The ups and downs of Richard Squires
Newfoundland politics have been stormy and turbulent during all of the two centuries that have passed since William Carson, John Kent, Patrick Morris, and their comrades began to agitate for an elected legislature, a goal which they achieved in 1832. The first House of Assembly met on Jan. 1, 1833, in a tavern. That set both the stage and the tone for our political history.
But Richard Squires — the Right Honourable Sir Richard Squires, PC, KCMG, to give him his full title — was unique, even by Newfoundland’s standards. He earned his place not because of his accomplishments, nor the three general elections he won, but rather by the dramatic ups and downs that marked his career.
His rise to power was spectacular, his years as prime minister memorable, and his disgrace and downfall marked the end of Newfoundland’s existence as a self-governing country. None of those who came before him rose to such heights or plummeted to such depths.
Harbour Grace born
Squires, born in Harbour Grace, became a lawyer. He first practised as a junior partner of Edward Morris, for seven years a leading figure in Robert Bond’s Liberal cabinet. He followed Morris to the People’s Party in 1908 and entered the House of Assembly as his supporter in the 1909 election, which broke the tie created by the 1908 standoff between Bond and Morris.
Defeated in 1913, he was appointed by Morris to the Legislative Council, and entered the cabinet. By 1918, he had fallen out with William Lloyd and Michael Cashin, Morris’s two successors as prime minister, and was in the political wilderness.
In August 1919, however, Squires engineered a palace coup and became leader of the newly renamed Liberal Reform Party. He immediately made an alliance with William Coaker and the Fishermen’s Protective Union. He became prime minister when the LiberalFPU coalition won 24 of the 36 seats in the fall of 1919, with Coaker, the minister of marine and fisheries, as his near equal.
The first years of the Squires administration were dominated by Coaker’s failed attempt to reform the salt fish industry and the successful effort to put “the Hum on the Humber,” the pulp and paper mill at Corner Brook. Squires, Coaker and the coalition easily won re-election in May 1923.
But all was not well, and the rot soon set in. Squires had always been pressed for money to finance his political efforts, and perhaps his personal lifestyle, and he didn’t hesitate to take money wherever he could find it.
In the summer of 1923, John T. Meaney, disgruntled by Squires’s failure to appoint him permanently as comptroller of the Liquor Control Board, told the Opposition that Squires had been “borrowing” money from the board, giving IOUs in return. Squires’s cabinet colleagues demanded his resignation. He gave it at the end of July, to be succeeded by the justice minister, William Warren.
Warren’s first move was to set up a public inquiry, to be conducted by Thomas Hollis Walker, a British barrister.
Hollis Walker held hearings in St. John’s in January 1924, and published his report at the end of March. The evidence, he said, was clear, and his conclusion was damning.
Not only had Squires improperly taken funds from the Liquor Board — stolen them, in so many words — but he had solicited and accepted substantial “donations” from the Dominion Iron and Steel Corporation during the course of negotiations between it and the cabinet (led by Squires) for the renewal of its lease of the Bell Island iron mines.
The government laid criminal charges against Squires within days after the Hollis Walker report became public. Squires, in response, schemed to bring about the disintegration of the Warren cabinet, and brought about its defeat by a vote of confidence in the House.
Albert Hickman became prime minister, but lost the subsequent general election to Walter Monroe and the Conservative Party. Neither Squires nor Coaker sought personal re-election.
In 1928, four years later, Squires returned to political life with a vengeance. Bolstered by Coaker’s support, he led the Liberals to victory in a general election. Politically, he had literally risen from the grave. But his triumph soon turned to ashes, as the Great Depression overwhelmed the Newfoundland government financially.
Angry, desperate, unemployed men, urged on by respected civic and religious leaders, marched to the House of Assembly in April 1932 to present a petition seeking financial assistance. The resulting confrontation turned into a riot. Squires barely escaped with his life.
A young Joseph Smallwood, an ardent Squires supporter, was with him that day. He, too, escaped unscathed. The mob did not threaten harm to Lady Squires, the first woman to be elected to the House of Assembly.
Squires led the Liberals into the subsequent general election in June, losing his own seat to Frederick Alderdice’s Conservatives, who won all but two seats. Two years later those two members — Gordon Bradley and Roland Starkes — were the only two members to oppose the surrender of self-government, to be replaced by the Commission of Government.
And as for the criminal charges? Squires was granted bail immediately after the charges were laid and a grand jury subsequently dismissed all of the charges against him. He lived in St. John’s until his death in 1944, but played no further part in public life.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org