COVER

A FARM BOY REACHES THE TOP

KATHRYN HARLEY October 26 1987
COVER

A FARM BOY REACHES THE TOP

KATHRYN HARLEY October 26 1987

A FARM BOY REACHES THE TOP

COVER

He is part wide-eyed farm boy, part high-powered lawyer, part ambitiously energetic politician. Frank McKenna, New Brunswick’s 39-year-old premier-elect, combines elements of the province’s rural heritage and its increasingly urban future. Raised on a dairy farm, the fourth of eight children, he first became widely known in his home province as a dynamic young criminal lawyer. Said Fredericton pollster Linda Dyer, who followed McKenna’s campaign closely: “Frank represents a blend of traditional New Brunswick background with an upbeat, innovative ’80s approach to life.”

Slapshot: McKenna’s attainment of power, only five years after he was first elected as an opposition backbencher, has been swift. Canada’s youngest provincial leader, McKenna grew up in a white-clapboard farmhouse in Apohaqui (population 341), a community near Sussex in southern New Brunswick’s dairyland. There, he shared chores with his five sisters and two brothers, and practised his hockey slapshot in the barn. McKenna’s father, Joseph, who died two years ago

at age 76, liked to discuss politics with his children, and he drove voters to the polls for the Liberal party on election day. His mother Olive, 66, still lives on the farm.

‘Junkie’: At Sussex High School, McKenna headed the student council and took part in half a dozen sports. He played centre on the school hockey team well enough to be offered an athletic scholarship to Boston College in Massachusetts. Instead, in 1966 he went to St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. (Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s alma mater) and again became student council president. He first got involved in off-campus politics as an undergraduate, working as a volunteer for Nova Scotian Robert Stanfield’s successful campaign at the 1967 Progressive Conservative leadership convention. He says now that he took part “more as a political junkie than as a Tory.”

McKenna entered the University of New Brunswick’s law school in Fredericton after a year of graduate work in political science at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. While at Queen’s he pursued his interest in politics, spending a summer as a junior aide in the office of

Liberal cabinet minister Allan MacEachen. In an interview with Maclean’s last week McKenna said he realized at that time that he should switch his field of study. “It hit me like a sledgehammer,” he said. “If you’re really interested in politics, it’s not political scientists who become involved, it’s lawyers.”

In 1972, while at law school, McKenna married Julie Friel, whom he had met at St. Francis Xavier. Although Julie McKenna’s mother came from a prominent Conservative family—the Creaghans—her father, Donal, a retired Crown prosecutor in Moncton, is well-known as a Liberal organizer in New Brunswick. The McKennas’ three children—Tobias, 15, Christine, 12, and James, 9—give the premier-elect a family-man image that contrasted sharply with that of bachelor Richard Hatfield.

Passion: After graduating from law school in 1974 McKenna settled in Chatham, the city on the Miramichi River that he now represents in the legislature. He first attracted attention in 1977, when he defended Yvon Durelle, a light-heavyweight boxing champion during the late 1950s, on a

charge of murder. Several witnesses testified that they had seen Durelle shoot an unemployed man, Albin Poirier, four times in a parking lot after an angry confrontation, but in a celebrated trial McKenna successfully argued that Durelle had acted in self-defence.

While in Chatham, McKenna deepened his involvement in Liberal politics. “My political choice,” he says, “was a result of looking at all three parties and feeling that the Liberal party best represented the traditional rural values of hard work and determination and private enterprise, together with my feelings of social compassion.” In 1982 McKenna won a seat in the legislature in the election that saw Hatfield’s Conservatives win their fourth straight victory over the Liberals. McKenna found himself part of a dispirited, divided caucus of 18. But he says that experience convinced him to seek the party leadership in May, 1985: “I made the decision that I wasn’t going to see our party go into the scrapyard without a fight.”

Avid: That fight has been remarkably successful, although McKenna was greatly helped by Hatfield’s own mistakes and scandals. Still, McKenna acknowledges that he had a lot to learn when he first became leader. His speaking style, in particular, needed improvement. His first major effort in the legislature after being elected leader was a 70-page cliché-ridden reply to the Conservative government’s throne speech. Today his speeches are polished, adroit performances, and he has mastered a relaxed, easy public style. He prefers beer to wine, peppers his conversation with sports images, and is an avid baseball fan. (Last week he complained that the campaign made it difficult for him to hear broadcasts of Toronto Blue Jays games.) But his earthy sense of humor can still raise eyebrows. On the campaign trail in Saint John early one morning, he found 96-year-old Sadie Mills still in her housecoat. Said Mills: “Frank, I’m not even dressed yet.” Replied McKenna: “That’s all right.

That’s how we like our women.” McKenna admires the inspirational style of politics practised by John F. Kennedy, who was president when McKenna was in high school. And he has recharged New Brunswick’s Liberals. Now he faces the task of fulfilling the expectations raised by his party’s victory. But McKenna insists that he will not shirk the challenge. “Four years from now,” he says, “I want to be judged on how successful we have been. I’m saying that now to keep up the pressure—the pressure to deliver.”

-KATHRYN HARLEY in Fredericton

KATHRYN HARLEY