Where a politician can be culturally immersed without drowning

ALDEN NOWLAN November 1 1971


Where a politician can be culturally immersed without drowning

ALDEN NOWLAN November 1 1971


Where a politician can be culturally immersed without drowning


Originally my interview with Richard Hatfield, premier of New Brunswick, was scheduled for midnight. The legislature in Fredericton was sitting all day every weekday and the greater part of the evening. Besides, Dick Hatfield and I first became acquainted years ago largely because we were among the very few inhabitants of the midwestern New Brunswick town of Hartland (population approximately 1,000 in 1901 and approximately 1,000 in 1971, site of the 1,282-foot “longest covered bridge in the world,” and located “in the heart of the potato kingdom,” according to its Chamber of Commerce) who stayed up past eleven o’clock.

In those days Hatfield had only recently come home from Ottawa where he was executive assistant to Gordon Churchill, John Diefenbaker’s minis-

ter of trade and commerce, to join the family business, a potato-chip plant; and I was working for the local weekly newspaper, which consisted almost entirely of birth, marriage and death announcements, together with advertisements for revival meetings: Judah “Bent Knees” Benjamin, converted fugitive from a Georgia chain gang, will preach in convict stripes and wearing a ball and chain at the Knights of Pythias Hall next Saturday night. Come praying, come believing, come expecting a great blessing. Bring your instrument and join the orchestra.

I also spent a good deal of time sunbathing, drinking beer and learning to write poems in the hills outside of town, where there were red foxes, white-tailed deer and great flocks of red - winged blackbirds. Dick and I

generally ran into one another around three or four o’clock in the morning at the home of Norris Hayward, a ham radio operator, who on nights when we weren’t there conversed with other hams in places like Sakhalin, Kuwait and Surinam.

The midnight interview didn't come off although, as scheduled, I took a cab down the hill from the University of New Brunswick campus where I live (Fredericton is three distinct communities: the universities, the

government, and the city itself, a thoroughly Canadian small-town trading centre beautifully disguised as an English cathedral town) to the Lord Beaverbrook Hotel (next door to the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and across the street from the Beaverbrook Playhouse) where Hatfield, a 40-year-old bachelor, rents a two-room suite, probably the most modest living quarters of any Canadian premier. A few minutes after I’d arrived, and before I’d asked any pertinent questions except how did he like being premier, and he’d answered, “I love it,” there was a telephone call from the lieutenant-governor, Wallace Bird, who has a suite in the same hotel. He was inviting Hatfield downstairs for a nightcap with the man he’d defeated, Louis Robichaud, Liberal premier from 1960 to 1970, who had resigned from the legislature earlier that day to become chairman of the Canadian section of the International Joint Commission. This being the Maritimes I was asked to tag along.

The lieutenant-governor seems a gentle and modest man, mildly embarrassed but not overawed by the trappings and prerogatives of his office. I’ve observed almost exactly the same rather boyish mixture of shyness and self-possession in grand masters of the Masonic Order, outfitted in their silk hats, collars and aprons. He mixed and served the drinks himself, which disappointed me a bit, especially after a couple of refills when I silently resolved that if ever I became lieutenant-governor I’d wear a black and gold uniform like Charlton Heston in Khartoum, and have my Scotch and water handed to me by a faithful oriental valet.

Hatfield and Robichaud talked

shop, discussing the trivia of their trade with relish and in a kind of elliptical jargon, as people who work at the same job tend to do, whether they’re plumbers, poets or politicians. Robichaud, New Brunswick’s first elected Acadian premier, looks a bit like a Gallic Mickey Rooney. A lawyer who never went to law school and a professional politician since the age of 26, it has always seemed to me that he was partly an unashamed political adventurer, and partly a tough, bold and imaginative reformer, and that these two elements in his character varied in proportion, almost from moment to moment, somehow complementing one another more often than they conflicted.

