Brian Peckford’s crusade against Ottawa

Roy MacGregor November 3 1980


Brian Peckford’s crusade against Ottawa

Roy MacGregor November 3 1980



Brian Peckford’s crusade against Ottawa


A skinny galoot is walking up Parliament Street from the Power supermarket. His name is Brian Peckford; he is 17 years old and a Newfie. Go ahead—laugh. He’d expect it. All the rest of them do. The kids, the teachers. He says to hell with them. He got paid today and right now he is thinking of the $40 in his back pocket and how pleased his mother will be in the morning when he hands it over. He is hurrying because it’s late, well after 1 a.m., and he doesn’t like the alleys. Suddenly three guys come out of one. Punks. The first guy takes a kick that lands right on Peckford’s privates. Peckford fights back. He gets one guy down. He yells, “You want it, you’re going to have to come and get it.” He falls to his knees and keeps his fists up, daring them, cursing. For a moment they look bewildered, and then they turn and walk away from him.


High above Conception Bay, the twin-engine Beechcraft breaks through the cloud surface into a startling sun. Premier Alfred Brian Peckford, 38, is on his way home to his north coast riding, a weekend away from St. John’s and the sniping on the constitutional battlefront. The sun makes him squint and lower the paper he has been reading—Pierre Trudeau and his unilateral actions with the main headline, Peckford and his accusations with the main picture—and he turns instead to the two bottles of Jordan Valley Rosé that one of the four passengers has brought aboard in a brown bag. At 2,100 metres, the plastic corks pop and Peckford himself readies the glasses. He has in mind a toast. Raising his own glass so the sunlight dances among the ice cubes and pink gas, he chooses to paraphrase his own white paper on the constitution question. “Here’s to us, and to the 21st century,” he grandly announces. “May we all be together!” As a former English teacher, he might better have turned to Ulysses, the Tennyson poem he forced (“under pain of death,” remembers one student) his classes to commit to memory—“And drunk delight of battle with my peers.”

Last week, when Peckford went on prime-time provincial radio and television and promised to go to England, if necessary, to block Trudeau’s patriation plans, he completed his staking of the claim to Confederation’s Bad Boy. Beginning that May night of the Quebec referendum, when Peckford miscued on an aide’s suggestion and referred to the

federal government as “an agency of the provinces” rather than a “creation,” he has emerged through the September constitutional conference and the debates of this fall as the most volatile of all premiers, the tomcat under the full moon of the media glare. He is adored and he is despised, yet it has not been a clear-cut dichotomy—loved at home and hated “away”—as the words of Steve Neary, a provincial member of the Liberal opposition will verify. “He’s ruining Newfoundlanders’ reputation as fair-minded people,” says Neary. “He’s the most vocal and childish of all the premiers. Ordinarily, you’d see the fellows with the white nets coming for him.”

This is a constant reference as far as Peckford and his enemies are concerned, and it may come from what they see in his eyes, not his actions. The eyes are wild, not in a mad sense, but wild in

a gamey way, ever on guard. When Alvin Hewlett, Peckford’s chief of staff, demonstrated how he could still recite Ulysses the way his master had taught the poem—“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”—he had the charging, roaring voice down pat, but not the eyes. Hewlett’s are soft, harmless, self-satisfied. Peckford’s are desperate, as if forever passing by dark alleys.

Yet poetry is of the heart, not sight, and it is in his heart that Brian Peckford has determined not to yield. He says he must have absolute control and ownership of Newfoundland’s off-shore resources.

Last week he warned that Trudeau’s actions may mean Newfoundland will lose Labrador and its right to denominational schools. Trudeau replied nonsense, but Peckford continues to protest in a rising, angry voice, the right index finger firing into the air before him like

Roy MacGregor

a child’s imaginary gun. The lasting impression is one of cockiness, and he will say that he has never suffered from self-doubt, not even a momentary wash of anxiety. There has been, he will say, only one thing that has ever “haunted” him, and it is not whether he is right or wrong but whether his obvious rightness will be allowed to prevail. He first noticed it in early 1979, when he defeated nine other candidates in the fight to replace retiring Tory Premier Frank Moores. “The only fear,” he says, “was that there might be a conspiracy against me. There was some evidence it could happen . . . that haunts me. It’s still around. This business of me being something to be stopped—this wild colonial boy, this wild man has somehow to be brought'to task for all this, this aggressiveness. This is not stability, this upstart.”

