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Politics in Newfoundland by S. J. R. Noel
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Politics in Newfoundland (1971)

by S. J. R. Noel

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Even Newfoundlanders admit their politics were Byzantine.

This was largely the result of the peculiar circumstances of the country. (For a country -- a self-governing dominion of the British crown -- was what Newfoundland was for most of the period of this book.) A very high fraction of the population was concentrated in the only decent-sized town, the city of St. John's. The rest was scattered in the outports all around Newfoundland's rugged, irregular coast. Because the population was so small and so scattered, and the interior of the island so poor, there was no communication between the outports except by sea. No roads, no telegraph, not even any interior settlements. And, because the outports were so small (most of them just a few houses on rocks), there were few schools or other effects of civilization.

Throw in a population strongly divided between Irish Catholics and English Protestants, and you have a political stew with a lot of poison in the pot. And, what's more, there was no way for anyone outside St. John's to know what was going on at any given time.

And St. John's -- the metropolis, the sophisticated city, the place with the amenities -- had even more influence over the countryside than in most areas, because of the nature of Newfoundland's economy. Almost the only products the island had were fish and seals. These required merchants to sell them overseas -- and merchants to supply the capital to build the ships to catch the cod and the "harps" (harp seals). So the merchants of St. John's controlled the economy at all levels -- and took advantage of that control. The politicians, knowing that they were campaigning to people who had little knowledge of economics and little way to gather news anyway, promised bread and circuses -- and provided little except patronage jobs that bankrupted the treasury. (Anyone who thinks that Greece was the first country to get itself into extreme trouble by borrowing too much should read the history of Newfoundland.)

All that is by way of background: It's why Newfoundland politics is so hard to understand. I've read several histories of the island, and none of them helped much. Why, even in Newfoundland, would the people elect a flat-out crook like Richard Squires? And, having gotten rid of him, why in the name of every sealing steamer ever floated would they let him return to office?

This is the first book I've read that (mostly) makes sense of it, and in clear, straightforward language that is easily read. I feel as if this book told me more than every other Newfoundland history I've read combined.

It's old now -- almost half a century old. Newfoundland today is nothing like the Newfoundland of the book -- for one thing, it was written before the great oil boom of recent decades; you'll find no mention (e.g.) of the Ocean Ranger. The book ends with Joey Smallwood still in power -- the man who talked Newfoundland into joining Canada, and was rewarded with more than twenty years of sole rule that any tin pot dictator would have been proud of. It won't really tell you much about Newfoundland today. But if you want to know what made Newfoundland the place it is -- beautiful, rather poor, independent-minded, not quite sure who it is -- I know of no better book. ( )
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This book is a study of the political life of Newfoundland in the twentieth century.
The island of Newfoundland is a far more 'northern' place than its location on the globe would seem to suggest.
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