‘He did it his way’ – Remembering John Crosbie

John Crosbie will never be forgotten, whether it’s for his political legacy and prowess, his wit, or his fearlessness facing adversity


The Herald had the pleasure of sitting down with  John Carnell Crosbie on many occasions. Scanning the archives  here at what once was The Sunday Herald, it’s hard to turn more than a few pages of any past edition without seeing some mention of the man. Just this time last year we sat down with Mr. Crosbie to chat about his career and our province’s confederation with Canada. We noted that the man had long been a force to be reckoned with.

Besides his days in provincial politics where he served provincially as a cabinet minister under premiers Joey Smallwood (Liberal) and Frank Moores (Progressive Conservative), he also served in the federal cabinets of both Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney and ran – in quite dramatic and in full-on Crosbie style – for the leadership of the federal Tory party.

Crosbie’s fightin’ ways

Yes, Crosbie was known for his fightin’ ways and sharp tongue, and in his often celebrated autobiography, No Holds Barred: My Life in Politics, he tackled all subjects. When we spoke last year,  Crosbie commented on his news-making years. 

“There’s 50 or so cartoons we have framed where someone was making fun of some feature, particularly my tongue,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, recalling that Ray Guy was one columnist who seemed to enjoy taking pen to paper when it came to taking shots.

Support & criticism

“If Ray Guy had me in his sights, good. I would always get a great chuckle out of it. I wouldn’t blame him for pointing out any faults that I might have. Although, I don’t think I have any faults at all,” he said in his signature joking style. He never took such things to heart.

“As for political cartoons, I was never offended. As a politician, I think it’s valuable to be noticed whether they are supportive of you or critical of you. If you are in politics you need to be noticed and the main thing is to be noticed. There wasn’t any bad press,” he said.

Decades later, Crosbie demonstrated his sense of humour when it came to some of his less than flattering press.

During one parliamentary debate he told Liberal MP Sheila Copps to: “Just quieten down, baby.”

Copps apparently never forgot that exchange, later calling her autobiography Nobody’s Baby. Then, at a 1990 fundraising dinner in Victoria, he said Copps made him think of the song lyrics, “Pass the tequila, Sheila, and lay down and love me again.” 

Crosbie chuckled when we reminded him of those days. On the topic of Confederation and Joey Smallwood, Crosbie had lots to say, reflecting on his time spent  under Smallwood’s Liberals until a falling-out over Joey’s “develop or perish” policies brought things to a boiling point, causing him to cross the floor in protest.

‘Stay clear of Joey’

“Smallwood and I had quite a convoluted relationship. You couldn’t say we were friends right to the end because we fell out along the way,” Crosbie said when we visited, though he insisted things never got personal.

In fact, he pointed out it was his idea to name one of Marine Atlantic’s ferries the Joseph and Clara Smallwood.

Crosbie reflected that when his father, Ches, died in 1963, the last words he said to his son before he passed were pretty direct; ‘stay clear of Joey.’

“The last time I saw my father he said, ‘You stay clear of Joey Smallwood and have nothing to do with him. Avoid getting involved with Joey Smallwood.’”

When we spoke, his son Ches was running for the leadership of the provincial PCs which would eventually lead to a run at premier. We asked the senior Crosbie his thoughts.

A dirty game

“He’s a fine young man, well qualified and I know, having gone through it all myself, what a dirty game the political game is. The kind of things you have to watch out for, and the things he will go through, and is going through now. I wish him nothing but the best. If he can come out on the good side of it all, I will be more than delighted. He’s certainly my boy and I’m certainly going to support my boy,” the proud father said.

His wife, Jane, was at his side as we spoke, and was never far from his mind.

Crosbie grasped his wife’s hand as she adjusted his shirt for a picture. “This here is the secret to my success, if I had any,” he said as he gazed fondly at Jane, his wife of 66 years.

September 8, 1952, was when the two were married, though their story began years prior. “We met in Grade 2, though he didn’t remember me from back then,” Jane said at the time.

While Crosbie will be remembered by many as the sometimes salty, often savvy politician, Jane and his family will remember him as a loving husband, father and grandfather, a fact not lost on him at the time.

A strong family

“How important is having a strong family when you’re in politics? It’s very important. Any man involved, or any woman involved for that matter, needs the willing support of husband or wife. I always said that in my political career my family were always a tremendous help to me. Without their help I couldn’t have accomplished much. If I accomplished anything it was because I had support. You’ve got to have a willing wife and a family that’s supportive if you are going to be a success at anything.”

Obviously, judging from a lifetime of successes, he had that and then some.

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