During the 1960s Robichaud led New Brunswick through its own Quiet Revolution. His Program of Equal Opportunity transferred the administration and financing of education, welfare and hospital care from the municipalities to the province, in an attempt to equalize taxes and services. It replaced a system of local government that had existed since the 18th century and which had become increasingly impotent as county councils came to depend more and more on provincial subsidies. In some counties, prior to the program, the local council had no real control over any money except a few hundred dollars raised in selling dog licenses and spent in paying farmers for sheep killed by dogs. New Brunswick is about 40% Acadian; since the areas where services were poorest and taxes, proportionately, highest were largely French-speaking, Robichaud was accused of “robbing Peter to pay Pierre.” He also trod on the toes of the province’s economic elite, including the Saint John industrialist, K. C. Irving. However, racial and religious bigotry actually diminished during the Robichaud years, when even the most red-necked WASP discovered that, contrary to his expectations, a French-speaking Catholic premier could sit in Fredericton without importing the papal guards and introducing the Inquisition.

This night, perhaps because it was a sentimental sort of occasion, Hatfield and Robichaud seemed to me to regard one another with an almost affectionate respect, tinged on either side with the faintest hint of condescension.

“When I was first elected to the legislature,” Hatfield says, “people used to ask me, ‘What kind of man is Louis Robichaud?’ I told them I didn’t know Louis Robichaud, I knew Premier Robichaud, which was an entirely different thing. Once you get to

be premier you can’t get to know people in quite the same way as you could before. You can’t be quite as spontaneous, you can’t be quite as frank as you’d like to be. That’s the one thing I don’t like about the job: the constant risk of becoming schizophrenic.”

Well, what kind of man is Richard Bennett Hatfield? (He was named for the Richard Bennett who was Tory prime minister when he was born. His father, Heber Hatfield, was a Member of Parliament from 1940 until his death in 1952.) He’s a big man, six feet tall and 195 pounds, but he’s one of those big men who are so well proportioned and coordinated that they’re not usually remembered as being big. He’s 40, but looks 10 years younger when he’s fresh and five years younger when he’s tired. During the election he upset some members of the Tory hierarchy by appearing on television in a turtleneck sweater. (There's still a powerful faction within the party that refers to him derisively as “that boy.”) But, generally, he dresses fairly conservatively, except he wears what’s considered conservative by young executives in big cities (including kaleidoscopic shirts and ties) rather than what’s considered conservative in the Maritimes, where the traditional uniform of the politician is the three-piece suit, the homburg hat and the 50-cent cigar, and where some workingmen still wear cloth caps with their Sunday suits, like their English counterparts. He has sideburns now that they’re stylish, just as he wore an Ivy League haircut when it was the fashion. Throughout his political career, which began in earnest when he entered the legislature in 1961, although in another sense it might be said to have begun the day he was born, he’s been worried about being judged too young in a province where the proverb “young men for war, old men for counsel” is still quoted with approval.

A close friend of long standing, Dalton Camp, who was born at Woodstock, 12 miles from Hatfield’s birthplace, Hartland, says that Hatfield is the most thoroughly contemporary politician in Canada. That may well be true. Certainly his outlook and style are startlingly different from those of any previous Maritime political leader. In a region where historically the Grits and Tories have been less political parties than tribal cults — reminiscent, at their worst, of the New Guinea cargo cults that offer sacrifices and mouth incantations in hope of obtaining wealth and power for distribution among their members — Hatfield

Hatfield's political career might be said to have begun the day he was bom

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HATFIELD from page 42

says such things as, “The real issues are no longer partisan issues,” and, “I agree that the Maritimes need more radicals, as a catalyst, to get the rest of us off our rears,” although he adds, “that’s provided they’re in touch with reality, which they usually aren’t, and know anything about this region, which they generally don’t.”

