Government and Politics
In the late 20th century, Canadians probably think of
"government" as meaning Ottawa, a provincial capital,
or a municipal council. Government seems to consist of a
legislature where laws are debated and passed, an executive
(prime minister, premier, mayor) which oversees the enforcement
of those laws, and a judicial branch where judges and lawyers
argue whether or not those laws have been broken and what
punishment will be meted out to offenders.
But in order to understand the origins of law and government
in Newfoundland and Labrador, we must think of a time before
there were modern elections to choose our rulers, before
independent judges were chosen on merit, and before we had a
professional police force. The need for government in
Newfoundland and Labrador first arose when seasonal fishermen
arrived in the spring and left in the fall. Authority in these
circumstances was often entrusted to individual ships' captains,
who were awarded temporary status as "fishing
admirals." Later, ships of the Royal Navy began to escort
the English fishing fleets on their annual voyage to
Newfoundland, and from 1728 the naval commander was placed over
the fishing admirals as supreme military, civil and judicial
The growth of permanent settlement led to the introduction in
the early 19th century of political institutions suitable
for a stable colony. Fishing admirals and military governors were
replaced with civil governors, appointed by and answerable to the
"home" government in England. From 1818, these
governors resided year round in St. John's.
||Colonial Building, St. John's
Legislative House of the Newfoundland Government, 1855 to 1963.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives, Memorial University of Newfoundland Library, St. John's, Newfoundland.
A select number of inhabitants were closely associated with
the governor. They shared with him a social class and generally
belonged to the same religious denomination (Church of England).
While this was a satisfactory arrangement for the elite, it was
not acceptable to the majority of the population, who pressed for
a voice. The first popularly elected legislative assembly in
Newfoundland and Labrador was convened in 1832. The emergence of
and its evolution into
(1855) was much delayed when compared to other British
colonies in North America, a theme to be explored in the pages
In the 20th century, government continued its unusual course.
Unlike Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador did not progress
steadily from colony to independent nation. At the turn of the
century, it was a self-governing colony playing a modest role on
the international stage; but the First World War brought
financial burdens which exceeded the means of a small population.
The situation worsened with the depression of the 1930s, and when
Newfoundland and Labrador faced bankruptcy in 1933,
representative institutions were suspended in favour of an
appointed Commission that governed for fifteen years without an
|Members of the Newfoundland House of Assembly,
This was the last assembly before the Commission of Government began in 1934.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives
(J.R. Smallwood Collection 75, Photo 5.05.216), Memorial University of
Newfoundland Library, St. John's, Newfoundland.
Democratic institutions were restored only in
1949 when Newfoundland and Labrador, after a wrenching debate,
joined Canada as the tenth province in a federal state.
©1997, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site Project