Joey: inimitabilia from the gee-whiz (ex) premier

Joey Smallwood
I Chose Canada
MacMillan,$ 13.95

Reviwed by Ulli Diemer


Joey Smallwood is the little boy who never grew up. Oh, his body may have aged a bit: if he has far too much energy and enthusiasm for a man of 73, he at least looks like he’s into his second half century.

But deep down inside, where it counts, Joey is still the small Newfoundland boy that he was in the years before the First World War, when he was growing up in the impoverished island colony. As an adolescent, a young man, or an influential politician, Joey retained the same insatiable curiosity and energy, the naive enthusiasm, the artless boastfulness, with which he plagued relatives and teachers as a pesky, utterly irrepressible youngster.

It’s only when you understand that that you can begin to comprehend Joey’s garrulous autobiography, I Chose Canada.

How else to explain the long lists he gives at the beginning of the book, naming all the famous people that were alive when he was born, all the wars and revolutions that were going on? Or the lengthy list he provides as an appendix, of all the famous people he met during his lifetime? The chapters on relations and people bearing the family name who may not even have been related, who “made good”? The constant tendency to write, even of the days when he was little more than an indigent eccentric, as if the entire world revolved around him?

To call him arrogant is really to miss the point. Joey is a man without airs, utterly unselfconscious, at home in a fisherman’s cottage or in Buckingham Palace.

He’s simply completely self-confident, a man who we may be sure has never in his entire life a moment of self-doubt. His is the simple glowing pride, not in the least pompous, of the little go-getter who has just won all the other kids’ marbles.

There is so little sense of proportion, however, in his tale, such a boundless need to recount every little triumph (as well as the temporary defeats that, naturally, merely paved the way for greater victories), that it becomes tedious. You keep on reading through the entire 600-pages torrent as much out of incredulity that it never stops as out of interest.

There’s much that’s interesting, of course, in the life of the little premier. His career as a gee-whiz cub reporter in St. John’s (Joey makes Jimmy Olson look like Walter Lippmann), his days as a soap-box socialist in the U.S., his fame as a colourful radio commentator, his venture into the business world as a pig farmer as well as the campaign to bring Newfoundland into Confederation – all make a fine tale, though perhaps better told with a few bottles of screech going round than in cold print.

What is striking, though, is how the style changes when Joey comes to his years in power. Suddenly the stream of anecdotes starts to dry up. Generalities, philosophizing, defensive statements, replace the earlier earthy common sense. It’s obvious that there is much that is being hidden, rationalized, or questionably interpreted.

And if you examine the historical record, you’ll find that that’s the case. He recounts his achievements, but barely mentions his failures. Criticism is ignored, or referred to in passing and dismissed.

He vigorously defends his smashing of the Newfoundland loggers’ strike, for example, which appalled much of Newfoundland and Canada, including even Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, rarely accused of being a friend of labour, and seems to imply that opposition to him was due to ignorance, political opportunism or plain perversity.

From a historical point of view, the most interesting part of the book is his treatment of the question of economic development. As premier, Joey dervished around the world, seeking investment capital, and offering astounding concessions.

One of the most famous incidents arising from his peregrinations concerned his financial ‘wizard’ adviser Vladmanis, who, it eventually turned out, had been busily re-routing considerable sums of ‘investment capital’ into his own pockets.

Somewhat less spectacular, but persistent, were the repeated charges, which eventually contributed materially to Joey’s downfall, that he was being hood-winked and fleeced by the international sharpsters he was doing business with, and that Newfoundland was suffering the consequences.

“I feel as if I’m married to Newfoundland,” Joey said during one of his last campaigns. “You should,” shouted a heckler, “you’ve been screwing her long enough”.

He defends himself by arguing that it was imperative to bring industry and jobs to Newfoundland by any means, and that he had to give significant concessions to make the deals attractive. “I had to deal with rich capitalists,” he said (Joey still considers himself socialist) “the poor don’t have any money to invest”. The overall results, he claimed, were beneficial for Newfoundland.

His opponents disagree, arguing that Newfoundland, still far and away Canada’s poorest province, gave away huge amounts for paltry returns.

In this context, it’s interesting to note that when Joey campaigned for Confederation, he repeatedly flailed Newfoundland’s “twenty millionaires”. Yet one of his later boasts was that there many more millionaires in the Newfoundland of his premiership. One tends conclude that a lot of the profits from Newfoundland’s newly acquired industry have gone into a very few pockets.

Although in Joey’s latter years in the premiership it was said that there were two views of his economic policies, the more charitable of which was that he was simple-minded and gullible, nevertheless, it is pointless to blame him for Newfoundland's economic failures. Given the circumstances, he had little choice. (Though there is little doubt he made money through his political connections.)

The pattern of capitalist industrial development has always been to produce concentrated poles of development, and large areas of underdevelopment. Capital (contrary to accepted economic dogma) is constantly sucked from the periphery to the centre, as is labour. The result is that underdevelopment is perpetuated, and gaps widened. The only way to fight the process under capitalism has been Joey’s way (Castro’s is the other) to offer really attractive inducements to private capital. The trouble is – especially in Canada, where corporations habitually play off competing provinces against each other for the best concessions – that after the corporations’ term are met, there are a few jobs, but little tax revenue and even less capital available for reinvestment in other sectors to stimulate real economic development. So the gap still doesn’t close.

A less gullible premier than Joey might have had fewer fiascos, but is very doubtful indeed that he would have had more success.

Joey, admittedly, is not the type of man to lead anyone out of the wilderness. Not quite a pied piper, he is nonetheless far from being the Moses he makes himself out to be. But he was – and he’s far from dead yet – a colorful and human figure in our public life. For that, we owe him some affection.

Published in The Varsity, November 16, 1973


Related Topics: Newfoundland HistoryNewfoundland & Labrador Politics