One of Hatfield’s immediate predecessors as a member of the legislature for Carleton held his seat for a generation largely by continually reminding his constituents that there wasn’t a man among them who had scraped more cow manure off his boots than he had. Hatfield talks books, plays, films and music as readily, and as intelligently, as he talks politics. He collects paintings on a modest scale: “I have a Goodridge Roberts picture that I’m told recently doubled in price. That’s so meaningless, such nonsense, because unless I want to sell it, which I don’t, how can it have any cash value? A painting is priceless or not worth 10 cents, depending on whether or not you like it.” He’s also a gourmet, in a casual and unpretentious way, and an amateur cook. (His specialty is an oyster stew, the pièce de résistance of a Christmas eve gathering of the Hatfields, who equal the Kennedys in number, and may surpass them in clannishness.) And he’s a citizen of the world who, characteristically, spent his first vacation as premier driving alone in a rented car around Morocco.

But if that were the whole story he’d never have been elected. Although Hatfield is unique in Maritime politics, he’s representative of a type of man found more often in the Atlantic Provinces than anywhere else in Canada: one who combines what William James called “cultural immersion” in a particular region with full membership in the global village. In his own very different way the novelist Ernest Buckler is another such man, writing articles for Esquire in the parlor of the Nova Scotia farmhouse where he was born. So is the painter Tom Forrestall, riding his bicycle along the elm-shaded streets of Fredericton one day and arranging an exhibition in New York the next.

The fascinating thing about such men is not that they live in two worlds but that they’re almost equally at home in both. Asked why he left Ottawa to return to New Brunswick, Hatfield answers matter-of-factly, “This is my home. I belong here.” He’s as much in his own element eating bean-hole beans (cooked over hot coals in a covered pit) at a Lions Club picnic on the banks of the Becaguimac as when consuming purée de champignons at the Canadian embas-

sy in Paris. He gives the same attention to supervising a display of miniature fireworks at the Hartland potato festival as to a Shakespearean play starring Sir John Gielgud in London or a concert by Arlo Guthrie in New York. He picks up hitchhikers both in Morocco (“There was this old man, a Berber, and when I let him out, God, before I had time to do anything about it, he knelt down and kissed my feet. That was terrible”) and in New Brunswick (“This kid asked me what I did for a living and I told him I was a member of the legislature and he said, ‘How much do you get out of that?’ and I said, ‘The pay is $7,500 a year, but $2,500 of that is tax free,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s the salary, but how much do you get out of the graft?’ And the point is he wasn’t being insulting, just curious; he took it for granted that all politicians were thieves!”).

What’s unusual about Hatfield is not that he’s the kind of man he is but that, being the kind of man he is, he chose to go into politics in a region where most such men regard politi-

cians with a mixture of amusement and disdain. When Allan Donaldson, a professor at UNB, and a New Brunswicker in the sense that Brendan Behan was an Irishman, says that “nobody who takes politics seriously could ever be happy in the Maritimes,” he’s expressing a prevalent attitude.

Perhaps in Hatfield’s case, the choice was made for him. “My father took me to political meetings the way some fathers take their sons to baseball games. My first memory connected with politics is of firecrackers and bonfires, that would be election night in 1935. As a little kid when I thought of politics I thought of thrills and excitement and fun, it was as if it were a kind of gigantic carnival midway, with barkers and ferris wheels and roller coasters.” He attended his first Tory national leadership convention in 1938 and hasn’t missed one since. One of his earliest political assignments was handing out pamphlets during his father’s election campaign. At the last convention he worked for Robert Stanfield. He attended the last Republican presidential convention, in much the same spirit as a fervent fan attending the World Series. “I

could sit up all night listening to the returns coming in from an election in Andorra or Liechtenstein,” he laughs. (Hatfield laughs frequently and unlike most people who laugh frequently he always sounds genuinely amused. Generally it’s an unaffected but restrained chuckle, but occasionally it’s a boyish outburst that gives a glimpse of the 10-year-old Dick Hatfield who once slipped into Diefenbaker’s Parliament Hill office and poured ink over the papers on his desk. Diefenbaker carried him into his father’s nearby office, bellowing: “Heber, are you going to spank this boy, or do I have to do it for you?”)

