Tough to checkmate

Tough to checkmate

In our inaugural issue, we asked more than 1,100 representatives of business, academia, the clergy, politics and the professional world to help us pick the top 10 most influential people in Newfoundland and Labrador. John Crosbie topped the list.

With his access to the world’s political and corporate boardrooms, Canada’s International Trade Minister, John Crosbie is the people’s choice as Newfoundland’s most influential person.

By Brent Furdyk and Cynthia Stone

It’s June 1983, and Canada’s Progressive Conservative Party is close to electing a new leader.

“CROSBIE! CROSBIE! CROSBIE!… the TV camera directs its high-tech gaze towards the enthusiastic crowd at the west end of the Ottawa Civic Centre arena. The noise is deafening, each political camp trying to outdo the other with cheers, singing, clapping and shouting.

Crosbie stands in the middle, surrounded by his closest supporters. Jane, his wife, stands nearby, cheering for her husband, hopeful of victory.

The sweltering arena has become a colosseum of persuasion and fast decision making. The second ballot results are announced a couple of hours later, leaving the three principal candidates in the race. Crosbie maintains his strong third place position. Once again the ballots are cast, leaving Crosbie with an impressive 858 votes. Quite respectable, but not enough to overcome one of the other candidates. He is eliminated from the race.

Dr. George Perlin, professor of political science at Queen’s University, considers it “ironic” that the candidate with the broadest degree of acceptability ran third and was not there on the last ballot. However, he notes, Crosbie came from a low level of support to a strong third place finish. In this he was successful.

And so, it seems, success continues to follow him. Now he has been chosen as Newfoundland’s most influential person in this province for 1989.

Crosbie’s persuasiveness and proximity to power, his role in the House of Commons in Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s cabinet, also makes him one of the most powerful men in Canada.

“He works all the time,” says his wife, Jane, who follows her husband around the world as he discharges his duties as International Trade Minister. “I guess it’s my generation,” she says, “but I never needed a career. I go with him. His whole life is organized around politics. From what I’ve seen, he’s gone a long way towards putting Newfoundland on the map.”

Influence can be, of course, connected to family name and inevitably to wealth. Son of Chesley A., himself influential in the Newfoundland business community, and Jessie Crosbie, John was born January 30, 1931. He attended Bishop Field College and St. Andrews College, and, except for the trappings of moderate wealth, led an ordinary existence. Childhood friend Dr. Charles Hutton recalls a quiet, studious, shy and reserved youth. He says John’s antics in Parliament amount to ‘’ a court jester approach to concealing the shyness.”

Dr. Hutton says they did ordinary things as boys, “a bit of devilment, swipin’ a few apples.” He remembers John as “never holding his wealth over anybody,” and maintaining early friendships throughout his adult life.

St. John’s lawyer Jim Chalker also remembers Crosbie as a youth. They were about 11 years old when they met, he says, and lived as neighbors, sharing boyhood secrets. “He wasn’t very naughty, but he never backed down. I remember one scrap he got into and came out the winner. There was a big, young fella straining for a fight with me, and John stepped in and took him on. He was afraid of nothing, and I suppose he kept that part of his personality.”

It was inevitable that John Crosbie should end up studying law, says Chalker. An intellectual even as a youngster, Crosbie was tremendously interested in politics and the law, reading voraciously and remembering just about everything he read. Crosbie graduated from Queen’s University in 1953, and later attended Dalhousie Law School. He completed his law degree in 1956, receiving the highest marks of any law student in Canada that year. In 1956 and 1957 he did post-graduate work at the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies of the London School of Economics. And he found time to court and marry Jane Furneaux.

“I knew him when we were very young—in kindergarten­—but we started going together when we were 17,” she says. They were reunited at a teenage party thrown by Jim Chalker, dated for four years and were married at 21. In 1953, their first child, Chesley, was born. Michael followed in 1956, and Beth in 1960.

In 1965, Crosbie stepped out of the practice of law with Alyward, Crosbie and Collins and ran for city council. Crosbie received 71 per cent of the votes, more than any other candidate, which automatically made him deputy mayor of the City of St. John’s.

However, Dr. Hutton also remembers an unpolished Crosbie, struggling to find a public image. “He was still wearing his brother Andy’s suits, and they didn’t fit. Andy was bigger, but John was taller, so he wore floods all the time. We tried to trim him down and dress him up. I’ll bet there are tailors in Ottawa now who will still pay Crosbie money to take their labels out of his suits.’’

A short time later, in 1966, in spite of Crosbie’s then-less-than-sparkling personality, Premier Smallwood offered him a job in cabinet. Crosbie resigned his council post and accepted Smallwood’s offer as Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing. There he began to write and pass into law the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing act. He was later elected in November to the House of Assembly for St. John’s West, and he continued in this capacity until 1967, when he became Minister of Health. As such, he created the Medical Care Insurance Act, and the Newfoundland Medical Care Commission, a landmark legislation for the young province.

After 10 tumultuous years and many well-documented battles at the provincial level, Crosbie moved onto the federal scene, successfully running in St. John’s West in 1976. He explains the move: “It was time for a change. I was very interested in federal politics, and I thought I could make a contribution toward getting things done for Newfoundland.”

