Danny Williams looks back at his tenure with fondness as he spends his last week on the job
Today is Danny Williams’ last day as premier of Newfoundland and Labrador.
On Wednesday, he took a break from packing up his office on the eighth floor of Confederation Building to do a final interview with The Telegram.
Since announcing his resignation last week, he’s been riding an emotional roller-coaster. Williams said if the electorate had handed him a defeat it would almost be easier to leave than it has been walking away on his own terms.
“The emotional outpouring from the public … has been absolutely overwhelming,” he said.
“It’s one thing to … have popular support in (opinion) polls but, it’s another thing to have the people saying it and showing it and feeling it, and that’s really had a huge impact on me personally.
“Letting go of that has been extremely, extremely difficult.”
The premier’s imminent departure has also been emotional for his cabinet, caucus and staff.
“We’re a family here. We’re a team that works together,” he said.
The past week has brought a range of emotions, from deep sadness to optimism and confidence in the people remaining to lead the government, the premier acknowledged.
Williams went into politics to get a job done but leaves office loving being premier more than he ever thought he would.
“I wanted to give something back and I felt there was a need for the province to be managed in a certain way,” he said.
Considering some of the things he’s achieved in seven years, some people may be surprised by what he considers to be the apex of his political career.
“Ironically enough, I suppose, the highlight of my career has been the end of my career,” he said.
“It’s been the way the people have reacted to me now that I’ve decided that I’m going to go.
“What I set out to do … was to restore the pride and the confidence of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.”
He said his success in that regard has been reflected back to him by people’s reactions in the past week.
Inking a new Atlantic Accord with Ottawa was also an important achievement.
“When I came back with that $2-billion cheque, that marked the turning point,” he said, adding he views that moment as the province’s coming of age.
“For me, it wasn’t about partisan politics, it was about fighting for what we believed in and finally getting the recognition and the reward — being the cheque — that we so rightly deserved,” he said.
Shortly after he took office, an audit showed the province was going bankrupt.
“By turning the province around fiscally and financially it’s enabled us to do, socially, what needed to be done,” he said.
Williams is proud of the social gains his government has made, from its poverty reduction strategy to more funding for the arts, and upgrades to the province’s roads, schools and hospitals.
And he contends, though some may not agree, that the health-care system is better now than it was seven years ago.
“Every time there is a problem in health care it’s deemed a crisis,” the premier said, adding that the word crisis has been so overused, it’s lost its meaning.
Williams also lowered taxes, negotiated equity stakes in many of the province’s oilfields, and in his last weeks in office, reached a deal with Emera Energy and the province of Nova Scotia to develop the Lower Churchill.
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‘Champion of the underdog’
Williams also has a soft spot for the arts and aboriginal issues.
He doesn’t take any credit for the Inuit land claims agreement, which formed Nunatsiavut in Labrador.
But before he made his historic apology to the Inuit in 2005 — for the forced relocation of the communities of Hebron and Nutak in the 1950s — he had to research the issues Inuit have faced.
“I embraced that cause. I’ve always been a champion of the underdog,” Williams said.
“Even practising law, I’d rather fight for the underdog than a big corporation. That was just my nature.”
Williams said he was moved by the immense challenges facing aboriginal people after visiting the north coast of Labrador, looking into the eyes of the children, and seeing the white crosses marking the suicides of young aboriginals who took their lives because of difficult societal problems.
That’s why he wanted to right past wrongs by making sure the Innu got a good deal from the province as compensation for supporting the Lower Churchill, he said.
As for the arts, Williams said he still gets goosebumps when he listens to the “Ode to Newfoundland” and other songs from the province, or when he looks at paintings and photographs by local artists.
“Our culture, our heritage, our music, it’s in our veins. It’s so deeply rooted in our souls,” he said.
He was determined to use his influence to make sure artists got the recognition they deserved.
Loved plotting strategy
During his resignation speech, Williams said one of the things he will miss the most is planning strategy.
He said his legal and business background gave him skills and experience that have helped him on the job.
“The one thing that I am is a long-term strategist,” he said.
“I look at the end game and work towards that, as opposed to taking it step-by-step and hoping it all works out in the end. I know where I want to be, I know where I want to go and then I will work the chess pieces to get the checkmate at the end of the day.
“None of this was — as some people portrayed it — theatrics, fly-by-night, impulse type of thing. There was a very, very detailed, careful strategy laid out on every single thing,” said Williams.
Filed away for posterity
As Williams boxes up the contents of his office, he finds detailed files on everything from the original Atlantic Accord, to the Anything but Conservative Campaign, to folders on major industrial projects undertaken during his tenure.
He plans to keep the files and maybe write a book one day.
He also takes stock of the many gifts he’s received, including aboriginal objects and screen shots of him appearing on CNN’s “Larry King Live” to debate the seal hunt with former Beatle Paul McCartney, a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey stick autographed by Wendel Clark — even though he’s a Detroit Red Wings Fan — and photographs of famous people he’s met, including Prince Charles and Camilla and former American president Bill Clinton.
He even has a framed cover of the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business from a few years back calling him “Danny Chavez” in reference to Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela.
Your cards and letters
Since he announced he was stepping down, Williams has received moving letters and email messages from people of all ages, many of them children.
Some have asked him to stay; others wonder how the province will get along without him.
“Newfoundland and Labrador is going to be fine. All the fundamentals are there,” said Williams.
“We’re going to have our normal challenges and our issues. But I left a really good team in place.”
He said he likes the sound of “Premier (Kathy) Dunderdale.”
Williams feels he struck a chord with the people and thinks he gave them what they wanted.
“My only regret in leaving is, as I’ve said, (leaving) the best job in the world.
“What I remember the most, and I’m not being corny here, is the people.
“If I go downtown, or I go shopping ... people are coming over to me and they want to talk, and they want to shake your hand or they want to wish you well. And you can’t put a price on that.
“I hope I don’t do something stupid to piss them all off at some point in time,” he adds.
Williams doesn’t spend time second-guessing the premiers who came before him.
“You have to be in this job, in this chair, in order to be able to appreciate the circumstances that surround various decisions,” he said. “It’s hard to be on the outside and understand why certain things are happening, because you (need to) have all the facts.”
While Williams got into politics to give something back, he feels that, in the end, he turned out to be the benefactor.
“The people of Newfoundland and Labrador have enriched me as a person. They’ve given me an opportunity to take this place to a whole new level; the opportunity to be able to go out and lead the people of this province on a path ... that they want to be on.
“But it’s also a path they deserve.”
Williams feels the province is now respected and is taking its rightful place as an equal player in Confederation.
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