The inhabitants of Hartland, where literally everybody knows everybody else, may have realized he was going to run for a seat in the legislature before he was fully aware of it himself. The power of collective conviction in small towns is so powerful that sometimes by a process of constant, almost telepathic psychological pressure it brings about events that it seems merely to anticipate. As the youngest of the three sons of Heber Hatfield, Richard was regarded by the townspeople even in 1952, when I first met him and he was studying at Acadia University, as his father’s political heir. (The name Heber, like many first names in the Upper St. John River Valley, is that of an obscure Old Testament prophet; Heber Hatfield left home at 12 with a horse and wagon to seek his fortune after a quarrel with his father, George Washington Hatfield, a storekeeper and postmaster, in which, according to family legend, he’d threatened to burn down a barn in an attempt to blackmail the old man, a Grit, into turning Tory; he later established one of the first potato-chip plants in Canada; Ottawa journalists almost invariably described him as “dour.”)

I’ve never seen Dick Hatfield lose his temper. When he’s displeased his face registers impatience rather than anger, and a disdain that ranges from chill through cold to glacial. Perhaps the one thing that most annoys him is the suggestion that he’s primarily the rich and patrician product of an influential Tory family. The term “Family Compact” has been used in reference to him in The Mysterious East, an iconoclastic, left-leaning Fredericton news magazine. “I find that offensive,” he says, in the tone and with the facial expression of a man sniffing an unpleasant smell. “It’s inverted snobbery.”

It’s true that to be a Hatfield in Hartland is to possess certain privileges so intangible that the recipient is seldom fully conscious of being granted them. The most important such

One of his first political assignments was to hand out pamphlets during his father’s election campaign

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privilege consists in being permitted to stand a little apart, to retain a measure of privacy rare in so insular a community. Old-timers recall how Heber Hatfield occasionally walked the length of Main Street without speaking to, or even acknowledging the presence of, anyone he met. In a town where adults as well as children say hello to passing strangers such behavior would have been considered all but unforgivable in almost anyone else. In Heber Hatfield it was taken as proof of his extraordinary powers of concentration. “Heber must be doin’ some deep thinkin’ today,” they said to one another in the barbershop.

But it’s also true that Hartland is too small to be divided into social classes in the 20th-century sense. Economically the population ranges from lumpenproletariat to upper middle class. But a child growing up there isn’t segregated like a child growing up in a ghetto or a suburb. If you’re a Hatfield kid you’ll have an infinitely better chance of growing up to be premier than a kid from the shantytown complacently known as Stovepipe Alley, where the poverty is at least the equal of any in North America. But you’ll know kids from the Alley, you’ll play together, and a playground has its own aristocracies, in which a Hatfield kid may have to take second place to an Alley kid who’s better with a baseball. Most important you’ll grow up knowing, really knowing, people of all ages and conditions. That knowledge probably won’t make you any more compas-

sionate, but it can’t help but make you aware that, for instance, even the village idiots and the town drunks are not merely human beings in the zoological sense but individuals.

Furthermore there’s a sense in which every human encounter in Hartland, no matter how brief and casual, is a social event. The man who cuts your hair isn’t just a barber, but someone you know, someone who knows you and may have known your father, someone whose wife knows your wife and whose kids play with your kids. Even buying a package of cigarettes becomes an act of social intercourse, involving certain social obligations. It’s a town that offers all of the rural amenities and many of the urban ones, provided you’re sufficiently insulated in one way or another against the relentless communal

pressure that may otherwise leave you with spiritual claustrophobia.

