THE CROSBIES OF NEWFOUNDLAND
After me, Andrew. Oh no, John — after me!
Barring Joe Smallwood himself, no social phenomenon in post-Confederation Newfoundland has inspired more public entertainment, private suspicion and bizarre political machination than the multifarious Crosbies. The St. John’s telephone book lists nearly 30 Crosbie companies, divisions of Crosbie companies and Crosbie individuals (many of whom live at choice addresses and also enjoy “country residences”); but so far as the zanier political news of the past decade is concerned, the Crosbies that count most are the brothers John and Andrew. They do not always get along, and perhaps this is because the premier’s chair will never be big enough for both. Not at the same time, anyway. They’re hefty fellows.
Each one is as smart as a bee, as hungry as a hound. Each one suggests to respectful reporters that, no matter what endeavor a man pursues, he naturally wants to be Number One. Their ambition is chronic, maybe genetic, maybe as involuntary as the breath they draw. Even as boys, they brawled a bit. They are promising meat for a novel.
John (on the right in the photograph) is 44. He’s the scholar, the intellectual, the cabinet minister, the political Crosbie. He is also known for having had the gall to become Joe Smallwood’s Public Enemy Number One. Andrew is 42. He’s the tyeoon, the industrial empire-builder, the business Crosbie. But in the face of the blazing enmity between Smallwood and his older brother, he is also known for having had the gall to become Smallwood’s backer, organizer and maybe his successor as premier.
That was in 1971. It did not sit well with John for, as Wick Collins had written in the St. John’s Evening Telegram, “If Newfoundland doesn’t have a Premier John Crosbie within the decade it won’t be because Crosbie didn’t try.” In Newfoundland politics, John explains, “Everyone goes for the jugular and you’ve got to be pretty thick-
skinned.” Still, even now he gives the impression that his kid brother's flirtation with Smallwood was a method of going for the jugular that surprised and infuriated him: “I must say, relations between Andrew and me have not been too warm over the last couple of years.” He had found that if blood is thicker than water, ambition is sometimes thicker than blood.
“Yes,” Andrew confides, “John went absolutely ape there for a while” but, he continues, there’s certainly no animosity on his own part. As Andrew sits in his sumptuous office — he’s behind one of those desks that keeps its master slightly higher than his guest — he fairly glows with confidence, the knowledge of his own correct decisions, and the buoyancy of his charm. His manner suggests he’s too busy, too sensible, too generous, really, to worry long about the misguided thoughts of any politician, Crosbie or otherwise. And if Smallwood had only listened to Andrew, Andrew says, he would certainly have won his majority in the fall of’71.
Smallwood would then have been able not only to retire gracefully (and that’s something Andrew says Joe promised to do within a year) but also to have a hand in naming his own successor. And you know, of course, just who that successor might well have turned out to be. Not John, who hadn’t stopped wanting to be Premier of Newfoundland since the age when good little Canadian boys dream of NHL stardom. Andrew. On September 1, 1971, Smallwood named Andrew the head of his election campaign committee; on September 2, Andrew shot from nowhere (politically speaking) to the very top of Smallwood’s latest public list of Liberalsmost-likely-to-succeed-himself.
That’s when John “went ape.” He also w'ent shrewd. By then he was running for Frank Moores’ Tories in the upcoming election, and he figured that Andrew’s strategy was to keep Smallwood
gentle and to give Newfoundlanders the idea they should grant the old man one last election victory, a last hurrah so that he could step down in dignity. The undefeated champeen.
John foiled the plot.
He exploited Smallw'ood’s pride. He sneered at how successfully Andrew had bottled up the great Joey and, this time, it was Smallwood who went ape. Andrew couldn’t control his boy. Smallwood trumpeted that it was he who was running his campaign and suggested it would be he who’d run Newfoundland for years to come.
“I messed up their whole strategy,” John remembers with satisfaction and, on that point anyway, Andrew agrees with him. The result was the election tie of October. ’71; and Andrew thinks that Smallwood, having betrayed Andrew’s plan, was lucky to earn even that. Smallwood. however, believes listening to Andrew was a terrible mistake: “I was being suppressed, and instead of sweeping Andrew and his whole outfit aside . . . I allowed myself to be pushed into the background.”
“The funny thing now,” John muses, “is that Smallwood blames him. I’m sure he thinks there was this tremendous conspiracy, by Andrew and me, to diddle him.”
And maybe that is funny, but funnier things have happened. There’s a story, for instance, that long before the election of’71 Andrew flew to Montreal for a secret meeting with a Smallwood agent who wanted to plumb his interest in having Joe simply hand over the premiership to him. This may have been around the time that the animosity between Smallwood and John Crosbie was causing such chaos in the Newfoundland House of Assembly that a helpless Deputy Speaker asked, “What
Harry Bruce is a Halifax author, freelance writer and broadcaster, and a frequent contributor to Maclean’s.
