Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

Who other than John Crosbie would drop an F-bomb on Joey Smallwood while quitting his cabinet?

John Crosbie was a one-of-a-kind politician, a mix of contradictions and endlessly beguiled by his home province. He was also, writes John Gushue, a remarkably approachable public official.

Fiercely smart, unapologetically opinionated, deeply patriotic: Crosbie was one of a kind

John Crosbie speaks with reporters in 1986. As much as Crosbie loved to tease the media, journalists flocked to hear what he would say next. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

When John Crosbie released his memoirs in 1997, there was a bit of a rush to read the juicy bits. My Life in Politics, which Crosbie wrote with former Globe & Mail managing editor Geoff Stevens, was stacked with them; I recall seeing a couple of people at a store when the book came out, scanning the index of names at the end with their fingers, and flicking quickly to specific pages.

He did not disappoint.

One of my favourite anecdotes in the book is about what went down when a young Crosbie and Clyde Wells decided they had made a devil's bargain by joining Joseph R. Smallwood's cabinet in 1966, and had had enough of what he called hare-brained industrial schemes. The final straw was the Come By Chance oil refinery, and their disgust with one John Shaheen.

By May 1968, they had had enough. One Monday morning, armed with resignation letters, they marched into Smallwood's office.

What did they find? Smallwood was prepared with documents of his own.

"He produced two letters and said, 'I'm dismissing you.' I said, 'Like f--k you are. Here's my letter of resignation." Crosbie then flicked his letter at an irate Smallwood. 

Crosbie and Clyde Wells resigned from cabinet in 1968, protesting then premier Joseph R. Smallwood's handling of the Come By Chance refinery. (CBC)

I believe I am safe in assuming that Clyde Wells — who would of course go on to be premier, a job that Crosbie once coveted but never attained — did not use the same kind of language. (Michael Harris, my former editor and the author of Rare Ambition, a must-read book about the history of the Crosbie family, noted that while Crosbie had the comfort of the family fortune to fall back on, it was Wells, a 30-year-old lawyer of humble origins and a young family at the time, who took the far biggest risk of standing up to Smallwood.)

The anecdote always spoke to me about John Crosbie, and who he was as a person — not so much about the salty language, but about his principles.

Crosbie, 88, died Friday morning. He leaves a rich, complicated legacy.

Even though he never led a government, he succeeded  in multiple levels of government, and after leaving politics continued to serve in roles that included lieutenant-governor and chancellor of Memorial University. 

A sharp tongue, and a chin cartoonists adored

Let's talk about his tongue, and his chin.

With the first, he called it as he saw it, and was not afraid of offending people. That saucy tongue got him in trouble a lot, even in an era that was far more freewheeling than now … and much more tolerant of off-colour jokes and insulting language.

That, it has to be said, was part of John Crosbie's legacy. However, I often was struck at what a walking batch of contradictions Crosbie was. He sometimes seemed to relish infuriating feminists, yet supported many of their causes (he was a pro-choice Red Tory, and there don't seem to be as many of them anymore).

Cartoonists adored him. His chin was often a focus, and they loved to draw him — he was unconventional (as finance minister in 1979, he wore mukluks rather than the traditional superstition of a new pair of shoes) and provocative, and constant fodder for Canada's editorial pages.

Like comedians and impressionists (the key to sounding like Crosbie is the gravelly twang that comes from the back of the throat, and not  the Irish brogue that some mainlanders mistakenly adopted), cartoonists were drawn to him like nails to a magnet. 

And he loved their abuse. Rather than be offended, Crosbie's staff would track down originals of cartoons. His house in Hogan's Pond, just outside St. John's, is lined with dozens of them. 

Always reliable for a quip or a quote

I first encountered Crosbie professionally in the mid-1980s, when my first reporting job took me to Ottawa. Crosbie was one of Brian Mulroney's front bench ministers then, and a bit of a darling with the press corps; even on a dry day, Crosbie could be counted on to say something colourful, maybe even outrageous. I recall looking at the scrums around him; they always seemed to be wider than those of most of his peers.

Crosbie raises his hands during a the PC leadership convention in June 1983. Brian Mulroney would win the race. (Andy Clark/The Canadian Press)

I also remember how the air in the public gallery in the House of Commons would become a little more electric when Liberal MP George Baker would rise from his seat. Baker would often be casting a barb at Crosbie, knowing full well Crosbie would fire right back at him. Even sourpuss colleagues would crack up as they enjoyed political theatre of the very best kind.

Crosbie didn't back down from a fight often, but he wasn't careless with the battles he picked, either. He said it was "fun to tangle" with former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, whose arrogance and joie de vivre he actually admired. There was a famous exchange in February 1983, in which they not only jousted about an alleged conflict of interest, but did it with Latin — and Greek.

Crosbie earned praise — and criticism — for his quick wit, saucy tongue and willingness to make controversial decisions. He was 88.  3:32

"There is a test which is well known and which I will not insist on but which has been used time out of mind: Quad semper, quad ubique, quad omnibus," said Trudeau, using the Latin phrase that essentially means something always was, was everywhere, and known by all.

