PASSING THE TIME WITH GERRY REGAN
He may be the premier, but he’s still a good old Hants County boy
The first thing I learned about politics as a child in rural Nova Scotia was that you got paid for your vote. Before I knew the name of the prime minister I knew that on election day a local ward heeler would drive into the yard with a two-dollar bill (in later years it was a five-dollar bill) for my grandmother and a bottle of rum for my father. Sometimes two ward heelers came, a Grit and a Tory, one after the other, and sat in our kitchen smoking cigars. Then my father, already half-drunk from his first pint, would manoeuvre with transparent slyness for a second. No, no, Sam, I ain’t been to vote yet; kinda thought mebbe I wouldn’t bother with it this time.
In that microscopic world the cigar was like Jomo Kenyatta’s fly whisk or the Gentleman Usher’s Black Rod: the emblem of power. Society was divided unevenly between the Little Man and the Big Man. The Little Man had better learn to keep his mouth shut and his arse low, my father said. He was a guy who had worked with his hands ever since he was 14 and whispered the words to himself when he read the Halifax ChronicleHerald. The Big Man, whether politician, lawyer, doctor, storekeeper or sawmill owner, could afford to keep his arse high — and smoke his cigar.
There was a dirt road through our village. A few weeks before an election the government party’s poll captain, who was ex officio the local road superintendent, would announce that the boys down in Halifax had instructed him to get her ready for pavin’. Men were hired to spread gravel, cut bushes and widen ditches. Curiously enough, everyone talked as if this time the announcement were genuine, and the chief topic of conversation was the effect the road would have on the life of the community.
The Saturday before election day the work stopped, and three or four years later (sooner if there was a by-election) they got her ready for pavin’ again. This procedure, followed throughout the province in the 1930s and 1940s, had
been perfected by Premier “All’s Well With Angus L.” Macdonald, who maintained a tenuous but durable credibility by occasionally ordering that certain stretches of road actually be paved.
This all comes back to me the morning 1 leave the Lord Nelson Hotel for the office of Gerald A. Regan, premier of Nova Scotia. Although it’s not yet ten o'clock the cab driver, who speaks with the Highland Scots accent of Cape Breton which sounds more like an Irish brogue than a Lowlands Scots burr, holds between his knees a Pepsi bottle that smells of rum. “Province House,” I say to him and. after learning that we both like John Allan Cameron, who plays pipe music on the 12-string guitar but feel he’s in danger of becoming too slick since he went to Toronto. “What do you think of this guy Gerald Regan?” “Gabby?” he says. “Oh. Gabby’s not such a bad bugger,” which translated means that he’s a Grit: if he were a Tory he’d have simply snorted “Regan!” as if the name told it all.
Province House is 156 years old. As in government buildings everywhere, bored young women work electric typewriters and intense young men scurry about with papers. Ön the walls, time exposures of 19th-century politicians look either frightened or angry, depending on whether it was harder for the subject to keep from blinking or to hold his breath. How incredulous my poor father would have been if told that a son of his was not only going to talk with the premier of Nova Scotia but write an article about it! When are you ever goin ’ to learn to know your place, boy? For me, to go back in space is to go back in time.
“Please sit down.” says Gerald Regan. An appealingly ugly, rather vulnerable face with careful eyes. As I’ve already slumped into a chair I wonder, still in my neurotic mood, if he’s being sarcastic and decide that he isn’t. “Would you care for a cigar?” Oh. God. no — that’s too perfect! The hieratic cigar. It turns out that he chain-smokes them this morning (he has since been trying to
give them up) and later a photographer will tell me that it was always fun to observe the skill with which he palmed them when he sensed a camera was focused on him.
“I think perhaps I should be a little afraid of you,” he says. We laugh. He and I were born within 20 miles and five years of one another, although we’d never met before today. Two Hants County boys. Natives of a constituency that even Dalton Camp, he confesses, found “bewildering,” and Geoffrey Stevens in his biography Stanfield called “one of the weirdest political units in the country.” Briefly a national curiosity in the 1950s when two consecutive elections there ended in a tie vote.
Regan’s office says nothing about his personality. It’s so austere that the stack of local newspapers on the floor this morning — Chronicle-Herald. MailStar. 4th Estate. Scotian Journalist — seems violently out of place. As we talk he is almost constantly in motion. He paces in lines and circles, sits down, spins his chair, gets up again, goes to the window, pauses for a sip of coffee, butts one cigar and lights another. “It would be foolish to deny that there’s still a certain amount of vote-buying in Nova Scotia. But it’s on an entirely different level than it used to be. In Nova Scotia the poll captains of both parties are highly competitive. Some of them are less interested in electing a government than in getting more votes than their rival across the street or down the road. These people know each other, to them it’s a personal contest. Late in the day when the polls are about to close and he’s desperately trying to deliver a very stubborn voter, the poll captain may get carried away and dig into his pocket for the price of a pint or a box of chocolates. But it’s not an organized thing.”
