Giving Brian Peckford his due

Bob Wakeham bwakeham@nl.rogers.com
Published on October 6, 2012

According to Brian Peckford himself, Frank Moores called him “Pecky.”  

What  Peckford may not know is that some media types had a nickname for him as well: we casually referred to him as “The Pecker.”

And, to be quite honest, it was more of a schoolyard sort of thing, the juvenile penchant for name-mocking, as opposed to an assessment that Peckford was a “pecker” (not that there weren’t more than a few people inside and outside the reporting ranks who did think of him that way; such diversity of opinion is, after all, the nature of the beast of politics).   

Whatever he was called — Pecky, The Pecker, Premier Peckford, A. Brian Peckford, or just plain old Brian — he had the impact of a heavyweight on the affairs of Newfoundland.

And I sensed after reading his recently released memoir that Peckford believes his contribution to the province has not been adequately recognized.

Obviously, that’s what you’d expect from any politician trying to polish his reputation.

But there are undoubtedly a fair number of Newfoundlanders who would argue that Peckford has, in fact, been under-appreciated, that his significant donation to the Newfoundland cause has been largely lost in the gigantic dark cloud spread over his legacy by the Sprung Greenhouse affair (the cucumber disaster being one of his own making, of course).   

The book “Some Day The Sun Will Shine and Have Not Will Be No More” is a  look back at a substantial chunk of Peckford’s life: his childhood and early adulthood, including his relatively brief careers as a teacher and welfare officer (long enough, though, to accumulate a wealth of entertaining yarns).

There are his days as a neophyte politician and election as an MHA; his time as a cabinet minister under Moores; his dramatic win at the 1979 Tory leadership convention; and most of his 10 years in power, a decade of ups and downs, punctuated big time by the signing of the Atlantic Accord, the federal-provincial agreement that laid the groundwork for Newfoundland’s lucrative take from offshore development and production.

But Peckford seemed to lose his way at some point in his tenure as premier (cigars and limos might refresh some memories), and, unfortunately for the province and for his reputation, the lack of common and political sense was accentuated by the financial and public relations disaster that was Sprung. (If you’re looking for Peckford’s take in his book on the fiasco, you’re out of luck; but Peckford is the consummate politician, guided first and foremost by a fairly large ego, so I’m sure if and when he writes about Sprung, it’ll be with a spin to end all spins).   

There’s much more to Peckford than being brainwashed and hoodwinked, as many saw it, by Sprung the Father and Sprung the Daughter.

As a newspaper and radio reporter in the ’70s and ’80s, I got to know Peckford fairly well and found him to be fascinating and engaging at times, but also overbearing at other times — and, like the bulk of politicians, sensitive to a fault to criticism.    

But I’d be dishonest if I didn’t admit that when he first started to give speeches in the mid ’70s as mines and energy minister and later as premier, I had to occasionally fight the urge to let go a mild cheer from the press gallery (a definite no-no, especially for a purist like me who felt all journalists should maintain a healthy distance from the politicians they were covering) when he launched into one of his evangelical speeches telling Ottawa that Newfoundland was sick to death of being viewed as the poor second cousin of Confederation.

I found myself thinking, as Snook would say: Rrrrrrright on.  

Peckford worked diligently to make some sense of the perpetually troubled fishery, he created the province’s own oil and gas regulations and tried to correct the disgustingly inequitable Upper Churchill Contract and develop the Lower Churchill.

Most significantly, no one can deny the work he and his administration put into ensuring Newfoundland obtained its justifiable fair share of benefits from the offshore (through bitter negotiations, the courts and even a “day of mourning”).     

Along the way, there were people he came to respect and admire: Cabot Martin, Bill Marshall, Gerry Ottenheimer and Brian Mulroney  (you have to hold your nose to read the sections on the Tory PM). And there were those he reviled: Pierre Trudeau, Marc Lalonde and even fellow Newfoundlander John Crosbie.  

(An aside here, if I could be permitted to drift back to the thought process of a television producer: wouldn’t it just be a grand piece of television journalism to get Peckford and Crosbie isolated in a cabin on the Gander River, loosened up with a few drinks, and get them debating recent Newfoundland history while the cameras rolled into the wee morning hours? Then, to add some colour, the two political warhorses could be videotaped catching salmon for a day or two, still arguing as they fished.)   

But back to the point at hand: there’s no doubting the fact that  Peckford ate, drank and slept Newfoundland and its well-being for nearly 20 years.

And what may be almost as important as his attempts to get the “sun to shine” was the fact that he played a role in the renaissance of the proud psyche of Newfoundland that took place in the ’70s and ’80s, one that allowed the province to stand up and tell mainland Canadians treating this place in a patronizing and condescending way to go to hell.

There was, of course, the artistic and cultural army, the likes of Codco, Gerry Squires, Figgy Duff, Rising Tide Theatre, and many more. But Peckford was the general of the political army.

I always found it passing strange that Danny Williams received so much credit for revitalizing Newfoundland pride; he certainly personified the elimination of subservience to mainland Canada, but he was hardly its creator.   

When Figgy Duff was singing the best of original Newfoundland’s songs, and Codco was mocking and destroying in gut-busting fashion the archaic mainland view of this place, Peckford was ordering Pierre Trudeau: “do not put words in my mouth, sir. I am quite capable of speaking for myself.”  

He wants his due.

And, notwithstanding the foolish and enormously expensive Sprung, a fair argument could perhaps be made that many more cheers than boos should be directed his way.    

One thing’s for certain: our present premier could learn a lesson or two from The Pecker.

Bob Wakeham has spent 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.