John Crosbie: Loyalty, Strength and Humour

An appreciation delivered by Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney at St. John’s Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

Brian Mulroney

Jan. 16th, 2020


If a prime minister of Canada is lucky – and I mean really lucky – he will wind up with a John Crosbie in his cabinet. One. Not two.

As I sat across the cabinet table from John for nine years and watched him in action, I knew that, as prime minister, I had been handed a major gift.

A man of high principle and unassailable integrity, John was direct and thoughtful in his approach; brilliant, humorous, fully prepared and determined in advancing major questions of public policy; and loyal and supportive of me and colleagues in Cabinet, caucus and the House of Commons.

Years ago, Prime Minister Lester Pearson, in describing the challenges and the cut and thrust of politics at the highest level in Canada, wrote: “Don’t be downhearted in the thick of battle. It is where all good men would wish to be.” John Crosbie’s close friendship, valued counsel and unswerving support made that come true for me.

  • The Canada-US Free Trade Agreement;
  • NAFTA;
  • A wave of privatizations;
  • Deregulation;
  • Reduction in the federal deficit;
  • The introduction of inflation reduction targets and price stability;
  • Historic tax reform that included the GST
  • The creation of ACOA;
  • The Atlantic Accord;
  • Hibernia

Why do I mention these initiatives today? Well, for a very good reason — because each one was part of the foundation for a modernized Canadian economy and John was present at the conception and implementation of them all.

Together, these policies — which were initially strongly resisted in Parliament and across the country — have, over time, quite simply transformed Canada.

When I think of these achievements and the unremitting hard work behind them by leaders like John, a line from Longfellow comes to mind:

“The heights by great men reached and kept,

Were not attained by sudden flight;

But they, while their companions slept,

Were toiling upward in the night.”

There are very few Canadians whose leadership contributions to our country and to Newfoundland and Labrador will resonate as powerfully and durably in history as the body of work left to us by John Crosbie.

John Crosbie était également un visionnaire qui connaissait très bien l’histoire de notre pays et qui comprenait le rôle vital joué par les francophones dans notre évolution et dans l’épanouissement du français en terre d’Amérique.

Il n’a donc pas hésité un instant avant d’appuyer la création du Sommet de la francophonie et la négociation des accords du Lac Meech et de Charlottetown. Il a fait honneur à son pays.

It was another sombre day in Ottawa in the summer of 1990. We were in the middle of a worldwide recession. Meech had been defeated and the Quebec caucus — 63 members strong at the election — were devastated and angry.  Free trade was off to a slow start and Canadians were sharpening their knives for me in anticipation of the GST.

John Crosbie sat in my Centre Block office towards the end of the afternoon, just the two of us. Hibernia was on the agenda and the companies were asking for a $2.7 billion guarantee in order to bring the oil on-stream and without which the project could atrophy and possibly die.

This idea was widely opposed by many business and interest groups and even the influential Toronto Globe and Mail had weighed in with a powerful editorial against. The finance department was very skeptical because of our burgeoning deficit.

John said: “Prime Minister, I know the Quebec caucus and many others oppose this. But you have often said that what you wanted was to give Newfoundland and Labrador a hand up, not a handout. Well, he continued, this is the hand up we need and I think it will deeply transform the economy of the province and give all Newfoundlanders the hope — finally — for a better day.”

He concluded: “I hate to ask you to speak to the Quebec caucus after what they have just suffered through with the rejection of Meech but, in my view, it is the only way we can get it done.  I leave it entirely in your hands.”

John’s loyalty, strength and enormous contribution to Canada had brought him to this moment. And as I looked at him that day, in the fading sunlight of a lovely Ottawa summer afternoon, I knew he was right and that I had to do it. So, I met with Michael Wilson, minister of finance and Don Mazankowski, my deputy prime minister, the entire Quebec caucus and then called a special meeting of the full cabinet.

I told them that I was fully aware of their strong opposition, hesitations and concerns but that I had decided such action — namely approving a $2.7 billion financial guarantee for Hibernia that included an equity purchase — was in the Canadian national interest and that my government was going to proceed with this to enable Newfoundland and Labrador to have a chance at prosperity.

As I concluded, I could sense that John, sitting on my left, was overcome with emotion, only to recover and whisper “thank you Prime Minister. Thank you.” But, as I wrote in my memoirs, the truth is that — while I took the decision and battled it through the system — Newfoundland owed a lot to John Crosbie as did Canada.  So, it really was done as a tribute to John Crosbie’s leadership and vision for a better day for his beloved province.

The final word years later went to Jeffrey Simpson, the Globe and Mail’s senior columnist: “No one now thinks – as many in his cabinet and editorial writers at this newspaper did at the time – that Prime Minister Mulroney acted rashly in supporting the development of Hibernia offshore oil fields that have done so much for Newfoundland.” In fact, that decision was the seminal moment in my many years of valued friendship and active cooperation with John Crosbie.

James Joyce once wrote that “the past is consumed in the present and the present is alive only because it gives birth to the future.”

Well, John Crosbie made certain with his exemplary life and sterling contribution that the future of his Canada and that of Newfoundland and Labrador — that he had served so honorably and well — will bring opportunity and hope and happiness to all who hold our coveted citizenship as decades unfold and Canada continues on its ongoing path to higher achievement, greatness and success.

And 50 or 100 years from now, if Canadians stop for a moment to reflect on the leaders and builders who brought our country to such an impressive and commanding place in the family of nations, I suspect that many will whisper a special word of gratitude to John Crosbie whose nation building contributions will then be even more evident than they are today.

And they will know then — as we do today — what an exceptional man he was and how splendidly he served Canada and all of her people.  At a certain age, many people — and not just former Prime Ministers — wonder from time to time how they will be remembered in the unfolding decades. One of Canada’s Fathers of Confederation, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, an immigrant from Ireland, reflected this sentiment in one of his poems:

“Am I remembered in Erin,

I charge you, speak me true,

Has my name a sound, a meaning,

In the scenes my boyhood knew.”

Well, so long as the bitter February winds sweep across Labrador on their way to the Avalon Peninsula and the warm summer rains caress the fertile lands and gardens of his beloved Hogan’s Pond, the achievements of John Crosbie will be remembered and revered by his friends and their children as a model for them to replicate and respect.

When McGee died in Ottawa in 1868, Sir John A. MacDonald paid tribute to him in these words:

“His hand was open to everyone.

His heart was made for friendship.”

These words of Canada’s first prime minister elegantly describe as well some of the qualities of John Crosbie. He was a friend for all seasons. Loyalty was an integral part of his character. He stood with his friends when times were good and he was steadfast and true when times were not. In MacDonald’s words, “his heart is made for friendship”— and my family and I knew this well.

And so we say goodbye today — “au revoir” — to the Honorable John Crosbie — patriot, senior cabinet minister, devoted partner to his beloved Jane and loving father, grandfather and great grandfather to all his children and their children, indomitable defender of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador and a proud Canadian who served our country with high distinction, unblemished integrity and unprecedented achievement.

No one could ask for more.

Brian Mulroney was Canada’s 18th Prime Minister from 1984-93.