“You’re a brainy lawyer,” Joey told John, “but you’ve made a lot of mistakes. You shouldn’t run in the next election”
kind of a beer parlor are we running here, anyway?” At any rate, Andrew’ and the Smallwood agent — who was fearful some Newfoundlander would see them together — walked for hours, at night, on Mount Royal. One imagines them in trench coats, their collars turned up.
The source of this story is some&ne who should know'. It is also someone who tells it with relish, and may gain personal satisfaction from embellishing it. Anyway, it continues: one dark night weeks after the Montreal rendezvous, Smallwood summons Andrew to an apartment in Elizabeth Towers, St. John’s. (Elizabeth Towers, incidentally, fulfills somewhat the same role in Newfoundland politics as the Watergate Hotel does in U.S. politics.) Smallwood says to Andrew: “Well, are you ready? I’ve got the lieutenant governor standing by to swear you in.”
“But Mr. Premier,” Andrew says, “what about the cabinet?”
Smallwood replies, in salty terms, that Premier Andrew’ Crosbie need not worry about cabinet ministers. In the morning, he can rid himself of those he dislikes and keep the rest. Andrew may believe that Smallw'ood’s motive is simply to push John Crosbie’s nose so far out of joint it will touch his ear. Anyway, Andrew turns down the premiership and thereby irritates Smallwood. They don’t talk much till Andrew agrees to take over the Smallwood campaign, and then becomes Joey’s Best Bet as his own successor.
By June of 1971 relations between Smallwood and John — once the whizkid of Smallwood’s own cabinet and now the most vehement of all antiSmallwood Tories — are so sensationally rotten that, when they happen to bump into one another, Smallwood recoils “like a snake.” (The words are John’s.) But then, Smallwood says: “You’re a brainy, brainy law'yer — the brainiest in St. John’s. But you’ve made a lot of mistakes. You shouldn’t run in the next election. Stay out of it for a couple of years . . . People will forget your mistakes and only remember how brainy you are ... I haven’t got anyone to succeed me.”
Is Smallwood trying to plant a seed in that brainy head? Might John gather Smallw'ood is telling him that, if he’ll only get out of the way for a w hile, good old Joe will get him the premiership? The very grail itself? John does not bite.
Here’s yet another funny one. Back in the days before Andrew'joins w'hat John regards as the enemy, Businessman Andrew does promote the ambitions of
Politician John. A newspaper reporter hears Smallwood entertain lunch companions with the story of how Andrew has offered to use Crosbie money to endow' — for Smallw'ood — a chair in Newfoundland history at Memorial University. Smallwood’s passion for Newfoundland history is legendary. The price? Well, all Smallwood will have to do is abandon the Liberal leadership in favor of John.
Why would Andrew make such a proposal (if, indeed, he did make it
exactly the way Smallwood remembered it)? Better ask, why would the young genius of the Crosbie industrial empire not want to see a Crosbie as premier of Newfoundland? Those who subscribe to a conspiracy theory with regard to the Crosbies observe that Andrew’s interest in the premiership — on his own behalf, that is — flow'ered only after it became brutally clear that the best John could expect was a promise of a senior cabinet post from a gang of Conservatives who had yet to win a provincial election.
Their late father. Ches Crosbie, was the oldest son of Sir John Crosbie. Sir John, a Minister of Finance in the Twenties, was a rough-talking, harddriving, self-made strongman in the commercial and political life of the province. He left 11 children. Two of his five sons survive, uncles to John and Andrew. Uncle George and Uncle A. H. (Bill) Crosbie. They are getting on now — George, for instance, is 68 and three years retired as the boss of the margarine company his father founded — but, please, do not think for a moment that they are no longer a force in the business life of the province. As for John and Andrew, they probably have a quarter of a century in which to enliven and influence the affairs of Newfoundland; and, in the normal course of w'hat time does to all men, one day Smallwood will
be out of their hair forever.
For the house of Ches Crosbie that w'ould be a change. John and Andrew were not the first Crosbies before whom Smallwood dangled the premiership of Newfoundland. Their father, too, felt the lure. Smallwood knew Ches back in the Thirties. Ches staked a friend of Smallwood’s to a suit of fleece-lined underwear to make life tolerable aboard a seal-hunting vessel. He gave Smallwood office space in his building on Water Street. He financed Smallwood’s eventually profitable publishing venture. The Book Of Newfoundland, and Smallw'ood’s wartime piggery at Gander. He gave him money to buy 3,000 war-surplus blankets, which Smallwood promptly resold at a profit. Ches and Joe liked each other.
