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MICHAEL DE ADDER CARTOON: FEB. 27, 2020
John Carnell Crosbie leaves behind a legacy few can claim in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador.
“The history of the Crosbie family is so intimately intertwined with the development of Newfoundland itself that, to me, family and homeland are virtually inseparable,” Crosbie wrote in his 1997 memoir No Holds Barred, co-authored by journalist Geoffrey Stevens.
Crosbie was born in St. John’s, on Jan. 30, 1931, in St. John’s. The son of Ches Arthur Crosbie and Jessie Carnell, Crosbie had politics in his blood on both sides of his family. On his father’s side, Crosbie’s grandfather, John Chaulker Crosbie, served as acting prime minister of the dominion of Newfoundland in 1918. Andrew Carnell, his grandfather on his mother’s side, was mayor of St. John’s for 17 years.
Crosbie married the love of his life, Jane Furneaux, on Sept. 8, 1952.
“They were equally important to each other. She was the voice of calm and wisdom in their relationship. He was the fire and smoke and energy. He was outspoken, controversial, didn’t mind giving offence,” said Stevens.
“Jane would rein him in and tell him, ‘You can’t say that, John.’”
After completing an extensive education, studying political science at Queen’s University, followed by a law degree from Dalhousie and post-doctorate degrees at the University of London, Crosbie began his legal career in 1957.
Crosbie’s first taste of public office came in 1965, when he was elected to St. John’s city council.
“He is one of a very select few who served the people of St. John’s and the province at the municipal, provincial and federal level before finishing a long and influential political career as the province’s lieutenant-governor,” St. John’s Mayor Danny Breen stated.
“He will be remembered as always passionate, often controversial and ever dedicated to serving the people of St. John’s, the province and the country.”
In 1966, he became deputy mayor, which led to an offer from then-premier Joey Smallwood.
“I was 35 years old when I let my ambition overwhelm my common sense and allowed Joey Smallwood, oh so easily, to talk me into entering his cabinet in 1966,” Crosbie wrote in his memoirs.
“I wanted to be premier that badly!”
The rivalry between Smallwood and Crosbie would come to define the politics of Newfoundland and Labrador in the years following.
Crosbie characterized Smallwood’s rule over Newfoundland and Labrador as a “dictatorship.” After Crosbie had served two years in Smallwood’s cabinet, Smallwood appointed a panel of Crosbie, future premier Clyde Wells and future chief justice of the Supreme Court Alex Hickman to review financing for a failed refinery at Come By Chance.
The review panel found no grounds to allow millions in public funds to go to the project. The relationship between Smallwood, Wells and Crosbie came to a head in the ensuing dispute.
According to Crosbie, Smallwood called himself and Wells into the premier’s office. Smallwood told them he could dismiss them both from cabinet.
“Like f--- you are,” said Crosbie, before throwing his letter of resignation on Smallwood’s desk.
Wells and Crosbie sat as independent Liberals for a time in the aftermath.
When Smallwood announced he would retire from politics, Crosbie decided he would run for the Liberal leadership — Crosbie’s first chance to become premier of Newfoundland.
After hearing Crosbie would run for the leadership — and likely win — Smallwood decided he would enter the race for Liberal leader once again. According to his memoirs, Crosbie says Smallwood ran again to prevent the party from “falling into the wrong hands.”
Smallwood won 1,070 votes in the leadership race, while Crosbie placed second with 440.
Crosbie decided not to run for the leadership of the rival Progressive Conservatives at the time, but later joined the party under Premier Frank Moores, helping the party to victory over Smallwood’s Liberals in 1971 and 1972. Crosbie would later say his decision not to run for Progressive Conservative leader before 1971 had him miss his second chance to become premier of the province.
From there, Ottawa came calling. Crosbie won a federal byelection in 1976 in St. John’s West.
After a term in opposition, Crosbie had his first taste of a cabinet post on the federal scale at age 48, becoming finance minister to prime minister Joe Clark.
Crosbie’s first budget did not receive the support of the House of Commons, leading to the defeat of Clarke’s government that only lasted just short of nine months.
“Time enough to conceive, but not to deliver,” Crosbie would later quip.
After the defeat of his budget, Crosbie pursued the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada in 1983. He would lose a hard-fought battle against Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark. Ultimately Mulroney won the leadership, and invited Crosbie to join his federal cabinet.
“John Crosbie was a leader of great strength and loyalty, who served Canada in my government, and in recent years, as the province’s lieutenant-governor. He was one of the most valuable public servants for Canada and his province during our challenging debates over resources and our constitution. He will be long remembered for his courage, his humour and his passion. I will be honoured to offer a eulogy to his memory in the days ahead,” said Mulroney.
John Crosbie was one of the most charismatic, colourful and genuine individuals this province has ever known. His contributions are far too many to list; however, there can be no doubt that his legacy will be felt forever throughout Canada. He truly is one of the greatest public servants of our time. I wish Jane and the entire family my heartfelt condolences, and hoping they find peace through the indelible memories he left behind.
