‘Clearing the Slums: the Evolution of Public Housing in St. John’s 1910-1956’

This major paper was completed in 2011 as part of the requirements for the Master of Arts Program at Memorial University of Newfoundland. The version below was printed in Aspects, a publication of the Newfoundland Historical Society, in 2011.

A PDF version of this paper is available here: Clearing the Slums – Keith Collier

Clearing the Slums: the Evolution of Public Housing in St. John’s 1910-1956

Keith Collier

Introduction

On 31 March, 1949 Newfoundland became the tenth member of the Canadian Confederation, a province with all the requisite rights, privileges and responsibilities.  On 4 April 1949, David Mansur, the President of the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), wrote a letter to The Honourable Joseph R. Smallwood, congratulating him on his appointment as first Premier of Newfoundland.  This letter outlined Mansur’s plans for bringing the National Housing Act (NHA) into effect in Newfoundland, and discussed the need for the new province to confer with CMHC about various details of property taxes, loan rates, and rental housing.  Only days after Confederation, Mansur was clearly eager to bring CMHC into the housing market in Newfoundland.[1]

This is not surprising given that Newfoundland had long been in need of improved housing.  The capital city of St. John’s, especially, had been attempting to improve housing conditions for several decades.  The results of these attempts were mixed at best, and even ChurchillPark, the most successful housing endeavour of the pre-Confederation period, did little to help those at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum.  Despite having a large, overcrowded, and very noticeable central slum area, St. John’s had few housing projects for the needy in 1949.  Those unable to secure adequate housing in the private market in St. John’s faced extremely limited options.

Confederation brought change quickly and dramatically.  Working together, the three levels of government built numerous housing projects throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and by 1964 hundreds of units had been constructed throughout the city to provide housing for low-income families and individuals.  Jane Lewis and Mark Shrimpton, early scholars on the creation of public housing units in St. John’s, wrote that “[i]n 1961 St. John’s, with less than 0.5 per cent of Canada’s urban households, had 5 per cent of the nation’s public housing units.”[2]  Only twelve years after Confederation there were almost 600 units in St. John’s, impressive for a city that had boasted of only sporadic and often substandard housing efforts barely 12 years earlier.

That Confederation was the catalyst for this drastic urban change seems obvious.  Yet the simple fact that Newfoundland became a Canadian province is insufficient to explain the sudden and dramatic increase in public housing units in St. John’s.  Instead, a number of factors worked together to create the conditions under which public housing could thrive.  These included the mechanisms put in place during the creation of Churchill Park such as an established housing authority in the city, the availability of serviced land, and the recognized need for and acceptance of government intervention in the field of housing provision.

More than this, however, was the willingness and enthusiasm of the new provincial government to take the greatest possible advantage of the Canadian federal system, and the desire of the federal government to rapidly include the new province in federal programs.  Smallwood especially was eager to start the flow of federal money into the province in order to demonstrate the benefits of Confederation quickly and in an obvious manner.  On the other side of the Gulf, the Canadian government was equally eager to demonstrate that Confederation would have tangible benefits to the people of Newfoundland.  Essentially, all parties wanted to prove that Newfoundlanders had made the right decision when they decided to become Canadian.  These political conditions, combined with the social acceptance of the need for public housing and the groundwork laid by previous administrative and development bodies (most notably the St. John’s Housing Corporation), provided the conditions under which public housing initiatives could thrive.  These circumstances allowed the governments of Canada, Newfoundland and St. John’s to construct a large number of public housing units and dramatically increase the low-cost housing options available, and in doing so, change the urban nature of the city of St. John’s.

This paper will examine the development of public housing in the city of St. John’s from the early 1900s to the 1950s, and explore the political, economic, and social conditions which allowed the city to rapidly develop housing after Confederation, and which allowed CMHC to operate so successfully in the city.

Part I – Housing and Politics in Pre-Confederation St. John’s

In the decades leading up to Confederation, Newfoundland underwent important political and economic changes.  As a self-governing British Dominion, Newfoundland was operating under a democratic system of responsible government until 1934.  In that year, economic and political pressure, exacerbated by the onset of the Great Depression, caused the government to voluntarily surrender responsible government and agree to be administered by a Commission of Government appointed by Britain, with the apparent tacit support of the populace.  The Commission, headed by the Governor, consisted of six commissioners, three from Britain and three from Newfoundland.  The Commission was meant to offer Newfoundland a “rest from politics” [3] and get Newfoundland’s finances back in order.  At some undetermined point in the future, when “the Island may become self-supporting again,” responsible government would presumably be restored, although the mechanisms for such restoration remained unclear. [4]  This Commission struggled to improve the situation until the Second World War, which had a positive financial impact on the island and, just as importantly for housing, increased the political, economic, and cultural linkages between Newfoundland and Canada.  The St. John’s Municipal Council was an enduring and effective political body throughout this time, and indeed the only representative political body in Newfoundland between 1934 and 1949.[5]  Many housing initiatives took place in the city during the thirty years prior to Confederation, which laid the groundwork for the successful activities of CMHC in St. John’s after 1949.  It is impossible to understand the sudden growth of post-Confederation public housing in St. John’s without first understanding these previous initiatives and the changing economic and political conditions that determined how housing could and did develop.

Housing Problems and Initiatives in Pre-Confederation St. John’s

That St. John’s brought a housing problem with it into Confederation surprised nobody.  By the 1940s, St. John’s had had a recognizable central slum area for decades, and there were numerous if mostly unsuccessful efforts to improve housing conditions.  The City had been aware of housing problems since at least 1910, when a government report found that “a very large number of tenements are totally unfit for human habitation.  They are so bad that they cannot but degrade those who live in them physically, mentally, and morally.”[6]  This harsh report referred to the central slum area, an area of crowded and unsanitary tenement housing bounded roughly by New Gower Street in the south, Springdale Street in the west, Carter’s Hill in the east, and Harvey Road in the north.[7]  This area had been spared the worst of the nineteenth century fires that destroyed much of St. John’s, and in consequence the housing in that area was both old and overcrowded.[8]  In the thirty years following this report, various groups and governments made attempts to find solutions to the housing shortage, but these attempts were almost all negated by problems of funding and intergovernmental negotiations, and little affordable housing was actually constructed.

Despite the early recognition of the social problems associated with unhealthy housing conditions, the Municipal Council in 1910 did not have the power or authority to adequately address the problem.  Political wrangling between the Municipal Council and the Government was not resolved until the government passed a new municipal government act, or Charter, in 1921.[9]  By 1918, however, the city had made some progress on concrete efforts to address the problem of housing shortages in St. John’s, especially for the poorer classes.  In that year, Mayor William Gosling introduced legislation that provided for the procurement of land along Quidi Vidi Road and subsequently the construction of low-cost housing thereon.  This effort was to be City Council’s only direct involvement in providing shelter for those having difficulty in finding housing in the private market.  The houses built under this scheme, 22 in all, turned out to be more expensive than anticipated, and their cost made the project unsustainable and, more importantly, placed the houses out of reach of the working classes for whom they had been originally intended.[10]

Two years later in 1920, businessman John Anderson, former mayor Michael Gibbs, and LSPU President Jim McGrath spearheaded a project called the Dominion Co-operative Building Association.  The Association built some houses along Merrymeeting Road, but costs prevented them from continuing the project.[11]  The Railway Employees Welfare Association (REWA) had more success, first with projects to provide low interest home loans and rental purchase plans, then with a construction project on Topsail Road and Craigmiller Avenue.  By 1935, the REWA had built 123 low-rent houses for railway employees.[12]  These projects were intended to increase the availability of low-cost housing stock, but funding was a constant problem, and cost overruns prevented these projects from making any real headway against the problem of housing shortages.  The REWA project is an exception in its financial stability, but it had the advantage of limiting its beneficiaries to employees of the Newfoundland Railway, who were employed in relatively stable and well-paying jobs.  These failures had done more to highlight the housing problem than to solve it, and by this time public opinion was moving toward the conclusion that the private market was better suited to providing low-cost housing.[13]

