One of our great po­lit­i­cal mys­ter­ies

The Compass - - ORTHTE -

Ken­neth Macken­zie Brown was a com­mand­ing fig­ure in New­found­land’s pol­i­tics for many years. He played a ma­jor role in the union move­ment and in the tu­mul­tuous po­lit­i­cal bat­tles of the 1920s and 1930s. And he was at the cen­tre of prob­a­bly the most dra­matic mo­ment in the 15 months dur­ing which the Na­tional Con­ven­tion de­bated New­found­land’s fu­ture dur­ing the pre­lude to Con­fed­er­a­tion.

Brown grew up in King’s Cove, on the south side of Bon­av­ista Bay. He went to British Columbia as a young man, stud­ied nav­i­ga­tion at the Van­cou­ver Nau­ti­cal Academy, and even­tu­ally be­came mas­ter of sev­eral ships be­fore re­turn­ing to New­found­land to work with the An­glo-New­found­land De­vel­op­ment Com­pany in the pa­per mill at Grand Falls.

He be­came a pub­lic fig­ure in 1921, when he took a lead­ing role in a strike at the Grand Falls Mill. (The In­ter­na­tional Brother­hood of Pulp, Sul­fite and Pa­per Mill work­ers went on strike in April, when the com­pany “laid off work­ers, re­duced wages and hours of work, and stopped pro­vid­ing town fam­i­lies with free coal,” in the words of New­found­land his­to­rian Dr. Sean Cadi­gan. The strike ended in Au­gust with a par­tial vic­tory for the union.)

Be­came dis­il­lu­sioned

Two years later, Brown en­tered the House of Assem­bly as one of the three mem­bers elected in the Dis­trict of Twill­ingate, which then in­cluded Grand Falls. All three stood as can­di­dates for the Lib­er­alFish­er­men’s Pro­tec­tive Union coali­tion. He led the polls in that elec­tion, and again in 1924, when he was re-elected. He won a third vic­tory in Twill­ingate, by then a one­mem­ber seat, again as a Lib­eral, in the 1928 elec­tion that saw Sir Richard Squires re­turn to power as prime min­is­ter.

But Brown quickly be­came dis­il­lu­sioned, as the ad­min­is­tra­tion led by Squires dis­in­te­grated un­der the on­set of the De­pres­sion. He stood for re-elec­tion in Grand Falls as a Con­ser­va­tive in 1932, and won a fourth term in the House of Assem­bly by a two-to-one vic­tory over his Lib­eral op­po­nent. (The Con­ser­va­tives, led by Fred­er­ick Alderdice, won all but three seats in that elec­tion.) He served in Alderdice’s cab­i­net as New­found­land’s first min­is­ter of labour.

Brown be­came ac­tive in the labour move­ment again in the years af­ter the sus­pen­sion of Re­spon­si­ble Gov­ern­ment in 1934. He was elected pres­i­dent of the Fish­er­men’s Pro­tec­tive Union in Oc­to­ber 1936. The FPU, greatly di­min­ished from its glory days un­der Wil­liam Coaker’s lead­er­ship, was nonethe­less still a pow­er­ful force in New­found­land life and pol­i­tics. And he founded the New­found­land Sea­man’s Union in 1946.

The British de­ci­sion to call the Na­tional Con­ven­tion gave Brown an op­por­tu­nity to re­turn to elec­tive pol­i­tics. He was elected by ac­cla­ma­tion in his home dis­trict of Bon­av­ista South in June, 1946. Al­though his col­leagues from Bon­av­ista Bay — Joseph Small­wood, Gor­don Bradley and Sa­muel Vin­cent — were all ar­dent Con­fed­er­ates, Brown soon emerged as an equally strong pro­po­nent of the re­turn to Re­spon­si­ble Gov­ern­ment.

Ken Brown won his unique place in New­found­land’s par­lia­men­tary his­tory in the Con­ven­tion in the fall of 1946.

A piece of pa­per

On Oct. 28, the 45 mem­bers be­gan to de­bate Small­wood’s mo­tion to send a del­e­ga­tion of its mem­bers to Ot­tawa “to as­cer­tain the terms and con­di­tions on the ba­sis of which the Gov­ern­ment of Canada con­sider that [a] fed­eral union [be­tween New­found­land and Canada] might be ef­fected.” Small­wood spoke in sup­port of the mo­tion. He was fol­lowed by Michael Har­ring­ton and sev­eral other mem­bers, all of whom spoke against it.