Richard Hatfield is probably the most emotionally self-sufficient person I know, and immeasurably tougher than he at first appears to be. His strength rests in a kind of classic reticence that’s easier to sense than to describe. “There’s a locked room some-

where inside that guy that he’s not going to open for anybody,” says a member of the legislative press gallery. That strength may stand him in good stead in handling the faction within his party that would feel more comfortable under the leadership of Charlie Van Horne, a peripatetic business promoter and old-fashioned back - concession spellbinder who would have fascinated Sinclair Lewis and was Hatfield’s predecessor as Tory leader. Van Elorne resigned after a bitter 1967 election in which, to almost everybody’s surprise, he not only led the party to defeat but lost his own seat. He made a halfhearted effort to regain the leadership at the convention that gave the job to Hatfield, and is now Minister of Tourism. I suspect that Hatfield and Van Horne don’t so much dislike as despise one another, perhaps in an almost amiable way.

My interview with Hatfield finally took place late one afternoon in the Legislative Building, a comfortably ugly structure — “homely” in both the English and American senses of the word — in which a portrait of Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley, a Father of Confederation, wearing the insignia of a Knight Commander of St. Michael and St. George conferred on him by Queen Victoria, gazes down austerely but benignly on the page boys with moustaches and almost shoulderlength hair scuttling back and forth among the potted plants. We sat at the end of a boardroom table in one of the committee rooms. Hatfield’s eyes were slightly vague from fatigue, and he had a Nixonesque five-o’clock shadow. The legislature was debating all 6-section Labor Relations Act.

He told me, as he tells everybody, that his government’s first priority is jobs. (The unemployment rate in New Brunswick is one of the highest in Canada, which explains why the patronage system is so firmly entrenched: obtaining a government job may mean the difference between a color television set and a welfare voucher. ) “The former government emphasized social reform; now we need an economic basis to support it.”

How does he propose to create jobs? “There’s no magic formula. The answer is partly effective and efficient organization. There’s a great opportunity here for the establishment of industries of the new technology — assembling electronic components, for instance. These are products of high value and low shipping costs. Those are two advantages. They’re labor-intensive and it doesn’t matter if the labor force is unskilled because these industries prefer to do their own onthe-job training. One of our greatest continued on page 80

In Hartland, Hatfield learned that even village idiots and town drunks are humans and individuals

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advantages is our good labor force. Our people attach value to working, and we have a tradition of good labor-management relations.”

I asked him wasn’t he using euphemisms to say that New Brunswick, like all the Atlantic Provinces, contained an abundant supply of men prepared to be grateful for the opportunity of working long hours at low pay because they’d never known anything better and had known many things much worse. “No, I think there are perfectly respectable historical reasons for our good labor-management relations. Industry came late to this region. The big battles over wages and working conditions had already been fought elsewhere. We don’t have the same heritage of mistrust.” When he talks Hatfield smokes a great many cigarettes and, when it’s at hand, drinks unsweetened black coffee in almost astonishing quantities.

The first objective of every government in the Maritimes has been “industry at almost any price” and in practice the “almost” frequently has been deleted. Industries have been granted staggering tax concessions and subsidies and have been permitted to pollute the environment almost at will. “The trouble is our governments haven’t always realized the price they were paying,” Hatfield said. “It’s easy to see now where they were wrong, but then hindsight is always wiser than foresight. Anyway, that day is past. We don’t intend to be conned.”

Now for almost the first time some Maritimers are questioning the very principle of industrialization. They’re saying their governments are striving in effect to create the problems that existing industrial areas are struggling to solve. That’s the viewpoint of The Mysterious East. “They feel that full employment means total pollution,” Hatfield said. “I simply don’t believe that. Obviously there’ll never be a totally clean industry. But the government is obligated to protect our social and natural environment and it’s going to fulfill its obligation.”

Many New Brunswickers feel that their province has been an economic colony of Ontario ever since Confederation. When J. B. Burgoyne, associate editor of the Saint John Tçlegraph-Journal, says, “This province never recovered from the Depression of 1874,” he isn’t being facetious, he’s as serious as an Indian militant discussing a broken 18th-century treaty. History’s losers inevitably look to the past. The small locally owned factories bought by Toronto manufacturers so they could be shut down are part of the folk memory of the region, haunting the imagination of Mariti-

mers like ghost stories half-remembered from childhood. “And there’s truth behind the mythology,” Hatfield said. “One of the reasons we aren’t as prosperous as we ought to be is that the federal government, every federal government for 100 years, has focused on central Canada at the expense of both coasts, east and west. The west coast has compensated by exploiting its resources, enormous resources far beyond anything that exists here in the east.”

