Nfld. & Labrador

Beaton Tulk talks cancer, Joey and how he never really wanted the top job

'I've had a good run, I've had a great life,' says the seventh premier of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The former premier gets reflective in his new book, A Man of My Word: A Memoir

Former Newfoundland and Labrador premier Beaton Tulk has a lot to say in his new memoir. (Fred Hutton/CBC)

In one of his first interviews in 15 years, the first topic the former premier gruffly gushes about is his hometown.

"Ladle Cove was the place ... I was a dinner guest with Prince Phillip one time and they asked me where I came from and I told them," he says.

"I always believed I always grew up in a cocoon where everybody took care of everybody. There were no roads, there was no electricity, there was no television ... it was just a beautiful place."

Tulk, 73, is talking about a lot more than just his affection for where he was born and raised — he has written a new book, A Man of My Word: A Memoir.

Long before he would occupy the premier's office on the eighth floor of Confederation Building, Tulk recalls going there to try to have a sit-down meeting with then-premier Joey Smallwood.

"I had a job with the Department of Highways and I wanted to go to Churchill Falls [to be a miner]," Tulk told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

Years before he entered politics, Tulk wanted to be a miner and went to Confederation Building to talk to Joey Smallwood, seen here in 1971, to make it happen. (CBC archives)

Sorry, he's busy, the then-premier's staff said at the time, but Tulk made his case and shortly after, "I got the job."

Years later, the two men would find themselves at political odds, but Tulk has high praise for Smallwood to this day.

"He brought us out of the dark ages through education," Tulk said.

Political friends, foes and promises

Tulk, who was a school principal, was first elected to the House of Assembly in 1979 as the Liberal MHA for Fogo. 

He said he has no enemies that come to mind, but not every political relationship he had within his own party was harmonious.

"I respect Clyde Wells, he was a good premier ... [but] as I say in the book, I think you were trying to mix oil and water," Tulk said, reflecting on their work relationship.

"I think we had a different philosophy about what politics was about," adding he still doesn't know what transpired that had Wells banish him to the backbench.

Tulk says he isn't taking a swipe at former premier Clyde Wells, but insists he still isn't sure why the two had issues. (The Canadian Press)

Tulk said being premier was "never a job that I wanted," speculating his self-confidence had him doubting whether he could handle the job.

But that changed once he got the gig, taking over for Brian Tobin — whom he had a good relationship with — when Tobin left to return to federal politics in 2000.

"When I got the job, I realized this is the best job in the province," Tulk said.

He said he gave no serious thought to trying to hang on to the office.

Forestry and rural renewal minister Beaton Tulk, right, and then-premier Brian Tobin pictured here in 1997. (A Man of His Word, A Memoir)

"I had given my word to the caucus that I wouldn't run," Tulk said.

"The practical politics of breaking your word to your colleagues — they would have skewered ya. Those guys — Roger Grimes, John Efford, Paul Dicks — they're not fools when it comes to politics."

Roger Grimes became Liberal leader and premier in February 2001, ending Tulk's four-month run.

Reflecting on politics and mortality

Speaking of skewering, Tulk weighed in, albeit slightly hesitantly, on the flurry of bullying and harassment allegations that have made the behaviour of politicians, and not the work they do, the talk across the province. 

 "I would just say to anyone who wants to reform the legislatures, parliament, it's a different place. Be sure when you're doing your reforms — and I'm not saying don't do them — but be very careful how you do them," he said.

"For example, you must keep caucus solidarity, you must keep cabinet solidarity or otherwise people will not feel free to speak out and say what they want to say in those places.

When pressed that some might not feel free now, Tulk responded, "Be careful that you don't destroy the institutions that have served you so well."

Tulk, who now lives in Musgravetown with his wife, Dora, is more open about the prostate cancer he's been fighting for 14 years. He still recalls the emotional wallop of the moment of his diagnosis, likening it to someone "had taken a sledgehammer and hit me between my eyes."

It's a battle that has focused him on the big picture.

"I got to tell ya — I've had a good run. I've had a great life, but life is still … still very precious. I would encourage anybody that's out there, don't give up."

With files From St. John's Morning Show