Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

John Crosbie is dead and gone. Are Red Tory values a thing of the past?

Some people said we will never see John Crosbie's kind again. WIth a new leadership battle brewing in the Conservative Party, John Gushue wonders if that is genuinely true.

Some said we will never see John Crosbie's kind again. That may well be true

The urn holding John Crosbie's ashes is carried from his state funeral at the Anglican Cathedral in St. John's on Thursday. Crosbie died Jan. 10 at 88. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

They came to the Anglican Cathedral on Thursday from far and wide, and from across the political spectrum, too. 

At the front, while John Crosbie's family sat to one side of the cathedral, politicians sat to the other. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was there. Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark — the two prime ministers Crosbie served, and the two men who bettered him in the epic 1983 Tory leadership race — were there, Mulroney to deliver one of the eulogies. Premiers present and past were there.

There were many others — including Bob Rae, the former Ontario premier whose political career includes (for our purposes) an irresistible footnote. In December 1979, as an upstart New Democratic MP, Rae put forward a subamendment to the Tory budget. It was designed to fail, and it did. The finance minister who saw his "short term pain for long-term gain" budget blow up in his face was Crosbie.

Bygones, right?

Former politicians Bob Rae, Brian Tobin and Jean Charest were among the dignitaries who attended Crosbie's funeral. (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)

Rae was just 31 then; he's 71 now. Watching Crosbie's state funeral, I was struck to see how familiar faces from an earlier era have changed. We all age, and political movements and ideas — like the people who hold them — flourish and fade away, too.

Even before Rae decamped to the Liberal party (the former NDP premier would go to be a prominent federal minister, and indeed interim leader of the party between Michael Ignatieff and Justin Trudeau), he likely had more in common with Crosbie than people might suppose.

State funeral honours John Crosbie

3 years ago
Duration 2:01
Politicians past and present attended the state funeral of long-time politician John Crosbie.

Crosbie may have been a fiscal conservative (his belt-tightening budget proved that) and an advocate for free trade throughout his life (do take a few minutes to read Anthony Germain's excellent essay on this), but he had other views that put him at odds with hawks in his party.

I used the word "Tory" above. They were actually Progressive Conservatives. The federal party is long gone; provincially, they still exist, and the provincial PCs — led now by Crosbie's elder son, Ches Crosbie — have had an uneasy relationship, to say the least. Danny Williams, who created the 2008 ABC campaign against Stephen Harper that pretty much severed ties, was at the funeral too.

Ahead of his time

Crosbie was truly progressive on some issues. He was pro-choice. As many people noted, the former justice minister was decades ahead of his time on LGBTQ issues. He sided with Pierre Trudeau on few political issues, but he also believed the state had no business in the bedrooms of the nation.

Red Tories, so named for their fiscal conservatism and liberal views on social issues, were once plentiful. Hence the PC name.

But Crosbie exited politics the very year that his party practically imploded, in the 1993 election. Reduced to just two seats, the PCs saw their constituencies picked apart from all sides: Quebec went to the Bloc, the NDP and Liberals were competitors for members on the left, and the upstart Reform party lured them from the right.

A decade later, it was all over, at least federally. The PCs merged with the Canadian Alliance to form the new Conservative Party of Canada.

Peter MacKay was at the helm of the PCs when he made that fateful decision. Many believed he had no choice. MacKay, the son of former federal minister Elmer MacKay, cut his teeth on the old Progressive Conservative system, but found himself bending with the times as Stephen Harper and the former Reformers effectively ate the old PC establishment whole. 

Times are changing … or are they? 

How curious that Crosbie's funeral became the place where competing visions for the Conservative Party came together. Near Mulroney and Clark was Jean Charest, whose leadership aspirations are well known — and whose expected candidacy was apparently enough this week to prompt former prime minister Stephen Harper to resign from the party's financial arm, so he can counter Charest's campaign. 

Crosbie, you may recall, supported Jean Charest's unsuccessful leadership bid in 1993. Charest evidently never forgot that. 

John Crosbie funeral: Recollections and remembrance

3 years ago
Duration 4:08
Scenes from the state funeral of former Lt.-Gov. and politician John Crosbie at the Anglican Cathedral in St. John's.

Peter MacKay sat not far away from Charest. Just a day before attending Crosbie's funeral, MacKay entered the Conservative leadership race. 

What values will MacKay bring to the race? While MacKay's political evolution strikes me at least partly as being about his survival, we can be certain he will not be championing the views of social conservatives. 

Former federal cabinet minister Peter MacKay — and, as of this week, a candidate for the Conservative leadership — attends John Crosbie's funeral. (The Canadian Press)

After October's election, MacKay famously said outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer's performance was so bad, "it was like having a breakaway on an open net and missing the net." 

MacKay also emphasized that he thinks little of the gains that social conservatives are trying to make, and said Canadians weren't buying Scheer's views on abortion and LGBTQ rights. 

"That was thrust on the agenda and [it] hung around Andrew Scheer's neck like a stinking albatross, quite frankly," said MacKay. 

Does that make MacKay a Red Tory? I don't think so. Although perhaps a Red Tory today is someone who will be content to hear silence from the social conservatives. 

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney delivers a eulogy at Crosbie's funeral. (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)

There are so many questions I would have liked to put to John Crosbie, and so many topics I would have liked to his comments. 

You can be sure the forthcoming leadership race — which could be for Canada's conservative soul — will be something he would have loved to watch. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 


John Gushue

CBC News

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


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