K. C. Irving, reputed to be worth $400 million, and frequently denounced by leftist intellectuals as the last of the robber barons, is nevertheless a folk hero to many working-class New Brunswickers. They see him as a Churchill manning the beaches against the pirates from Toronto. When the Montreal Last Post quotes him as saying, “Sometimes Upper Canadians are the worst kind of foreigners,” it’s intended to be self-satire, but Maritimers are more likely to applaud than laugh. What is Hatfield’s reaction to the charge that New Brunswick is in effect a seigniory with Irv-

ing as seignior, and therefore it doesn’t much matter who holds the title of premier? “That sort of situation was possible 30 years ago. But the powers of government have substantially increased since then. The government has more money and more manpower and more competence than it used to have. Irving couldn’t control the government unless it wanted him to.”

One of Hatfield’s major objectives is the establishment of single-member constituencies for the 58-seat legislature. “Reform is imperative if the Englishand French-speaking sections of the population are to work together effectively,” he said. The Conservatives have only three Acadian MLAs, two of them cabinet minsters. In the previous election, the Liberals elected only two members in the overwhelmingly English-speaking St. John River Valley from Grand Falls to Saint John, although they were luckier in other English - speaking areas. Fred Arsenault, Hatfield’s Acadian executive assistant, says the existing electoral system has been responsible for a “vicious” solidification of ethnic voting patterns. Most of the present constituencies, based on counties mapped

out in the 19th century, elect between two and five members each. Balloting was simplified somewhat under Robichaud but it’s still easiest to vote the straight ticket. In consequence there is an extremely high percentage of safe seats, perhaps as many as two thirds of the whole. Some seats, in fact, are so safe that often the minority party candidates are less concerned with getting into the legislature than in obtaining the seats on the county patronage committee traditionally assigned to losing candidates of the winning party. “Democratically the multiple-member ridings are corrupt,” Hatfield said, “and there’s no doubt the worst aspect of it is that they tend to perpetuate the feeling that the Conservatives are the English party and the Liberals the French party.”

Hatfield, who speaks French with an accent that has variously been described as “stilted,” “labored” and “atrocious,” sees economic development as the key to good interracial relations. “The less poverty, the less ignorance, the less fear: the less bigotry and intolerance. If some of our people still use the rhetoric of racial, religious and linguistic bigotry it’s generally only their way of trying to express their economic fears and frustrations. Those fears and frustrations we’re determined to eliminate.”

Of the three Maritime premiers (the others, Gerald Regan of Nova Scotia and Alex Campbell of Prince Edward Island, were his classmates at law school, where he and Campbell were also roommates) Hatfield has been most sympathetic to the proposed creation of a single Maritime province. The proposal, which has been kicking around since before Confederation, was revived by Robichaud and strongly recommended in a report published last year by a committee appointed by the three governments. “I’m not convinced we should unite,” Hatfield said, “but I’m convinced we should study the possibility with a positive attitude. At present, competition, especially competition for industry, is structured into the system. For a century we haven’t had the impact to bring about real improvement. I understand people’s feelings of provincialism, because I share them: I feel strongly as a New Brunswicker. But there’s a certain price I won’t pay for pride.”

Hatfield has been in office only a year. What kind of premier will he eventually prove to be? My admittedly prejudiced and largely intuitive prediction is that with luck — and it will take a lot of it — he’ll be the best New Brunswick has ever had. He may even make politics in the province intellectually respectable. ■

The day of industrial giveaways is over, says the premier: “We don’t intend to be conned.”