Nfld. & Labrador·Humour

Hitting false bottom: Celebrating a rich legacy of corruption at the Colonial Building

The Colonial Building in St. John's could have so much more to offer history buffs than expensive chairs, writes Edward Riche. In a satirical column, he pokes around the corridors of past corruption, and imagines how high food prices might just bring back a riot on the building's steps.

Who knows what might be unearthed yet in the desk of Alfred Valdmanis?

The Colonial Building was the seat of government in Newfoundland for well over a century. It has been under restoration for much of the last decade. (Submitted by Anne Madden)

The following column is a satire by Edward Riche, a St. John's author and one of the creators of CBC Radio's series The Great Eastern, which commented on politics and culture through the alternate reality of a radio station in downtown St. John's.

While misplaced public ire has been focused on the recreation of four "Bourne chairs" for the restored Colonial Building, less attention has been paid to the refurbishment of the desk of Alfred Valdmanis, self-appointed director-general of industrial development in the Smallwood administration, and noted jailbird.

"Dr. Valdmanis's office was in the Colonial Building," explained Victoria Peters, acting head of the Historical Thingies branch of the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts and Recreation.

"It featured an unusually large and imposing desk, big enough for two bureaucrats to comfortably sleep under. Ironically, after Valdmamis was carted off to the hoosegow for swindling the government of Newfoundland, the desk itself was itself converted to a cell of sorts, being retooled as a crate to relocate troublesome bears. There was bound to be controversy over the contract to restore the desk which was sole-sourced to the German cabinet makers Riefenstahl and Speer.

"This isn't any ordinary desk," said Peters. "It has to be outfitted with hidden and false-bottomed drawers and other secret compartments for concealing certain types of documents and things like Pervitin and cyanide pills, your Luger, as well as Latvian, Argentine and Swiss passports."

In the early 1950s, Alfred Valdmanis ran an ambitious — and flawed — economic development program for the Newfoundland government. Valdmanis would later go to prison. (Archives and Special Collections,Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University)

Alfred Valdmanis's story is an important one in Newfoundland and Labrador history, part of a rich legacy of our government being duped by con men and bullshit artists.

"There is a line that can be drawn straight from Dr. Valdmanis's doomed cement plants and pulp and paper projects right to Muskrat Falls," said Peters.

The Colonial Building opened in1850 as the home to the House of Assembly. This file image from 2014 shows restoration work underway at that time. (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)

"Of course, times change and now someone mismanaging a large public project all the while enriching themselves at the expense of the Newfoundland and Labrador treasury is as likely to get a bonus as a four years in the slammer." Valdmanis was chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador Company, known as NALCO.

"We had considered putting a replica of the automobile in which Valdmanis died in the parking lot but with our birthright of debt we judged that too costly and are instead putting the brake line of that vehicle on display in the basement."

Restoring to the look of the 1932 riot

Some people object to the initiative to restore the Colonial Building more broadly. Oswald Fry, the Sir William Ninny Chair in Crankology at Memorial University, has been a vocal opponent. "It seems odd," said Fry, "that at a time when the mention of anything 'colonial' earns you a stern lecture from a poorly read undergrad they would bring the edifice back to its original state."

Fry has other ideas. "Why not have the place as it was after the 1932 riot, windows smashed, the interior ransacked? It might be more educative."

A riot at the Colonial Building in 1932 was sparked by revelations of political corruption. (CBC )

"We are not ignoring the 1932 riot," said Peters.

"We hired the consultants McKinsey and Co. to recommend how we might deal with it and they concluded we should ask Rothchild's, who passed us on to KPMG, who reported that we could consider staging a re-enactment, with rioters pitching simulated sponge cobble stones at the windows and hiring a local actor to play Sir Richard Squires cravenly fleeing the besieged seat of government.

"But who knows, with food prices rising like they are, maybe a riot will occur spontaneously."

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