By 1926, the city was seeking outside help.  In that year the Charity Organization Bureau, Child Welfare Organization, and the St. John’s Rotary Club hired Arthur Dalzell, a Canadian who had been trained by Scottish urban planning pioneer Thomas Adams,[14] to come to St. John’s to examine the housing problem.[15]  Dalzell’s report, titled To the Citizens of St. John’s: Is All Well?,[16] systematically examined the housing shortage in St. John’s.  This report was a first major step in a policy development process which ultimately would lead to the creation of the St. John’s Housing Corporation and the Churchill Park housing scheme, both of which were to play important roles in the development of housing policy and projects in St. John’s.  Dalzell described the problems of aging housing stock, especially in the central slum area, which had escaped the 1892 fire that destroyed much of the city and suffered from poor sanitation, lack of adequate water supplies, and poor structural quality.[17]  A shortage of space and houses prevented the relocation of those living in condemned dwellings to better housing.[18]  Dalzell considered the lack of planning to be a major problem, and recommended the establishment of a town planning body.  The city duly appointed a Town Planning Commission in 1928, but a lack of available land and, in the economically strained 1930s, limited access to funding meant that there was little it could do in the way of tangible developments.[19]

Once again, despite political motivation and recognized need, money was too short to allow a solution, a theme common to almost all of these housing initiatives.  Just as importantly, Dalzell recognized that private builders would not supply the housing needs of lower classes who could not afford to pay market rates for houses, indicating that the belief in the private market present just a few years earlier was already declining.[20]

Another report in 1930 outlined the problems of the central slum area.  Frederick G. Todd, who had previously been involved in the design of Bowring Park, was hired by the Town Planning Commission to make another study of housing in St. John’s, and his report focused on the nature of the housing problem in the central slum area.  Todd argued that the central slum was beyond rehabilitation, and should instead be cleared and replaced with lower-density working-class housing and open green spaces.  Todd’s plan acknowledged the problem of finding alternate living space for those displaced from the central slum, but offered little in the way of practical solutions to overcome the problems of providing such living space and funding for housing initiatives.[21]

In his analysis of pre-Confederation St. John’s housing policies, Melvin Baker concluded that “the city was lacking only in funds and not in initiative.”[22]  This statement neatly summarizes the political and economic situation that had shaped and limited attempts to improve housing in St. John’s from 1910 to the 1930s.  For thirty years, various groups within the city and the City Council itself had been analysing the problem, seeking advice from consultants and developing housing plans that were usually shelved.  Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the city clearly recognized that it had a housing problem.  While admitting that something had to be done, the city found its efforts to ameliorate the poor housing conditions limited to commissioning studies and reports that clearly articulated the problem and suggested various remedies that the city, handicapped by limited access to the funds necessary to subsidize housing, was unable to undertake.

By the early 1940s, however, the coming of war had changed the political and economic situation enough to force the city to finally act and to allow it the financial ability to do so.  Just as importantly, by the Second World War these housing initiatives, while not particularly successful, had demonstrated to the people of St. John’s that the private market would not provide universal housing; without substantial subsidization, government initiatives would be severely constrained and limited in their success.

The Commission of Enquiry into Housing and Town Planning and the Development of Churchill Park

The outbreak of World War II had a major impact on Newfoundland and on St. John’s in particular.  The influx of British, Canadian, and especially American servicemen and the construction boom that accompanied the building of military installations in Newfoundland changed Newfoundland’s financial picture, if not overnight, then certainly over the course of a few short years.  The Commission of Government, which had been struggling to right the Dominion’s finances since taking over government administration duties in 1934, suddenly found itself in a position where money was no longer quite as tight as it had been.[23]  The changes were not entirely financial, but also political.  Peter Neary states that the war gave the Commission “a new lease on life” and “enhanced its legitimacy.”[24]

However, the outbreak of war would not be the only reason that 1939 was a watershed year for the city.  Just as importantly for the issue of housing in St. John’s, on 27 April 1939, City Councillor J. T. Meaney made a passionate speech in the Council chamber in which he proposed a new housing scheme, arguing that the time for “academic discussion” had passed.[25]  In effect, Meaney was emphatically stating that enough was enough, that it was time to stop considering the problem and to take steps to actually solve it.

Meaney recommended that government become involved in the provision of housing to those who could not afford to adequately house themselves.[26]  His proposals struck a chord with the City Council, which adopted them on 4 May 1939.[27]  However, financial and political negotiations between the Council and the Commission of Government delayed the appointment of a Commission of Enquiry on Housing and Town Planning (CEHTP) until May 1942, when it was finally struck under the Chairmanship of the energetic judge Brian Dunfield.[28]  This Commission would change the city of St. John’s, and determine its development throughout the 1940s and into the Confederation period.

Over the next two years, the Commission released five reports containing its findings and recommendations.[29] The third and fifth of these reports contain the most important information,[30] but all the reports offer insight into the housing problems the city was facing.  The first report describes the central slum area: “not our only slum and semi-slum area (but) can undoubtedly be indicated as the largest and worst…. The area in question is a blot or eyesore in the very middle of our City.”  The Commission also wrote that “nothing could do more for the appearance and health of the City than the reconstruction of this area, or possibly its conversion into a park or open space.”[31]  The Third Interim Report is especially useful for understanding the extent of the housing problem that existed in the city in the pre-Confederation period, because it extensively described St. John’s housing conditions based upon information from surveys that had been distributed to houses throughout the city.[32]  The city naturally had a great variation of housing conditions, but the Commission classed 1,750 houses as class “D”, “E” or “F”, the three lowest classifications in the scale. The Commission considered these classifications to be substandard, and they represented 38% of the total housing stock.  Most of these were concentrated in the central slum area.[33]

The final two chapters of the Third Interim Report (Chapter XIV – “Summary,” and Chapter XV – “Conclusion”) lay out the Commission’s plan to develop extensive housing areas by a housing authority, with the goal of improving housing for the lower classes living in the slum areas.

Importantly for the issue of housing for the lower classes, the Fifth Interim Report made clear that the Commission had by this time realized that providing houses for those most needing them was economically unfeasible, and that they could not immediately solve the slum problem in St. John’s.  This represents a significant shift in how housing was thought about and approached in St. John’s.  As is obvious from the above discussions of previous housing initiatives, attempts to provide housing directly to those who could not afford to compete in the private market were generally doomed to economic failure without substantial subsidies.  The CEHTP had apparently learned from these experiences and recognized this limitation, and instead of dealing with it, decided to work around it.  Rather than build houses for the lower classes, Churchill Park (as the CEHTP’s suburb development would come to be known) would instead eventually improve slum conditions by the “filtering-up process.”[34]  Although the development would not directly house those in the worst conditions, it would relieve the housing pressure and allow slum residents to vacate the worst housing units, which could then be condemned and demolished.[35]  This is an important point in the development of housing planning in St. John’s.  It is the point where the focus of housing planning discernibly shifts from providing housing to the lower classes directly, to the construction of an attractive middle-class suburb with the goal of relieving housing pressure.

The CEHTP’s reports drew attention to the long-standing nature of the problem of housing.  The Third Interim Report quoted at length from the February, 1941 Lenten Pastoral Letter by Archbishop the Most Rev. E. P. Roche, in which the Archbishop described an appeal he had written twenty years previously, calling for action on the problem of housing.[36]  St. John’s, both Archbishop Roche and the CEHTP feared, had grown “familiar with” and even “callous about the local housing situation,”[37] as evidenced by long standing recognition of the problem and the failure to do something about it.  The plan they proposed was detailed and extensive, and involved radical shifts in thinking and major changes to the shape of St. John’s.[38]

As may be judged from the prolific release of reports and the complex nature of the plan, the CEHTP was taking the problem seriously, and was willing to act quickly and decisively.  Its first goals were to secure land and funding.  Dunfield was up to the task of acquiring land, and his legal training stood him in good stead.  Dunfield proposed using what was known as the “Uthwatt Report” to expropriate large tracts of land to the north of the city, in a manner that would keep costs bearable by compensating landowners based on the value of the land in its current state, rather than in terms of its potential future value.[39]  The CEHTP evolved into the St. John’s Housing Corporation (SJHC) in July 1944, still under the chairmanship of Dunfield, and built its first house in Churchill Park in July, 1945.  It advertised its first batch of houses for sale a year later.[40]  Funding was secured from the City Council and the Commission of Government, the latter’s contribution reaching $4,633,000 by 1947.[41]

This is an interesting point to consider.  As Baker writes, “reluctance to provide government money in the housing field was critical to the failure of a housing scheme put forward by the City Council in May, 1939.”[42]  By 1947, however, the Commission had contributed government money to the tune of over four and half million dollars.  Between 1944 and 1949, the St. John’s Housing Corporation received $5,338,939 from the Commission of Government to be used in developing Churchill Park.[43]  This represents quite a change in the Commission’s approach to the problem of housing, one that can be traced to the improved financial circumstances resulting from war, and the final realization that the housing problem could not be solved without government contributions.