The truth is that these are not ra-

tional times in Newfoundland. Whatever was is no more. As surely as Brian Peckford’s own signature has changed since he became premier—the script more flamboyant, the “f” once so tight now soaring with abandon—so too has the Rock’s image turned. The joke is no longer about the Newfie who studied all night for a urine test, but: “What do you call a Newfie walking down Bay Street?” (“Sir.”) While the change in the premier’s signature lies somewhere deep within the Peckford subconscious, the change in Newfoundland’s soul lies at exactly 46°44/ 59” N and 48°46' 51” W. It is known as Hibernia, an oilfield some 300 km off the southeast coast of Newfoundland. So far, it is a dream untapped, but if Hibernia produces one billion barrels of recoverable crude oil—this being the conservative estimate—the total cash flow between now and 2003 would amount to, in current dollars, something more than $22 billion.

This is not the first time Newfoundlanders have thought they could hear The Millionaire knocking at their door and discovered it was only the wind playing tricks. Islanders can look back upon American financier John Shaheen’s Come By Chance oil refinery (bankrupt in 1976 with $600 million in losses and now perhaps on its way to being reopened) and Panama schemer John C. Doyle’s linerboard mill at Stephenville ($131 million in losses after government take-over). But the most foolish deal they can look back on was the one struck in 1966 with Quebec, wherein Quebec will be enjoying Labrador hydro power until the year 2041 for a pittance equal to crude oil at $1.25 a barrel. This is the power of the Churchill River, and it may be entering a new era of controversy as Peckford moves toward a showdown with a New York-based energy brokerage firm, Atlantic Energy & Development Corporation (see box, page 33). Having seen what previous politicians, with the help of Doyle and Shaheen, have done to his province, Peckford may well have, as one of Atlantic Energy’s directors, Sam Hughes, puts it, a natural case of “xenophobia-fear of strangers.”

Such is not the case for all Newfoundland, however. Peckford likes to say the future lies in the fisheries, but the latest cocktail being sold on Water Street in St. John’s is not called “cod” but “Hibernia”—black as oil and guaranteed to get one well lubricated. Strangers are finding the city more familiar each day. Up Torbay Road leading north out of town, the Gaden’s Marsh Battery is no more. Here, in 1781, the outer defences of a much besieged city were completed and St. John’s felt safe at last. Last month, a McDonald’s restaurant opened on the spot. “Come and see,” the radio spots urged. “History is made again.”

Day’s end at Confederation Building in St. John’s. The halls are empty, silent but for the leather and click of the commissionaire looking up. Cabot Martin, the premier’s chief adviser — some have said the lever that trips the Peckford tongue—stands at the front doors and stares off toward Signal Hill and the harbor below. Momentarily quiet, thinking, he taps a finger against the glass and traces out through the narrows, toward the open Atlantic. “What you have to understand,” he says in an anxious whisper, “is when you discuss Newfoundland you’re talking about fisheries. The oil is not Newfoundland. What’s out there”—he raps the glass with a nail—“is black magic, a Faustian bargain.”

Oil may very well turn out to include a bargain with the devil, but Martin’s comparison is well chosen for other reasons, all of which are clearly understood by the likes of McDonald’s hamburgers. “The boards are set in place,” Goethe wrote in Faust. “And everybody now awaits a feast.” Successive headlines from St. John’s The Daily News tell it all: GET READY FOR THE OIL BOOM and THE HIBERNIA ‘GIANT!’

All this would imply that Hibernia is a bottomless pot of black gold, which it is not. Three fully developed Hibernias would be required before Newfoundland would even change from a “have-not” province to a “have.” And with provincial borrowing expected to top $300 million a year by 1986, it can be seen that, under the federal-provincial revenue splits of the 1977 Maritime Provinces Agreement (never signed by Newfoundland), the province’s take from a developed Hibernia would not even cover borrowing. To change all that, however, Peckford is seeking a fundamental change in Confederation. Full provincial ownership would also be accompanied by a rise in domestic oil prices from their current 50-per-cent level to fully 90 per cent of world prices. As well, there would be a flip-flop in revenue splitting, giving Newfoundland roughly $3 for every one collected by Ottawa. As Peckford envisions things, his prov-

ince’s per capita debt would fall to Ontario’s level by the end of the century. “All I’m asking,” he says over and over, “is the right for Newfoundlanders to be treated as equals, not as second-class citizens.”

Such platitudes—equality, rights— are surely the territories of justice, and Trudeau has repeatedly invited Peckford to take his case to the Supreme Court. Peckford refuses, contending that the highest court is a creation of Ottawa and that, besides, “this is a political matter.” And perhaps he has forgotten that only three years ago, as minister of mines and energy in Moores’s cabinet, he approved going directly to the Supreme Court over offshore resources. The argument then was that Newfoundland was a legitimate state when it entered Confederation in 1949 and, as such, can cite such precedents as the 1918 Treaty of Wash-

ington, which gave official recognition to the three-mile limit.

