Social Changes under the Commission of Government
One of the Commission of Government’s major goals while in office was to improve social services in Newfoundland and Labrador. It expanded health-care services, improved the educational system, created a rural police force, and distributed nutritional supplements to combat malnutrition and its associated diseases. The government also tried to create jobs outside the fishery by promoting agriculture. It started land settlement schemes in rural areas of the county, opened an agricultural school, and offered cash bonuses for land clearing and cultivation.
Despite these efforts, Newfoundland and Labrador’s poor financial situation – the result of a declining fishery and worldwide depression – severely limited the Commission’s ability to make immediate and effective changes. It was not until the wartime prosperity of the 1940s that the country solved its unemployment problem, and not until Confederation, with its accompanying family allowances and government-subsidized social services, that many people could afford to send their children to school or receive regular medical attention.
When the Commission assumed power in 1934, the country’s school system was in a general state of collapse. Teachers were underpaid and poorly trained, the curriculum was out of date, school buildings were dilapidated, overcrowded, and rarely had access to heat or running water, and thousands of children did not attend class – often because their parents could not afford textbooks and school fees or because no school existed within reasonable travelling distance from their homes.
To remedy these problems, the Commission steadily increased its education budget from $716,807 in 1934 to more than $3 million by 1949. With this money, it increased teachers’ salaries, established a teachers’ training program at Memorial College, built 555 new schools, and renovated 264 old ones. It also operated Book Bureaus to give students free texts and other supplies, passed legislation making education compulsory, and expanded the country’s curriculum to include health, social education, and industrial training.
Although the Commission tried to replace the country’s denominational education system with a secular one, its attempts were unsuccessful. It did, however, open several common schools at Deer Lake, North West River, and elsewhere, as well as a handful of non-denominational folk schools at government-sponsored land-settlement communities.
The Commission also encouraged adult education, particularly in the field of agricultural development. Officials established a Demonstration Farm and Agricultural School to train farmers, gave financial assistance to individuals wishing to attend North American agricultural colleges, and provided instruction in farming techniques at land settlement and small-holding communities.
As the Great Depression worsened in the 1930s, so too did public health in Newfoundland and Labrador. Malnutrition became a serious problem and facilitated the spread of tuberculosis, beriberi and other diseases. Medical services were not widely available, especially in rural areas, nor were they free; widespread unemployment meant many people could not afford the services of a doctor.
One of the Commission’s primary goals upon entering office was to improve the country’s health-care services. It established a series of government-subsidized cottage hospitals in 1935 to make affordable medical services more accessible in rural communities and operated two hospital ships, the Lady Anderson and Christmas Seal, to service remote coastal settlements. Complementing these efforts were several Grenfell Mission hospitals in Labrador and northern Newfoundland. In St. John’s, the Commission increased bed capacities at existing hospitals and built a 250-bed tuberculosis hospital at Corner Brook.
Government officials also tried to reduce malnutrition rates by including brown flour instead of white in dole rations, and by distributing the vitamin-rich beverage cocomalt to schoolchildren for free. In 1944, it introduced an enriched white flour to the country that contained riboflavin, thiamine, niacin, and iron.
Child health and welfare was another priority for the Commission of Government. It opened a Child Welfare Clinic at St. John’s to provide affordable medical care for the city’s young and introduced legislation during the 1940s to better protect children and single mothers.
In 1935, the Commission created the Newfoundland Ranger Force to provide government services in isolated communities. Government officials modeled the unit on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), a para-military organization that performed a wide range of roles in Canada’s northern communities. Prior to its formation, no police force – and often no government presence – existed in rural areas of Newfoundland and Labrador. Rangers were particularly important in Labrador, where they were often the only link between the public and the seat of government in St. John’s.
Rangers were well-educated and physically fit young men able to perform a variety of tasks with little supervision. Alongside enforcing criminal and game laws, they issued relief payments to the poor and unemployed, inspected logging camps, collected customs duties, helped build roads, bridges, and other structures, issued game licenses, and performed a variety of other tasks.
For the most part, people in rural Newfoundland and Labrador welcomed the rangers into their communities. Although they enforced unpopular gaming laws, rangers also made it easier than ever before for many rural residents to express their needs and concerns to government officials in St. John’s. This was especially true of Labrador residents, who had never before enjoyed direct and permanent access to government officials. Following Confederation, the provincial government dismantled the Newfoundland Ranger Force, but allowed all willing members to transfer to the RCMP. By the time the force disbanded on 31 July 1950, 204 men had served as rangers.
The Commission of Government hoped that by promoting agriculture, it could create jobs outside the struggling fishery and make the Newfoundland and Labrador population more self-sufficient. To this end, it created several new farming communities under a land settlement scheme, offered cash bonuses for land clearing and cultivation, and established a Demonstration Farm and Agricultural School to train farmers.
Many of these efforts, however, ended in failure. Poor government planning undermined its land settlement scheme and sparked tensions between residents and government officials. Many settlers felt the government had too much control over their lives and managed the communities too closely. The Commission, meanwhile, felt the program was costing much more money than it originally anticipated and withdrew all financial aid by the end of 1942. By then, most residents had already left the land settlement communities to work on military bases at St. John’s, Argentia, and elsewhere.
Undermining other government efforts to stimulate agriculture were the country’s rough terrain, acidic soil, unsuitable climate, and a scarcity of local markets. While many families cultivated small vegetable gardens near their homes, farming in Newfoundland and Labrador existed largely on a subsistence level.