern­ment of Canada “ac­cept at face value his re­luc­tance to make po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions with­out di­rect in­struc­tions from the Govern­ment” of Canada, but was promised that he would be ap­pointed lieu­tenant­gov­er­nor when Walsh re­lin­quished the of­fice.

And that is ex­actly what hap­pened. Sir Al­bert Walsh be­came the first lieu­tenant-gov­er­nor of New­found­land on April 1. He promptly sent for Joseph Small­wood, and asked him to ac­cept ap­point­ment as premier. Small­wood agreed, and the first cabi­net of the new prov­ince were sworn in at Govern­ment House later that morn­ing.

Walsh duly re­tired as lieu­tenant­gov­er­nor on Sept. 1 and be­came chief jus­tice, fill­ing the of­fice va­cated by Sir Ed­ward Emer­son’s death in May 1949. He was suc­ceeded by Outer­bridge, who served with great dis­tinc­tion un­til his re­tire­ment in 1957.

Small­wood never looked back. He went on to win the gen­eral elec­tion that June and five that fol­lowed it. He re­signed as premier in Jan­uary 1972, when the Supreme Court de­clared that Frank Moores and the Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives had in fact won the Oc­to­ber 1971 gen­eral elec­tion.

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