Herald’s Q&A: Ches Crosbie

The leader of the opposition tackles questions on 70 years of Confederation, premier’s past and the contributions of his iconic father, John Crosbie 


Ahead of the 2019 provincial election, Opposition Leader Ches Crosbie caught up with The Herald during our commemorative 70th anniversary of Confederation issue. 

Rising from a long lineage of politicians, Crosbie talks whether or not he’d vote yes or no in the referendum, whether Smallwood was good for NL, which premiers were most charismatic, and, if he were to become premier, who would he draw from as an inspiration. 

In assessing the qualities of our list of premiers, who would you say was the biggest character? Who had the most charisma?

I guess I think of charisma as that quality in someone that makes people want to invest credibility and trust in them and follow them. It’s a quality of leadership that inspires confidence. Based on that, you’d have to count people like Smallwood, Peckford and Williams as having charisma, because they did inspire a strong followership in their days. 

In direct contrast to that, who was the most abrasive?

Peckford and Williams could be abrasive when they were strongly motivated to gain some advantage or to gain something Newfoundland and Labrador needed, particularly in pressing the case with the federal government. 

There’s a story of Joey Smallwood that could trump all that. Smallwood was speaking at a rural community, and at the end of the speech he ended with a flourish and asked if there were any people who were not liberals in the room. 

One man stood up and said he was a PC, a Tory. 

He said ‘well sir, why are you a PC?’ He said ‘my father was a PC, and my grandfather was a PC, so I’m a PC.’ So Smallwood said ‘what if your father was a jackass and his father was a jackass, what would you be then?’ And he said, ‘well, I’d be a liberal.’ If you want abrasive, that was Smallwood being abrasive.

Switching gears to the federal arena for a moment; from your experience, who would you say was the Prime Minister who was considered the greatest ally for Newfoundland and Labrador?

If you’re looking for the Prime Minister who should be counted as the best friend we ever had in Ottawa, that would have to be Brian Mulroney. It was Brian Mulroney who entered the Atlantic Accord with Premier Peckford. Brian Mulroney has always been a friend of Newfoundland. 

It was Brian Mulroney who my father persuaded to make the investment in Hibernia that enabled Hibernia to carry on after it looked like it was going to fall apart. 

There were many voices raised against it, but he ultimately made the decision in favour and that’s why we have the offshore the way we have today. I’d have to say Brian Mulroney.

Theoretically, if you one day became premier, would their be a particular past premier whose style or methods you would emulate or look to for inspiration?

At my age I have my own style. Some people may find it inspirational, others may not. But you go through life and you borrow from watching other people and their style and how they do things. I’d like to think I borrow from the example of a number of different former premiers, depending on the circumstances.

By your estimation, has Confederation been an equal partnership between Newfoundland and Canada? Who has given more? 

It’s not an equal partnership because we’ve been through most of the experience since 1949 in a more or less dependent relationship with Ottawa. Some of that was encouraged by Smallwood and in some ways it has been baked in to that relationship with Ottawa by the Terms of Union. For example, Ottawa has control over the fishery, as is true with all provinces. 

Most of the fiscal power, the ability to raise revenue, belongs to Ottawa. Most provinces, all provinces, are dependent on Ottawa in one way or shape or form or another. It’s just the reality of the way Confederation is set up, and in some ways that’s regrettable.

With the benefit of hindsight, how would you rate Confederation for Newfoundland and Labrador? Good or bad?

On a net basis it’s a good thing to be a part of Confederation. You could count some ways in which it has been a disadvantage. In some ways it has encouraged that cycle of dependency, and it still exists on the Northern Peninsula, with make-work projects and then going on one form or another of government income support, employment insurance in particular, for the rest of the year. 

I think it has undermined the work ethic of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to an extent. But we’ve gained brilliantly out of our relationship with the rest of Canada as well. 

It’s hard to take an accounting of a relationship like that. Ultimately you make the emotional commitment that you’re Canadian.

Obviously the political contributions of your father John Crosbie were immense. As a fellow politician, and indeed a son, what would you say were the defining or stand out moments that gave you a real sense of pride?

There’d be a lot of things. I remember in 1983 when the leadership convention occurred, my father ran and ended up coming in third. 

His inability to speak French was a major impediment, but I think he made all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians proud that we could contend on the top stage for the top prize, because it was generally expected that whoever won that was likely to be Prime Minister. 

It ended up being Brian Mulroney. I can remember Dad making a speech on the stage that night the outcome was decided, and I’d have to count that as a very proud moment.

Something of a controversial question, but as you see it, was Joey Smallwood good or bad for Newfoundland and Labrador? This is something that has been debated amongst Newfoundlanders for years.

There’s a lot of ways to answer that question, and I’ll choose just one. Although he was an electoral success for 23 years, he was not really a democrat. 

There are many ways in which Smallwood was anti-democratic, and you could actually argue that in 1971 in that split vote, split-seat election – he was finally defeated soundly in 1972 – but in 1971, if we were not a part of Canada, you could argue that Smallwood would not have left office. 

His instincts were simply not democratic, certainly not at the end of his reign. He loved power too much. Unless we had the larger context of the democratic traditions and norms of being a part of the Canadian federation, you could wonder whether he would have left office.

Put yourself in the shoes of someone voting in the ’49 referendum. Would you vote yes or no, and why?

First of all, I was born as a Canadian and I’ve lived 65 years as a Canadian. It’s an unfair question that you’re asking the person answering to cease being a Canadian. That’s a tough one.  

I’d have to disagree with my grandfather who voted against. I’d vote for. Canada is a great nation. It’s not a great power in the world, but it represents a beacon of hope to most other people in the world. 

They want to come and live here. There are many reasons to be proud of Canada, and I believe, myself, that I’m a Canadian patriot first and a Newfoundlander and Labradorian second, even though I love my province.

Try to imagine yourself for a moment as being in that room with the movers and shakers in 1949. If you were a part of the process, knowing what we know now, what would you add or change in the Terms of Union?

We, our delegation, argued for a provision in the terms of union that gave us control of the fishery. After all, it was such a part of our economic identity and such an enormous part of economy that is came as a surprise to many people to learn that under the Canadian constitution, the federal government exercised jurisdiction over the fisheries. 

However, our delegation was told no, that it was in the Canadian constitution and could not be changed. 

In fact, we could have varied that in some way in the Terms of Union and made a special provision, given our unique circumstances, that would have given us, if not the entire control over that jurisdiction, then maybe a shared jurisdiction. 

That’s something we’re still arguing over with Ottawa today. Maybe eventually we will come up with an arrangement for a shared jurisdiction over the fishery. That’s one of the things I’d like to work on should I be in a position to do so.”

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