Memorial University of Newfoundland - "a live, dynamic centre of learning [and] culture."


Joseph R. Smallwood

(edited by Melvin Baker)

(originally published in the Newfoundland Quarterly (Winter 2000), pp. 2-5)

During 1999-2001 Memorial is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the founding of Memorial University College in 1925, the 50th anniversary of Memorial University as a degree-granting school in 1949, the 35th anniversary of the Marine Institute's beginnings in 1964, and the 25th anniversary of Sir Wilfred Grenfell's start in 1975.

On 13 July 1949 the administration of Liberal Premier Joseph Smallwood announced that Memorial University College would be given university status at the 1949 session of the House of Assembly. Raising the college to university status had been one of the first acts of the legislature following Newfoundland's confederation with Canada on 31 March 1949. (1) Smallwood later considered "the building of our great university" as one of the three greatest things that ever happened to Newfoundland, the other two being its discovery in 1497 and its confederation with Canada in 1949.

First reading of the bill "An Act respecting the University of Newfoundland" (2) took place on 9 August, second reading on 11 August, and third reading on 13 August 1949, on which date it received Royal Assent.

Following a prefatory note by Edward Roberts, we quote (with only slight editing, the Premier's comments during the second reading, as delivered in the House of Assembly and recorded in Hansard.



Edward Roberts

Mr. Smallwood always, and often, said that he considered his role in the creation and fostering of Memorial to be one of his greatest accomplishments, if indeed it wasn't the one which, like Abou Ben Adhem's name, led all the rest. He placed an immense value on a university education, possibly because he didn't have one himself, and was inordinately proud of his ten honourary degrees (including the one from Memorial). He saw a university as both a cultural imperative and as an essential prerequisite to economic development.

Nowhere is this deeply-held conviction seen more clearly than in his speech in the House of Assembly's debate on the Second Reading of the Bill to confer degree-granting status on Memorial University (entitled, intriguingly enough, "The University of Newfoundland").The speech is quintessential Smallwoodiana, in everything except its brevity. First came the grandiloquent vision of the future, the prophecy of an institution which "for its size [will be] the most distinguished university in the whole world", a destiny coupled with the mandate to be "an active and energetic means of the economic development of Newfoundland". Then there were the audacious forecasts of the new university's institutional future - the natural resource research institutes and the centre for historical research not the least among them. And, above all, his words were imbued with a fierce and driving determination to make Memorial a "live, dynamic centre of learning [and] culture" and a source of pride for every Newfoundlander.

The speech, brief though it may have been, is also a fine illustration of Mr. Smallwood's extemporaneous speaking style. It reveals his well-stocked mind and the somewhat discursive flow of his thoughts. It also illustrates his constant preoccupation with the legacy of Newfoundland's history, which in due course became a preoccupation with his own role in that history. And the flattering references to his colleagues and to the Leader of the Opposition were both intended and typical, and very much part of his speeches over the years.

Sir Christopher Wren's epitaph, in St. Paul's Cathedral in London, exhorts those who would seek his monument to look about them. (A colloquial translation of the original Latin, I acknowledge.) It can be truly said of Mr. Smallwood that one who looks for his greatest achievement need look no further than Memorial today, a half century after that summer afternoon when members of the first provincial House of Assembly created Newfoundland's first degree-granting institution. A very long way from salt fish, indeed!

Hansard, 11 August 1949, Newfoundland House of Assembly

MR. SMALLWOOD (3): Mr. Speaker, (4) I do not intend to occupy more a few moments, but it is a very proud moment for me to have this Bill come before the House, and to find it receiving such universal approbation from both sides. If ever there was a time to make the College a university, that time is now, now that we have become a Province of Canada. Now that we have become a province of Canada, a fact that I do not regret in any sense or degree, there will be an increasing tendency over the years ahead for the sharp definition of the Newfoundland, distinctively Newfoundland culture and consciousness, to become dull. That perhaps, is inevitable, and perhaps not too regretted.

We will, as Canadians, as part of the Canadian nation, gradually more especially in the generations to come, gradually and quite inevitably absorb a wider outlook, a Canadian outlook, a wider national outlook which will be wide enough to embrace even the people of faraway British Columbia, and those living between there and here. All the more reason, therefore, why we should do something to see to it that our distinctively Newfoundland culture and consciousness do not disappear and are preserved and maintained down to many generations in the future. And I feel this University will be a great means toward that end.

