The year of Newfoundland’s triumph

1974. For most of us, it’s just a year – either one buried in distant memory, or one we are too young to have even experienced.

Places have a longer memory, however, and for Newfoundland and Labrador, the year was a momentous one. It marked the province’s twenty-fifth anniversary of Confederation with Canada: an event celebrated with awkward abandon, including a series of disastrous dinners and fishing expeditions with the country’s premiers.

For a new generation that had grown up after the entire Confederation imbroglio, it was an exciting time, and one aptly reflected in the province’s first big national game-show triumph.

Reach For the Top was a quiz-style trivia program broadcast nationally on CBC television from 1966 to 1989 (with a brief revival in the mid 2000s). Teams of high school students across the country competed for prominence, and no Newfoundland team had ever won. But that year—1974—a team of four boys from Gonzaga High School in St. John’s, schooled by supportive teachers (including a team of Jesuits who built their own buzzer system for practice), advanced to the national championship. Out of respect for the province’s twenty-fifth anniversary the championship round was relocated from Edmonton to St. John’s (much to the disappointment of the St. John’s team). In a thrilling showdown filmed before a live studio audience, the Gonzaga team won in a game that came down to the wire, taking the national championship for Newfoundland and Labrador for the first and only time in the game show’s history.

Joan Sullivan—author, playwright, and editor of the Newfoundland Quarterly—has chronicled the game, and the complex moment in time it presented, in a new book titled simply Game. She was taken by the idea after reading a Telegram article about the game, and a photo of the winning moment adorns the short, fast-paced book.

“The book cover shows the moment that Gonzaga won the game. Gerry Beresford has leapt up, and Sethu Reddy and Tom Harrington are embracing and Peter Chafe is sitting there like a cool, cool cat,” she enthuses, staring down fondly at the gritty black and white image.

“It’s just so young, and so exuberant, and I also realized that it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of Confederation. This was the first generation of Newfoundlanders to be in a province of Canada as opposed to an independent country. And the two ideas kind of smacked together, and I thought that I would really like to explore it.”

Politics and game shows

The notion of a country united through a national game show, pitting high school students against each other in intellectual competition, seems a far cry from the crass and haphazard mix of reality television to which the country is glued in this day and age. But Reach For the Top was, in some ways, a nation-building popular culture phenomenon.

“People really remember it. It was a good show,” explains Sullivan. “You had to be smart. For Newfoundland one great thing was any school could compete. It didn’t matter how small your community was—if you had a school you could make a team and start to participate.”

Game juxtaposes two generations of Newfoundlander against each other. Chronicling the roiling political scene of the time are John Crosbie, Ed Roberts, Bill Rowe, and John Perlin, politicians from the Confederation and immediate post-Confederation era, all of whom feature as characters in the story. It’s the long, painful end of the Smallwood era, and in many ways the four are an expression of this tired period of Newfoundland history. Their reminiscences capture the increasingly faint echoes of Confederation-era debates and politicking through the fading shadow of Smallwood: a remorseless stain on the province’s political history who refuses to go quietly into the night. (After ceding the Liberal leadership to Roberts, he tried to wrest it back, and when this failed, Smallwood briefly started his own Liberal Reform Party. He succeeded only in taking both Liberal parties down with him at the polls.)

It’s a timeless story—the ambitions of petty men who are enraptured by the struggle for power and the iteration of their own vision for the province.

But juxtaposed against this is the youthful, buoyant exuberance of the Gonzaga High School team. They know Smallwood and his ilk only as names on the nightly news—bits of trivia to practice for the game show—and they’re part and parcel of a more worldly, cosmopolitan Newfoundland generation: confident, enthusiastic, energetic, embodying the very spirit of “reach for the top.”

Joan Sullivan is author of Game.

When Sullivan set out to tell the story of this triumphant episode, she spoke with everyone involved—members of both the winning and losing team, and the politicians as well.

“I phoned [John] Crosbie and I said ‘I’d like to talk to you about 1974.’ And he said ‘I’m happy to talk to you my dear, but my memory is not good.’ So I said, ‘Well, I’ll read your book – No Holds Barred – I’ll read your book so I can ask really specific questions.’ And he said, ‘That’s a really good idea, I’m going to read my book too!’ So we would both be on the same page.

“When I read his book, his anger at Smallwood was palpable. So one of the interesting things was, when we talked I asked him was he still angry at Smallwood, and his answer—it’s in the book— is that he has a different perspective on that now. But that was still such a disruption, in moving the province forward. Whereas the young guys, the team, they were coming of age in the new era. It was new to them. They had never voted for Smallwood. They would never vote for Smallwood. He would never be their premier again. It was a real coming of age.”

