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Bob Wakeham: John Carter: rebel, maverick, lone wolf

John Carter
John Carter

Depending on your philosophical view of life or perhaps nothing more complicated than your political affiliation, John Carter, the former MHA who died the other day at the age of 84, had a legislative moment that was either disgraceful or entirely laudable, shockingly disrespectful or highly principled.

It was an incident that occurred on an otherwise nondescript afternoon session of the Newfoundland House of Assembly in the late 1970s, one I observed from my Evening Telegram perch in the press gallery.

Whatever was being debated was not of any grand consequence, as I vaguely recall, but, as it became evident, Joey Smallwood was going to speak, and, with his decision to head to the political pastureland for a second and final time having been announced, his speech that day would constitute his last appearance in the Newfoundland Legislature.

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(As political junkies can still recall, the ever vindictive Joey had come out of retirement to form the Liberal Reform Party just before the 1975 provincial election, a move designed to split the Liberal vote and crush any chance Ed Roberts had of residing in the premier’s office. Smallwood was livid that Roberts had rejected his former mentor’s attempt to regain leadership of the party).

Unlike today, when live video can capture every scintillating speech or nose-picking moment in the House of Assembly, there was not a camera to be seen back then, but there was a proposal making the rounds to allow such a recording device just that one time to film, for posterity, the argument went, the final legislative speech of the “Last Living Father of Confederation.”

But such a decision required unanimous approval of the legislature, and Carter was not about to contribute to any glorification of the former premier.

It wasn’t that Carter, a Tory’s Tory, was worried about the unprecedented nature of the camera coverage: he simply despised Smallwood, and everything he had stood for.

Now, he could have made everything easy that day simply by not showing up, or conveniently heading to the caucus room when the vote was being taken. But that was not Carter’s style. He was always up front, his own man, an independent spirit.

And he was alone.

Even Frank Moores, whose most significant political achievement was helping end Joey’s 23 year, unbridled power trip in Newfoundland, made a last ditch effort to convince Carter he was being unnecessarily stubborn.

I can still see Moores getting up slowly from his desk, lumbering the few feet to the backbenches, and leaning over to say something to Carter, the conversation brief but animated. Carter, though, was undeterred: he looked directly at Moores and shook his head.

As I recall, Carter was, for the most part, vilified for what he had done.

But I admired the fact, and still do, that he had stood his ground, that his principles — albeit steeped in an unqualified hatred for Smallwood — were not to be compromised, and he was determined not to be a hypocrite.

On a more visceral note, I simply got a kick, as well, out of Carter, the rebel, the maverick, the lone wolf, facing off against the entire legislature, the fall-out be damned.

Smallwood, by the way, sat stone-faced, desperately keeping any sign of outward anger or emotion under wraps.

I witnessed another Smallwood/Carter moment a decade later, not as momentous, almost comical, in fact.

It was the mid 1980s and I was then working for CBC Radio and once again covering the legislature when Len Simms, a minister in the Peckford administration, stood to make what I’m sure he thought would be a relatively innocuous speech, a thank-you to Smallwood, then long retired from politics, for having donated a set of duelling pistols to the Newfoundland Museum.

No one paid much attention until Carter “rose on a point of privilege” (in what just about all non-MHAs would describe as the formal, highfalutin’, laughable vernacular of the legislative proceedings) to charge that Smallwood couldn’t possibly donate the pistols because he had stolen the guns from the original owners (he provided no details). No one said a thing. Simms and the Tories appeared to be mortified beyond words.

Later that afternoon, I decided to try and get the eccentric Carter to do an interview on the case of the stolen guns, and had a message delivered by one of the legislative attendants to his desk.

Carter read the note, and wrote something down very quickly. His answer was succinct: “NO.” Once again, he had had his say, and that was the end of it.

But I couldn’t resist contacting Smalllwood at his Roache’s Line home for what I rightfully predicted would be a colourful reaction.

“Mr. Carter.” Joey told me, point blank, “is a despicable cur.”

When I then suggested I’d like to go inside a studio, and phone him back to do a recorded interview, Smallwood declined.

“No, I will not be doing any interview,” Joey said. “You have my reaction, that Mr. Carter is a despicable cur.

“Good evening, Mr. Wakeham.” He then hung up.

Nearly a decade ago, I related that particular story in this space, and Carter left me a message the next day:

“Hello, Bob, the despicable cur here,” he said. “Enjoyed your column.”

 

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

 

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