– Former Premier Dany Williams
Crosbie’s time in the Mulroney cabinet brought him national fame. He helped ensure the creation of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency during his time in cabinet and worked to further Newfoundland and Labrador’s interests in the beginnings of the offshore oil and gas industry.
Crosbie was an ardent defender of the LGBTQ+ community, during his time as minister of justice. Though it didn’t pass, Crosbie brought forward an amendment to Canadian human rights legislation extending protection to the LGBTQ+ community against discrimination. For advocating on behalf of the community, he was named man of the year in 1986 by the Vancouver Gay Rights League.
In his memoirs, Crosbie wrote his proudest moment on the federal and provincial scale was the agreement that led to the Hibernia development. The agreement he struck with then-prime minister Mulroney was the birth of the province’s oil and gas industry.
Charlene Johnson, CEO of Newfoundland & Labrador Oil & Gas Industries Association and former N.L. cabinet minister, says Crosbie was instrumental in ensuring the start to the industry in this province.
“During his tenure as a federal minister, Mr. Crosbie convinced ... Mulroney to invest in the project by taking on an 8.5 per cent stake, thus allowing the project to proceed when it appeared to be over before it began,” wrote Johnson.
“Without this investment, Hibernia would not have been developed and the province would not have established the thriving oil and gas industry present today.”
Crosbie’s time in the federal cabinet were not without some of his most famous controversies.
Sheila Copps was his most famous sparring partner during his time. During one exchange in the House of Commons, Crosbie called over to Copps, saying “just quiet down, baby.” Copps called on Crosbie to retract the comment, firing back with “I’m nobody’s baby.” Nobody’s Baby would become the title of Copps’ memoirs, for which Crosbie wrote the forward.
More famous than that, Crosbie quoted a Johnny Cash song during a speech at a Tory fundraiser in 1990.
“Pass me the tequila, Sheila and lie down and love me again,” Crosbie told the crowd.
The exchange made national news for two nights running.
Geoff Stevens says Crosbie and Copps were frequent rivals in Parliament, but ultimately harboured mutual respect.
“They actually liked each other. I’ve talked to Sheila about it many times. She really liked John Crosbie, and Crosbie liked her. It was a bit of a stage play, an act they put on together,” said Stevens.
“I think they cast themselves in a role. He was to be the chauvinistic churl, she was to be the liberated women. They played that role, they both knew they were both play acting.”
Copps, in a tweet, paid tribute to Crosbie upon the announcement of his passing.
“Saddened to hear of the passing of our dear friend John Crosbie. A great Newfoundlander, and a Great Canadian!” wrote Copps.
“His contributions to the province and the country he loved will be long remembered. Our thoughts go out to Jane and his wonderful family at this time of grief. RIP John.”
Crosbie’s most difficult moment in public life came in 1992.
On Canada Day, Crosbie visited Bay Bulls on the provinces’ southern shore to partake in Canada celebrations.
The news had already reported the impending closure of the northern cod fishery and some 350 fishers were on hand waiting to give Crosbie an earful for the closure of the fishery.
During a shouting match between Crosbie and the fishers, he uttered his most famous line.
“Why are you yelling at me? I didn't take the fish from the God damn water, so don't go abusing me."
The next day, Crosbie made his way to the Delta Hotel in St. John’s for the announcement, escorted by police officers through a raucous crowd. As the news conference went on, fishers in St. John’s tried to break down the door to the ballroom. On the 20th anniversary of the announcement of the moratorium, Crosbie would thank the builders of the doors of the hotel ballroom for making them so strong.
In his memoirs, Crosbie recounted the magnitude of the moment.
“Here I was, a Crosbie and a Newfoundlander, shutting down the industry that had made it possible for Newfoundland to be settled and to survive for all these centuries,” he wrote.
The Crosbie family helped pioneer deep sea trawling in Newfoundland and Labrador in the early 20th century.
Not long after the announcement of the cod moratorium, Crosbie left federal politics, in 1993.
He published his memoirs in 1997.
In 2008, Crosbie became lieutenant-governor of Newfoundland and Labrador, representing the Queen in the province. He had attained a seat at every level of government – but never became premier of the province.
Crosbie has been cremated, at his request. His ashes will lay in state at the House of Assembly on Jan. 14 and 15, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Crosbie’s funeral will take place at the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist on Jan. 16 at 2 p.m.
Only one other person has received the honour of laying in state in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador: Joey Smallwood.
The Crosbie legacy will carry on through his family. His eldest son, Ches Crosbie, is leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Michael Crosbie is a lawyer with McInnis Cooper in St. John’s. Daughter Beth Crosbie is a former real estate agent, and was a candidate in the 2015 and 2019 provincial elections.
“Someone once asked how you can tell which ones are Newfoundlanders when you visit heaven. The answer is, you can always tell the Newfoundlanders because they’re the ones who want to go home,” reads the final passage of the memoirs of John Carnell Crosbie.