Undoubtedly, Newfoundland & Labrador has had a colourful history, from fishing to a strategic WWII port to today’s tourism business. However, a little-known slice of Newfoundland & Labrador (NL) history (outside of the province, that is) is that of Premier Joey Smallwood’s attempt to diversify NL’s industrial base outside of fishing and logging by attracting post-WWII German industries and German immigrants to Canada’s newest province. Smallwood’s plan was an “escape hatch” for German industries fearing what Soviet Russia may have in store, by coming to Canada. Many took Mr Smallwood up on his offer and Gerhard P. Bassler has written an account with the “general, non-academic readership in mind.”
Escape Hatch (subtitled Newfoundland’s Quest for German Industry and Immigration 1950-1970) is divided into three distinct parts:
- Part 1: Develop or Perish: Immigration and Industrial Development in Post-Confederation Newfoundland
- Part 2: From Cement to Chocolate: The New Industries
- Part 3: “We built half the city here”: The social and economic integration of German-speaking immigrants
Part 1 gives the background, the businessmen and the development of Smallwood’s plan for getting Newfoundland’s economy jump-started with the “New Industries”. Part 2 goes into some depth about the various industries that came to Newfoundland, the Germans behind them and how each business fared once it was started (it didn’t all go so well, but it wasn’t a total failure either). Part 3 is composed of various interviews the author and his conducted with German immigrants who still resided in NL in 1983-1985, the results of which are quite revealing as to the Newfoundland environs in the 50’s as well as the populace’s acceptance of these newcomers (and former enemies, not so long ago) and how they handled the position they found themselves in once they arrived in NL:
“I think I’ll die!” was one wife’s reaction when her husband told her about Newfoundland being “nothing but rocks, frozen rain from the skies and a god-forsaken land.”
Others spoke of how they appreciated the peacefulness and openness of their adopted land, away from the regimented and heavily populated areas of Germany. For such ones, Mr Bassler writes:
“Newfoundland offered a true escape hatch to political freedom from the Iron Curtain”.
Unquestionably, Escape Hatch is an informative and generally engaging read. The interviews are entirely fascinating to read, especially given the challenging period of time the immigrants arrived in: telephones were rare (and barely functioned) the “Newfie Bullet” (railway) was unreliable and there were few, if any paved roads. There was a scarcity of stores to shop in and it was remarkably difficult to get any products brought over from Europe. The ups and downs of the various industries make for an enjoyable read too. Some failed sooner than others and some still exist today, albeit in a form very different from the original. Mr Bassler certainly knows his subject (this is not his first book regarding the New Industries) and this comes through in the telling of this memorable part of Joey Smallwood’s vision to put Newfoundland on the economic map in the post-WWII era.