By 1949, the St. John’s Housing Corporation had expropriated 800 acres of land north of the city and built 242 houses in addition to 92 apartments, and had assembled, cleared and serviced another 250 building lots.[44]  Churchill Park, an area which had been mostly farmland in 1939, became the major suburb of St. John’s, and “the first, and in relative terms quite possibly the largest post-war suburb in Canada.”[45]  The Housing Corporation’s work had originally been driven by a need to provide housing for those who could not afford to compete in the private market, but a realization of the costs involved in such an undertaking caused the SJHC to instead build a middle-class suburb and depend upon the “filtering-up” idea to improve conditions in the downtown central slum.  In the end, this did not happen, and this contributed to a rift that developed between the SJHC and the City Council.  The Council felt that, despite the fact that the downtown central slum was the motivating factor for the SJHC’s creation, the SJHC had become primarily concerned with the construction of Churchill Park and not with the clearance of the slum.  As the Council had provided funds to the SJHC believing that it would help deal with the slum problem, it was understandably disillusioned with the work done.[46]

Churchill Park demonstrated that a dedicated housing authority was capable of actually constructing housing successfully, albeit for those with some financial resources and stability and with financial assistance from government.  However, it also demonstrated that housing projects even for those with some money to invest in their own homes were still quite expensive, and that building housing for those without financial leeway would be extremely difficult and would require vastly greater financial contributions.  The SJHC had a large amount of power in assembling land and large infusions of cash from the Commission of Government and the City Council, yet was still unable to provide direct housing for those most in need.  An observer from the Evening Telegram called Churchill Park “the mecca of citizens in search of homes and not in the least bit associated with residents of the condemned areas.”[47]  Despite this failure, the SJHC’s activities did provide a tangible and in many ways dramatic example of what such an organization could accomplish, given enough resources.  This example was fresh in the minds of the public and government at the time of Confederation, when another organization, CMHC, empowered with similar resources, became a player on the St. John’s housing scene.

The Commission of Government, World War II, and the Changing Nature of Newfoundland’s Relations with Canada and the United States.

The changes brought about by the CEHTP and the development of Churchill Park took place within a unique political and economic context, defined by the administration of the Commission of Government during the Depression, and then the Second World War.  The Commission of Government had mixed success in tackling the economic and resultant social problems of the 1930s, although no worse a track record than responsible government had.  It was criticized from the beginning for not being primarily concerned with the needs of Newfoundlanders, but rather putting the goals of the British Government first.  These criticisms have continued to this day.[48]  The Commission worked within severe financial constraints, and it is difficult to hypothesize about alternative policies they could have implemented that would have been more effective in alleviating the harsh conditions that characterized Newfoundland and Labrador in the 1930s.  The country was simply not making any money.

The coming of war in September 1939 changed that.  Suddenly, Newfoundland was strategically important, and the Commission of Government found itself dealing with an influx of foreign nationals, culture, and capital.  In this case, foreign meant mainly Canadian and American servicemen, who arrived by the thousands to construct and garrison bases at St. John’s, Gander, Argentia, Stephenville and Goose Bay.  These foreign governments spent huge sums of money in constructing these major bases, in addition to dozens of smaller artillery, observation, and other satellite sites.  The United States spent approximately $300,000,000 in Newfoundland over the course of World War II, for example,[49] and the Commission found itself with a usable cash flow for the first time.  Government revenue in 1942 was $23,000,000 (of which $7,250,000 was a budgetary surplus) compared to just $8,718,979 in 1934.[50]  Just as, if not more important, the war forged and cemented ties between Newfoundland and the North American continent that would eventually play a role in Confederation.[51]  In addition to the political and economic effects of the war, the requisition of land for the construction of bases drastically altered the landscape of St. John’s, most importantly by the conversion of huge amounts of land from private to public ownership, and from farmland or open space to developed use.[52]  This had the effect of opening up large amounts of land for the use of public housing in the years after the Second World War, notably in the case of Buckmaster’s Circle.  A Canadian military installation from the war years until the 1960s, it became the site of FP8/65, which saw the construction of 210 housing units on former Canadian Forces land.

In the introduction to his book Inside the Atlantic Triangle, David Mackenzie traces the idea of Confederation with Canada through the 1930s, from both sides of the Gulf.  Newfoundland’s financial difficulties and the surrender of responsible government sparked renewed interest in the idea, but despite growing social and economic connections between the two countries, by 1939 there was still little chance of Confederation becoming a reality.  But the Second World War “unleashed (forces) that radically altered the relationship between Canada and Newfoundland.  The Canadian government could no longer take a passive stance in relations with Newfoundland; self-interest, shared concerns, and common goals made closer contact and a more active role necessary for Canada.  The crisis of war and the reshaping of peace would fundamentally restructure both Canadian-Newfoundland relations and the North Atlantic Triangle as a whole.”[53]  Mackenzie’s conclusion points out that, shortly after the war began, the Canadian government realized that it needed Newfoundland, both during and after the war.  The position was summarized by Canadian Department of External Affairs legal advisor J. E. Read when he stated, “I am unable to see how any practical solution can be worked out for the Newfoundland problem without Confederation.  We have been going along for three-quarters of a century upon the assumption that only financial and economic matters are important.  I would have thought that the last five and a half years would have taught us that finance and economics are not the only important aspects of life…. We know we need Newfoundland as much as we need Nova Scotia.”[54]

Mackenzie concludes that Canada and Great Britain may have worked together to bring about Confederation, but they did little other than make sure that the option was presented to Newfoundland voters.  Confederation was very narrowly the chosen option, and Mackenzie credits J. R. Smallwood and his co-Confederates with bringing this about.[55]  That Canada “won” Newfoundland only by a narrow margin should not be overlooked.  Canada may have realized the strategic importance of Newfoundland and Newfoundland may have elected to become a Canadian province, but the Newfoundland people as a whole were clearly still sceptical of the benefits of Confederation.  Smallwood, for all his rhetoric, would have been equally aware of the tenuous nature of support for Confederation.  A lot of hard work went into winning the votes to make Confederation happen,[56] and a major pro-Confederate argument was that Confederation would benefit the working class and improve living standards.[57]  Even after Confederation was a done deal, there was still resistance.[58]  Canada had made large financial commitments throughout the war in places such as St. John’s and Goose Bay,[59] and even though Canada and Great Britain had reached the decision that Confederation was the best Newfoundland option,[60] it would still take four years of hard work and careful negotiation to make it happen.  After the results of the referenda that opened the door to Confederation, approximately half of the Newfoundland electorate needed to be shown that it had supported the right side in the Confederation debate.  The other half had to be shown that their misgivings about Confederation were misplaced.  Both the Government of Canada and the Government of Newfoundland were therefore interested in demonstrating the benefits of Confederation as quickly and tangibly as possible.

