John Crosbie had a tart tongue, a dry wit and what many have described as an unflinching devotion to Newfoundland and Labrador.
The former federal cabinet minister often made headlines with his off-colour quips and stinging barbs, but as news of his death spread Friday, he was hailed as a national builder and a tireless advocate for his province.
“He relished the cut and thrust of politics throughout his life, not for sport, but for people, whose best interests he embraced as his own,” his family said in a statement confirming his death Friday morning at the age of 88. “On the wharf or around a table, he listened, he heard and he resolved to deliver.”
As an outspoken fisheries minister under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Crosbie faced his biggest political challenge as Newfoundland and Labrador struggled with the collapse of the northern cod stocks, for centuries the backbone of the province’s economy.
Crosbie shut down the fishery in July 1992, eliminating the jobs of more than 19,000 of the province’s 25,000 fishermen, plant workers and trawlermen.
Defending himself in a crowd of enraged fishermen, shortly before he announced the moratorium, Crosbie shouted: “I didn’t take the fish from the God damned water!” He would describe the moratorium, which was later expanded, as the most difficult moment of his political career.
Mulroney issued a statement Friday praising his former colleague as “one of the giants of our generation,” saying Crosbie would be remembered for his courage, humour and passion.
“He was one of the most valuable public servants for Canada and his province during our challenging debates over resources and our Constitution,” Mulroney said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the Tory warhorse was “a true force of nature.”
“Mr. Crosbie made lasting contributions to his province and country,” Trudeau said in a statement. “Over a remarkable career, he served his community at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels. As a federal cabinet minister, his work to promote free trade changed the face of our country.”
When Crosbie was born is 1931, Newfoundland and Labrador had yet to join Confederation. At a young age, he was steeped in politics.
His father, Chesley Crosbie, was a prominent St. John’s businessman and politician. He formed the Party for Economic Union with the United States in 1948, but his plans were dashed when Newfoundland joined Confederation the following year.
Sir John wanted to promote free trade with America instead of a union with Canada, but his dream was dashed when Newfoundland joined Confederation the following year.
As a young man, John Crosbie was an outstanding student, graduating with honours from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and the Dalhousie Law School in Halifax.
A practising lawyer, he entered politics in 1965 as a city councillor in St. John’s. Within a year, he was appointed to the cabinet of Liberal Premier Joey Smallwood.
After a dispute with Smallwood over leadership in 1969, Crosbie crossed the floor to join the Opposition Progressive Conservatives led by Frank Moores. The Tories were elected to govern in 1972, and Crosbie held a number of cabinet positions before deciding to run federally in 1976.
As finance minister in the short-lived minority government of Prime Minister Joe Clark, he tabled a tough budget in 1979 that included tax increases. Clark’s government fell on a motion of non-confidence after less than nine months in office.
“Long enough to conceive, just not long enough to deliver,” Crosbie quipped at the time.
He ran for the party’s leadership in 1983 but, hobbled by his inability to speak French, he lost to Mulroney. Questioned about his unilingualism, Crosbie shot back, “I cannot talk to the Chinese people in their own language either.”
Mulroney became prime minister in 1984 and Crosbie was appointed justice minister – the first of six cabinet posts he would hold. In an exchange in the House of Commons in 1985, Crosbie told Liberal MP Sheila Copps to “Just quiet down, baby,” prompting Copps to reply, “I’m nobody’s baby.”
He riled Copps again in 1990 during a fundraiser in Victoria, B.C., saying Copps made him think of the song lyrics: “Pass the tequila, Sheila, and lie down and love me again.” The sexist quip was caught on camera, sparking an uproar. Crosbie later acknowledged the comment was “ill-considered.”
He said he and Copps played up their squabbles for mutual gain. “She’s a professional politician, and I was as well,” he said in 2011. “We’re good pals now. We’re very friendly, and she’s married to a Newfoundlander, so she’s a fine woman as far as I’m concerned.”
While serving in Mulroney’s government, Crosbie was one of the most vocal proponents of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. He also pushed the government to support Newfoundland’s first major offshore oil development – the wildly successful Hibernia offshore platform.
However, his penchant for headline-grabbing jests seemed to draw more attention than his political accomplishments.
In response to ribbing about his affluence, Crosbie once replied: “What do you want? A politician who’s rich going into office? Or one who’s rich when he leaves?” And in July 1998, after he had left politics, he characterized the Reform party as “a boil that has to be lanced.”
Marjory LeBreton, a former Conservative senator and longtime party insider, said Crosbie was ahead of his time with his ill-fated 1979 austerity budget. She also hailed his tough stand in the face of the cod crisis.
“He is revered in the Conservative party for his intelligence, his courage and for his incredible wit,” she said.
“We could fill a book with Crosbie-isms, some of which would not pass the ‘political correctness’ restrictions we currently live with.”
Crosbie was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 1998, and he went on to serve five years as lieutenant-governor of Newfoundland and Labrador. On his first day as vice-regal representative in 2008, Crosbie said he had no regrets about his straight-shooting style.
“I have never hesitated to offer my opinions from time to time, verbally or in writing, on the public issues of the day,” he said.
“What’s the point of being around if you don’t give your opinions, whether anybody wants to hear them or not? I never gave a darn if they wanted to hear them or not, I’ll tell you that.”
Crosbie is survived by his wife Jane, and children Michael, Beth and Ches, who is leader of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Progressive Conservative party.
The family’s statement said Jane Crosbie had lost the love of her life. “To us as kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids, he was simply dad, granddad, great-granddad – our bedrock of support,” the family said.
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball described Crosbie as a tireless advocate for the province.
“Mr. Crosbie was a spirited and proud Newfoundlander and Labradorian,” Ball said in a statement. “Known for his colourful personality, he ensured that the interests of Newfoundland and Labrador were heard loudly and clearly over the course of his storied career.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 10, 2020.