Guest Commentary

Clara Smallwood, In Memoriam

The Bad Years

(Editor’s note: In 2008 Clara Smallwood, daughter of the first premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, spoke with Blacklock’s publisher Holly Doan.  Smallwood recalled her childhood, and the struggle of everyday life in pre-Confederation Newfoundland.  It was the last interview before her death in 2011 at age 81. Following is a transcription of her remarks).

What do I remember of my father?

I never saw him in his spare time that he didn’t have his books.  He would sit by the kitchen stove with these huge library books propped on a chair.  I remember winter evenings with Dad sitting by the huge wood stove, reading.

He had a radio program The Barrelman, sponsored five nights a week, and he was constantly reading the stories of Newfoundland for his show. There were funny stories, tall tales. It was a miraculous program. I remember the very first broadcast. It was so exciting, to hear your father’s voice coming over the radio.

He was strict. He got annoyed if we were running around the house when he was trying to read. At home when he was in a good mood, Dad would tell yarns at the dinner table. The more company we had, the better the stories were.

There were bad years.

I remember in 1935 Dad went down to Bonavista to form a fishermen’s union. They couldn’t give him a salary; he took payment in wood and vegetables. I remember my mother bartering. People would knock on the door and want to trade berries for clothing. Mom used to sew for all our friends and family. She had a sewing machine but had to give it up to pay the rent. She missed it afterwards and never did get a sewing machine after that. Those were hard times for everybody.

This particular Christmas I remember we were up in bed, excited, waiting for Santa Claus. Then Mom called up the stairway: “Santa didn’t come.” I don’t recall my reaction. Did I cry? I must have. I’ve never forgotten it. It was traumatic. But there just wasn’t any money. It was bad.

There was the dole, people called it, 6¢ a person per day, but you didn’t qualify if you kept a cow or even a hen. My mother was a great gardener; she grew lettuce and radishes. We had hens, so there were always eggs.

Newfoundlanders have an instinct to survive and they did.

This is what made Confederation so meaningful to people. I remember when we became a province and we got all the benefits of that – the Old Age pension. The cheques were mailed out. It made Confederation real. It meant so much, just to have steady money coming in every month for the old people.

I went to many political meetings with my father. He was so expressive; it was fascinating to watch him on stage. To me this was a whole new experience, to see my father making speeches, and the effect he had on people.

Once I recall seeing a mother with a baby in her arms, reaching out with the baby so Dad could touch her.  I almost cried.  He had that way with people.

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