Ultimately, the 1930s and 1940s had been hard on Newfoundland.  The Second World War had put the Commission of Government into a relatively favourable financial position that enabled it to contribute financially to the SJHC and the construction of Churchill Park, but even the war boom was unable to finance a true public housing scheme.  Nonetheless, over 30 years of efforts to provide housing for the needy in St. John’s had accomplished three things in addition to the construction of Churchill Park and the various other small-scale housing projects.  First, it had demonstrated that there was a great need for the provision of public housing in St. John’s.  Second, it had proven to the public that the private market would not supply housing, and that it was instead up to government to provide the machinery to do so.  Third, it had also proven that, even with this machinery in place, housing for the most needy was still impossible without large amounts of subsidization.  Pre-Confederation housing efforts therefore laid the groundwork that CMHC needed to successfully participate in low-cost housing construction in the years immediately following Confederation.  In terms of more tangible factors, the SJHC had expropriated 800 acres of land, which at the time of Confederation lay ready for development.  Therefore, CMHC found in St. John’s not only a demonstrated need and an accepting populace, but abundant land ready to build upon.

Both Newfoundland Confederates and Canadians struggled hard to bring Newfoundland into the Canadian Confederation.  It was therefore necessary to prove that Confederation would be beneficial to both parties.  As an agency of the federal government, CMHC was in a position to do this in a very tangible way, and when Newfoundland became a province, it was already in motion.

Part II – Post-Confederation and the entry of CMHC

While Mansur’s letter of 4 April 1949 indicated that CMHC was eager to begin work in St. John’s, this was not the only circumstance necessary to the construction of public housing in St. John’s.  We have already seen how pre-Confederation housing work laid the foundations for the construction of public housing, but it took the serendipitous passing of Canadian legislation in 1949 to put into place the final piece that would begin the process of improving the city’s living spaces.  And those improvements came quickly.  Upon the entry of Newfoundland into Confederation, St. John’s had practically no public housing.  By 1961 St. John’s was home to 5% of all of Canada’s public housing units, despite having less than 0.5% of Canada’s urban households.[61]          This sudden explosion of public housing construction can be traced to several factors, which worked together to provide public housing for the poorer residents of St. John’s at a remarkable rate.  The most important of these factors is the involvement of CMHC in the St. John’s housing market, and the Section 35 Amendments to the National Housing Act that coincided with the entry of Newfoundland into Confederation.

The story of Confederation has been well-examined.  As can be seen from the above discussion of the Commission of Government and the impact of World War II, the relationship between Newfoundland and Canada was formed somewhat precariously, and the two entities needed to build a solid and mutually beneficial federal-provincial partnership.  As part of this relationship, housing in St. John’s represented an area where all three levels of government, especially the federal and provincial governments, could work together to bring concrete financial and material benefits to the people of Canada’s newest province.  This idea is perhaps best represented by a statement made by an unidentified slum area resident.  She regretted the fact that her house had not been torn down the previous year, but told the Evening Telegram, “now that Canada’s got us, I suppose they’ll come down soon.”[62]  It was clearly not just the government that was anticipating the housing benefits of confederation, and this statement demonstrates not only a hope that Confederation would improve St. John’s housing conditions, but an expectation that it would do so.

David Mansur’s 4 April 1949 letter to Smallwood included a list of matters that must be discussed before CMHC could effectively begin operations in Newfoundland.  These matters were largely detail-oriented, such as the method of payment of property taxes, and loans to cooperatives.[63]  The discussion of such details indicates that the activities of CMHC with regards to Newfoundland had been considered for some time, and that plans to bring CMHC into the housing market were already under way by the time of Confederation.  Indeed, in a letter dated 2 November, 1948, Mansur wrote to (then Mr.) Smallwood referring to a recent meeting that took place in Mansur’s office.[64]  This meeting would have taken place during Smallwood’s visit to Ottawa with the delegation sent there to sign the Terms of Union.[65]

Smallwood had obviously given careful consideration to the benefits of Newfoundland joining the Canadian Confederation.  That he had thought about the opportunity for CMHC to improve living conditions on the island, and had been planning ahead with this in mind is no surprise.  These letters indicate that active involvement of CMHC in the Newfoundland housing market was contemplated early in the history of Newfoundland as a Canadian province, both by Smallwood and by CMHC President David Mansur.  Through the application of federal funding, CMHC was to drastically change the appearance of the City of St. John’s by making possible a level of public housing that the city, despite recognized pressing need and several efforts to improve the housing situation, had been unable to achieve.

The machinery for applying those Federal funds in an unprecedented manner and on an unprecedented scale was not long in coming.  On 14 September 1949, Robert Winters, Minister of Reconstruction and Supply responsible for CMHC, wrote to Smallwood to explain his intentions of introducing legislation that would amend the National Housing Act (NHA) to allow the Federal government to pay 75 percent of the costs of housing projects, with the provinces paying the remaining 25 percent.

This amendment, which became known as Section 35 of the National Housing Act, was passed into Canadian law in the fall of 1949.  It changed the way that governments approached the problem of providing housing, and was a direct way to overcome the funding problems that had hamstrung attempts to build housing in St. John’s for decades.  While Churchill Park had established that housing projects were feasible, it made the problem of funding abundantly clear, and Section 35 finally made it possible for the Federal government to directly contribute to the construction of housing.  Premier Smallwood was quick to point out in the House of Assembly what this meant for housing in Newfoundland: “if the Government of Newfoundland were prepared to spend a million dollars on housing in Newfoundland, … it would entail, an expenditure of not one but four million dollars – one million from the province and three millions from the Government of Canada through the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation.”[66]  Smallwood said this in the House of Assembly on 23 March 1950, less than a year after Newfoundland became a Canadian province.  The very idea of Canadian money being spent in Newfoundland (especially on so large a scale) was novel, and the prospect of Canadian money doing three-quarters of the slum-clearing work was no doubt very enticing both for the government of Newfoundland and the citizens like the slum dweller mentioned above who had so recently (and narrowly) decided to become Canadian.

Section 35 was dependent upon the provinces passing the required enabling legislation, and the Newfoundland Legislature did so in April of 1950,[67] clearing the way for housing projects to begin. Newspapers commented on the news of progress finally being made on the city’s housing problem, as the first Federal-Provincial (FP) housing agreement resulting from the NHA amendments was signed in June 1950.  The commentary was cautiously optimistic, hopeful about the slum-clearing potential but reflecting the poor progress in slum clearance that had been made to date.  The Daily News wrote that “Newfoundland’s scheme for slum clearance and provision of low-income housing in St. John’s was given the green light on Friday when officials of the federal government signed an agreement putting actual construction machinery into motion.”[68]  The phrase “actual construction machinery” indicates a scepticism or slight incredulity at the prospect of slum clearance actually taking place, an attitude reinforced two days later when the Daily News wrote “We hope … that what is in hand is merely the first step in the implementation of a master plan designed, over a period of years, to re-house those who are living in the wretched central area…. There is a big job to be done and it is a job that is well worth doing.”[69]  While the papers welcomed the news, they were clearly tempering their optimism, understandable given the numerous failed attempts at housing that had taken place over the previous 50 years.

One of the reasons for Canada’s eagerness for Newfoundland to take full advantage of the Section 35 amendments was that other provinces were demonstrating considerable reluctance to take advantage of the program due to opposition to publicly funding housing initiatives.[70]  The provincial governments of Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and Alberta were all ideologically opposed to the public funding of housing, and therefore unwilling to make use of the program.[71]  The 25 percent provincial contribution also served as a deterrent to many provinces which were unwilling to put up the money,[72] although this was clearly not a limitation to Newfoundland, which had a sizeable amount of surplus money available.  John Bacher points out that the federal government also intended the Section 35 amendments to transfer some of the responsibility for housing to the provinces.[73] Before 1935, there had been little government involvement in housing at either the federal or provincial level.  Although there had been some minor efforts at planning and controlling city expansion at both levels, there had been little in the way of direct financial participation in the provision of housing.[74]  The economic crisis of the Depression, followed by the increased housing pressures of the Second World War, forced the federal government to become financially involved in housing, first by encouraging housing-related lending through the 1935 Dominion Housing Act, and then through its agency Wartime Housing, which constructed about 25,000 houses in Canadian urban centres during the war years.[75]  By 1949 therefore, the federal government had assumed much of the responsibility for housing, and the Section 35 amendments would transfer at least some of that responsibility to the provinces.  This would take the pressure to provide housing off the federal government, and successful housing projects in St. John’s would have helped convince other provinces that the program was a sound investment.  Another factor limiting the involvement of other provinces was the requirement for local initiative to spearhead the projects,[76] a requirement that Newfoundland was uniquely positioned to meet.  In any case, Newfoundland became the first province to pass the enabling legislation and undertake an FP project, in 1950.  Indeed, five of the first six FP projects in Canada were located in St. John’s.  No other Canadian province demonstrated the willingness and eagerness to make use of CMHC financing to publicly fund low-cost housing that Newfoundland did in the 1950s.  Canada needed to demonstrate to Newfoundland that Confederation was profitable, but it also needed somewhere to try out its new housing programs and convince other provinces that the program would work.[77]

Newfoundland’s Enabling Legislation

The legislation that enabled the province of Newfoundland to quickly take advantage of the new Section 35 of the NHA was introduced in the Newfoundland Legislature on 23 March 1950, titled “An Act to Provide for Slum Clearance and the Development of Housing Accommodation.”  The very title of the act indicates the government’s primary concern was the removal of the downtown central slum and the rehousing of those in the area.  Since Councillor Meaney’s 1939 speech in the Municipal Council, the city had made strides in improving the housing situation through the development of Churchill Park, but the slum still remained.

