Deja Vu All Over Again

1933 was a very bad year. The Great Depression, a worldwide economic disaster, was at its peak; Adolph Hitler became chancellor of Germany; and the Dominion of Newfoundland, in dire financial straits, turned out the lights on democracy.

The financial difficulties of the Dominion of Newfoundland amounted to 100 million dollars of government debt--1.8 billion in today's dollars. Today, the figure sounds all too familiar.

The financial hole of 1933 had not been dug overnight. Despite having borrowed fourteen million between 1914 and 1918 to support the war effort, Newfoundland was still in decent financial shape. Over the next fifteen years, however, government made a practice of borrowing heavily to bankroll projects like the Reid Newfoundland Railway which had become an enormous burden on the country.

To add to Newfoundland's woes, successive political leaders like Sir Richard Squires and Walter Munroe engaged in shady practices to enrich themselves and their cronies. Squires spent much of his time flitting between his luxury apartments in New York and London, hobnobbing with the rich and famous at government expense. Munroe was more interested in rejigging the tax system to favour himself and his rich friends on Water Street.

Throughout the 1920s ordinary people watched powerlessly as the privileged upper class plundered the treasury. One editorial writer for the St. John's newspaper, The Evening Telegram, lamented that with the falling off of the standard of government, there has been a growing disregard of the interests of the people.

It all came to an ignoble end in early December 1933 at the last meeting of the Legislative Assembly when Prime Minister Alderdice stood in the house and proposed a motion which in effect terminated Newfoundland's independence in return for a bail-out by Britain. The result: For the first time in the history of nations, a country had willingly sacrificed democracy in favour of colonial status. Only two members of the assembly voted against the motion, Roland Starkes for the District of Green Bay, and Gordon Bradley for Humber Valley.

One would think that such a shameful decision would have sparked outrage. Instead on December 22, 1933, the cream of Newfoundland's political and business class met over a lavish dinner at the Newfoundland Hotel in St. John's to celebrate the end of their independent country. The menu featured entrees like lamb chops with mint sauce, poached Atlantic salmon, and roast turkey, all washed down with fine French wines. Speaker after speaker praised prime Minister Alderdice for bringing an end to the country's "harassing financial difficulties."

Henceforth, the colony of Newfoundland would be ruled by six commissioners appointed by the British government. The 'temporary' arrangement lasted until confederation with Canada in 1949.

One of those commissioners, Sir John Hope-Simpson along with wife, Quita, arrived in Newfoundland in February 1934. They left detailed impressions of the colony and its people through letters to family back home in Britain. There has been terrible misgovernment,--worse, terrible immorality in the government, said Quita, in one letter to her daughter. The people have been exploited. The natural resources have been wasted and gambled away. Wealthy men hold huge tracts of land....

Their impressions were often those picked up from ill-informed gossips in the city. Their portrayal of people in the outports were particularly interesting. All over the island the people are in desperate case, read the same letter. Women stay in bed til 1 o'clock because there is nothing to get up for. In other places people never go to bed because they have no blankets, so they stay huddled together round whatever fire they have....The popular perception amongst the elite in St. John's was that outport people did not work hard enough, lacked perseverance, and were entirely dependent on government for whatever services they enjoyed.

Attempts by the commissioners to improve conditions in rural and outport Newfoundland were aften met with scorn by Water Street merchants. The outport people are happy with their lot in life, the commissioners were told. Any change would upset the apple-cart. Sir Eric Bowering, a prominent businessman in the city was of the opinion that everyone in the outports was ignorant and should never have been granted the right to vote in the first place.

Still, 1933 was not a total washout. Willie Nelson was born on April 29 of that year. "What has changed is that nothing has changed," Willie once said.

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