Nova Scotia·Opinion

Darrell Dexter's tenure wasn't supposed to end like this

CBC political analyst Graham Steele reflects on Darrell Dexter's resignation.
Darrell Dexter led the New Democratic Party to a historic victory in 2009 and became Nova Scotia's 27th premier. He resigned as leader of the NDP on Saturday. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

During the 2009 election campaign, things were going our way. I was knocking on doors every day as the NDP candidate in Halifax Fairview. People didn’t need much convincing. All I had to do was say, “I know Darrell Dexter.” Their eyes would light up. They liked him. They really liked him.

Fast forward four years. Same Darrell Dexter, totally different reaction. I was no longer a candidate, but my son and I were knocking on doors for the NDP. I was also talking to my colleagues in other constituencies. People would say, “We like you, but we don't like Dexter.” They couldn’t wait to vote him out.

The NDP was trounced. Dexter lost his own seat — something that hasn't happened to a sitting premier in Nova Scotia since Ernest Armstrong in 1925.

I know Darrell. We’re not close friends, but we’ve worked together for 15 years. He tells great stories and seems to have hundreds; I’ve known him long enough that I’ve heard most of them at least twice. I’ve seen him in good times and bad, when he was at his best and when he was at his worst. I’ve seen him rally the caucus around him and I’ve seen him transfix the legislature with the weight of his words.

I know him well enough to say this: people got it right in 2009. Darrell really is the guy you want to have a beer with. He really is the uncle, brother, neighbour you want to have. He really is the guy who wants to make life better for you and your family and your community.

When Darrell ran for the leadership of the New Democratic Party in 2001, the party was fractured. Some were bitter about the departure of the previous leader.

Darrell drove me home one night and we sat in his car in the driveway, talking about leadership. I told him I would support him. Slowly, carefully, patiently, Darrell knit the pieces of the party back together again.

Under his leadership, we went from a demoralized 11 seats, to 15, to a confident 20. Success has a way of mending fences.

A punishing job

His greatest success while leader of the Opposition was the campaign to lift the burden of health-care costs from seniors in nursing homes. He knew it wasn’t right. That was his idea and his campaign.

Over the course of several years, he built awareness and support. He was relentless. People noticed. He stood for something that mattered.

And so in 2009 he carried us to government. Darrell brought the same compassion that anchored his seniors' health campaign to the premier’s office. I’ll always remember the initiative to refund provincial income tax to low-income seniors. I was the Minister of Finance, but it wasn’t my idea. It wasn’t a civil servant's idea. It was Darrell Dexter's idea and it lifted many seniors out of poverty and made life better for thousands more.

But being premier is a punishing job.

It’s lonely, because you can’t just walk the street or go to a movie without being beset. It’s exhausting, because you’re careering from constituency work to trade missions to question period to premiers' conferences to community events across the province to cabinet meetings. It’s maddening, because even the premier has to wade through a thick soup of bureaucratic resistance.

On what may have been Darrell’s worst day, he heard that his friend Jack Layton had passed away. Later the same day, the paper mill in Port Hawkesbury announced it was closing indefinitely, throwing 1,000 people out of work and threatening the entire economy of northern Nova Scotia.

It wears you down, the sadness and the pressure and the expectations.

I don’t know exactly what happened between 2009 and 2013. It will take time for that story to be told in a way that makes sense to us all. I do know this: politics is cruel. For Darrell, it must feel especially cruel right now. It wasn’t supposed to end like this. But history will be kinder — of that I am certain.


Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.


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