In the discussions which followed in the House of Assembly, the government made it clear that it was intending to take every advantage of Federal money.  In moving the second reading of the Act, Premier Smallwood stated “it has by now become a fairly well-known fact … that this Government has very definite intentions of availing itself of the very generous offers made by the Government of Canada to assist provinces financially in providing for slum clearance and the provision of housing accommodation generally.”[78]  In discussing the provisions, Smallwood was quick to point out that the terms of the Act allowed the quadrupling of the Newfoundland investment by the Government of Canada through the CMHC, emphasising the cooperative nature of the agreements.  The Evening Telegram’s coverage of the bill’s second reading mentioned its potential to finally clear the slums, and also highlighted the 75 percent federal contribution to the cost of acquiring land and constructing houses, a theme echoed by the coverage in the Daily News.[79]

Smallwood was also at pains to describe in detail the negotiations that took place between the Federal and Provincial governments, and the movement and communications between the relevant ministers, that is, Robert H. Winters, the Minister of Reconstruction and Supply[80] at the Federal level, and James J. Spratt, Minister of Provincial Affairs at the Provincial level.  The numerous meetings between them, travel to attend meetings and conferences, and studies made of housing problems in St. John’s, all indicated the willingness of both levels of government to work together quickly and efficiently in an attempt to find a solution to the housing problems in Newfoundland.[81]  This cooperation continued as the project developed, and the Evening Telegram reported that provincial MHA for St. John’s West and Minister without Portfolio O.L. Vardy (who was also heavily involved in the negotiations surrounding housing) held meetings with CMHC president Mansur and CMHC official Humphrey Carver in the weeks before the signing of the first FP agreement.[82]

The Bill was debated from 23 March to 5 April, when it was passed and given third reading.  During the debate, Vardy discussed Churchill Park’s failure to clear slum housing via the “filtering up” principle, and MHA for Fogo Mr. Gordon Janes pointed out the prevalence of slums not just in St. John’s but in Windsor and Corner Brook as well.[83]  In general, the necessity of slum clearance and of financial assistance to do so was not at issue.  Instead, the speeches and debate focused on the provincial-federal relationship, the failure of Churchill Park to achieve its original goals, and the mechanism for expropriating land and compensating the owners.

All five members of the provincial opposition party supported the bill in principle, although there were some objections to the provisions allowing for expropriation of land and houses.[84]  Hon. Dr. H. L. Pottle, Minister of Public Welfare, spoke about the necessity of federal intervention if there was to be a uniform standard of living across Canada, and the necessity of federal funds if that uniform minimum standard was to be met.  Yet he pointed out that this did not interfere with the province’s responsibility in the field of housing.  “[W]hile the Federal Government does enter into this picture considerably, there is implied … no invasion of provincial rights; that is to say, the Federal Government is not, by virtue of the proportion of expenditure it makes upon housing, thereby taking away anything from the sovereignty of the province.”[85]  Pottle also quoted Robert Winters’ introduction to the Section 35 Amendments in the Canadian House of Commons, as saying “it was clear … that the provinces recognized their constitutional and practical responsibility in this field, but the majority indicated that financial assistance would be required from the Federal Government.”  Nor, argued Pottle, would this Federal assistance interfere with the rights of “private enterprise,” or builders, who would “still remain in the field, and … will be necessary … as far as Newfoundland is concerned,” although, as he points out, they were not able to tackle the problem on their own.[86]

Pottle’s comments revealed much about how the government perceived the nature of the federal-provincial relationship in Newfoundland, and underscored the idea that Confederation was financially beneficial to Newfoundland while allowing Newfoundland to retain its sovereignty.  Cooperation with, not domination by the federal government was the government’s main theme in discussing this legislation.  The commenter “Terranovan,” writing in the Evening Telegram, called the federal government’s participation “generous,” and that in the housing plan “here, at least, is one benefit of Confederation.”[87]  With the support of the federal government through the CMHC, the government of Newfoundland could allow St. John’s to solve a problem it had struggled with for decades.

Government cooperation and the benefits of Confederation were emphasized by the media as well.  On 30 March 1950 the Evening Telegram ran a full page story titled “Canadian Housing and Community Planning,” which laid out the activities of the federal government and the CMHC in the housing field (not just the new federal-provincial public housing arrangements) and their contributions to housing construction, planning and research.  The article discussed in detail the provisions available for those wishing to construct houses, namely the loans available jointly from CMHC and various lending institutions, making it clear that Confederation offered opportunities for homebuyers and homebuilders that were previously unavailable.[88]  Another Evening Telegram article stated that the “[b]enefits brought by union have gone a long way toward softening the core of resistance [to Confederation].”[89]  This article weighed the benefits of Confederation, and was published on 1 April 1950, the first anniversary of Confederation.  It is perhaps noteworthy that, coincidentally or not, this anniversary fell in the middle of the debate on the enabling legislation.

The FP Agreements

Just two months later the parties signed the first of the FP agreements.  An agreement dated 13 June 1950 and signed by Canada, Newfoundland, and CMHC laid out the duties and responsibilities of all three parties with regards to the acquisition and servicing of land and the construction of housing.  The agreement (which became known as FP1/50, meaning Federal-Provincial Agreement #1, 1950) provided for the construction of 140 housing units on lands to be acquired by the province within the City of St. John’s.[90]  A subsequent agreement signed three days later brought the City of St. John’s onboard, agreeing to convey the needed lands to the “partnership” (the amalgam of provincial and municipal governments and CMHC) and provide city services such as water and sewer, street lighting and sidewalks in exchange for a payment of $43,600.00.[91]

The newspapers of the day welcomed the news, reiterating the now familiar line that slum clearance could not be undertaken until those living in the central slum could be rehoused, and that this project was a step in that direction.[92]  The Daily News quoted O. L. Vardy as stating that the project’s purpose was to provide “safe, decent, and sanitary housing for families of low to moderate income and the elimination of a municipal eyesore.”[93]  The Evening Telegram detailed the arrangements, and wrote “[i]t is hoped that a further arrangement may be made with the Federal Government where it will be possible to build about 350 more low cost houses.”[94]  A year later Vardy was still emphasising the cooperation between the federal and provincial governments.  In answer to a question in the House of Assembly, he discussed the province’s expenditures ($264,773 to date) and emphasised the contributions of the federal government in covering the costs of land assembly, construction, but also of work supervision and project related travel.[95]

