McNeil and 7 former Nova Scotia premiers swap stories over salmon lunch

Seven former Nova Scotia premiers returned to Province House Tuesday to lunch with the person currently in the job, a historic but private gathering.

Every living premier since 1970, save one, took Premier Stephen McNeil up on his invitation

Premier Stephen McNeil speaks with former premier Rodney MacDonald at a luncheon Tuesday at Province House. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

They governed during different eras, held divergent political philosophies and faced different challenges, but the eight men who shared a salmon and rice lunch at Province House Tuesday also shared a common burden — governing Nova Scotia.

Which is why Stephen McNeil extended the invitation to seven former premiers to share a low-key meal in the Veterans Room at the Nova Scotia Legislature.

"We've all sat in the premier's chair, we know the challenges of that, and this was a great opportunity for us to come together in fellowship and reminisce a bit, which was great," the premier said after the 90-minute luncheon.

Every living premier since 1970 accepted the invitation, except Progressive Conservative Donald Cameron who, according to McNeil, sent his regrets because he was out of the province.

Roger Bacon was Nova Scotia premier for five months in 1990-91. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Roger Bacon, who led the province for five months in 1990-91, was the senior statesman at the table.

"I'm the oldest living ex-premier in Canada [at] 91 and a half years old," he said.

He summed up the gathering in one word: "Great!"

"Nice to get together with the young fellas," he said. "We had a lot of good discussions.

"Maybe we didn't solve any problems but actually we had a lot of good discussions. Friendly meeting and I enjoyed it very much."

Former premier Russell MacLellan. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Former Liberal premier Russell MacLellan, whose minority government of 1997 was also short-lived, expressed a similar sentiment.

"It was wonderful to meet with these fellows," he said. 

Asked if premiers shared a common bond, MacLellan's signature ability to laugh at himself shone through once again.

"Maybe some wounds," he chuckled. "I don't know if you'd call it a bond or not."

Former PC leader Rodney MacDonald also showed mischievousness in replying to a reporter questioning what former premiers have to talk about.

"We talk about reporters most of the time, that's about it," he said with a hearty laugh. "In seriousness, it was just a great time to get together and tell some old stories and a good opportunity for the premiers to get together."

Former premier Darrell Dexter emerges from the premier's luncheon. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

McNeil said he'd been mulling over the idea of getting former premiers together for a meal for the past couple of years but the formal invitations only went out about six weeks ago.

"When I became the premier, a former premier said there's no lonelier job in this province than being the premier, and I think all of us have experienced that," he said.

The only other comparable event in recent history was when one premier and two former premiers gathered at a dinner on Feb. 10, 1994, to mark the 175th anniversary of Province House.

Despite its historic nature, Tuesday's lunch was kept private.

"I wasn't trying to hide it," said McNeil. "As you know I had it here at Province House, the people's house. People were coming and going. People would see us here. But it wasn't something I was advertising."

McNeil said he wasn't sure the others would want it publicized, and he wanted a low-key event.

A CBC reporter happened to be at Province House at the time former premiers were being led into the Veterans Room for the start of the lunch.

The premier said given the enthusiasm shared by the participants at this inaugural gathering he's planning others. 

"I'm going to continue to do as long as I have the good fortune to be here and I hope whoever takes over after I'm finished will invite me."

Premier John Savage, seated left, former premier Robert Stanfield, seated right, and former premier John Buchanan, far left, join other former politicians and dignitaries at Province House's 175th anniversary celebration in 1994. (Nova Scotia government)