But in the late Forties — during the most important debate in the modern history of Newfoundland, during the most magnificent months of the former piggery manager’s life — they were as far apart politically as any two Newfoundlanders could be. Ches hated the idea of Confederation and, despite his embarrassing performances as a public speaker, he was an extremely popular Newfoundlander. Smallwood needed him and, before either of them really knew their respective positions were irreconcilable. wrote speeches for Ches and coached him in the arts of oratory.
He went further than that. In I Chose Canada, Smallwood remembers: “I was convinced that Crosbie w'anted to be premier... 1 told him. not once, but half a dozen times at least, that if he wanted to become premier I would help him to the utmost of my know ledge and ability, and be a man-Friday to him after he took office, if only he w'ould now support my motion.”
Ches said no. Moreover, his brand of Newfoundland patriotism inspired him to lead a serious threat to Smallwood’s dream of Confederation, and this w'as Economic Union (“Comic Union.” in Smallwood's words) with the United States. Bill Crosbie, 25 years later: “My brother Ches was right regarding economic union . . . Regardless of Walter Gordon and the economic nationalists, there must still be a meshing of the North American economy. Ches was just ahead of his time.”
Many Newfoundlanders believe Ches was stubbornly ahead of his time, too, with regard to the terms of union that Ottawa and Newfoundland negotiated in 1948. He was the only member of Newfoundland’s bargaining team who flatly refused to sign the terms. He called
John quit but then Joey fired him
them “financial suicide” for Newfoundland. In 1958-59, he was alive to see the terms he denounced become the key to the bitterest federal-provincial hassle of the decade and the cause of deathless bad relations between Smallwood and John Diefenbaker.
Ches knew, however, that as life goes on so business goes on. In Newfoundland, more than anywhere else in Canada, it does not pay a big businessman to hold grudges against politicians in power. Big companies sometimes rely on government business for their very survival. Take heavy construction, for instance, a cornerstone of the Crosbie corporate empire. “Government is probably responsible for 75% of new construction in Newfoundland.” Andrew Crosbie says. “If you’re not popular with government, well, there have been ways by which maybe you didn’t get the business . . .”
And back in the early Fifties, the bitterness of the Confederation debate faded in the face of the amazing reality that little Joe Smallwood was now big Premier Smallwood. Ches and three of his brothers (George was the only holdout) all became Liberals. Joe could now do for Ches even more than Ches had ever done for Joe; and one day, when it suited him, he would bitterly tell the world exactly what his government did do for Ches, his brothers, and his sons.
In May of 1968 — more than five years after Ches’s death, 20 years after Joe beat Ches in the Confederation battle, 30 years after Ches helped Joe publish The Book Of Newfoundland — Ches’s oldest son so enraged Joe that, in the course of lashing out at John in public, Smallwood listed various government goodies that, down through the years, had fattened Crosbie companies.
“You have no sense of loyalty to the cabinet or me,” Smallwood told John in a letter demanding his resignation. He read the letter to the press. Actually, John had already told Smallwood he was quitting because he could not stomach a piece of government financing in connection with the U.S. industrialist John Shaheen’s promotion of the oil refinery at Come-By-Chance. Ultimately, Smallwood would broaden the list of John’s qualities of character to include not merely disloyalty but also overweening ambition, a mad lust for power, and ice water in his veins; but, at the time he “dismissed” him, he was content to dramatize John’s role in assorted intrigues of other prominent Crosbies.
He said the government had already
John went head-to-head against Smallwood in one of the most passionate, bitter leadership contests in Canadian history
paid more than $50 million to Crosbie construction companies and had helped “your family’s airline company [Eastern Provincial Airways] ... to the extent of millions of dollars.” He said John, as a cabinet minister, had “come to my office and virtually demanded that your family’s construction company be given the contract to erect the new Elizabeth Towers.” He suggested John had used inside knowledge to get Crosbies the job of constructing a linerboard mill. He suggested other Crosbies had used John’s position in cabinet to try to pry contracts and favors.
“I am forced to the unpleasant conviction,” Smallwood said, “that you are taking the position you do depending on whether the companies in question were willing or not to give your own family’s companies business.”
No sooner had John flatly denied Smallwood’s letter than Smallwood again leapt at the Crosbie jugular with the sensational charge that certain Crosbies had used threats — presumably based on John’s cabinet influence — to demand contracts from John Shaheen and officers of companies planning an industrial complex at Come-ByChance. And he named Uncle Bill. At the time, there was a joke in St. John’s that Smallwood’s mistake was that “he
named the wrong Crosbie”; but, in any event, Smallwood mysteriously decided he’d better not try to prove one word in his whole barrage of antiCrosbie ack-ack.
In the evening of the day he named Bill, who was livid, there was a caucus of important Crosbie men. The way Andrew remembers the night, you may conclude that he was the Crosbie who kept his head while all around were losing theirs. In the morning, he recalls, he went to Smallwood, told him how terribly incensed the family was, and somehow convinced him he had no choice but to retract everything he’d said. Andrew says he actually helped Smallwood write the retraction.