He adds what I already know: few purchasable voters feel they’re being bribed. Well now. George, me old son,
Alden Nowlan is a poet and journalist, who lives in Fredericton, NB.
Nova Scotia voters will accept “treats” without feeling they’re being bribed
I’ve got a little treat here for you and the missus. It was seldom a case of selling one's vote to the highest bidder. George and his missus might even identify with a particular party. If they called themselves Grits, for instance, they wouldn’t sell their votes to the Tories, the best the Tories could hope for was to persuade them to stay home. “The attitude of the voter who demands a ‘treat’ is all you guys are getting something out of it and so I ought to get something out of it too.” The 1969 Provincial Election Act makes it illegal to give or accept gifts to induce a person to vote or not to vote. “There were no prosecutions following the last election, although there are plenty of people who would have been delighted to lay a charge if any evidence had been available.”
The night before at the hotel I asked a Tory politician and a reporter to sum up the Premier in a phrase. “A fool,” said the politician. “Just another loudmouthed jock,” the reporter answered. The voters obviously disagree. Last year Regan’s Liberals won 31 of the 46 seats in the Legislative Assembly. How did the politician and the reporter explain that? “There was nobody else to vote for,” the politician said. “Yeah,” said the reporter, “it was either Regan or what’s-his-name.” But Regan’s critics and opponents have been underestimating him ever since he first ran (unsuccessfully) for the legislature in 1956. Why, the man was a radio sportscaster whose nickname, for God’s sake, was “Gabby.”
I’ve heard it rumored that the Premier once came within a hair of physically attacking a television interviewer who had described him on the air as “an exsportscaster.” Is that true? “The tag doesn’t worry me any more. I’m not sure it ever did. But I’ve always felt it was unfair. At the same time that I was a sportscaster I was news director of the station and working my way through Dalhousie Law School. Nobody ever mentions that.” He stands up again, a habit that makes me nervous because each time he does it I wonder if it’s a signal that it’s time for me to go. “You know who you should write about? Amor de Cosmos. Now, there was an interesting politician for you.” He lights up again and sits on his desk. We talk about the Windsor, NS-born premier of British Columbia who changed his name from Smith to the Latin for Lover of the Universe. “It’s too bad we don’t have any writer-politicians in this country. Like Roy Jenkins in England. I’ve been reading his biography of Asquith.”
Ha! Here's another of those politicians who would like it to be believed that their favorite bedtime reading is Gibbon’s Decline And Fall. But I’m soon convinced that Regan’s interest in political history is not only genuine but informed. “I’ve always had a secret dream, a hidden ambition; probably nothing will ever come of it, but I’d like to teach history.” The conversation moves from Asquith to Disraeli to Melbourne, across a century of British politics. We cease temporarily to be interviewer and subject. In fact, we spend so much of the next three hours discussing history, Hants County, and sometimes the history of Hants County, that we take turns awkwardly wrenching each other back to such matters as the Canso oil refinery and deepwater port project which has been hanging fire since 1972 (“I’m still hopeful, but there’s certainly a distinct possibility that it may not go ahead”) and his attempt to avert the collapse of the government-owned Sydney Steel Corporation by organizing an international consortium to develop a multibillion-dollar world steel producing complex (“Cape Breton is the most favorable site on the Atlantic rim”).
The Premier’s father ran a general store and was for 27 years a town councillor in Windsor, NS. We country boys rode into Windsor on Saturday nights on the back of a truck. The townies said truthfully that it was easy to identify us; we were the guys who stood in front of the Capitol Theatre and kept feeling in our jeans’ pockets to make sure we hadn’t lost our ticket money.
“My own family was of very modest means,” Regan says, but he knows, as the premier of a larger and richer province might not, the immensity of the distance between a small-town storekeeper and a day laborer. My father never in his life had a permanent, year-around job. Every year there was at least one season called Looking for Work; I put capital letters on the words because that’s how he spoke them. Like all Maritime politicians Regan believes the solution to poverty (the politicians generally call it ‘“underemployment”) lies in industrial development, although he says he is “less impatient” about it than when he first became premier. He used to dismiss environmentalists as “Tories and other misguided persons,” but says now that he is “much more concerned” about pollution. “I believe we can go ahead without destroying the Nova Scotia we’ve always had.” He is probably the most traveled premier in the province’s history (“I always fly economy as an ex-
ample to civil servants”) and most of the traveling has been in search of industrial capital. Among those who have been given his sales pitch are Aristotle Onassis, John Shaheen and Baron Edmond de Rothschild. A consistent critic. The 4th Estate has accused him of wasting energy “chasing money for hot-air projects the world over.”
