COVER

THE VIEW FROM THE TOP OF THE ROCK

MARCUS GEE April 14 1986
COVER

THE VIEW FROM THE TOP OF THE ROCK

MARCUS GEE April 14 1986

THE VIEW FROM THE TOP OF THE ROCK

COVER

Premier Brian Peckford directs the government of Newfoundland from a suite of offices on the eighth floor of the Confederation Building in St. John’s. In contrast to the Spartan decor elsewhere in the building, the 6,000-square-foot suite is done up in tasteful shades of cinnamon, blue and red. Renovated last year at a cost of $450,000, it includes a boardroom and a VIP waiting room. The premier’s privacy is assured by a private elevator and an executive dining room. But when Peckford allows himself a break from work, he leaves those comforts far behind. His favorite relaxation: a weekend at a plywood hunting shack in his home district of Green Bay on the northeast coast, snaring rabbits or jigging for codfish in his 20-foot motorboat.

Hero: An outport “b’y” himself, Peckford has spent much of his career fighting to protect that way of life.

Since becoming premier in 1979, the 43-year-old former teacher has argued determinedly that Newfoundland can only retain its distinctive character by taking control of its abundant natural resources. That nationalistic stance brought him into frequent conflict with the federal government and international oil companies, earning him the epithet “Confederation’s Bad Boy.” But at the same time, it made him something of a hero to Newfoundlanders, who rewarded him with three successive election victories.

But Peckford’s popularity faded along with the promise of oil riches. His confrontational style alienated many Newfoundlanders, and the current civil servants strike has fuelled fears that he is growing arrogant and detached. Joseph Goudie, a former Peckford cabinet minister, concedes that the premier’s all-or-nothing approach is often counterproductive.

“There is a cost to playing for all the marbles,” said Goudie. “But that’s the way Brian Peckford plays the game.”

Alfred Brian Peckford was born in the small town of Whitbourne, 80 km from St. John’s. The son of a provincial welfare officer, he taught high school English in the northeastern town of Springdale. First elected to the House of Assembly in the 1972 election that saw Conservative Frank Moores defeat Liberal premier Joey Smallwood, Peckford first gained wide public attention as energy minister, leading the province’s struggle for control of oil and gas resources. Under his direction, new regulations were drafted requiring oil companies to give preference to Newfoundlanders when hiring for offshore jobs and asserting the government’s power to control the pace of development.

Rebuke: After succeeding Moores as premier, Peckford stepped up the battle for resource control. The campaign was spurred by the discovery of the estimated 750-million-barrel Hibernia oilfield, 180 nautical miles southeast of St. John’s. After years of court battles and tough negotiations, in February, 1985, Peckford signed the Atlantic Accord with Ottawa. The pact provided for a federal-provincial board to ensure joint management and revenue sharing of all Newfoundland offshore resource development projects. Despite the achievement, voters rebuked the Conservatives in a provincial election seven weeks later, returning them to office with a reduced majority.

Still, few Newfoundlanders are prepared to count Peckford out. Even those who dislike him concede that he is honest and hard-working, a cunning politician who always does his homework. “He consumes information,” says Goudie. “He’s always readingbriefing papers, newspapers, novels.” The premier applies the same kind of concentration to his favorite spectator sport: professional football. He devours the statistics and has attended at least five Super Bowls. About his personal life, Peckford will say little. He left his wife, Marina, in 1983 after 14 years of marriage. The couple, now divorced, has three children.

If Peckford has a dream, it is to make it possible for the tens of thousands of Newfoundlanders who left the province in the 1960s and 1970s to return. “There are a lot of people who just want to come home so they can shoot their moose, jig their fish and still have a job,” he once told Maclean's. “I am saying we can have the best of both worlds.” Many critics have called the vision romantic—but few doubt Peckford’s determination to pursue it.

MARCUS GEE

CHRIS WOOD

St. John's