Despite Smallwood’s hopes that the housing units would be ready for residents by the fall of 1950,[96] the first units in the new housing estate were not ready for occupation until April of 1951 (again very near the anniversary of Confederation).[97]  Yet building the first batch of units in the ten months from June 1950 to April 1951 was still quite an accomplishment, that can no doubt be put down to the fact that the city had serviced land already available on the Ebsary Estate where these first 140 units, known as Westmount, were built.[98]  The Ebsary Estate, located on Campbell Avenue (the current location of Froude Avenue, Vickers St. and Vimy St.) had seen previous public housing initiatives, including widows’ and orphans’ housing.  These, however, were substandard and short-lived, and were eventually replaced by the first batch of FP units,[99] although both sets of public housing buildings co-existed for a period.  Moreover though, the speed of construction and subsequent occupancy is also an indicator of the speed with which all levels of government were prepared to move to construct housing in St. John’s.  Keeping in mind that this was more than ten years after Councillor Meaney’s “enough is enough” speech which spurred the creation of the SJHC and Churchill Park, and more than ten years after the beginning of the Second World War with its influx of Canadian and American money, it is clear that government wanted quick improvements in the city of St. John’s.  O.L. Vardy stated that the Ebsary Estate area was chosen for the first housing scheme because “We have to provide homes for 1,000 people living in the old area, which we are to destroy … the present area was chosen for start of the project because we can build quickly there.”[100]

The importance of Churchill Park in the building of the FP projects would soon become clear.  The SJHC plans for middle-class suburb developments throughout the entirety of the land they had assembled for Churchill Park would not come to pass, but the land would certainly not go to waste.  FP3/51 took advantage of a large part of the land assembly that had not been used by the SJHC in constructing its houses.  That agreement provided for the construction of 152 housing units along Empire Avenue, Freshwater Road, Anderson Ave, Graves and Little Streets and Hoyles Avenue.  FP4/54 provided for another 36 units to be constructed in the near vicinity on Wallace Place, Whiteway Street, Newtown Road, Hoyles Avenue, Graves Street and Anderson Avenue.

While FP5/54 would move construction outside of the Churchill Park land assembly and build 46 units along Livingstone and Goodview Streets in the downtown area of St. John’s, FP6/55 would construct an additional 146 units within its boundaries.  These were the “Courts”: Cowperthwaite, Mitchell, Keegan, and Stabb Courts, located near the intersection of Elizabeth Avenue and Anderson Avenue.

The 1950s total of housing units constructed under projects FP1 through FP6 is 584, of which 408 were built within the boundaries of the land originally expropriated for Churchill Park.[101]  The implications of this are clear.  Churchill Park represented the largest supply of cleared and serviced land under the control of those attempting to build public housing.  This supply of available land facilitated the quick and relatively cheap construction of public housing units throughout the 1950s, meaning that the SJHC and Churchill Park had finally, in a roundabout way, begun to allow for the rehousing of those most in need and the beginnings of slum clearance.

From Slum Clearance to Urban Renewal

The government’s clear intention in 1950 was that the CMHC-supported FP projects would clear the central slum.  Smallwood, in introducing the Slum Clearance Bill, stated that “we propose to take the area, itself, buy it, every last inch of it, and every last house on it,” and that “[w]e are going to raze all the houses in the area.”[102]  The FP projects of the 1950s did not, by themselves, solve the slum problem.  Although FP1/50, the construction of housing units at Westmount (or the Ebsary Estate) allowed the demolition of 98 houses in the slum area, FP3/51 only allowed for the removal of 24 condemned houses, only a handful of them in the slum area.[103]  It would take many more FP projects into the 1960s to rehouse enough residents to allow the slum to be completely cleared.  By this time city planners and architects were talking about “urban renewal” as opposed to slum clearance; they pursued the idea of complete redevelopment of the central area, in conjunction (once again) with the provisions of new amendments to the National Housing Act in 1964.[104]  The Daily News wrote: “what is now wanted is a modern city in which land use will be efficient, architectural design will be attractive, and citizens will find a source of real and lasting pride.”[105]  FP8/65, the housing project which saw the development of 210 units at Buckmaster’s Circle and area was therefore designed “with high, narrow fronts to harmonize with the traditional St. John’s architecture.”[106]

The FP projects of the 1960s and 70s (which continued until FP17/74) were largely, although not entirely, located outside of Churchill Park boundaries.  Much of the land inside the boundaries had already been utilized, not just by housing units built through the Federal/Provincial agreements, but also through the extensive sale of building lots and the efforts of housing co-operatives who were building low-cost family housing on land that was made available to them.  With the support of CMHC financing, these co-ops built approximately 250 houses in the Churchill Park area.

By 1966, the city had acquired all the properties in the former central slum, and was moving forward with plans to revitalize the area.[107]  This was done largely through the construction of a new city hall (occupied in 1970),[108] and later the construction of large, modern office buildings and a hotel, although the construction of Sebastian Court meant that low-cost housing was not completely absent from the new downtown core.  No more was the central area an embarrassment to the city.  Instead, it had become the very nerve centre of the city, symbolic of the transformation of the area from lower class housing to a centre of business and government.  Around the same time, in 1960, Premier Smallwood moved the seat of Provincial Government away from the downtown area and even beyond the new suburbs to the newly constructed (and suggestively named) Confederation Building, well removed from the central slum and certainly indicative of the city’s development.

A report on the activities of the SJHC from 1944-1978, written by Corporation Chairman Francis J. O’Leary provides insight into how the SJHC viewed housing in the late 1970s.[109]  This report focused on the work of the SJHC not only in the field of housing, but also in land banking and industrial land development.  The SJHC activities in the 1960s and 70s were not targeted at providing lower-class, affordable housing.  O’Leary introduced the SJHC by calling attention to the Corporation’s crucial role in transforming the city from an “old waterfront town” to a “vibrant new city.” In tracing the early history of the SJHC (1944-1950), O’Leary described the city as “old and tired looking, and stagnant in terms of municipal planning and growth.  Its houses and buildings were crammed together….”[110]  Throughout his discussion of the Corporation’s early activities, O’Leary did not once mention the need for affordable, lower-class housing in the city.  Instead, he indicated that the primary concern of the Corporation was a general need for housing, and the need for the city to have room to expand in an orderly, planned manner to prevent “municipal chaos and future problems of redevelopment that would cripple the city.”[111]  O’Leary’s focus on the Corporation’s provision of infrastructure, modern apartment developments, and expansion of industrial land, all in an orderly, planned fashion, indicated that the concern in St. John’s at this time was with organized development of the city in general, not with improving conditions for those in need of affordable housing.  The failure of SJHC to address the slum problem through Churchill Park and its subsequent falling out with the city[112] may also explain O’Leary’s failure to discuss the Corporation’s original mandate.

By this time, of course, there were large numbers of public housing units in place and the central slums were gone, replaced by the new City Hall and soon to house the new hotel and office buildings, and eventually Mile One Stadium.  The housing situation was nowhere near as dire as it had been at the end of the Second World War.  As such the Corporation’s original mandate appeared to be fulfilled (although not by the SJHC), and the most pressing evidence for provision of low-cost housing was gone.

These changes to the downtown core, and indeed the entirety of St. John’s were drastic to say the least.  The clearance and subsequent revitalization of the downtown central slum and the construction of hundreds of housing units throughout the city had changed the look of the city.  In less than twenty years, the combined efforts of the city of St. John’s, the provincial government, and the federal government through the agency of CMHC provided a relatively quick solution to the problem of sub-standard housing and the central slum area that had plagued the city for almost a century.

Conclusion

The question of how the city of St. John’s solved its central slum problem is both considerably complex and yet quite simple.  The period during which these events took place is neatly bisected by a major political event, Confederation, which complicates the study of the politics involved.  In many ways, Confederation is the simple answer to the question.  The City Council and Government had been struggling for decades to overcome the housing shortage in St. John’s, making many attempts to provide better housing for city residents, attempts that were mostly doomed to failure for reasons usually related to escalating costs and reluctance to subsidize such units.  The actual slum could not be cleared until the residents therein had somewhere else to go, which could not happen while housing projects were hamstrung by financial constraints.  Confederation allowed another level of government to subsidize the costs of these housing projects and overcome the major problem which the city had faced for forty years.  This was especially true given that Confederation happened to coincide neatly with a new approach to public housing taken by the Canadian government (that is, the direct subsidization of housing projects as embodied in the Section 35 Amendment to the National Housing Act) that was almost perfectly designed to solve this problem.  In fact, if large amounts of federal money had not been available, construction of such public housing developments in St. John’s would not have taken place, or at least would have taken place on a much smaller scale.  The reluctance of other provinces to take advantage of Section 35 meant that Newfoundland had little competition for federal attention in this direction.

