'How dull life would be': George Baker leaves Senate at age 75, after decades of boldness

As George Baker leaves the Senate for the last time, we look back at what made George Baker such a popular politician.

Baker first elected in 1974, held seat until Senate appointment in 2002

Senator George Baker leaves his long-held job this week, facing mandatory retirement at 75. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

George Baker once suggested Newfoundland and Labrador voters were ready to separate from Canada.

And yet his career as a federal politician didn't end that day in 2009, with sentiments of mutiny on a call-in radio show. Instead, Baker made it the distance, taking mandatory retirement Monday on his 75th birthday.

But it's not as if he will have nothing to do.

"The Canadian Bar Association invited me up on Saturday to address the judges' council for an hour and a half," he told CBC on Tuesday. "So I'm going to do that, couple of law schools — this is on court delays, I wrote a 200-page report recently."

Baker has never been one to keep quiet, said Stephen Tomblin, a political scientist with Memorial University.

"He's kind of like the Don Rickles of Newfoundland politics. You see comics who do things, say things and get away with it. But other comics for whatever reason, don't."

And Baker could get away with it.

A long career against the grain

He served 28 years as a member of Parliament from central Newfoundland, starting with Gander-Twillingate in 1974.

Baker never lost a race from that day forward, holding down his position until 2002, when he was appointed to Senate.

He would hold the senator's job for the next 15 years — for a grand total of 43 years, one month and 25 days, a stint of public service that he proudly notes bests Sir Wilfrid Laurier's 41 years and two months.

"I'm the longest continuous serving person in Canada, in the Parliament of Canada," he said. "When I was appointed to the Senate, I made sure that I didn't retire as an MP until I was appointed a senator, so there's no break in service." 

Baker built his popularity in the province by standing up to Ottawa with creative and bold language. He often referred to the federal government as "Uncle Ottawa," and promoted strong messages of independence and pride at home.

Seen here in 1995, George Baker stands during question period and lets his own party have it over a proposed tax break. (CBC)

"It was always this ability to have a short clip and get right to the point and use rhetoric which would appeal to the general population but would also be effective," Tomblin said. "He was very entertaining. He did it in a way that didn't bore people."

If nobody did what I do, how dull life would be.- George Baker

In 1995, Baker stood during question period and lambasted his own Liberal party over a proposed tax bill. Afterwards, he stood in the hallway and took questions.

"Somebody has got to do what I do," he told reporters. "If nobody did what I do, how dull life would be. I can't for the life of me see how pieces of legislation can go through the House of Commons with nobody objecting to it when it is clearly bad legislation."

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and his deputy, Sheila Copps, both spoke fondly of George Baker, even when he refused to toe the party line. (CBC)

Even though he didn't toe the party line, Baker was respected by the most senior party members.

"It's in his nature to dissent," said Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps in 1995. "Sometimes I think we need the George Bakers of the world to keep us on track."

George is a good soldier.- Prime Minister Jean Chretien

Even though he irked Prime Minister Jean Chrétien more than once, the boss looked fondly — even if slightly annoyed — on Baker.

"George expresses his views and others, too. I'm not against that," he said after the tax bill debate. "George is a good soldier. He debates, he expresses his views, and that's democracy."

Matching wits with John Crosbie

The retiring senator looks back with fondness on some of the sparring he did in Parliament, including with John Crosbie, when the Newfoundland politician was transport minister, over new federal transportation guidelines that required all loads to be "containerized."

"I was figuring, 'How do you containerize lumber, for example?' So I stood up in the House and made fun of him, and said, 'How is he going to move now lumber across the Gulf of St. Lawrence? Is it by the Goodyear blimp or is the Starship Enterprise?'"

[Crosbie] was fast, he was quick, very, very intelligent, and probably one of the best parliamentarians we've ever had.- George Baker

Everybody laughed, said Baker.

"Crosbie stood up, blinked his eyes, and said, 'Mr. Speaker, if your name was Scotty, I'd tell you to beam him up.' He was fast, he was quick, very, very intelligent, and probably one of the best parliamentarians we've ever had.

Baker's philosophy for public service is simple, he said.

"You do your best. You represent your constituents the best you can," he said. "In every speech I've ever given, I've always made the point that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have contributed more to the Canadian economy than other people in this country, right back to when we joined Canada."

There was no better elected official for democracy, Tomblin said, than Baker — a real human with a strong moral compass.

Baker himself points to his recent work on court delays in Canada.

"It's a real problem," he said. "The innocent people have to go for five and six years, lose all the money they have, mortgage themselves to the hilt, to be found innocent — what for? People found guilty of a crime, you go on for four or five years without being punished, so it's a serious problem."

Berry-picking — when he can

Most of all, he was likeable, says Tomblin.

"He was somebody people would have coffee with, or a beer with," he said. "Or more than one beer."

The ever-busy Baker will now take some time to relax — when he can.

"I'll go berry-picking, when I can," he said. "Catch a codfish, when I can. And let's not forget, for those people who retire on the mainland, they can't go berry-picking. Where can you go berry-picking like you can around here? I'd rather have a small house in Newfoundland and Labrador than a big house on the mainland."