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 official.

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.
Larger Version (26 kb)

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 representative government and its evolution into responsible government (1855) was much delayed when compared to other British colonies in North America, a theme to be explored in the pages that follow.

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 elected assembly.

Members of the Newfoundland House of Assembly, 1933
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. Larger Version (25 kb)
House of Assembly

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

Bibliography


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