Q&A: New book sheds light on Newfoundland's quest for German industry, immigration

Q&A: New book sheds light on Newfoundland's quest for German industry, immigration

Gerhard P. Bassler's new book, Escape Hatch: Newfoundland's Quest for German Industry and Immigration, 1950-1970, examines Joey Smallwood's initiative to court German and other European industrialists to Newfoundland.

The province's first premier wanted to keep residents from leaving the island for the mainland after Confederation, and he thought mass employment through industry was the answer.

Bassler, a professor emeritus at Memorial University, interviewed Smallwood in the mid-'80s and used the material for his new book.

He spoke with CBC Radio host Anthony Germain about Escape Hatch. Below is an edited version of that conversation.

Escape Hatch … what's the significance of the title?

The title was actually taken from an interview I had with Smallwood. Smallwood called Newfoundland's offer for them to come get away from communism and find a place to invest in North America, which was difficult for Germans at the time. He called it [an] escape hatch. I'll give you an escape hatch. Come to me, come to Newfoundland. Break off your escape hatch from a number of things: communism, investment and immigration.

What was Joey Smallwood's strategy?

He believed he needed quick industrialization, industries to employ people so they wouldn't leave for the mainland one year after Confederation. Confederation opened the gates to the mainland. Newfoundlanders were unhappy with the decaying fish industry. There was no alternative. He was afraid that only pensioners would stay, that the young people would leave for the mainland. Create something to keep them here: employment, entertainment, the whole context that comes with an urban lifestyle.

What were some of the beneficial industries that came here?

The two first ones were the most beneficial ones, because they provided the material for construction and for further industries — cement and gypsum. Joey Smallwood always wanted a cement and a gypsum plant, and the guy he got as director of economic development was an expert in just exactly that area. He was a Latvian former finance minister with good contacts [in] German industry, but being from Latvia he also came from a country that was leading in cement and gypsum technologies at the time. 

Joey was famous for his bluster and sometimes his bombast. What did the Germans make of him?

Oh, he loved the Germans and they had no reason for disliking him. He always spoke highly of Germans and of Germany. Smallwood got along with just about any ideology, any national background. He was completely unbiased about anything. He talked to Communists, he talked to Nazis, anyone who came along. If he needed them, he was willing to open up and make a deal.

So he wasn't afraid of getting Communists or Nazis coming to the Avalon Peninsula?

No, no. As long as they had expertise and helped him with what he wanted, there was a deal.

What was your assessment of his overall strategy?

It didn't work in the end. It worked in different ways. It worked in ways he had not planned. The industries did not industrialize Newfoundland. It was just not possible. Newfoundland was so backward, the whole infrastructure for industrial development was missing. There were no paved roads, they didn't have electricity being produced, there were no functioning telephone lines, there was no regular postal service. How can you run an industry with all that missing?

Plus the marketing problems, the distance of Newfoundland away from the mainland, having to use boats or planes, all these combined made it close to impossible for them to succeed. But nevertheless, some still staggered on for 50 years. The two first ones did best: the cement and gypsum. And then the shoe factory did well. [There was] no mass employment, that's the problem.

Tell me a little bit about immigration.

He wanted people who had skills in a lot of areas, and he mentioned these skills on his first trip to Germany. In my book there's a quote from a German newspaper where he said, 'I want architects, I want engineers and I want people like that.' And he was willing to take the families that came with them. So I estimated that about 1,000 people came from Europe. Latvians, Germans, Austrians. Mostly Germans. Family members, grandmothers, aunts came along sometimes. These people didn't come just because their breadwinner had a job, they also wanted to get out of Europe. The push factor was strong.