Readers of local and national newspapers are hardly surprised to see his photograph, even on what has become an almost daily basis, as he presents his views on topics of importance to the nation and to the world, never hesitating to take a hard-line stance – no matter how unpopular – when he believes he has the answer.

Crosbie says one-third of his time is spent dealing directly with Newfoundland’s problems, and he pushes hard for financial support. “The portfolio is a small part of what’s going on,” he explains. “I’m on the operations committee of Cabinet, the expenditure review committee and the economic policy committee, so I attend meetings for all these.’’

But for the immediate future, he identifies three priorities. “I’m determined to see the Hibernia offshore development going ahead. I was responsible for seeing that the government of Canada made it proceed, and they’ve committed $1 billion and promised another $1.6 billion, and that’s the most it has ever promised to economic development.’’ He adds, in his characteristically immodest manner, “It’s a tremendous accomplishment.’’

Always ready to jump on critics, he is unable to resist a chance to rap the new Liberal government in the province. “It’s a huge co-operative project, huge investments with no return for five or six years; no one seems to consider (that fact) of any importance. If it doesn’t happen, it’s either because the provincial government is not giving support or the oil companies are no longer interested.’’

His second priority is to deal with problems in the fishery. “There are no simple solutions. People who don’t have to make decisions say it’s easy, some suggest extending the 200-mile limit to the end of the Continental Shelf, but that wouldn’t work. Canada doesn’t have the military or industrial force to enforce it, so we’re pursuing other roads.’’ He considers overfishing in the tail and nose of the banks, finding out exactly what stocks exist, and dealing with the St. Pierre and Miquelon question as immediate concerns.

The third priority is assisting the province. “Newfoundland and Labrador have never done as well with respect to regional development spending as now. They’ll receive $120 million this year, three times what was being spent in ‘84 and ‘85, and still all we hear is complaints.’’

In addition to those “little jobs,” he is also, of course, International Trade Minister, and must, in that capacity, implement the Free Trade deal with the U.S. In a recent special report on free trade, Maclean’s magazine quoted Crosbie as saying: “I have not met a single person yet but who thought we would have been completely mentally unhinged to vote against the Free Trade Agreement. It has nothing to do with whether you like Americans. I would support a free trade agreement with the devil if that appeared to be a good thing.’’

The Economic Council of Newfoundland and Labrador, in a recent report entitled Free Trade and Newfoundland, duly noted that “for Newfoundland, the United States holds a particularly prominent place in that trade picture as the market for 75 per cent of this province’s exports.” The report further states, ‘’free trade will provide a more open, stable trading environment by eliminating or reducing tariffs and non-tariff barriers.’’ There is no doubt that John Crosbie (the original supporter of free trade), having made the issue part of his Tory leadership race, would like to see closer economic union with the United States, and for that fusion to go on ad infinitum.

Then he wants to tackle the rest of the world. “Japan and Southeast Asian countries, that’s where the future lies,” he says. He is also anxious to change the 96-country General Agreement of Tariff and Trade (GATT), and is not at all shy about tackling other nations on sensitive issues such as out-of-control agricultural export subsidies. He considers all such attacks just part of his “Going Global” strategy for the future.

He also sits on a high-powered, eight-member committee of the federal cabinet formed to develop suitable and economic implications to this province. That committee will have to decide what to do when Memorial University president Dr. Leslie Harris makes his full report public at the end of 1989.

Allegations surfaced following National Sea Product’s announcement of significant cutbacks in its operation that Free Trade was responsible, but Crosbie once again convinced constituents and government members alike with his own unshakable conviction, explaining to the Commons, “The trade deal doesn’t put fish in the water.”

His solution is to convince other nations that restraint in harvesting is their only alternative to a healthy fishery in the future, and to that end he and committee chairman External Affairs Minister Joe Clark met with European government officials in May. But he also wasn’t afraid to lay some of the blame for the state of the fishery at Canada’s door, and he didn’t mince his words. He told the Commons that the depletion of stocks off southeastern Nova Scotia is as much a result of our misreporting catches as it is of foreign overfishing.

He was in Paris early in June for the 28th session of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and has not been shy about criticizing the U.S. for encouraging inflationary trends. He has also taken our neighbor to the south to task over its failure to eliminate an oil import tax already ruled unfair under international trade rules. Who else could take on such an adversary unscathed – even verbally?

John Crosbie is a political animal in every sense of the word. He will take on any opponent any time, and cut him to ribbons with an acid tongue and a rapier wit. He’s as vocal as he was the first time he spoke in the House of Commons, and continues to fight hard for whatever he thinks is right today, and damn tomorrow. He believes what he says, whenever he says it, but isn’t afraid to change his mind, then campaign just as long and just as hard for that new stance.

“The matters I deal with are all interesting, and affect the lives of Canadians. There are always new people, successful people in their lines of work, whether they’re in business or union leaders,” he says. And if there’s controversy or disagreement with those people, all the better. He stays in the kitchen because he can stand the heat.

“I’ve been in politics for 24 years, I’ve enjoyed it and I think I’ve accomplished quite a bit for our province. That’s why I’ll offer myself again – I won’t decide finally until we get closer, but I’ll continue to do my best. If the people think that’s satisfactory, they’ll support me.” •

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