In a place known for asking “who’s your father?” in order to determine where you fit in the fabric of the province, it’s no wonder that our House of Assembly has seen so many examples of family ties between Members since the first sitting in 1833. The present Assembly alone has at least 9 out of 40 Members who have familial relationships to current or past Members. One of our earliest post-Confederation relationships was between the Smallwoods.
Across Newfoundland and Labrador, the surname Smallwood brings a clear image to mind – complete with dark-rimmed glasses and a colourful bowtie. Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador from 1949 to 1972, Joseph R. Smallwood remains a household name and a pop culture icon. What may not be as well-known is that his son William R. Smallwood followed in his father’s footsteps in 1956 when he became a Member of the House of Assembly at the age of 28 in Smallwood’s Liberal government.
Father and son took very different paths to the House of Assembly. J.R. Smallwood was born on Christmas Eve in 1900 in Gambo. He honed his voice in broadcast – both newsprint and radio – and for a time ran a pig farm close to his hometown. In 1946, he was elected to the National Convention, the assembly responsible for determining the future of Newfoundland. J.R. Smallwood led the Confederate Association, and when the Dominion of Newfoundland chose to join Canada in the 1948 referenda, he became leader of the Liberal Party. In 1949, he was elected Premier of the newest province in Canada, a job he held for 23 years.
W.R. Smallwood was born in 1928 in Corner Brook on the west coast of the island, while his father ran a newspaper in the city. He was the middle of three children, graduating from Curtis Academy in St. John’s and going on to Memorial University and then to Dalhousie University for Law. W.R. Smallwood practiced law in St. John’s, until his successful election to the House of Assembly for the District of Green Bay in 1956.
The Father of Confederation and his son sat on the same side of the House together for 15 years. While W.R. Smallwood was never a part of his father’s Cabinet, there were some interesting exchanges during their time in the Chamber – one such instance occurred in May of 1971. During a debate on housing legislation, W.R. Smallwood interpreted comments of opposition Member, William Marshall to be disparaging to his mother, Clara Smallwood. W.R. Smallwood jumped to his mother’s defense – physically attacking Mr. Marshall on the floor of the House, and received a 5-day suspension for this breach of privilege. Premier Smallwood, in radio interviews the following day, stated “My son did go across and punch Mr. William Marshall in the face. On the other hand, how does a young man sit there and listen to his mother being slandered? Mr. Marshall last night did something that is just not done, he brought my wife’s name into it. I cannot condemn my son for defending his mother as he did and I hope he always will” (As quoted in the Hansard. 34th GA, 5th Session, 1971, p. 5096).
This family-first attitude for the Smallwoods makes for an interesting slice of history for the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly.
Information Specialist, Newfoundland and Labrador Legislative Library