Crosbie didn't miss a beat. "That's the Jesuit coming out," to which Trudeau could not resist an insult. "I know that is beyond the honourable member for St. John's West."

Crosbie, with his wife Jane Crosbie and John Perlin, proudly defended the seal industry, often by wearing a sealskin vest. (CBC)

Crosbie interrupted Trudeau with some Latin of his own: "Res ipsa loquitor" — a well-known legal phrase meaning "the thing speaks for itself." In fact, Crosbie translated it on the floor, to which Trudeau said, "Oh, you don't have to translate it." Trudeau then taunted Crosbie in Greek: "Ta zoa etrekhe," which means "the animals are running, before adding, in English, "and that applies to him."

Crosbie closed the exchange — and evidently brought the house down — with the only Greek phrase he could remember. "Andrezesthe krateousthe," which he translated in his memoir as "Could ye like men be strong."

Bringing a drink to Granddad

I talked with Crosbie many times over the years. My favourite interview, by far, took place in the fall of 1989, when I was a young reporter working with the Sunday Express in St. John's. I wanted to write about the fabled provincial Liberal leadership race of 1969, when Smallwood cancelled his planned retirement to run against Crosbie to replace himself. I had heard so much about it over the years, and was curious to know more. Smallwood was still alive at the time, but was unable to speak because of a stroke. (I did get to interview Smallwood once, as a Grade 8 student. Story for another time.)

(CBC)

Crosbie was more than game to talk; the question was finding time. We found a Sunday afternoon. I was staying with relatives in Ontario; he was in New Brunswick, in a hotel room with family. As he was propping his feet up, he directed a young grandchild on how to pour Poppy a drink and bring it to him.

We spoke for more than an hour, as he recalled details, spun stories and cracked jokes. The episode thwarted Crosbie's ambitions to be premier, but played a major role in pushing him to the Tory side of politics. Smallwood's was a pyrrhic victory; in less than three years, the PCs were not only a functional party, but running the government.

Crosbie wanted to lead ("I wanted to premier that badly!" he wrote of why he accepted Smallwood's poisoned-chalice invitation to join cabinet in 1966), at both the provincial and federal level. It's often said Crosbie was the best premier the province never had.

Listen as comedian Rick Mercer explains to CBC's The Current why John Crosbie earned such a stature in Newfoundland and Labrador for so long: 

Firebrand politician John Crosbie has died at 88. Rick Mercer remembers the man who played a dominant role in his beloved Newfoundland and Labrador for decades. 2:37

Accessible, informed and a bit of a quote machine, Crosbie was a reliable interview. Over the years, especially after his retirement, he was also just fun to talk with. As the Latin and Greek exchange above suggests, he was well educated (he was top of his class as both an undergraduate and a law student), and remarkably well read. On a number of occasions, just chatting, he'd ask about what I was reading. He seemed to read voraciously, and widely. To cast him as an ideologue with a fixed view on the world would be to misunderstand him entirely.

It's worth noting that Crosbie expressed regrets about being so quick with jokes and barbs. He worried sometimes that people would not take him seriously. 

Passionate about local history

Another favourite moment with Crosbie was the time we found ourselves attending a dinner theatre in Gander. The audience consisted of my family of three. He was travelling with his wife, Jane Crosbie, and an aide de camp.

Believe it or not, we were the only people in the audience. We all sat together at the same table. I felt bad for the performers, who nonetheless put on a show as if the house was full.

John Crosbie in 1966, announcing that he was joining the cabinet of Joseph R. Smallwood. Crosbie said the two never became close, and soon enough became political rivals. (CBC)

The Crosbies were entertaining that night, too. In my view, Jane Crosbie can be at least as witty as her husband. I recall him saying he needed to work at keeping up with her.

At the time, John was fully advocating for his passion project: the memorial to sealers that would be built in Elliston. (It was subsequently named for him.) Even though it was the height of summer, he was wearing a sealskin vest, a garment he wore so proudly and often that it's what often comes to mind when I think about Crosbie.

Listen as CBC Radio's CrossTalk remembers the life and legacy of John Crosbie: 

Bill Rowe, author, former broadcaster and politician 54:50

Crosbie was legendary for many things, and one of them was an inability to make eye contact. Some people I know found it unnerving; I guess I and other journalists were accustomed to it. (I remember once scouring through a lengthy interview he gave to Anthony Germain to find a frame of Crosbie looking up. I found exactly one moment where he did so.) 

At a podium, though, or in a legislature, Crosbie could give operatic performances: arms waving, head brought back, no sense whatsoever that this man once went to Dale Carnegie courses so he could speak comfortably in public settings. 

In his last major public appearance, in September 2018, Crosbie supported his son, PC Leader Ches Crosbie, in a byelection victory. (CBC)

Despite the lack of eye contact in conversation, Crosbie could in other circumstances be at ease. He loved to chuckle — and to tease. A barb or two about the media was par for the course. (He would often, I should note, add that his scorn was for the national press, or as he put it "the bosses," whoever they were.) 

This is how I will remember John Crosbie: a fiercely smart, unapologetically opinionated, deeply patriotic (for his province, especially) and ultimately warm-hearted man. He was one of a kind. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

About the Author

John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.

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