Ken Brown then “caught the chair­man’s eye” and was given the floor. He de­clared at once that “what­ever rea­son or what­ever sym­pa­thy I would have with join­ing forces with Canada, Mr. Small­wood has killed it all in his ad­dress here this af­ter­noon.”

Brown spoke again dur­ing the de­bate, this time on an amend­ment, on Oct. 30. He re­peated his op­po­si­tion to Small­wood’s mo­tion, say­ing it was pre­ma­ture. “There­fore,” he said, “I am in duty bound to vote against the Res­o­lu­tion ...”

A few mo­ments later, he elec­tri­fied the cham­ber by declar­ing that: “I have a piece of pa­per in my pocket now, I won’t read it, but if I did I doubt if there would be 10 men in this House who would vote for this res­o­lu­tion. Let it go. I will not read it now, I will leave it to some other time. I am not jump­ing to any con­clu­sions, I know where I stand.”

He car­ried on, prais­ing an­other anti-Con­fed­er­ate mem­ber of the con­ven­tion, Al­bert Penny, for mov­ing the amend­ment. “Thank you for see­ing fit to bring in this amend­ment,” he said. “I think that in do­ing so you are do­ing no in­jus­tice ...”

Those were the last words that Brown ever ut­tered in the cham­ber. The con­ven­tion’s of­fi­cial re­port records that “Mr. Brown col­lapsed at this point. The con­ven­tion ad­journed.”

Felled by a stroke

Brown had been felled by a stroke. Peter Cashin, an­other mem­ber of the con­ven­tion, recorded in his mem­oirs that “I was sit­ting op­po­site to Mr. Brown at the time and rushed to un­but­ton his col­lar and give him some air, while some­one else tele­phoned for the am­bu­lance, which took him to the hospi­tal.”

The next day, Oct. 31, Cashin moved that the House ad­journ, not­ing that Brown, “who dropped here yes­ter­day af­ter­noon at his post, ... [to­day] lies stricken and un­con­scious in the Gen­eral Hospi­tal.” The mo­tion was sup­ported by ev­ery mem­ber.

Brown re­cov­ered from his stroke, to some de­gree. While he never re­turned to the con­ven­tion, mem­bers agreed to al­low him to cast his vote “by let­ter or by tele­gram.” An anti-Con­fed­er­ate to the end, he voted against the mo­tion to place Con­fed­er­a­tion on the bal­lot, and in the fi­nal poll of the mem­bers of the con­ven­tion, on Jan. 30, 1948, stated his pref­er­ence for Re­spon­si­ble Gov­ern­ment against ei­ther Con­fed­er­a­tion or Com­mis­sion of Gov­ern­ment.

Ken Brown, ap­pointed an Of­fi­cer of the British Em­pire in 1949, played no fur­ther part in New­found­land’s pub­lic life be­fore his death in 1955. But to this day, no­body knows what was writ­ten on “the piece of pa­per in my pocket.”

It will re­main for­ever one of the great mys­ter­ies of our po­lit­i­cal his­tory.

Ed­ward Roberts has had a life­long in­ter­est in the his­tory of New­found­land and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the prov­ince’s lieu­tenant-gover­nor from 2002 to 2008. He can be reached by email at the fol­low­ing: ed­wardm­

Photo by Terry Roberts/the Com­pass

A spokesman for Ul­tra­mar Ltd., con­firmed last week that ef­forts to sell prop­erty on Wa­ter Street in Car­bon­ear are on­go­ing, and that “free mar­ket forces will pre­vail and de­ter­mine how quickly (or not) the prop­erty will be sold.” The for­mer Ul­tra­mar Car­bon­ear ser­vice sta­tion closed in the fall of 2009, and the build­ing was de­mol­ished dur­ing the sum­mer of 2010. The busi­ness closed be­cause of what the com­pany de­scribed as a “prof­itabil­ity is­sue.” The com­pany placed a row of con­crete bar­ri­ers along the road­side bound­ary of the prop­erty, and mu­nic­i­pal lead­ers have been grow­ing in­creas­ingly im­pa­tient about what some have de­scribed as an eye­sore. In a state­ment, a com­pany of­fi­cial said the place­ment of bar­ri­ers is a “stan­dard prac­tice to avoid mis­use of the premises and en­sure safety of the pub­lic.” Com­pany of­fi­cials have been in talks with town rep­re­sen­ta­tives in or­der to “iden­tify sat­is­fac­tory mea­sures.”

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