Its a bitterly bright winter afternoon in the kernel of Toronto’s financial district and Frank McKenna is waiting to hear from New Brunswick Premier David Alward. Some hours before, he had sent an email to the province’s chief elected officer, offering his help on a matter about which he prefers to speak, if only for this moment, circumspectly. “I’m just asking him if he wants me to use it in a speech, or an Op-Ed,” he says. “He might prefer just to use it himself. I don’t know yet. But I don’t want to overshadow him.”
It’s an odd statement from a man who has spent the better part of 30 years happily eclipsing nearly everyone around him—first as a three-term Liberal premier of New Brunswick in the 1990s, then as Canadian Ambassador to the United States in the dawning decade of this century, and now as the globe-trotting, absurdly well-connected deputy chairman of TD Bank. Still, he seems genuinely concerned. He has what he deems is a good relationship with Alward, and he doesn’t want to jeopardize it by f lying off the handle into the public pepper pot. He says there’s too much at stake in his home province; too much to lose.
“What we are facing in New Brunswick is a structural, secular decline,” he says. “The problems we have don’t ebb and f low with the quality of our leadership. There is something more serious going on here. We face circumstances that combine to create a very negative outlook. The entire atmosphere is hugely challenging.” There is, he says, a long-term debt, now hovering above $10 billion; a rolling annual deficit of more than $350 million. There is “perniciously high” unemployment; an aging population; an exodus of entrepreneurial know-how, innovation and durable, skilled jobs. Worse, perhaps, for a province that has always relied on its abundance of natural economic assets, resource industries are in decline.
“The resource base that remains can be exploited with fewer workers and more mechanization, so it can’t support the number of workers that it once did,” he says. “Yet, we remain a resource-based economy in a world where the Canadian dollar looks to be in a fairly constant state of parity with the U.S. dollar. So, this, too, is a peril.”
Sitting at a small conference table in his office on the fourth floor of the TD Centre, he speaks with his hands, which punctuate the air with countless gestures meant to emphasize a point or authenticate a perspective. When he was a boy, growing up on a farm in tiny Apohaqui, New Brunswick, he bailed hay with those hands. Later, as a defence lawyer, politician, statesman, mover, shaker, seller of ideas, spinner of dreams, he learned to use them to more nimble and nuanced effect. Now, he raises a finger meaningfully as if to signal a change in the direction of his elocution.
“Even though I think our situation in New Brunswick is quite pessimistic, I don’t think that it is terminal,” he says. “There are many places in the world that have faced dramatic challenges. In fact, adversity, itself, became the platform upon which they built sustainable economies.”
Look at Israel, he says. With its back to the sea and its face to the desert and surrounded by enemies, it has still managed to create one of the most technologically, and prosperous, societies on Earth. Look at Finland, he commands. With the fall of the Soviet Union, it lost its major market. But it set out purposefully to reinvent itself. Today, thanks to its cocoon of high-tech industries, it’s one of the few nations in Europe keeping its head above the f loodwaters of the continental sovereign debt crisis.
“And, if you look around us, you’ll see places like Massachusetts with virtually no resource base, but a very highperforming economy because, again, of knowledge,” he says. “Then, you’ll see other places where the resource base, itself, has created very strong economies . . . So, I believe here in New Brunswick, we are not without tools.”
He pauses and glances up. When, he wants to know, will this article about him appear in this magazine? “Not until March, you say,” he muses. “Right, well, this thing with Premier Alward should be public by then.”
He likes the timing, and timing is another thing Frank McKenna understands matchlessly well.
In a 1965 New Yorker profile of college basketball phenom Bill Bradley, who later became a U.S. senator and Democratic presidential hopeful, the great American literary journalist John McPhee described the youthful forwardguard’s skills on the court as virtually heaven-sent. One shot, in particular, impressed him.
“That shot,” he wrote, “has the essential characteristics of a wild accident, which is what many people stubbornly think they have witnessed until they see him do it for the third time in a row . . . I retrieved the ball and handed it back to him. ‘When you have played basketball for a while, you don’t need to look at the basket when you are in close like this,’ he said, throwing it over his shoulder again and right through the hoop. ‘You develop a sense of where you are.'”
Many people have made the same mistake about McKenna—who stands about five-foot-nine and isn’t known for his jump shot—on the courts of politics and public policy. Time and again, they have watched him perform feats of political and diplomatic derring-do before and after his electoral victories and highprofile government postings, and time and again they have chalked these up to luck: tremendously, infuriatingly good luck to his critics; but luck, all the same. In fact, it’s his “sense of where you are” that has always been in play—and always played impeccably.
That was evident in 1971 when, in his early 20s, he chose the law as his profession. He had planned to acquire a graduate degree to complement his B.A. from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, until a meeting in Ottawa with Allan MacEachen, veteran Liberal Member of Parliament at the time and one of the canniest back-room strategists this country has ever produced, changed his mind. The old dog, never at a loss for new tricks, told his “special assistant” that if he wanted a career in politics, he should earn an L.L.B. And so, the young scholar obtained one, matriculating second in his class from the University of New Brunswick in 1974.
In fact, it was his legal career that fused his preternatural talent for being at the centre of things with his genuine commitment to public service. He took on several high-profile cases from his shingled office in Chatham, New Brunswick, one of which was the indictment of local boxing legend Yvon Durelle, who had been charged with shooting and killing a man. The crusading attorney’s courtroom triumph in 1977 made him famous and, not inconsequentially, beloved among a significant segment of the voting public in the province’s rural north.
Others have gone as far as to claim that McKenna’s ability to capitalize on the felicitous happenstances of his life—his talent for “making it look easy”—is not only part of his personal charm; it’s a deliberate calculation. Three years after his successful bid to represent Chatham in New Brunswick’s legislature, he became Leader of the province’s Liberal Party. A year after that, in 1986, he was preparing to upend the Progressive Conservative dynasty of Richard Hatfield, which had been in power for nearly two decades. In his 2001 book, Frank: The Life and Politics of Frank McKenna, Fredericton journalist Philip Lee observed how, “The portrait of Frank McKenna as a hard-working, cleanliving farm lad was repeated time and again in media profiles.
“A Toronto Star reporter hushed that Frank McKenna’s childhood ‘was a Norman Rockwell scene, white clapboard farmhouse in a village called Apohaqui, He’d practise his slapshot in the barn so noisily the cows objected and stopped giving milk.’ On the campaign trail, McKenna kept his story simple: he was just an average New Brunswick boy who had a few breaks along the way. ‘I lucked out on some good cases, and then a seat came open and I ran,’ he’d say. ‘Then, when I got there, the leadership was open and nobody else wanted it, so I ran for that, and here I am. Now, nobody wants to be premier, so I’m running for that. I’ve just been at the right place at the right time so far. There’s nothing I’ve got that isn’t typical New Brunswick. I’m a typical New Brunswick boy, a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll.’ This official biography was a mask, and he wore it well. In fact, there was nothing average about McKenna’s life at all.”