We must restore our Museum (5), and I know in that we have the very cordial support of the honourable and learned leader of the Opposition, (6) and doubtless of his whole party, and, I take it, of the whole province. We must restore the Museum and do more than restore it; we must make it a much greater thing than it ever was. It is not enough to bring it back to the point it had reached when it was so ruthlessly scattered. We must make it a much greater Museum than it used to be before; we must do a number of things which we have never done, all good in themselves but in the aggregate good especially for the purpose of helping to preserve our own distinctively Newfoundland culture and consciousness and pride of achievement.

One thing we might well do, I suggest, is to secure paintings of all the long line of Speakers who have graced the Chair which Your Honour graces to-day. We might well line the walls of this Chamber with portraits (7) of former Speakers of our House of Assembly, beginning with the late great Dr. William Carson. (8) We might well also, I suggest, line the wall with portraits of the late Prime Ministers, all the former prime Ministers of Newfoundland. That would not cost much but it would add much to the sense of history which now more than ever, now that we are province of a much greater nation, more than ever we should preserve and foster.

However, it would be rather shortsighted if we were to regard this university, this Memorial University, of Newfoundland, as merely a means still further to encourage the preservation of the Newfoundland culture; we must, I think, regard the university as an active and energetic means to the economic development of Newfoundland. It must be more than merely a centre of culture and learning; it must have a very practical aspect too, along with the rest. I would like myself to see in that University a school of fisheries, and I may say that that is more, already more, than merely an idea, and already this Government has given some consideration to it, not by any means considerable and not by any means complete, but some consideration to the idea of establishing a school of fisheries in connection with the university.

We have also given some consideration, again not exhaustive or complete, but some consideration to the idea of having attached to that university a school of forestry. And we have not by any means a school of forestry. And we have not by any means yet abandoned an idea to which we gave considerable thought, and in which we took considerable interest, namely, the idea of attaching to that university a school of navigation and deep-sea engineering.

We have in Newfoundland our fisheries, our forests, and our mines. These are our three great basic natural resources, and it is only by development of these that Newfoundland must get the bulk of the income on which it can live and on which it will base its whole system of social security. These must be developed. The University of Newfoundland can and must be made an important means of assisting in that type of development.

Now the University of Newfoundland, while the province of Newfoundland has a population of approximately 300,000, is likely never to be as large as, say, the University of Oxford, of which the honourable and learned Leader of the Opposition is a graduate, or even the University of McGill or even the University of Dalhousie. At the same time, there is no reason why, if we have the vision and if we have the courage and if we have sufficient recklessness in the spending of money on that type of thing, no reason why the University of Newfoundland for its size should not be the most distinguished university in the whole world; and certainly if the plans of this Government can be brought to fruition it will become exactly that, because I give fair warning, Mr. Speaker, that it is no intention of our merely to ask the House to adopt this legislation conferring that Charter upon the University, then turning our backs on the University and allow it merely to struggle along as a poor, poverty-stricken little institution. Once the die is cast and the Charter is granted, that University, if we can do it, insofar as it lies with us to do it, that University is going to [be a] live, dynamic centre of learning [and] culture [of which every Newfoundlander] can be proud. That is our intention.

I see no reason why in the light of that University within the near future we should not have an activity for the active encouragement of historical research in Newfoundland. I see no reason why that University should not become the sponsor of research into Newfoundland history in England, where most of the source data exist far more than here in Newfoundland. and my honourable and learned friend, the Leader of the Opposition, who has spent so many years of his life as a collector of Terranovana, if that is the proper word to use, will know what I mean when I say that by far the greater part of the actual historical sources affecting Newfoundland are to be found not in Newfoundland at all but in the British Museum, the Public Record Office, the British Admiralty, the Board of Trade, the private libraries, and in all bookstores scattered throughout the length and breadth of England and with possibly a very rich source of material existing in private homes and mercantile firms in the West country of England. I see no reason I say, why the University should not, with Government assistance financially, sponsor historical research in England where most of the material is. (9)

Well, it must be a peculiar joy to Dr. Burke (10) to be present here this afternoon as a visitor and to see what must be a dream of his for many years past, to be present to see second reading given to this Bill to make the College a University. It must be a peculiar joy to my honourable and learned friend on my right, the Attorney General (11), son of one of the three original advocates of the University College, the late Dr. Curtis, (12) to be present and to be able to say a word in behalf of this Bill, and surely if the spirits of the two who have not survived that trio are here present, and surely they must be, they must listen with great approval to the advocation which this idea is receiving in the House this afternoon.

