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A right honourable, quiet lady

By

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

 

 

Some weeks ago, I wrote a series of articles on the life and career of Sir Richard Squires, prime minister of Newfoundland (1919-1923, 1928-1932). While I mentioned his wife at that time, I did not go into detail about her, as she has her own place in our political history.

Helena Strong was born in Little Bay Islands in 1879, the daughter of James M. Strong and Anne Mursell. Her father was a fisherman and a general labourer for a number of years before starting his own fishery supply business at Little Bay Islands in 1873. He operated that business, with a number of partners and under a number of names, until his death in 1938.

Helena was educated at Little Bay Islands, and, like the children of many outport merchants, was sent to St. John's to finish her secondary schooling, at the Methodist College. Then it was off to Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. She also studied elocution and public speaking at Emerson College of Oratory in Boston.

Helena Strong first met Richard Squires when they were students at the Methodist College. They met again after graduation from university. They were married at Little Bay Islands on June 17, 1905, but set up residence in St. John's, where Richard had his law practice.

He was elected to the House of Assembly in 1909 and would spend the next 23 years involved in the political life in Newfoundland. He was knighted in 1923, which made Helena Lady Squires.

The Women's Suffrage League fought long and hard during the 1920s to secure the right to vote for Newfoundland women. Their main stumbling block was Richard Squires. He kept promising to introduce the necessary legislation, but never did, offering one feeble excuse after another for his intransigence.

It has been claimed that Helena Squires was opposed to women receiving the right to vote. One can assume that if she had been a supporter, she would have used her influence to convince her husband to keep his commitment to the Women's Suffrage League.

It is therefore ironic that she should become the first woman to be elected to the Newfoundland House of Assembly.

An opportunity

On Aug. 10, 1929, George Grimes, MHA for Lewisporte, died quite suddenly. A byelection was scheduled for May 17, 1930. The Liberal party candidate was Helena Squires. The Conservative candidate was Archelaus Northcott, a Lewisporte merchant and later a member of the National Convention. Lady Squires convinced the voters that she was the best candidate and was elected with 81 per cent of the vote (1,086 votes to 241).

Not only was Helena Squires the first woman elected to the Newfoundland House of Assembly, but her election was the first time a husband and wife had served together in an elected legislature.

As well, her cousin James A. Strong was the MHA for White Bay and her father was a member of the legislative council, having been appointed by his son-in-law in 1930. Politics was truly a family affair.

Helena Squires was not a major force in the House of Assembly. There was a brief mention of her accomplishment in the Speech from the Throne that opened a new session of the House on May 28.

In typical male fashion, Opposition Leader Frederick Alderdice, in his commentary on the Speech from the Throne, remarked, "I know she will take a large part in government affairs, but hope her actions will never be such as to cause us to name the government a petticoat government."

Her response: "Ladies are not wearing them now." While it demonstrated her wit, it was hardly an auspicious beginning for her presence in the legislature.

Lady Squires rarely spoke in the House. On May 14, 1931, she commented on An Act to Regulate Closing Hours of Shops, when she asked, "Mr. Chairman, is this (bill) going to bring about protection for these women who work night after night? That's what I'm here for, to protect these people. That is what they elected me for."

Brought down in defeat

Lady Squires was defeated in her bid for re-election in the 1932 general election, along with all but two of the members of her husband's party. Of the defeated candidates, she did come closest to winning, losing to Norman Grey in Twillingate by 273 votes. That election marked the end of her political career.

Much of Lady Squires's latter life is a closed book. Until his death in 1940, she and her husband lived in St. John's, at their Rennies Mill Road townhouse and at Midstream, their summer house near Bowring Park.

She remained in St. John's until 1957, when she moved first to Florida, and then Toronto.

Joseph R. Smallwood, who knew Lady Squires, claimed she was a "convinced and sincere Confederate" and "an ardent believer in the principles of Liberalism." He named her the first president of the Newfoundland Liberal Association in 1949, a mainly titular role.

Helena Squires died in Toronto on March 21, 1959. Her remains were returned to Newfoundland for burial.

In a prepared release, Smallwood remarked, "Many of us will remember her wit, her humour, her mental agility; will remember the gracious hostess - the comforting wife and wise mother - the widely-read woman of affairs; the shrewd politician; the altogether attractive personality of this fine native-born Newfoundland woman."

She left two sons, Robert and Norman, and two daughters, Elaine and Rosemary. A third son, Richard, died in the Second World War.

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

 

 

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

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