Why did Newfoundland join Canada? This new play puts the saga centre stage

You probably know Newfoundland was the last province in the confederation — but it's time you learned about Joey Smallwood, the man who helped make it happen.

Joey Smallwood 'wanted to join a new country in order to save the country he loved'

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. (Victoria Wells)

In the late afternoon of April 5, 1932 a riot broke out in St. John's, then-capital of the Dominion of Newfoundland. What started as a peaceful march of 10,000 against Prime Minister Richard Squires' government exploded after police turned on the crowd — a little-known piece of Canadian history that is now at the centre of a new play.

Every window in the Colonial Building, then the seat of government, was smashed. Furniture, clothing and liquor were looted. Squires and his cabinet were trapped inside building by the mob, until a few local priests managed to subdue the crowd and restore order.

Still reeling from WW I — which claimed one in four men of fighting age — and hit hard by the Great Depression, the island's population was coping with runaway inflation, skyrocketing living costs, negligent administration and rampant corruption. Squires' government suffered a devastating election loss a few months later, and the country briefly returned to British control. Then, in 1949, after nearly 100 years of being a sovereign state, Newfoundlanders opted to give up their nationhood and join the confederation of Canada in a narrowly-decided referendum.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. (Colin Furlong)

One of the principal architects of this transition was Joseph "Joey" Smallwood, a former radio broadcaster and union organizer who became the newly-minted province's first premiere — a post he held until 1972. Now, Smallwood's life over a 40-year period and the role he played in this critical chapter of Canadian history are at the centre of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, a production adapted from Wayne Johnston's 1998 novel of the same name (which, incidentally, was Justin Trudeau's Canada Reads 2003 pick).

"It's a story where everything is completely at odds with itself," says director Jillian Keiley. "Smallwood wanted to join a new country in order to save the country he loved. There's a lot in that process that's unclear. Nothing about it is black and white — it's all shades of grey."

A lot of mainlanders don't understand why there ever would have been any contention about joining Canada, because Canada's so 'great.' That's a story that I think all Canadians would be interested in hearing.- Jillian Keiley

Known for her unique system of direction she calls "kaleidography," Keiley's approach to the visual aesthetic pays tribute to the show's lack of black and white answers. Eschewing her frequent use of bright, colourful hues and textures, the work is rendered in muted, ashen tones.

The result is neither flat nor static. In keeping with the central themes of turmoil and change, much of the action involves mobile set pieces, spinning the world of the characters into near-constant motion.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. (Colin Furlong, Brian Marler)

A Newfoundland native, Keiley couldn't resist paying scenographic tribute to the region's notoriously inclement weather. Much of the action is bathed in a gentle but persistent flurry of snow.

"All those tourism ads you see with sunshine and blue skies are just one day a year," she laughs. "Newfoundland weather can be brutal, and we make that cold, inhospitable environment very apparent."

The production premiered in St. John's in 2015 and will tour to Halifax and London after its stop in Ottawa. As a melange of different regions and cultures spread over an almost inconceivably vast space, witnessing stories from other parts of the country informs Canadians' mutual understanding of each other, and Smallwood's saga is no exception.

While most Canucks know Newfoundland was the last province to join the confederation, that's only a small fragment of the historical picture. Far fewer are aware of the events that led up to this decision — or why it was so conflicted.

"People are sometimes surprised that there were enough people or a level of debate that was sophisticated enough to run our own country on an island of less than 250,000 [people]," Keiley says. "A lot of mainlanders don't understand why there ever would have been any contention about joining Canada, because Canada's so 'great.' That's a story that I think all Canadians would be interested in hearing."

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. Directed by Jillian Keiley. Based on the book by Wayne Johnston. Adapted by Robert Chafe. Until Feb 11. The National Arts Centre, Ottawa. Feb 21-Mar 12. The Neptune Theatre, Halifax. Mar 21-Apr 8. The Grand Theatre, London, Ontario.


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