Remembering the Time 10,000 Newfoundlanders Tried to Kill Their Prime Minister
Hey man, you try living through spring in St. John’s without wanting to smash some shit.
Photos via Wikimedia and historical archives
It is really easy to hate on winter in Newfoundland, but I believe that spring is actually worse. You know what you're getting in winter: the endless cycle of freeze-thaw-freeze, never-ending dumps of snow, the four weeks of crushing misery called "February." Spring is worse because it is a lie. It starts a month and a half late (if you're lucky) and usually opens with a deceptive mild period before hammering you with another blizzard or three. Fuck spring in Newfoundland. I hate it with my life.
In politics, winter and spring are the only seasons we have in Newfoundland and Labrador, too. Summer has never come and we've never hit the beautiful decadence you need for autumn.
Sometimes, though, people get fed up. Like on April 5, 1932, when a downtown parade erupted into a riot that trashed the legislature and nearly killed prime minister Richard Squires.
As you can appreciate, 1932 was not a good year for the Dominion of Newfoundland (yes, rest of Canada, Newfoundland didn't actually join this country until 1949). Having barely survived a decade of political chaos and failed get-industrialized-quick schemes fueled by foreign debts in the 1920s, the island now found itself in the doldrums of the Great Depression. Most of the country was tied up in resource exports—fish, forestry, and mining—and as those industries collapsed, the ranks of the unemployed swelled dramatically. The government, buckling under nearly $100 million in debt (roughly $1.7 billion today), was all but powerless to handle the roughly one-third of the country on a six-cents-a-day dole.
The situation wasn't helped by the fact that the Squires government was hilariously corrupt. At the same time as it was trying to retain creditor confidence by slashing as much public spending as possible without actively killing the poor, Squires was pocketing the War Reparations the island was getting from Germany. Another one of his ministers was being paid a salary as 'Immigration Officer' despite the fact that Newfoundland literally had no immigration at the time. This, while growing numbers of unemployed and destitute people were beginning to march in the streets.
It was inevitable that all of these chickens would soon come home to roost. When the legislature opened in February 1932, Finance Minister Peter Cashin immediately resigned, and stood in the House to accuse his colleagues in cabinet of corruption. In March, under pressure from Canadian banks, the government passed new tariffs on basic foodstuffs while slashing pension benefits for veterans of the Great War. Another cabinet minister and two more government backbenchers resigned. The House adjourned until April 5, the day shit absolutely hit the fan.
On April 5, 1500 people paraded up from the Majestic Theatre downtown to present a petition demanding a "proper investigation" into accusations of corruption. By the time they had arrived at the Colonial Building, it had grown into an agitated mob of 10,000. The band tried to calm them by playing "God Save the King" twice, but each time they finished the crowd got more and more restless. Eventually, word reached the crowd that the petitioners had been refused entry to the House, and someone started chucking rocks at the windows.
All hell broke loose. A group of policemen who had been inside the building's lobby decided enough was enough, so they opened the front doors to push the protesters down off the stairs, indiscriminately cracking heads with their batons. They brained a child in the head and the crowd went wild. They pulled one cop down off a horse and beat the shit out of him. Every window in the building was smashed out with rocks as the mob rushed up the stairs and into the front door. The police were forced to retreat, forming a human barricade blocking the door to the legislature floor. The mob instead tore through the rest of the offices in the building basement instead, destroying everything they found. They tore up the books in the library and carried a piano out into Bannerman Park to smash it to pieces. Two separate fires were set inside. It was a glorious chaos.
Meanwhile, all debate inside the House of Assembly was drowned out by the noise of the battle outside. Most of the politicians inside went into hiding elsewhere in the building. Squires, accompanied by a young Joey Smallwood, retreated to his office, certain the mob was out for his blood. The prime minister was cowering by his desk when they heard a crowd approaching outside, and Smallwood picked up a fireplace poker and said he'd take the first six through the door. Instead, they were greeted by a rescue team of priests and police officers who promised to smuggle Squires out one of the building's side doors into a waiting getaway car.
They weren't long outside before the crowd recognized the prime minister, and before he could get into the car he was rushed by the mob. The police pulled Squires out and retreated inside the building, while a cadre of Catholic and Anglican priests tried to negotiate a safe passage out. The mob begrudgingly agreed, but the streets were too crowded for Squires' car to pass, so they had to make their exit on foot. The prime minister got barely fifty metres away when they rushed him again, this time clocking him in the face. The police managed to pull him out again and they booted it down the street, running down a side alley and into a private residence to escape the mob. The angry crowd roaming the streets lost him, and Squires spent the rest of the night hiding out in a bedroom while the demonstrators sacked all the downtown liquor stores.
The next day, despite his refusal to resign, it was obvious that Squires could not continue governing after nearly being murdered. An election was called for early June, but between the economic, financial, and political depression of the island and its people, it wasn't a very exciting campaign. Squires lost his own seat and Frederick Alderdice's United Newfoundland Party won 25 of 27 seats in the legislature on a promise to give the country a time-out from democracy.
Britain refused to allow the Dominion of Newfoundland to default on its debt, so they proposed the next best thing: end responsible government and re-assume direct control of the island as a Crown colony, governed by a six-man panel of bureaucrats. Newfoundland's self-governing status was officially revoked in December, 1933, and the Commission of Government was set up in early 1934. It would last until 1949, when we tumbled into Confederation one minute before midnight on March 31—effectively April Fool's day, for those who are still bitter about it.
Hard to believe it's been 85 years since everyone got so mad at a shitty, incompetent, debt-ridden and unimaginative government that Newfoundland imploded. Good thing it'll never get that bad again, right?
(Slowly backs out of room.)
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