The ups and downs of Richard Squires

The Compass - - ORTHTE -

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.

Ac­cepted ‘do­na­tions’

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: ed­wardm­roberts@gmail.com

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