Regan’s restlessness, his bouncing up and down, his pacing, stems. Eve decided, from vitality rather than nervousness. No one has ever accused him of lacking enthusiasm. Ever since he became premier he has been predicting that Nova Scotia would eventually become one of the “have” provinces. He used to say this would happen within 20 years, more recently he has been saying it could happen within 12 years. “If we seize our opportunities we can develop a new race of Phoenicians.” He likes that line, 1 know, since he uses it again and again in interviews and speeches; but he sounds as if he believes it, he says it with such conviction.
Hants County was represented in Sir John A. Macdonald’s parliament by Joseph Howe, the florid, womanizing orator who brought about responsible government in Nova Scotia and whose statue stands not far from the premier’s office. “The first time 1 ran for the legislature I stopped at a house where two old brothers lived, bachelors in their ninet’es. One of them said to me casually, T remember when Mr. Howe came here canvassing.’ ” Howe’s opposition to Confederation was at one time so strong that he warned Nova Scotians it might be necessary for them to take up their muskets and fight the Upper Canadians on the Tantramar Marshes. One doesn’t have to talk with Regan for long to real-, ize that he too is a passionate Nova Scotian. He opposes Maritime Union. “It would weaken rather than strengthen us.” He thinks “outsiders” have too much control over business in Nova Scotia. “We want more local direction in our economic life.” He attacks the national companies that pay their Nova Scotian employees less than their counterparts in Ontario. “There should be a law forcing them to give equal pay for equal work.” Butting a cigar. “When it looked as if Alberta might become a Canadian Saudi Arabia, all the national political parties, all the national leaders, raised hell. But Ontario has dominated the country for more than 100 years and anyone who protests is classed as parochial and maybe even paranoid. If this country is to survive there’s got to be greater decentralization; the national parties and the federal government have got to recognize that they represent all 10 provinces and not just one. We’ve got to get beyond the narrow thinking of the Bay Street boardrooms.”
Two Grit votes meant someone voted twice
My impression is that Gerald Regan would enjoy being president or prime minister of an independent Nova Scotia. Not that the thought has ever entered his head; he’s too much the practical politician for that. But, in the Nova Scotia tradition, his interests tend to be local and global rather than national. Elected to the Commons in 1963 he stayed in Ottawa for only two years and it’s apparent that he wasn't happy there. “There should be a law restricting the length of sessions of parliament. We’re in danger of having 2ó4 M Ps for Ottawa and none for the rest of the country. That's not to mention the human toll, the alcoholism and broken homes that result from those endless talkathons.” He’s obviously proud of being the first Canadian to head the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. The Opposition has criticized him for attending a meeting of the Commonwealth Parliamentarians that fell at the same time as a conference of the Canadian First Ministers. “I’ve always been keenly interested in foreign affairs.” he says, and 1 swear his tone is wistful when he adds. “Of course, that’s outside the provincial jurisdiction.”
Then it’s back to Hants County. “In the old days at Maitland every vote went Tory,” he reminisces. “Then one election the poll clerk found two Liberal ballots in the box. Throw them away.’ said the deputy returning officer, 'the s.o.b. must have voted twice.'”
The anecdote I'll remember longest has nothing to do with politics; it concerns a hockey game played during the Second World War at the RCAF Flying Training School at Stanley. NS. “1 was the kid who loved the game the most and was the worst player.” he says. “We Air Cadets from Windsor went out to Stanley one night to play against the student pilots. Being the kind of player I was. 1 was appointed timekeeper. 1 stood there feeling sorry for myself and almost freezing — it was an outdoor rink. And then one of the warrant officers gave me his greatcoat. That made me feel good. 1 can tell you. Wearing that coat. 1 was ready to shoot down the Red Baron." The starlit sky. the glistening ice. the flash of skates, the puck rebounding from the boards and a teen-ager on the sidelines playing Walter Mitty so fervently that he would take pleasure in the memory 30 years later. That doesn't say anything about Regan except that he's human; but leaving Province House I decide that my rum-drinking Cape Breton cabbie is right: Gabby isn't such a bad bugger. T