John Crosbie was born a Newfoundlander in 1931, long before his fellow citizens voted to join the country called Canada.
At home, he was a towering political figure.
A Liberal who stood up to Joey Smallwood and challenged the leadership of his mentor, the legendary premier who had dragged Newfoundland and Labrador into Confederation, Crosbie crossed the floor to join the Progressive Conservatives and soon hit the national stage, where he was a politician unafraid of matching action to words.
As federal finance minister in Joe Clark’s short-lived 1979 minority government, Crosbie brought in what he called the “short-term pain for long-term gain” budget that would ultimately lead to the Progressive Conservatives’ defeat.
Crosbie was defiant that it was the best for the country’s finances, if not, as it turned out, for the Clark government’s fortunes.
From St. John’s, I watched Crosbie on television in the 1983 when he ran to replace Clark as the national PC leader. I was reporting that summer for The Evening Telegram, far from Ottawa.
I winced at Crosbie’s French, having taken up Ottawa’s study grants to immerse students like me in Quebec.
I knew Crosbie as a fluent and sharp-witted speaker in his townie English — no way could he wrap his tongue around French. But I also remember feeling proud that a Newfoundlander was in the national race.
When I came to Ottawa in 1984, Crosbie was an influential minister in the Brian Mulroney government — in the departments of justice, transport and international trade as the Canada-U.S. free trade debate was at full roar.
He clashed infamously with rookie Liberal MP Sheila Copps, a member of the Liberals’ pestering “rat pack” of MPs that dogged the Mulroney government.
It was cringeworthy as a young female journalist to hear the lion of Newfoundland and Labrador call a female politician “baby” and “tequila Sheila.”
He regretted it. The two political rivals later became fast friends, especially after Copps married a Newfoundlander.
By 1991, Crosbie was minister of fisheries and oceans, and I was a reporter with CBC’s “The National” in Toronto.
In the summer of 1992, CBC assigned me to St. John’s amid the collapse of the northern cod fishery.
I arrived home the week Crosbie came to announce the shutdown, which put more than 30,000 industry workers on land and at sea out of work.
At a Canada Day event on a wharf in Bay Bulls, he faced angry workers who challenged him. “I didn’t take the fish from the goddamn water,” Crosbie barked back.
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The next day he formally made the closure announcement and unveiled an interim compensation package as a couple hundred fishery workers were briefed next door. Several tried to barge their way into his news conference. Crosbie continued to take reporters’ questions as security barred the doors and the protestors tried to beat it down. “They don’t need to go berserk,” he said.
Police escorted him out to safety.
Crosbie later wrote that shutting down the 500-year-old fishery was the toughest political decision he ever made.
But he’d had the guts to announce it there, on his home turf. It would later turn out that the fishermen’s display of anger that week only helped Crosbie make the case to Mulroney’s cabinet to enrich the compensation package.
Crosbie left federal politics in 1993, just as I moved back to Newfoundland and Labrador to continue covering Canada’s biggest single industrial layoff, which had hit my home province like a tsunami and saw societal and economic impacts ripple along the coastline for years.
I often had occasion to talk to him, and he wasn’t always happy about the topic. Crosbie could be prickly but he never once shied away from speaking to me, whether about politics, the fishery, Hibernia or the news of the day.
Long after I returned to Ottawa, prime minister Stephen Harper named Crosbie as lieutenant-governor of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Protocol schmotocol. Crosbie greeted the royals — the avowed animal-lover Prince Charles and his bride — in a sealskin jacket.
For all his bravado in public, though, it was crystal clear John Crosbie was basically a shy man. He often didn’t look straight at a person but rather upward, talking through his eyelids as they fluttered.
But man, what a mind. And saucy? Some saucy. When he delivered what we both knew was a good line or a skewering observation, he always had a twinkle in his eye.
I saw him last year at the seniors’ residence where he and his wife Jane lived. I went over to say hello and reintroduce myself, and to say thank you for always talking frankly to a journalist — so many these days don’t, I told him.
I’m glad I had that chance.
Crosbie died in St. John’s Thursday night, at age 88. His funeral is scheduled for Jan. 16.
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