John P. Robarts 1917-1982

SUSAN RILEY November 1 1982

John P. Robarts 1917-1982

SUSAN RILEY November 1 1982

John P. Robarts 1917-1982


For years, John Parmenter Robarts was the embodiment of everything Ontario values in a politician. The former premier’s imperturbability, his corporate good looks and reputation for sound administration gave him a public image of dignified boardroom respectability. As a result, those who knew him well were stunned—as well as saddened—last week when the 65-year-old Robarts shot himself with an expensive British-made shotgun in the bathroom of his comfortable home in Toronto’s wealthy Rosedale district. He left behind his 36-year-

old wife of six years, Katherine, a daughter, Robin, 29, and a stepdaughter, Kimberly, 17. He also left troubling questions in the minds of his many friends.

Most close associates blame his suicide on the recurrent depression he suffered after a near-fatal stroke 14 months ago. Although he had regained use of his paralysed left side and was able to speak without slurring, “the frustration was terrible,” according to longtime friend Ernest Jackson. An avid outdoorsman, Robarts was recently forced to sell his prized sailboat. And he did not have the energy to fully resume his usual heavy work load. Former Ontario treasurer John White, a close political ally over the years, recalls lunching with Robarts early last summer: “He was terribly introspective,” White said. “I judge that he went into his office and stared into space, then went home and stared into space.”

The violent death may be at odds with his public image, but in his private life,

according to former Ontario NDP leader Donald MacDonald, there was “a running theme of tragedy.” Partly to escape an unhappy first marriage, Robarts—as a young MPP from London and later as a cabinet minister—worked long hours at Queen’s Park, then partied late into the night. In 1976, five years after he stepped down as premier, he married Katherine Sickafuse, a 30year-old nurse. A year later his son, Timothy, then 21, killed himself. In a rare interview at the time, Katherine Robarts commented: “It must be killing John, although he hasn’t said so. He

plunges into his work as much as ever.”

In fact, despite his high blood pressure—and warnings from his doctor to watch his diet and drinking—Robarts continued to pursue the busy life of a corporate lawyer. Then, on a flight to Houston, Tex., in 1981, he suffered a crippling stroke that almost killed him. Last January in Toronto he had another slight stroke. Friends say he was then haunted by fear of sudden death and the prospect of not providing for his family.

But, as recently as Thanksgiving weekend,

Robarts seemed to be winning the battle for full recovery. Ontario Transport Minister James Snow said that he was “in good spirits. I never saw him using his cane all weekend.” And six months ago, in his first public speech since

his strokes, although looking gaunt and aged, Robarts delighted a partisan Tory crowd in Toronto by poking fun at Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s recent constitutional accord. “We didn’t really settle anything by that ceremony. We just set the ground rules for the next series of disagreements,” he said.

Ironically, it was a solemn Pierre Trudeau who escorted Robarts’ grieving widow down the long aisle of St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Toronto last week after the huge state funeral. Behind Trudeau sat a saddened Ontario Premier William Davis and behind him a veritable who’s who of Central Canadian politics. There was a surprisingly heavy turnout of Quebec politicians— both federal and provincial—a tribute to Robarts’ work on the 1977 Task Force

on Canadian Unity and to his earlier attempts at bridge-building between Canada’s two founding nations. A bedrock conservative in most areas—Robarts argued vigorously against medicare when it was first proposed—he was open, even liberal, in his attitude toward Quebec. During his years as premier (1961-’71) he opened the doors to French education in Ontario schools and, with task force cochairman (now federal minister of transportation) JeanLuc Pepin, made recommendations that went so far toward meeting Quebec’s national aspirations that they were im-

mediately shelved in Ottawa.

But, if old political divisions were set aside in the face of Robarts’ tragic death, some troubling theological arguments were raised. In a column that reportedly had many senior Ontario Tories steaming, The Toronto Sun's Claire Hoy questioned the propriety of a full state funeral for a man who took his

own life. But Lewis Garnsworthy, Anglican archbishop for Toronto, appeared to put the issue gracefully in context: “The manner of his passing saddened all of us, but I am not the judge of that and you are not the judges,” he said. “The issues of life and death are in the hands of a loving and forgiving God, and I am content that it should be so.”

-SUSAN RILEY in Toronto.