Ottawa counters with its own precedents: a 1975 High Court ruling in Australia which gave the federal government clear control; and, most importantly, Article 2 of the 1958 Geneva Convention, which ruled that the continental shelf belongs to the coastal state (Canada) for “exploring the seabed and exploiting its natural resources.” Significantly, the Geneva Convention deliberately stops short of saying the state owns these resources. “The single reason Peckford has never gone to court,” says former Newfoundland opposition leader Edward Roberts, himself a lawyer, “is that we [Newfoundland] don’t have a good case.”

Peckford’s response, then, has been to dig in. It is a tactic that has served him well in the past when, as minister of energy in 1977, he produced a white pa-

per demanding oil-rig jobs for locals and 51-per-cent Newfoundland ownership in support industries—an act that caused the oil rigs to sail away in disgust. Peckford’s reaction was to hang tough: twice he thought his resignation was being forced when Moores and the rest of the cabinet pressed him to capitulate. But when first Texaco and then the others returned in 1978 to drill under his terms, Peckford’s political career was salvaged. This experience led him to the political philosophy “make haste slowly,” which so infuriates Ottawa and the eager oil companies. “If we don’t watch out,” says Steve Neary, “the oil ship is going to pass us by.”

High over Trinity Bay heading north, the rosé wine is passed about the Beechcraft for a refill and Brian Peckford hammers home a point on the Formica table in front of him. “If you have no control, forget it—school’s out! We’ve been unbelievably lucky. This is a second chance for us. We had it before and we blew it. Now, this time, we’re going to have to get it right. Until we’re sure of that, just lef’er bide.”


“Lef’er bide. Let it sit there. We’re in no hurry. We can wait Trudeau out. For all I care it can stay down there another two years, five years—forever, maybe.”

am a part of all that I have I met,” Tennyson wrote of UlysX ses, and this is equally true of Brian Peckford, the rural English teacher who, in only 10 years, has changed into one of the most controversial political figures in the country. Peckford once so completely lost control of a Grade 10 class that they picked him up and threw him into the school showers. He carefully abridged his teaching philosophy so that it would serve him throughout life: “If you give an inch, they’ll take a yard, so you establish your classroom authority and you stick to it, hard.”

Ostracized by every ruling clique he has ever encountered, he has shaped the premier’s office in his own image. Those who have his ear—Hewlett, Martin, a handful of others—share his background, ever the outport boys who, through sheer persistence, have been given, in the premier’s own words, “a fair crack at getting in the sun now and then.”

The son of a policeman who became a store manager and later a welfare officer, Peckford grew up in an assortment of Newfoundland villages and takes great delight in his outport “b’y” image. That an English teacher would so eagerly drop back into outport dialect is, says Roberts, “the mark of a man who is not at home in his own skin.” He is perhaps the only premier to ever use the flap of a book of matches to pick his

teeth after a meal in Ottawa’s plush Canadian Grill. Friends as well as enemies speak of his insecurity, and how the brashness and chippiness is a blanket over it. If you pour enough segments of his past together, they will indeed crystallize: the policeman hauling him out from under a freight car after he had been harassing the station master; the year he failed Grade 10; the way the wealthy clique of St. John’s students ignored him at Memorial University. But above all there is Toronto, where his father was sent in 1959 on a job improvement course. It was the worst year of his life, a time when the rebellious young student was sent to stand alone and unrepentant in the halls of downtown Jarvis Collegiate, dreaming not of getting back to class but of getting out forever. Running home. And where punks mugged him in a dark, downtown alley but did not get his $40.

“I don’t know any of my boyhood chums, you know,” he said one reflective afternoon in St. John’s. “That’s a strange thing. I don’t have any friends.” The comfort came from his family. He was the second-born of five boys and a girl, a serious kid who infuriated the younger ones by turning off Rin Tin Tin in favor of the news. He was also scrappy. When Bruce, his mild-mannered older brother, would refuse to fight, Brian stepped in, often returning home with blood running down over the delighted corners of his mouth. For him,

there was only one thing finer than stiff competition, and that was victory.

He came to politics by first writing tough, angry letters to the editor of the. St. John’s Evening Telegram. Later, growing more and more bored with teaching, he decided on the very day of the meeting to run for president of the Green Bay Liberal party riding organization. He arrived at the meeting with his mimeographed sheets of qualifications, but it was all to no avail. It was 1969, the year of the provincial Liberal leadership convention. Joey Smallwood himself was there to ensure control of the riding went to his own man—which it did.

