His personal eccentricities often upstaged his political achievements. But during a career that spanned 30 years, Richard Bennett Hatfield was one of Canada’s least conventional and most successful politicians. His fondness for travel, high living and the company of celebrities earned him the nickname “Disco Dick.” His sure campaign touch won him election four times as premier of New Brunswick in 17 years. But Hatfield, who died of brain cancer on April 26, just 17 days after his 60th birthday, was best remembered by his friends and colleagues as a Canadian deeply committed to national unity and a premier who broadened linguistic rights in a way that irrevocably altered his province. Said Dalton Camp, former president of the federal Conservative party and a friend for 35 years: “History will be kind to Richard.”
Politics was always Hatfield’s passion. Bom in Hartland, N.B., a small town 80 km northwest of Fredericton, he was named after the Conservative Prime Minister at the time, Richard Bedford Bennett. The youngest of five children, Hatfield grew up attending political meetings with his father, Heber, a successful potato broker and long-serving Tory MP. And within a year of graduating from Halifax’s Dalhousie University with a law degree,
Hatfield had moved to Ottawa, where he worked for nine months as an aide in John Diefenbaker’s government. In 1958, Hatfield returned to New Brunswick to join the family potato business but, within three years, he won a provincial byelection and entered the New Brunswick legislature.
In 1969, at age 38, he won the Conservative leadership and, a year later, defeated Louis Robichaud’s Liberals to form the government.
New Brunswick soon found that Hatfield was no ordinary politician. A lifelong bachelor, he lived in a modest Fredericton bungalow filled with contemporary art, odds and ends from his relentless world travels and his collection of dolls, which he called “soft sculptures.” His circle of friends consisted mainly of artists and writers. He was known to sneak away from political meetings to take in live country-andwestern music concerts and to throw impromptu all-night parties at his home for visiting entertainers. His frequent trips to sample the nightlife of Montreal and New York City, and to attend such far-flung social events as the London wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, raised eyebrows at home. But Hatfield
brushed off any criticisms, saying once: “I was elected to run New Brunswick. No one said I had to live there.”
But in spite of his frequent absences, Hatfield clearly left his mark on New Brunswick. In 1978, his government’s Political Process Financing Act massively reformed political fundraising in the province by reducing the influence of large party contributors. More importantly, the almost-unilingual Hatfield oversaw the generally successful implementa-
tion of a provincial Official Languages Act— passed in the dying months of the Robichaud government—which has made New Brunswick Canada’s only officially bilingual province.
His efforts on behalf of New Brunswick’s Acadians paid political dividends. In the 1982 provincial election, Hatfield’s Tories, long identified mainly with anglophone voters, won most of the province’s 20 Acadian seats. And Acadians were clearly willing to forgive the premier’s own fractured French. During a 1982 campaign speech to Acadian strawberry farmers near Dalhousie, in the province’s north, Hatfield attempted to acknowledge the audience’s applause with a heartfelt merci beaucoup. What emerged, however, was
“merde beaucoup”—merde being the colloquial for excrement in French. The 50 Acadians who had listened to Hatfield’s speech responded with a renewed burst of applause.
Hatfield’s popularity made him unbeatable at the polls through four straight provincial elections. Observed Senator Brenda Robertson, a close friend who held a number of cabinet positions in Hatfield’s governments: “Richard had an absolute understanding of the political process and of the people of New Brunswick.” By the mid-1980s, though, a succession of scandals had begun to erode his popularity. In 1984, Hatfield was charged with possession of marijuana after the RCMP discovered a small bag of the drug in Hatfield’s luggage during a visit by Queen Elizabeth n. Hatfield was acquitted of the charge in January, 1985. But only days later, he again found himself in the spotlight after claims by two male university students that in 1981 Hatfield had invited them and two other male students to a party at his home at which he offered them marijuana and cocaine. Hatfield denied that drugs had been present but acknowledged that the party had taken place. Explained the premier: “Those who know me will confirm I am extremely gregarious.”
But by then, gregariousness was no longer enough to save his political fortunes. In 1987, Hatfield went down to a crashing defeat, losing all 58 legislature seats to Frank McKenna’s Liberals. But that loss, for which he took full responsibility, and his subsequent resignation as leader of New Brunswick’s Tories did not mark the end of Hatfield’s political career. He had always played a national role, both as a key figure in the 1982 patriation of the Canadian Constitution and as a signatory to the 1987 Meech Lake constitutional accord. And during the anguished months leading up to the accord’s demise in June, 1990, Hatfield emerged as a passionate defender of the constitutional deal.
Although he was devastated by the accord’s collapse, Hatfield remained active on the national political stage. During Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s efforts last fall to stack the Senate with Tories and push through the
That contribution was cut short by his death last week. Friends said that Hatfield will be buried in his home town of Hartland, in the province that he dominated for a decade and a half, and which still bears the stamp of his exceptional presence.
controversial Goods and Services Tax, he accepted an appointment to the upper house. There, Hatfield plunged wholeheartedly into his new job, serving until his brain tumor prevented his attendance on the joint Commons-Senate committee searching for alternatives to the Constitution’s amending formula.
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