Charles R, Granger, M.P., Former editor of the Fishermen's Advocate and president of the Fishermen's Protective Union (Originally published in the Fishermen's Advocate, August 19, 1960)
In the president's address to the seventeenth convention of the Fishermen's Protective Union, held at Port Union on Christmas day, 1925, Sir William Coaker announced: "The Congress Hall is completed except for the seating of the upper flat."
On Sunday evening, August 12, 1960, I, with hundreds of others, watched billowing flames destroy this monument to a movement which marked the end of an era and birth of another.
In 1925 the FPU had come a long way from that November night of 1908 when W.F. Coaker and 19 fishermen founded the Fishermen's Protective Union.
The new Congress Hall, an imposing structure, dominating the new town of Port Union, was an outward and visible sign of the coming of age of the union movement.
The FPU movement itself was one of the great phenomena of Newfoundland's history, and the destruction of the Congress Hall brings to mind that much of our history may be lost.
This can be tragic, for no country can truly develop character and strength without an intimate knowledge of the past. Traditions, a knowledge of the facts of history, the why's and wherefore's of past events, are essential to education, and without that knowledge, without that education in our history, much is lost, much wisdom is stillborn. Many hard lessons have to be learned over again.
A knowledge of the past engenders ability and progressive action and enlightened policies. Without such knowledge, many fine minds and characters have been bemused by inability and uncertain courses.
I make these remarks because there is too little attention given to the immediate past, too little effort made to separate fact from fiction, too little knowledge of the truth, too many impressions based on prejudice and unintentional misinformation.
Coaker himself in later years saw such a need. Writing in 1930, he said: "It will be someone's duty in coming years to write a history of our time, and when that is accomplished it will, if impartial, bestow a mede of praise on the good work of the FPU."
Any great movement, crusading in character, and arousing passion and militant enthusiasm, is bound to create violent opposition and it takes time to place it in its true perspective. Conversely, if too long a period lapses, facts are difficult to obtain, the people who knew the personalities involved, die, and a link with the past is irretrievably broken.
I point this out because I sincerely believe that it is vital that more attention be paid to our history both in the writing and in the reading of it. As I watched Congress Hall burning, I realized how little this present generation knows about our immediate past.
The Newfoundland of today is different from the Newfoundland of 1908 when the FPU was formed.
The fishermen, and indeed most of the people of Newfoundland, were isolated, divided, and in economic serfdom. This generally was through no evil design. The merchants themselves were also the slaves of the system. Coaker came. He passed through the land. He shook them out of their centuries of submissive existence. Times were never the same again. A new era was born - a new lusty aggressiveness, born among the fishermen, spread through every ramification of society. It made itself evident in keener competition and bolder enterprise.
Coaker's greatest contribution perhaps was not in economic advantage to the fishermen as a class, but in the new thinking which he jolted into his generation.
A former editor of the Fishermen's Advocate, Hon, Alex. W. Mews, wrote of those who "are continually stretching out, exploring new fields, inaugurating new methods, accomplishing the impossible and generally putting the world on new and strong legs to bear the weight of new conditions."...
Coaker accomplished much for the men whose cause he championed. The fishermen, the loggers, the sealers, all derived substantial benefits through his efforts and through the legislation which his influence and political policies caused to be enacted.
The Congress Hall served Port Union in many capacities. Of paramount importance were the annual conventions of the FPU.
There political meeting were held scanning the years from Responsible Government to Commission of Government to the return of self government through confederation.
There were held the gatherings which welcomed governors and other distinguished guests.
In the social life of the town, the hall will be remembered for many pleasant and social gatherings, and it was the scene of a number of well-acted plays by local talent. Many residents will recall "Dangerous Waters," "The Girl from out Yonder," and "Lighthouse Nan."
More recently, it was used by the Lions Club for their banquet, social gatherings, and meetings. The Lions were responsible for the fine job of redecorating.
The Girl Guides rally was held there this spring.
In the place of honour in the upper hall, and enclosed in a glass case, was a splendid silk banner presented to the Supreme Council of the FPU by Sir William Coaker. This relic of considerable historic value was also lost in the fire. Also destroyed was a chair presented by the Lions Club in memory of the founder of Port Union and its enterprises...
The loss of the Congress Hall, while it removes a monument which changed the history of Newfoundland, certainly does not in any way mark an end to the forces which Sir William Coaker released.
The people of Newfoundland, not only fishermen, but all the working classes, gained a new freedom and new dignity.
Under Coaker's inspired leadership, freedom and independence grew apace. That freedom, that independence, once had, remains. It is indestructible. It lives in the minds and hearts and souls of men and women.
It is true that each generation has to review and reassess its own position, and make sure the liberties won are preserved. But the barrier between men and freedom was broken down a generation ago....