Before the year was out, as Smallwood beat off a bloody leadership challenge from John Crosbie, an angry crowd rushed the stage chanting “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh!” accusing him of dictatorship. Had Smallwood looked carefully into that crowd, he would have seen Brian Peckford standing there, dark eyes furious, fist determinedly punching into the thick air of the convention centre.

The Smallwood lesson he learned

well. Two years later, having followed John Crosbie to the Liberal Reform party and then into the Conservative party, Peckford stacked his own meeting to become president of the Green Bay Tory organization. Then, with the Conservative old guard still in shock, he gained the candidacy and won the seat. Seven years later he was premier.

But a different premier. He had enough political savvy to turn to a Toronto campaign master for strategy, enough oddity about him to attract the media. (“The media have a job to do. They’ll use me and I’ll use them. And we’ll see who wins.”) He also had enough political opportunism to take any risk. When federal Tory leader Joe Clark needed Peckford during the past campaign, Peckford tried to hold Clark up for off-shore rights in writing. It was a huge embarrassment for Clark, who had to refuse. And though Peckford admits this act harmed Clark, he says: “I’d do it again tomorrow.”

And as premier, he gleefully ignores the cocktail circuit. (“Bullshit. I’ll have no part of it. I don’t follow an elite circle, premier or no premier.”) Instead he spends weekends with his wife, Marina, and two young daughters, and Christmas vacations in a backwoods cabin snaring rabbits. It sounds simple, rustic, proper—he is said to run a “puritanical administration”—but the image must be tempered somewhat by project number 117903001 of the provincial department of public works and services, detailing the amount Peckford spent redecorating the premier’s Mount Scio house when he took possession of it— $118,621.25.

It was inevitable that they would one day meet, the symbol of the future, the reminder of the past. It happened this ’ spring when Joseph R. Smallwood, then

79, came cap in hand to the oak-panelled eighth-floor office he once held in the Confederation Building. Peckford was there waiting. They took the private elevator Smallwood had installed to the premier’s private dining room, and there Smallwood brought up the matter that had made him come: his dream of bringing John Shaheen back to revive the failed Come By Chance oil refinery. Peckford would have none of it. With darkness falling over the city, they repaired to Smallwood’s odd little prefab office off Portugal Cove Road, where Smallwood brought the sherry down from the cupboard and poured drinks. He showed Peckford the books he was working on, the dreams he hangs on to, and then he went and knelt by the tape machine, pulling out and playing hour after hour of his own greatest political speeches.

For once, two of the greatest mouths Newfoundland has produced were quiet.

With Smallwood’s rhetoric soaring and cracking in the room about them, Peckford raised his glasses onto his head, leaned back in his chair and stared at the tiny bald man who seemed in near prayer by the tape recorder. Not a sentimental man, Peckford for once closed his eyes and let the sadness wash over. Here he was, listening to the ghost of a man not yet departed. If he opened his eyes, the man was still there, the man who once spoke of “Uncle Ottawa.” The man who would so encourage the undemocratic notions in the heads of most Newfoundlanders that they would forever believe power filtered from above, instead of bubbling up from below. People came to look so much to the government for directions that in the 1950s the following telegram arrived at the seat of government: “Brother Zechariah going insane. Standing over him with shotgun. May have to shoot. Please advise.” This was the man they had looked to for guidance, who had predicted “two jobs for every Newfoundlander,” who now denies he. ever said “burn your boats” to the fishermen, who embraced Shaheen, Doyle and struck the hydro deal with Quebec.

On the other side of the room sat Brian Peckford. Smallwood thought the younger man was listening. Smallwood also once believed the enlightened social legislation of Ottawa would bring Newfoundland into the future, the very legislation that led to Peckford working summers as a welfare worker, that led to Peckford seeing defeat in the eyes of all Newfoundlanders. And Smallwood built Memorial University, which trained Peckford and gave him such hatred for the establishment. In his latest book, The Time Has Come to Tell, Smallwood took stock of his life and turned it into peculiar lists: 27 million printed words in a lifetime, 342 fish meals a year, 56 countries visited, state banquet for Eleanor Roosevelt and Gene Tunney, and at least five places named after him. A lot of numbers and names—but was this to be his true legacy? A Peckford, a man unwittingly created by Joey himself? It was near midnight. He turned off the tape machine, the ghost vaporized and he turned to his heir to push Ottawa’s case on off-shore resources. For a while he thought he had him, but soon Peckford broke in and, an hour and a half later, Smallwood had been battered to the point of silence. The ultimate insult.

“I am like the ocean,” Brian Peckford would say on the day he remembered this moment. “I will keep coming. I am relentless. Wave after wave after wave, just like the ocean. I have a dream to realize and I think I can advance Newfoundland society to be something it might not have been had I not been this way.” t;£?