I am sure that to the honourable the Minister of Education (13) it must be a cause for great personal pride and pleasure to have been able to introduce this Bill to-day and I am sure that if the truth were known, my honourable friend the Minister of Public Welfare (14) must find a responsive note struck in his own heart as this Bill is given its second reading.

There will be contentious matters before this House as there have already been, but this is one Bill on which I think we all of us, as Newfoundlanders, which we were before we became Canadians, which we as Newfoundlanders, must support ardently, enthusiastically, and quite unanimously.

It is a great personal pleasure for me, I repeat to be head of the Government which is bringing this matter forward; I can promise the House, that in bringing this Bill forward and incidentally, remembering that outstanding promise we made to the people of Newfoundland, we are beginning a long series of promise redemptions in the course of the next few months and the next few years. I am sure it has the unanimous approval of the whole House.


1. See Peter Neary, Newfoundland in the North Atlantic World, 1929-1949 (Montreal & Kingston, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1988) 241-360.

2. On the history of Memorial University College and Memorial University of Newfoundland, see Malcolm MacLeod, A Bridge Built Halfway: A History of Memorial University College, 1925-1950 (Montreal & Kingston, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1990), Cyril F. Poole, Moses Morgan: A Life in Action (St. John's, Harry Cuff Publications, 1998), Melvin Baker and Jean Graham, Celebrate Memorial! a pictorial history of Memorial University of Newfoundland (St. John's, Memorial University, 1999) and the history of Memorial web page at

3. Joseph Roberts Smallwood (1900-1991); journalist, farmer, publisher and politician; and premier of Newfoundland 1949-72. See Melvin Baker, "Joseph Roberts Smallwood,." in Cyril F. Poole and Robert H. Cuff, eds., Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador, vol. 5 (St. John's, Harry Cuff Publications, 1994) 208-15.

4. Reginald Sparkes (1906-1990); educator, author and politician; and manager of the Newfoundland Savings Bank 1956-62. He was the first Speaker of the Assembly (1949-1956) after Confederation.

5. In 1934 the Commission of Government closed the Newfoundland Museum as a cost-cutting measure and the collection was moved to a number of storage areas in St. John's. A considerable portion of the collection was either lost or damaged. See Paul Kenney, "Museums," in Cyril F. Poole and Robert H. Cuff, eds., Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador, vol. 3 (St. John's, Harry Cuff Publications, 1991) 661.

6. John Gilbert (Jack) Higgins (1891-1963); lawyer and politician.

7. Portraits of the Speakers of the Assembly now adorn the walls of the Assembly, starting with the first Speaker in 1832, John Bingley Garland. Busts of the premiers of Newfoundland - from the first, Philip Little (premier from 1855 to 1858), to Joseph Roberts Smallwood (premier from 1949 to 1972) - now grace the lobby of Confederation Building in St. John's.

8. William Carson (1770-1843); physician, farmer and politician; and a leader in the 1820s of the campaign to obtain representative government for Newfoundland. He won election to the Assembly in a 2 December 1833 by-election and served until his death in 1843. He was Speaker of the Assembly from 1837 to 1840.

9. In 1960 the government officially opened a public archives which had been established in the late 1950s by Memorial University. See Melvin Baker, "Memorial University's Role in the Establishment of a Provincial Archive for Newfoundland in 1960," Newfoundland Studies vol. 9, no. 1 (Spring 1993) 81-102, and "Newfoundland Studies," in Cyril F. Poole and Robert H. Cuff, eds., Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador vol. 4 (St. John's, Harry Cuff Publications, 1993) 66-9.

10. Vincent Burke (1878-1953), educator, secretary of education 1920-35, director of adult education 1935-50, and member of the Canadian Senate 1950-53. Educators Arthur Barnes, William Blackall, Levi Curtis, Ronald Kennedy and Burke were the major advocates in the 1920s for the establishment of Memorial University College.

11. Leslie Curtis (1895-1980); lawyer and politician; minister of justice and attorney general 1949-66, 1969-71.

12. Levi Curtis (1858-1942); educator and superintendent of Methodist Schools, 1899-1935.

13. Samuel James Hefferton (1896-1980); educator and politician.

14. Frederick William Rowe (1912-1994); educator and politician.