It proved to be as thorough a crawling-down as you’re ever likely to see in public life. It was so complete a retraction that even John Crosbie said, “It takes a lot of doing for a public man . . . It is very handsome of him.” In this rare moment of warmth in the House of Assembly, John was feeling so mellow he withdrew his own accusation that Smallwood’s cabinet ministers were a bunch of “puppets.”
“That really was the beginning of the end for Smallwood,” Andrew says. “It was the first time, ever, that people saw Joey back down from anything.”
Seventeen months later, John went head-to-head against Smallwood at one of the most passionate, bitter and expensive leadership contests in the history of Canada. Smallwood beat him by 1,070 votes to 440 and, though Joe instantly predicted the party would unite in “a mighty Churchillian River of Liberalism,” the wounds were too deep for that. John said, “We have fought the most hungry and ferocious machine Newfoundland has ever seen.”
John Crosbie’s six-month campaign probably cost more than $600,000. Andrew had helped raise some of this and was active in his brother’s corner throughout the campaign. In view of the importance to him of business from the Smallwood government, perhaps this support was brave.
But in the election campaign of’71 — and by then, remember, Andrew was in Smallwood’s corner — John remarked that, if Andrew couldn’t do any better for Joe than he’d done for John himself in ’69, then the Conservatives would have nothing to worry about. Experience seemed to be giving John a nice sense of irony.
He had won medals at Queen’s University, medals at Dalhousie Law School, a medal as the top law student in Canada. At 34, he was deputy mayor of St. John’s. At 35, he was a Liberal cabinet minister. At 37, he quit the cabinet, became an Independent Liberal, returned to the Liberal ranks. At 38, he’d become “the first person in Newfoundland to openly challenge Mr. Smallwood’s supremacy.” At 39, he was once more an Independent Liberal. At 40, he was a Progressive Conservative candidate. At 41, he was a Conservative cabinet minister and the target of rumors that his insatiable ambition had already inspired him to plot the downfall of Premier Frank Moores.
And at 43, on a trip home from England, he found himself in the first-class section of an airplane with one Joseph R. Smallwood. After a drink or two, they began to talk (partly about Smallwood’s chances of becoming premier again). The vision of these two Newfoundlanders, tens of thousands of feet above the North Atlantic, actually exchanging polite words, so amazed the Newfoundland Herald that it turned the conversation into a headline story: JOHN AND JOEY TAKE PLANE RIDE. ARE THEY FRIENDS AGAIN?
John Crosbie, columnist Ray Guy has written in the St. John’s Evening Telegram, “is the ‘many face’ of Newfoundland political theatre.”
“Andrew and I aren’t openly fighting now”
And Andrew? It is possible he is now the most influential businessman in Newfoundland. His manner is so cheerful, blooming and open, however, that it takes a while to grasp that he does not tell you a word or a dollar-figure that he does not want you to know. Somehow, he can make even the statement that his personal wealth is none of your business sound as though it’s a rare act of candor.
But without listing all the corporate outfits that he and his uncles and cousins are known to be concerned with (much less those that Andrew confides are “a secret between me and me”), it is certain that the Crosbie group of companies employs about 2,400 people and achieves annual sales of about $100 million.
They deal in marine, aircraft, travel, auto and fire insurance. Their airline, Eastern Provincial, is the fourth biggest in Canada. Crosbies are ships’ agents, ships’ brokers, ship owners. One of their firms owns six vessels — all of them named after Crosbie men — and they’ve carried cargoes to within 120 miles of the North Pole and deep into the Mediterranean. Crosbies run freight services to Montreal and Churchill Falls, hotels in Labrador, weekly newspapers across Newfoundland, trucking companies, companies that construct some of the biggest buildings in the province, companies that construct roads and sewers, companies that deal in hospital equipment, office equipment, heavy equipment, municipal supplies, building supplies, foreign exchange, cocktail bars, drugs and bullet-proof doors.
Andrew is now the most conspicuous Crosbie in this empire. At one point, he remembers, the Toronto Globe and Mail calculated he had 77 company directorships. “Andrew,” says his Uncle Bill, “has the most amazing ability. It’s a combination of vision and a capacity for detail, and you rarely see it in one man.” Andrew also works about twice as hard as most men do. His father, Ches, worked hard. His grandfather John worked hard. His brother John, he works much harder than your average cabinet minister.
For three quarters of a century, certain Crosbies have had this ceaseless, gnawing desire to excel. Smallwood understood. That was how — in the case of John-against-Andrew — he could open the only public rupture in the history of the Crosbie monolith. Even now, the rupture may have closed. “No,” John says, “Andrew and I are not openly fighting now. After all, family is family, you know.”