Furthermore, pre-Confederation housing projects had proven the necessity of subsidization, and the previous establishment of a housing authority in St. John’s (one that had successfully built houses) had demonstrated the potential effectiveness of such authorities.  The SJHC’s activities in the construction of Churchill Park had laid a foundation for government intervention in home construction that post-Confederation efforts would build upon.  As a result of the SJHC’s work, the public perceived that the housing authority in St. John’s had already accomplished much, and it had demonstrated the effectiveness of such authority over the private market.  The SJHC had further shown that a local, experienced housing authority already existed that could liaise with all levels of government.  Finally, through its previous work the housing authority already had a large amount of land available to develop in the city.  St. John’s and the CMHC were therefore almost perfectly matched immediately upon Confederation.  Pre-Confederation housing initiatives had laid an administrative foundation that the provincial and federal governments could build upon, and cleared the hurdle of public reluctance to subsidize housing projects for low-income groups.  St. John’s had a need of and desire for a housing authority with money to spend, and the CMHC had money to spend on housing and no other province quite as eager to spend it.

Confederation was also in many ways a hard-won event that both the Smallwood government and Ottawa had to prove would be beneficial to Newfoundlanders.  The quick establishment of CMHC operations in Newfoundland is an example of both Canadian and Newfoundland eagerness to demonstrate the benefits of Confederation.  Speaking about Newfoundland’s Confederation with Canada, MacKenzie writes “Through the removal of the debt load, the preservation of the surplus, the larger transitional grants, and the implementation of Canadian social services, Newfoundland was able to achieve a degree of development and rise in the standard of living that any government in an independent Newfoundland would have been extremely hard pressed to match.”[113]  Nowhere, it could be argued, was this as obvious as in the case of St. John’s housing.  The infusion of federal funds in support of the housing projects that St. John’s so desperately needed provided the impetus for a rush of public housing construction that did more to solve the city’s housing problems in ten years than had been accomplished in the previous forty.  So effective were the federally supported programs that the central slum, the main evidence of the need for improved public housing, had disappeared within fifteen to twenty years of CMHC activity.  Simply put, Confederation solved a housing problem that St. John’s would have never been able to solve on its own.


[1] Letter from Mansur to Smallwood, 4 April 1949, Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, 1948-1970, Smallwood Collection (Coll-075), Archives and Special Collections, Centre for Newfoundland Studies, File 3.07.022.  In this letter Mansur states that the National Housing Act has not yet “been proclaimed for operation in Newfoundland.”  However, in a letter dated 5 April 1949, he writes to correct himself, telling Smallwood that the NHA was in fact “proclaimed for operation in Newfoundland as at April 1st.”

[2] Jane Lewis and Mark Shrimpton. “Policymaking in Newfoundland during the 1940s: the Case of the St. John’s Housing Corporation.” Canadian Historical Review, 65 (2), 1984: 237.

[3] S. J. R. Noel, Politics in Newfoundland (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971): 213, 221.

[4] Amulree report, quoted in Peter Neary, The Political Economy of Newfoundland, 1929-1972 (Toronto: Copp Clark, 1973): 36.

[5] The National Convention saw elected representatives meet to discuss Newfoundland’s political future in 1947-48, but the Convention had no law-making authority.  It was rather to recommend “to His Majesty’s Government … possible forms of future governments to be put before the people at a national referendum.” Neary, The Political Economy of Newfoundland,: 103.  See also Noel, Politics in Newfoundland: 246-248.

[6] PANL, GN 2/5, Special File of the Colonial Secretary’s Office, file 119-A, Colonial Secretary R. Watson to Prime Minister Edward Morris, January 22, 1910, quoted in Melvin Baker, “Municipal Politics and Public Housing in St. John’s, 1911-1921”: 29.

[7] Melvin Baker, “Municipal Politics and Public Housing in St. John’s, 1911-1921”: 29. The central slum area is also clearly defined in the First Interim Report of the Commission of Enquiry on Housing and Town Planning (CEHTP, First Interim Report: 6).

[8] Sharpe, “The 1939 St. John’s Municipal Housing Scheme”:49-50.  Baker writes that “those tenements located in the central residential heart of St. John’s that had been hastily put up following the town’s major fire of July 8, 1892, were of great concern from both fire protection and public health standpoints.” (Baker, “Municipal Politics and Public Housing in St. John’s, 1911-1921: 29).  This may seem to contradict Sharpe’s assertion that the housing in the central slum pre-dated the fires, but the two ideas are not mutually exclusive.  It is clear that the fires of 1846 and 1892 did spare the central slum area; it also makes sense that people searching for places to build new homes to replace those lost in the fires would build wherever they could in the unburned area of town, which would mean that more houses would be constructed in the central slum area, leading to even more overcrowding.

[9] For a detailed discussion of municipal politics in the 1910s, see Melvin Baker, “Municipal Politics and Public Housing in St. John’s, 1911-1921.”

[10] Melvin Baker, In Search of the ‘New Jerusalem’: town planning and public housing policies in St. John’s, Newfoundland 1917-1944: 39.

[11] Baker, In Search of the ‘New Jerusalem’: 10.

[12] Baker, In Search of the ‘New Jerusalem’: 27-28.

[13] Baker, “Municipal Politics and Public Housing in St. John’s, 1911-1921”: 39.

[14] Adams had designed the Hydrostone District in Halifax after much of that city was destroyed in the 1917 Halifax Explosion.  See Suzanne Morton, Ideal Surroundings: Domestic Life in a Working Class Suburb in the 1920s.  (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995): 19-20.

[15] Lewis and Shrimpton: 212; James Overton, “Self-Help, Charity, and Individual Responsibility: the Political Economy of Social Policy in Newfoundland in the 1920s,” in James Hiller and Peter Neary, eds., Twentieth Century Newfoundland: Explorations (St. John’s: Breakwater, 1994): 109.

[16] Arthur G. Dalzell, To the Citizens of St. John’s: Is All Well? (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1926).

[17] Dalzell, To the Citizens of St. John’s, 5.

[18] Dalzell, To the Citizens of St. John’s,: 8; James Overton, “Self-Help, Charity, and Individual Responsibility: the Political Economy of Social Policy in Newfoundland in the 1920s”: 109.

[19] Lewis and Shrimpton: 213, Sharpe, “Mr. Dunfield’s Folly”: 87.

[20] Dalzell, To the Citizens of St. John’s: 14

[21] Precise details of Todd’s plan are uncertain, as no known copies are extant.  Sharpe writes “the text of his report was reprinted in the Evening Telegram [31 March 1930] so we have some idea of what he recommended.” Sharpe, “Mr. Dunfield’s Folly”: 88.

[22] Baker, In Search of the ‘New Jerusalem’, 39-40.  Also see p. 28 for comment regarding reluctance of government to provide funding.

[23] For a discussion of the Second World War and its impact on Newfoundland, see Petery Neary, Newfoundland in the North Atlantic World, 1929-1949 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996) and S. J. R. Noel, Politics in Newfoundland.

[24] Peter Neary, Newfoundland in the North Atlantic World: 235.

[25] Meaney, in Sharpe, “The 1939 Municipal Housing Scheme”: 54-55.

[26] Meaney, in Sharpe, “The 1939 Municipal Housing Scheme”: 54.

[27] Sharpe, “Mr. Dunfield’s Folly”: 93.

[28] For discussions of the political situation and negotiations surrounding the creation of the CEHTP, see Lewis and Shrimpton, “Policymaking in Newfoundland,” and Sharpe, “Mr. Dunfield’s Folly.”

[29] Commission of Enquiry on Housing and Town Planning (CEHTP). “Interim Reports: First-Fifth, November 1942-January 1944.”  St. John’s: Robinson & Co., 1944.

[30] Sharpe, “Mr. Dunfield’s Folly”: 96. The first report was largely introductory, and argued for the provision of better building codes and various methods of better controlling the city’s development, such as the appointment of a city architect.  Importantly however, the First Interim Report also clearly defined the boundaries of the central slum area. The second report dealt with plans for road construction on King’s Bridge Road, with a view to improving traffic in Pleasantville and the potential new developments that were to become Churchill Park.  The fourth report made recommendations designed to prevent people from spending time and money improving properties located north of the city, properties which were likely to be expropriated once construction of new housing began.

