Nova Scotia·Q&A

As 2020 comes to a close, Stephen McNeil reflects on 17 years in politics

Premier Stephen McNeil joined CBC Radio's Mainstreet for a look back on his career in politics as the Liberal Party gets ready to choose a new premier.

McNeil has a few weeks left on the job with new premier to be chosen Feb. 6

Stephen McNeil is getting ready to leave politics after 17 years in elected office, and seven years as premier. (Riley Smith/The Canadian Press)

Looking back on his 17 years in politics, Stephen McNeil says he owes his leadership style to his mom, Theresa, who raised 17 kids on her own.

"She never wavered from what she thought was right, so that's really what I tried to do," the premier told CBC Radio's Mainstreet during a recent year-end interview.

"I'm very lucky I have been surrounded by a great team of people, but once the decision was made, we make it and then we try to tell Nova Scotians it, and then we move onto the next one." 

McNeil, who has just a few weeks left on the job, admits he'd made some unpopular decisions. 

He used his last day in Province House to shut down the legislature despite criticism from opposition leaders who called the move "small" and "selfish."

Mainstreet host Jeff Douglas spoke with McNeil last week, ahead of the fall sitting, to reflect on his time in office. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How much are you looking forward to just getting back to just being Stephen, to being a dad, to being a husband, just a guy from the Valley? 

Well, listen, I've enjoyed the last 17 years of elected office, but I've always said this is not a career. It's a privilege to get to do it for a period of time. I'm still enjoying it, but it was time to try to see what was next in life and to spend some time doing other things that I'm interested in. 

My kids are both young adults; when I was elected, they were 13 and 11. So I'm looking forward to spending more time with them and spending some more time at home …You know, this job consumes you and when it does, that means those in your family see less of you.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil to step down

2 years ago
Duration 1:23
'I love this job. I've enjoyed every day of it,' said Stephen McNeil, adding that he will not make it his lifelong career.

You came into this with a different background than a lot of folks who enter into public service. You're a tradesman, a small business owner. You're not a lawyer, not an MBA. How do you think that in the end, Mr. McNeil, made you the premier that you ended up being?

I said I wasn't going to let the job as an MLA or leader or premier define who I was. I was going to try to define the job and I tried to stay true to that and then let people make the decisions, the voters make their decision.

How successful do you think you've been with that, not letting the job define who you are? 

I think I'm the same person I was when I walked into this office. When I say that, I mean to my core. Obviously I've learned a lot and, you know, your thought process and you pick up things. But to the core of who I was, the values that I believe my parents — particularly my mother — would have instilled in me, are the same ones that I walked into this office with, and they'll be the same ones that I walk out of this office with. 

I tried to always do what I thought was right ... collectively, and then what happened politically after that would happen. But I always tried to make a decision that I thought was right, balanced and fair with the facts that I knew at that moment in time, and then didn't look back. I just kept going to the next issue. 

Stephen McNeil's time as Nova Scotia premier was marked by fights with unions and historic decisions. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Your mom must be an extraordinary person. I know that you lost your dad very young.

There were 17 of us. When my dad died, there were 13 still of us at home. My mom had not worked outside the home. She was obviously raising all of us, which was more than a full-time job. She didn't have a driver's licence and she learned to drive in her 40s, and went on to become the first female sheriff in Canada, and had a wonderful retirement of almost 16 years. And we lost her in 2009, just shortly before that election. 

So she was there when I became the leader. She wasn't physically at any of the events thereafter, but the people who know me well and people who see me daily know that I carry her with me every day. 

Do you think you made her proud? 

I hope so. I think she would be, I think, grateful that I stood to who I was, that I didn't do things for political reasons. I did them because I felt they were what was in our collective best interest. But my mother ... would never be impressed by the fact that I was the premier. 

She would be proud of the fact I was the premier and she would be grateful to Nova Scotians for the gift they gave me to do this job. But where she's proud is how we treat people, how you interact with people, whether you see the goodness in them. How do you respond to that? And do you have a core yourself? Do you have principles? Will you stand on them, even when sometimes the water might be rough? You just have to stand on them and then people make up their mind, and ... I think I've done OK at that. 

When it's down to the eleventh hour on a big decision, and I said I wouldn't mention anything specific, but say, Boat Harbour — who is there at the eleventh hour advising Stephen McNeil?

Obviously, my senior leadership in this office, my chief of staff would have been a big part of that. I certainly would have talked to some of my colleagues over a period of time ... You're affecting people's lives in many ways, livelihoods. It weighed heavily on me about that, but ultimately, you've got to dig deep, and you know, doing the right thing isn't always the easiest thing. 

Doing the right thing isn't always the easiest thing.- Stephen McNeil, Nova Scotia Premier

I know lots of people who've made a living in the forest industry. But I also know that this is not 1960, and what's acceptable in 1960 when it came to how we treated effluent no longer stood the test. And quite frankly, the community of Pictou Landing deserved to get a chance to have their community back.... I do believe [the] forestry industry has a role in our future. 

You said close to the top of our conversation here that you've made a lot of unpopular decisions, contentious decisions, difficult decisions. As you get ready to walk away, how do you reconcile that?

I always say this and lots of it was around labour and trying to control the costs of what we were doing as a province. We were fiscally in bad shape. We were, you know, growing older, outmigration of young people, population was stagnant. All of the measurables that you can look at had to change, which meant we had to do things differently. 

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil gets a kiss from a supporter at his election night celebration in Bridgetown, N.S. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

So how do I do that without impacting some people? It's impossible. Any decision you make, some people are going to agree and some people are going to disagree. And my job was to actually represent every Nova Scotian. So when I made a decision, what was in our collective best interest?

We didn't take stuff from people. We just slowed down the growth so that we could invest in the rest of the population or programs that provided our children a chance to come home or to stay here. But we can only do that if we had the capacity to invest fiscally in those programs, and that was really why some of those decisions that were there were being made, because ultimately I thought it was in our collective best interest. 

I knew it was going to impact some people, but if we're all going to share in the success of the province, we all have to share in the journey. 

With files from CBC's Mainstreet