He was one of the first Conservative MPs courted by Prime Minister Kim Campbell in her leadership quest— a highly regarded rookie with a low public profile. Invited to dine with the then-defence minister’s chief of staff last January, Ross Reid, the junior Tory from Newfoundland, was surprised by the sudden appearance at the table of Campbell herself. Soon, the two politicians were trading memories of past political campaigns; among others, Reid had played a key role with fellow Newfoundland MP John Crosbie’s colorful 1983 leadership bid. What Reid did not mention was that after each campaign, he vowed never to repeat the experience. Following a second dinner, after Mulroney had announced his retirement plans, Campbell came to the point. She wanted Reid to manage her campaign. Recalls Reid: “I thought, ‘Oh my God, here we go.’ I swore I’d never do this again. But I’m not very good at saying no.”
That character trait will probably have to change. With his appointment on Friday as fisheries minister, with further responsibility for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, Reid, 40, is also the reluctant heir to the role of political godfather to the entire region. It is not an enviable task: the two-
year moratorium on northern cod fishing, on which 25,000 Newfoundland jobs depend, now appears likely to be extended until the end of the decade. Nor is it a mantle that fits Reid as comfortably as it did his predecessor, Crosbie, the blustery veteran dealmaker who last week ended a 27-year career in politics. A quiet-spoken conciliator, Reid is better known in the backrooms of Ottawa and St. John’s than he is in the public arena. A self-effacing political junkie, he claims to be both repelled and besotted by his profession. “It is a love-hate relationship,” Reid says. “I resent what politics does to your life. But when you succeed at something, there is nothing more satisfying.”
Indeed, friends of the plainspoken bachelor say that he deliberately downplays his political accomplishments and privileged upbringing. The scion of a St. John’s railway, construction and real estate family, he quickly became steeped in the family lore of fortunes made, and lost, by knighted ancestors in pre-Confederation Newfoundland. His great-great-grandfather, Sir Robert Reid, built a railway that stretched from St. John’s to Port aux Basques—and which was paid for with a bonus of 4,000 acres of land, plus the tim-
ber and mineral rights, for every mile of track.
Reid did not join the family business. Instead, at 23, after earning an undergraduate arts degree at the University of Western Ontario in London, he became a political aide to Crosbie, who at that time was fisheries and energy minister in Newfoundland Premier Frank Moores’s Conservative government. It was then that Reid learned the art of the deal. Once, he travelled to Ottawa with Crosbie to meet Donald Jamieson, then Newfoundland’s powerful representative in the federal Liberal government. “The two of them spent dinner making deals, shook hands amicably and then went home and denounced each other as impossible to work with,” Reid says.
It was a style Reid admired but chose not to emulate as he later pursued a career as both a political operative and a lobbyist. Since his g election to the Commons in 1988, o colleagues and opponents alike have g praised his skills as a mediator. “ Says Saskatchewan NDP MP Lome Nystrom, who sat with Reid on three constitutional committees: “Ross is a genuinely good person. He’s not driven by ego.” Ironically, some of the harshest criticism of Reid comes from his mentor, who was annoyed because Reid failed to consult with him before supporting Campbell. “Ross is good with people,” Crosbie told Maclean’s last week. “But he is not good at making hard decisions and he’s not a good gatekeeper.” Despite his enthusiasm for political contests, Reid sometimes yearns for a life beyond politics. Drained by Crosbie’s unsuccessful leadership campaign in 1983, he escaped for a nine-month sabbatical to Europe and Africa. But even then, he did not put politics entirely behind him. He read Contenders, an account of the 1983 Tory leadership campaign, by the cab light from the open door of a truck in the Central African Republic, and polished off Beyond Reason by Margaret Trudeau in 90 minutes during a flight from Nairobi to Brussels. Within weeks of his return to Canada, he accepted a job as tour manager for Brian Mulroney’s 1984 election campaign.
Despite his experience, Reid’s skills as a politician remain, for the most part, untested. As he steps into a troubled portfolio, he also has a considerable shadow hanging over him. Even Crosbie’s many critics would acknowledge that he was an effective defender of his province’s interests. By contrast, Reid says that his own approach tends to be lowkey and collegial. “I’m not the godfather type,” he insists. Perhaps not, but Prime Minister Kim Campbell’s offer was obviously one that he could not refuse.
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