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Colonial Building in St. John’s Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. – © Henryk Sadura / Shutterstock

Part 1: Renaming Colonial House

Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a 3 part opinion series regarding the proposed name change to Colonial House by former Channel-Port aux Basques Mayor John Spencer.

The Colonial Building, a magnificent architectural fixture on Military Road in St. John’s, officially opened as the site of Newfoundland’s government on January 28, 1850. This grand building nestled on the southern edge of Bannerman Park, a Victorian era urban park named for Sir Alexander Bannerman, Governor of the Colony of Newfoundland from 1857 to 1864, brings back fond memories of time I spent in the capital city while attending Memorial University. There were many days combing through original documents within the Colonial Building doing research on Newfoundland’s heroic exploits in the Great War of 1914-18. The landmark building served as the legislature for Newfoundland for nearly 100 years.

Newfoundland was granted a representative government in 1832. This was uplifted to responsible government in 1855, with the difference between representative and responsible government being with responsible government, Newfoundland had full control over all affairs of a nation. Despite what appeared in 1855 as independence from the British Parliament in affairs of Newfoundland, appointed governors from Great Britain were unwilling to relinquish power and at times appeared to second guess direction put forth by the local leadership of such great 19th and 20th century Newfoundland politicians as Sir William Whiteway, Sir Robert Bond and Sir Edward Morris.

Often this sour point pitted Newfoundland at odds with the interests of Canada, with the latter because of its geographical size to have been given preference over Newfoundland interests. One such example was the cancellation of Newfoundland’s free trade agreement with the US in the late 1800s.

Canada objected to Newfoundland cozying up with the Americans without Canadian participation in free trade with the Americans. Britain agreed. The British Parliament vetoed Newfoundland’s agreement. Free trade with the US was cancelled.

A reversal of that feeling loomed high in 1927 when Newfoundland was given the vast territory of Labrador over Canada’s wishes and the wishes of the province of Quebec. Some Quebec politicians still reject this decision.

The umbilical cord of the British parliament appeared to end officially after nearly 75 years of responsible government with dominion status officially granted by the British Parliament in 1926. This break did not come lightly and was more than symbolic in recognition Newfoundland’s war effort and a decision to grant the same status to Canada after then Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King asked Canadian Governor General Lord Julian Byng to dissolve the Canadian Parliament and call an election.

Governor Byng refused.

It ended with the Canadian prime minister being granted his wish and Mackenzie King winning the eventual election. No governor general ever again would publicly refuse the advice of a prime minister. The same status applied to Newfoundland.

The Great War of 1914-18, for Newfoundland in particular, was extremely tragic as a generation of its youth sacrificed well beyond expectations and anything such a small country as Newfoundland could financially afford. Yet, in reality, Great Britain was still hesitant.

Newfoundland’s financial troubles after the Great War aka World War I were worrisome. The collapse of the fishery in the 1920s combined with the costly war effort and the maintenance of an island-wide railway network drained the Newfoundland treasury. As Newfoundland entered a new decade in 1930s, nearly two-thirds of its population was on short term government relief, commonly referred to as the ‘dole’. With cries of political corruption and facing the reality of defaulting on international loans, financially desperate Newfoundland attempted to sell its acquired property of Labrador in hopes of turning things around. Fortunately for Newfoundland there were no takers. By 1932, Newfoundland was on the verge of total political and financial collapse.

Great Britain, fearing Newfoundland’s bankruptcy would create a possible domino effect for the entire empire, due to the stretched economies saddled with war debt and the depressed global community, once again stepped in.

An island-wide election lead to the suspension of responsible government in Newfoundland in 1934 and replacement with a six person commission with three British appointments at the table. With suspended elections, this undemocratic administration ruled Newfoundland, including Labrador, with a mandate to turn things around.

By the time Commission of Government officially ended after two island-wide referendums in 1948, with a new political era on the horizon as a province of Canada, in 1949 there was actually money in the bank. Even though the appointed commissioners did an amazing job in reforming the country’s corrupt administration, it was actually the boom in the Newfoundland economy created by World War II and the sizeable investment of Canadian and American dollars that turned the economy around.

The Colonial Building, from the mid-1800s to those turmoil days of the Great Depression following the Great War of 1914-18 and the collapse of Responsible Government in 1932, was the epicentre of political life. The Colonial Building was also the centre of the public frustration of residents over dire political, economic and social times in the early 1930s, becoming the focal point of protests and a riot ending the political life of then prime minister, Sir Richard Squires.

Stories have it that on April 5, 1932, day rioters stormed the grounds of the Colonial Building breaking windows and jarring open doors. Sir Richard, for his own personal safety, had barricaded himself in one of the rooms accompanied by Joey Smallwood. Joey had worked for the prime minister as a district campaign manager in the 1928 island-wide election. Smallwood, with an iron poker in hand, stood ready to defend the prime minister. Fortunately for both Sir Richard and Joey, they were able to slip out of a back door to safety and were ushered away in a waiting vehicle.

Following the rule of Commission of Government in 1947, the Colonial Building once again took the spotlight in a debate over the political future of Newfoundland and Labrador. The debate pitted outport Newfoundland and Labrador who were seeking confederation with Canada against the St. John’s commercial establishment wishing a return to responsible government. The end result was victory by the narrowest of margins for confederation. Newfoundland and Labrador officially became the tenth province in the Dominion of Canada, with the Colonial Building taking on a new role as the provincial assembly.

Joey Smallwood stood proudly, not only as the leader of the drive for confederation with Canada, but as the newest province’s first elected premier.

The Colonial Building is a historic site, no doubt. It is unique, like no other in the entire former British Empire, where Right Honourable Ministers serving the Crown take their seats on the left side of the Governor’s chair. That has something to do with the original design of the building and the location of the only open fireplace in the legislature.

Political protocol went out the window because there was no way the king or queen’s elected governing party was to sit on the cold side of the building while the official opposition basked in the heat of a warm fire on a cold winter’s day or in the damp of spring. It was a building where the title Rt. Honourable member took on a new meaning. It is a building that one should be proud to say must continue to be known as the Colonial Building.

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