[31] CEHTP, “First Interim Report”: 9-10.

[32] CEHTP, “Third Interim Report”: 7-9, 10-30.  For an overview of housing conditions found by the Commission, see Sharpe, “Mr. Dunfield’s Folly”: 96-98; Lewis and Shrimpton: 219-224.

[33] CEHTP, “Third Interim Report”: 10-22; Sharpe “Mr. Dunfield’s Folly”: 97.

[34] CEHTP, “Fifth Interim Report”: 30-34.

[35] Sharpe, “Mr. Dunfield’s Folly”: 101-102.

[36] CEHTP, “Third Interim Report”: 7-9.

[37] CEHTP, “Third Interim Report”: 7.

[38] See Sharpe, “Mr. Dunfield’s Folly” for a good overview of the proposed plan.

[39] Sharpe, “Mr. Dunfield’s Folly,”: 103.

[40] Sharpe, “Mr. Dunfield’s Folly”: 105.

[41] Lewis and Shrimpton: 233.

[42] Baker, “New Jerusalem”: 28.

[43] Baker, “New Jerusalem”: 37.

[44] Sharpe, “Mr. Dunfield’s Folly”: 111.

[45] Sharpe, “Mr. Dunfield’s Folly”: 83.

[46] Sharpe, “Mr. Dunfields’s Folly”: 109-110; Lewis and Shrimpton: 238-239.

[47] Evening Telegram, 27 March 1950, p. 4.

[48] For detailed discussions of the Commission of Government, its work, successes and failures, its political nature, its role in the Confederation debate, and general political economy of Newfoundland in the mid-twentieth century, see Noel, Politics in Newfoundland, and Neary, Newfoundland in the North Atlantic World.

[49] Neary, Newfoundland in the North Atlantic World: 179.

[50] Noel, 243.

[51] See Steven High, ed. Occupied St. John’s: A social history of a city at war 1939-1945 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010) and Neary, Newfoundland in the North Atlantic World.

[52] Christopher A. Sharpe and A. J. Shawyer, “Building a Wartime Landscape,” in Steven High, ed. Occupied St. John’s: A social history of a city at war 1939-1945: 21-80.

[53] David Mackenzie, Inside the Atlantic Triangle: Canada and the Entrance of Newfoundland into Confederation, 1939-1949 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986): 18-21.

[54] Mackenzie: 231.

[55] Mackenzie: 233.

[56] Mackenzie: 196-229;  Joseph R. Smallwood, I Chose Canada: the memoirs of the Honourable Joseph R. “Joey” Smallwood (Toronto: Macmillan, 1973): 286-324.

[57] See, for example, Joseph R. Smallwood’s statement that the reason he was a Confederate was to allow “by the toil of their hand, [the unemployed] to earn an honest living.” National Convention Debates, January 23, 1948, Newfoundland Archives, reproduced in Peter Neary, The Political Economy of Newfoundland, 117-118.

[58] Mackenzie: 227.

[59] Mackenzie: 67, 80-81, 113

[60] Mackenzie: 128.

[61] Lewis and Shrimpton: 237.

[62] Evening Telegram, 1 March 1950, p. 3.

[63] Letter from Mansur to Smallwood, 4 April 1949.

[64] Letter from Mansur to Smallwood, 2 November, 1948, Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, 1948-1970, Small wood Collection (Coll-075), Archives and Special Collections, Centre for Newfoundland Studies, File 3.07.022.

[65] Smallwood, I Chose Canada, 315-316.

[66] House of Assembly Proceedings, 23 March 1950:374.

[67] The Bill, titled “An Act to Provide for the Slum Clearance and the Development of Housing Accommodation” was assented to by the Lieutenant-Governor on 6 April 1950.  House of Assembly Proceedings, 6 April 1950:581.

[68] Daily News, 14 June 1950, p. 3

[69] Daily News, 16 June 1950, p. 6.

[70] Lewis and Shrimpton, 237; Albert Rose, Canadian Housing Policies 1935-1980. (Scarborough: Butterworth and Co., 1980): 31-32.

[71] John C. Bacher, “From Study to Reality: the establishment of public housing in Halifax, 1930-1953,”  Acadiensis 18 (1), 1988: 133.

[72] John C. Bacher, Keeping to the Marketplace. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993): 183.

[73] Bacher, Keeping to the Marketplace: 183.

[74] Richard Harris, Creeping Conformity: How Canada Became Suburban, 1900-1960. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004): 106-112; Bacher, Keeping to the Marketplace: 9, 64-65.

[75] Harris, Creeping Conformity: 119-123; Bacher, Keeping to the Marketplace: 64-93, 120-163.

[76] Rose, Canadian Housing Policies, 1935-1980: 31-32.

[77] Sharpe, “Just Beyond the Fringe”: 409; Lewis and Shrimpton: 237.

[78] House of Assembly Proceedings, 23 March 1950: 374.

[79] Evening Telegram, 24 March 1950, p. 3; Daily News, 14 June 1950, p. 3.

[80] Winters moved from Minister of Reconstruction and Supply to Minister of Resources and Development when several departments and offices were reorganized on 18 January 1950.

[81] House of Assembly Proceedings, 23 March 1950: 374-378.

[82] Evening Telegram, 10 June 1950, p. 3.

[83] House of Assembly Proceedings, 23 March 1950: 383, 385.

[84] Evening Telegram, 25 March 1950, p. 3.

[85] House of Assembly Proceedings, 23 March 1950:388.

[86] House of Assembly Proceedings, 23 March 1950:388.

[87] Evening Telegram, 27 March 1950, p. 4.

[88] Evening Telegram, 30 March 1950, p. 11.

[89] Evening Telegram, 1 April 1950, p. 18.

[90] Agreement between His Majesty the King in Right of Canada, His Majesty the King in Right of the Province of Newfoundland, and Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, 13 June 1950 (commonly known as FP1/50). Copy in the Collection of Dr. Christopher Sharpe, Department of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

[91] Agreement between the Corporation of the City of St. John’s, His Majesty the King in Right of Newfoundland, and Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, 16 June 1950. Copy in the Collection of Dr. Christopher Sharpe, Department of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

[92] Daily News, 14 June 1950, p. 3; 16 June 1950, p. 6.

[93] Daily News, 14 June 1950, p. 3.

[94] Evening Telegram, 14 June 1950, p. 3.

[95] Evening Telegram, 11 April 1951, p. 3.

[96] House of Assembly Proceedings, 23 March 1950: 379.

[97] Daily News, 3 April 1951, p. 3.

[98] Daily News, 3 April 1951, p. 3.

[99] Evening Telegram, 28 November 1947, p. 7; House of Assembly Proceedings, 23 March 1950: 379.

[100] Daily News, 17 June 1950, p. 1.

[101] R.C. Manore, “Federal-Provincial Housing, St. John’s, Nfld” Urban Renewal and Public Housing, 4 (4), 1968: 16.

[102] House of Assembly Proceedings, 23 March 1950:378, 380.

[103] Letter from Stanley Pickett to the Mayor and Councillors of St. John’s, 8 September 1956, Jackman Collection, City of St. John’s Archives.

[104] Peter H. Oberlander and Arthur L. Fallick. Housing a Nation: the evolution of Canadian housing policy  (Vancouver: UBC Centre for Human Settlements/CMHC, 1992): 57-59.

[105] Daily News, 27 April 1964, p. 4.

[106] Evening Telegram, 14 December 1964.

[107] Evening Telegram, 13 July 1966.

[108] Evening Telegram, 29 March 1966.

[109] Francis J. O’Leary, “Report of the St. John’s Housing Corporation, 1944-1978.” nd.

[110] O’Leary: 1-2.

[111] O’Leary: 2.

[112] Lewis and Shrimpton: 237-239.

[113]  Mackenzie: 217.

One thought on “‘Clearing the Slums: the Evolution of Public Housing in St. John’s 1910-1956’

  1. Pingback: The Rest is History | Keith J. Collier

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