The thing about Joey Smallwood is he often failed, and not in a character building way. It was repetitive, fruitless failure. He made a career of mismanagement.
Smallwood failed as a movie promoter and union organizer. Three times he tried and failed to run a newspaper. The stumbles left his family in poverty.
Smallwood’s daughter Clara, in the last interview before her death in 2011, told me: “There just wasn’t any money. One particular Christmas I can remember we were up in bed waiting for Santa Claus when mum called up the stairs and told us, ‘Santa didn’t come.’” It is a beaten man who cannot whittle a doll or buy a penny’s worth of peppermint for his daughter at Christmas.
In profiling this character who led Newfoundland and Labrador into Confederation in 1949, biographer Ray Argyle marvels at Smallwood’s inability “to distinguish between the bogus and the genuine, between bravado and reality.”
If Smallwood could not manage a Corner Brook weekly, he could scarcely run a province.
He built a Department of Economic Development but hired no economists. Instead Smallwood named as director general a heel-clicking hustler from Nazi-occupied Latvia later jailed for fraud. His deputy minister of development was an ex-felon who fled to Panama one step ahead of a corruption trial.
Economic planning was berserk. One cabinet member, Herbert Pottle, called it the “Smallwood shock treatment.” With unemployment at 19 percent Smallwood vowed Newfoundland must “develop or perish,” then burned through $30 million in subsidies for failed ventures: a chocolate factory, a rubber boot shop, a plant to make gazelle-skin gloves.
Argyle does not recite all these failures. You can only cram so many fiascos into 192 pages. Nor does he harshly censure Smallwood, but Newfoundlanders have taken care of that. The biography does recount Smallwood’s biggest debacle, the Churchill Falls contract to sell power to Hydro Quebec at below-market 1969 rates for decades to come. It remains the most incompetent commercial treaty ever sanctioned by any legislature. “The final contract, running to 2041, called for Quebec to pay three-tenths of a cent per kilowatt hour, with the price dropping to one-fifth of a cent after 2016,” Argyle notes.
Schemer and Dreamer is a gentle profile. Smallwood is dead. Newfoundland has a functioning economy. Tempers cool. Writes Argyle, “Many Newfoundlanders who have come of age since the death of Joey Smallwood see him as a figure of the distant past, even a slightly ridiculous character, a big spender, a different kind of politicians than is acceptable in Newfoundland today.”
By Holly Doan
Joey Smallwood: Schemer and Dreamer by Ray Argyle; Dundurn Press; 192 pages; ISBN 978-1-45970-369-8; $19.99