Kenneth McKenzie Brown was born on 3 August 1887 at King's Cove, Bonavista
Bay, the son of James Brown of King's Cove and Caroline Gill of Pinchard's
Island, Bonavista Bay. A distant relative, William Brown, had served in
Newfoundland's first elected House of Assembly in 1832 as the representative
for the District of Bonavista Bay. Ken Brown received his education at
King's Cove and then spent six years as an able-bodied seaman and second
chief officer in British Columbia rising to command his own steamer that
sailed out of Vancouver.
Photo courtesy of Ethel Brown Lawton
Returning to Newfoundland, he found employment at the pulp and paper mill opened at Grand Falls in 1909 and owned by the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company Limited (AND). On 7 May 1919 Brown married Violet I. Hollett of Grand Falls and they had three sons and four daughters. Active in the union movement at the Grand Falls mill, Brown was one of the leaders of a strike in 1921 against the company for reducing wages. In late April 1921 the 800 workers initially agreed to reductions ranging from one-fifth to one-third of their wages, but the following week changed their minds and struck, remaining out until a compromise with modified wage reductions was reached in the first week of August 1921. (1)
Because of his popularity among the labor movement in Grand Falls, the Liberal Union Party, led by Prime Minister Richard Squires and Fishermen's Protective Union (FPU) President William Coaker, chose Brown to run in 1923 as a candidate in the District of Twillingate. He was successful, winning re-election in 1924 and 1928. The district was a strong base of support for the FPU, whose fishermen also worked as loggers during the winter for private logging contractors to the AND. In 1932 Brown switched political allegiance and won election in the District of Grand Falls as a supporter of Frederick Alderdice, leader of the United Newfoundland Party. He served as Newfoundland's first minister of labor from 1932 to 1934.
As a solution to Newfoundland's debt problem, Prime Minister Alderdice's government agreed to the suspension of Responsible Government and the establishment of a British-appointed Commission of Government in 1934. Brown's popularity among loggers on the northeast coast made him an ideal candidate in 1936 to replace the retiring Jack Scammell as president of the FPU, which had ceased being by this time an effective voice for fishermen, the traditional base of support since the union's founding in 1908 by Coaker. On 21 October 1936 the delegates to the FPU Convention held at Port Union unanimously chose him to be their new president. Brown had been a member of the FPU since at least the early 1920s. From 1944 to 1947 he was also president of the Newfoundland Seamen's Association.
He differed with the senior management of the Fishermen's Union Trading Company as to how the company should be operated and in 1938 established a separate newspaper to be the "official organ" of the FPU. The Fishermen-Workers Tribune was a weekly newspaper published from St. John's and edited by Oliver L. Vardy from 1938 to 1943 when it ceased publication. This newspaper replaced the Fishermen's Advocate of Port Union which had served as the official voice of the FPU since 1910.
The FPU's support among loggers was challenged by a new union, the Newfoundland Lumbermen's Association (NLA), formed earlier in the year by Joseph Thompson of Point Leamington. Under Brown's leadership the FPU increased its support among loggers, aggressively competing for new membership with the NLA and another loggers' union formed in the Corner Brook area by Pierce Fudge. (2) Having voted for the suspension of Responsible Government in 1934, the new FPU president expressed his general satisfaction in 1937 with Commission of Government and saw no "immediate benefit to be derived from ... demands" by the FPU for a return to responsible government . Rather, the "concern of the FPU... was with the existence of the fishermen of the country who were suffering serious privations under present methods of conduct of the fisheries." (3)
In 1946 Brown won election to the National Convention as a delegate for Bonavista South. He was an avid supporter of Responsible Government and in the Convention vehemently denounced the efforts of his fellow delegate from Bonavista Center, Joseph Smallwood, to advance the cause of confederation with Canada among Convention delegates. The late Don Jamieson recalled in 1967 that Brown was a "great hulk of a man, well over six feet, massively corpulent with a ruddy and roughly handsome face... His huge figure and forceful personality dominated the chamber." (4)
On 30 October 1946 Brown was making a strong anti-confederate speech when his "powerful voice faltered, his speech thickened momentarily, the stern face with its flashing eyes and pugnacious jutting jaw grew scarlet. There was a quiver in the giant frame and Ken Brown toppled forward, falling with his desk to the floor of the Chamber. He had been felled by a cerebral hemorrhage." (5) Just before his collapse, he said that "I have a piece of paper in my pocket now, I won't read it, but if I did I doubt if there would be ten men in this House who would vote for this resolution [to send a delegation to Ottawa to discuss possible terms of union with Canada.]" (6) The contents of the document were never disclosed and Brown was never able to return to the floor of the Convention. The St. John's Daily News commented that his "parliamentary experience and great knowledge of our basic industries have made him an indispensable member of the Convention" and that his "deep-rooted patriotism and great fighting spirit" (7) would be missed. Brown never returned to public life. Confined to his home, he died at St. John's on 28 February 1955.
(The assistance of Dr. Aidan Maloney, C.M., Dr. Hans Rollmann, and Mr. Keith Brown is greatly appreciated in the preparation of this article).
1. Daily News 4 May 1921; Evening Telegram 4 May 1921; and Evening Advocate 11, 30 May and 6, 8 August 1921.
2. See Dufferin Sutherland, "'We are only Loggers': Loggers and the Struggle for Development in Newfoundland, 1929-1959" (Ph.D. thesis, University of British Columbia, 1995) 183-87, 291-98; and the Newfoundland Lumberman 27 July 1939, p. 6.
3. Fishermen's Advocate 8 January 1937.
4. Don Jamieson, "I saw the Fight for Confederation," in Joseph R. Smallwood, ed., The Book of Newfoundland, vol. III (St. John's, Newfoundland Book Publishers, 1967) 76.
5. Jamieson, 76.
6. James Hiller and Michael F. Harrington, eds., The Newfoundland National Convention, 1946-1948, vol. I (Montreal & Kingston, McGill-Queen's University Press on behalf of Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1995) 125.
7. Daily News 1 November 1946.