John Crosbie: At a distance, I realize that there are lots of reasons [Smallwood] had turned out as he turned out. I am no longer so angry and disgusted, but I have no warm feelings for him except he was a patriotic Newfoundlander. (From Game)

Battling inferiority

Being a patriotic Newfoundlander meant being talked down to by other Canadians during this era. The sense of inferiority which suffused Newfoundland following Confederation doubtless had many sources. The province’s indigenous industries were wiped out by the much larger mainland competitors once borders and tariffs were dismantled; the modest budgetary surplus built up before Confederation was rapidly burned through as well. Above all, there was a certain snobbishness and sense of superiority enacted by mainland Canadians against Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

“I don’t think we felt inferior, but we were told we were by the mainland,” reflects Sullivan. “As a university student in the ‘80s, being here, working at The Muse [student newspaper], going to Canadian University Press conferences and stuff, I was pretty taken aback. And I thought it had gone away now, but it really hasn’t. I was always told ‘Oh you don’t look like a Newfoundlander.’ And they meant it as a compliment. Like, I don’t know what to do with that! I was told that a lot. And of course the seal hunt was a huge issue in the ‘70s. That’s when the white coat hunt was banned, in 1977. So there was so much international attention focused on Newfoundland, and it was all incredibly negative.”

Against this backdrop, the unexpected victory of a Newfoundland team on the country’s premiere game show was all the more significant.

“Gonzaga didn’t expect to win. Archbishop O’Leary High School [their competitors, from Edmonton] didn’t expect to lose. It was a great game, on top of everything else – really, really exciting. People really remember it,” Sullivan says. The victory was even more remarkable because at the time Newfoundland and Labrador’s secondary schools only ran to Grade 11. Schools in other parts of the country ran to Grade 13, giving this province’s competition an additional two years of advantage in schooling. Some types of mathematics that were featured on the show weren’t even being taught in this province.

“They worked really hard to get where they were,” says Sullivan.

Oral history with modern lessons

Sullivan is an accomplished playwright, author of the theatre script Rig: The Ocean Ranger as well as the stage adaptation of Wayne Johnston’s The Story of Bobby O’Malley. She chose not to write this story as a novel or straightforward prose history. It reads like a play, divided into acts and with dialogue attributed to the key characters. But Sullivan prefers to describe it as an oral history.

“It’s an oral history. I like those,” says Sullivan.

“I am a big believer in people’s voices, and not paraphrasing it. Everybody has ways of stating things that’s just so alive and so them. I mean, are you not going to quote John Crosbie? You’re just going to let John Crosbie talk!”

The work has been optioned for film, Sullivan says, and she’s thrilled at the prospect of making a film about the era. “I think it’s really fun to shoot something in the ‘70s!” she enthuses.

“It was an open-minded time in a lot of ways,” she says, reminiscing about the extreme variation and experimentation in musical styles from the period. “ Let alone rocking those Prince Valiant ‘dos, wearing those checkerboard pants with the flared bottoms and all the rest. Stylistically, it’s a dream. And I hope I’m not overlaying my own youth on it, because I was a kid then, but it seems to me that it was an optimistic time.”

Sullivan herself was only eight at the time of the show, and although she doesn’t remember it, she’s sure she must have watched it along with everyone else (“I do remember the boys from Gonzaga who were like gods to me when I was growing up on Long Pond Road!”).

Are there lessons for today’s generations to glean from this story? Sullivan isn’t sure. She says she hopes it’s an entertaining and informative read. But as she reflects, she grows strident and critical, her thoughts turning to the political imbroglio of today’s era, “frigging Muskrat Falls.”

“I feel so guilty for my daughter’s generation, looking at that. It’s an incredible shadow to the point where I thought, maybe we should just declare bankruptcy. We’ll take the fall, we’ll take the shame, so we’re not saddling that generation with that debt. I think it’s terrible. It’s a terrible problem. I feel like we’re still letting big stupid developments happen and not protesting.

“I didn’t vote Tory, so I didn’t put that crowd in, but I still feel guilty. I still feel like we made the same decisions, the same mistakes. Although I do think that we have lots more confidence, and in many ways things are better…but still, here we are again!”

It’s a grim note on which to end, but Sullivan’s gaze tracks back to the cover of her book, to the young Newfoundlanders leaping from their seats and embracing each other in enthusiastic triumph. Here, too, is a lesson to be learned.

“Young people, be confident! You can do it. If people get that message from the book, that’s great…go for it! You can do it!”

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