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Lining up for Labrador


Bert Riggs,

(an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University),
whose column, A Backward Glance
appears in the Telegram each Tuesday

Transcribed From the Telegram

By: Barbara McGrath



Harold Horwood (right) was a key campaing worker with Joseph R. Smallwood (left) during the Confederation referenda campaigns of 1948; Horwood later represented Labrador in the House of Assembly. Seated is Gregory Power, another influential player in the Confederate movement. (Photo courtesy of The Centre for Newfoundland Studies)

Prior to Confederation with Canada, the residents of Labrador did not have representation in the Newfoundland House of Assembly. The first opportunity Labrador residents were given to vote was in the election of a member to represent them in the National Convention, which was held June 21, 1946. Rev. Lester Burry, the United Church minister stationed at North West River, defeated four other candidates, winning 63 per cent of the 984 votes cast. Labrador voted in both referenda held in 1948 to determine the future form of government for Newfoundland. In the first, held on June 21, 1,858 (84 per cent) voted in favour of Confederation with Canada, 263 for a return to Responsible Government and 162 for continuation of Commission of Government for a further five years.

Almost 1,200 additional voters went to the polls for the second referendum on July 22. Of those, 2,681 (78 per cent) voted for Confederation, while 766 were in favour of Responsible Government.

With Confederation came the establishment of the House of Assembly as the new provincial legislature. It consisted of the 27 districts that had been represented in the house before it had been dissolved in 1934, plus a 28th seat for Labrador.

Voting delayed

Election day for the new House of Assembly was May 27, 1949. Voting for the Labrador seat was delayed until July 25, to provide sufficient time to prepare a new voters' list, and to get the ballot boxes, ballots and other election documents to the many coastal Labrador communities.

There were two candidates in that first election. The Liberals were represented by Harold Horwood, a St. John's-born labour organizer and writer who had been one of new Premier Joseph R. Smallwood's closest confidants during the fight for Confederation. The Progressive Conservative standard-bearer was S.D. Grant.

Horwood won the seat, garnering 1,268 votes (90 per cent) to 133 for Grant. As the Liberals under Smallwood had already won 21 of the 27 seats on the island, it is little wonder the turnout was so low or the result was so one-sided.

The election was virtually a foregone conclusion, given the support Labrador residents gave to Confederation in the referenda and the popularity of Smallwood in most of rural Newfoundland.

Newfoundland's second post-Confederation election was scheduled for Nov. 26, 1951, but reluctant to hold an election in Labrador in winter, Smallwood postponed the Labrador vote until Aug. 2, 1952.

By then, Horwood had long since broken ranks with Smallwood and had become one of his most outspoken critics. The Liberal candidate was a former teacher and senior civil servant, Lewisporte-born Frederick W. Rowe.

This time there was not even an election, as the PCs did not field a candidate and Rowe won by acclamation.

The next election was set for Oct. 2, 1956, and for the first time the voters of Labrador cast their ballots on the same day as the rest of the citizens of the province.

On April 27, 1955, the House of Assembly Act was amended to increase the number of MHAs to 36 from 28.

Labrador was a beneficiary of that increase, receiving a second seat. Labrador South was comprised of the coastal communities south of the entrance to Lake Melville, while Labrador North included of all of the rest of Labrador.

Liberal Capt. Earl W. Winsor became the first MHA for Labrador North, defeating Progressive Conservative R. Roberts 873 votes to 128. Winsor would represent this district for 15 years. In 1968, he became minister of the Department of Labrador Affairs, a portfolio created to administer government services in Labrador. George Sellars became the first MHA for Labrador South, winning by acclamation.

Both Winsor and Sellars were re-elected in the general election held on Aug. 29, 1959. Sellars died in 1961 and was replaced by Gerald Hill, elected by acclamation on March 19, 1962. Hill was also acclaimed in the general election held on Nov. 19 of that year.

The boundaries of Hill's district of Labrador South remained intact for that election, Labrador North's boundaries were dramatically altered, with the creation of the new district of Labrador West.

Membership in the House of Assembly was increased to 42 from 36, with a third seat for Labrador to represent the fast-growing communities of Labrador City and Wabush. Winsor maintained the Liberal stranglehold on Labrador North, but the election of independent candidate Charles S. Devine in Labrador West was the first time Labrador had not returned a Liberal MHA.

The Liberals took all three seats in the Sept. 8, 1966 election, with Winsor and Hill winning impressive majorities; 33-year-old Tom Burgess, president of the United Steelworkers of America local in Labrador City, defeated Devine, the PC candidate, and Albert McGrath, the first New Democrat to run provincially in Labrador.

An ill omen

Burgess's victory, however, was to be an ill omen for Liberal fortunes in Labrador. By 1969, he too had fallen out with Smallwood and crossed the floor of the House of Assembly, where he sat as the lone member of the New Labrador Party.

Created by Burgess and committed to making Labrador's voice heard, it rapidly became a force to be reckoned with in all regions of Labrador.

In the next provincial election, held Sept. 28, 1971, the party fielded strong candidates in Labrador North, where Herb Brett lost to Liberal Mel Woodward by 313 votes, and in Labrador South, where Mike Martin lost to Liberal Joe Harvey by only 83 votes.

Burgess won Labrador West with a clear majority, but his story is for another time.

Bert Riggs is an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University, ...



This page transcribed by Barbara McGrath (October 2000)
REVISED:30 May 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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