- Death on Two Fronts: National Tragedies and the Fate of Democracy in Newfoundland, 1914–34 by Sean Cadigan
Sean Cadigan’s engaging book explores themes of loss and hope in Newfoundland politics and society in the volatile years from the beginning of World War I to the collapse of responsible government in 1934. The “death” in the book’s title refers to the loss of over Newfoundland 200 sealers in two separate incidents in 1914 and the deaths associated with Newfoundland’s overseas contingent in World War I. Cadigan argues these losses became very powerful symbols in the post-war debates about the future of the country, and were used to support different visions of the role of the state in society. One of the strongest advocates for increased state intervention was William Ford Coaker, social critic and founder of the Fisherman’s Protective Union, who later moved into politics. Espousing a liberal, progressive model, Coaker argued the sacrifices of lives on both “fronts” necessitated building state infrastructure in social welfare and the economy (particularly for the flagging salt-fish trade). His opponents, both within politics and in the wider merchant class, gave meaning to the war losses by insisting on a return to laissez-faire liberalism and a minimalist state. Over the course of the next decade, political rancour, combined with debilitating war and railway debts, contributed to a worsening political and economic crisis in Newfoundland. With little support for his progressive vision, except from the relatively small labour groups in the city of St. John’s, Coaker gradually retreated from public life. National politics was plagued by infighting and corruption, contributing to a wider disillusionment with democracy, which ended in the former colony giving up its self-governing status for a British-led government by commission that lasted until Newfoundland joined Canada in 1949.
Death on Two Fronts is worth reading for several reasons. First, it broadens our understanding of the politics and culture of World War I commemoration, explored in the Canadian context by others such as [End Page 447] Jonathan Vance. The Newfoundland version differs in several ways from the Canadian one, but the impact on society was no less significant. Indeed, commemoration of the war remains highly political in Newfoundland, and we gain insights by looking at its earlier construction and uses.
Second, Cadigan’s work brings valuable perspectives to the crisis in politics and democracy in Newfoundland in the 1920s and 1930s. While others have examined this tumultuous period, Cadigan’s contribution is in his use of class analysis, and his more nuanced portrayal of Coaker and what he tried to achieve in Newfoundland. Without a large industrial working class (and even a significant middle class) in the early twentieth century, Newfoundland is not often analysed in class terms. Cadigan convincingly explains why we need to pay attention to other voices, including labour groups and the “ten-thousand strong” members of the Fisherman’s Protective Union, to understand the politics and public debates of this period. As well, Death on Two Fronts provides a more complex picture of Coaker, who is often seen as an oddball living in self-imposed exile in Port Union and the Bahamas after his failure to bring government regulation to the fish trade. Contextualized within the larger progressive reform movements of North America, however, Coaker seems less exceptional and more representative of ideas that gained traction elsewhere but not in Newfoundland for a variety of reasons. Together, these perspectives greatly enrich the scholarship on the collapse of democracy in Newfoundland.
Overall, Death on Two Fronts makes an important contribution to the scholarship on Newfoundland political and public life, and is a valuable study of the questions and search for direction in post-World War I society. And, perhaps more importantly, it helps us think about how Newfoundland’s experience is both distinct from and connected to the wider North American story.