In 1974, campaigning for a second term as New Brunswick premier, Richard Hatfield captured the imagination of a province of Ford and Chevrolet drivers by touring its winding highways in a sports car. The sleek, sexy Bricklin was unlike anything most New Brunswickers had ever seen. Its gullwinged doors offered a dramatic backdrop for campaign photos. Best of all, it was built in New Brunswick by a company that Hatfield’s Conservative government had helped lure to the province. When the time came, voters endorsed Hatfield’s visionary style by returning the boyish bachelor premier to office. A year later the Bricklin sports-car company collapsed, and the public learned that the Tories had poured $23 million into American entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin’s badly mismanaged firm.
But Hatfield was unfazed. “If you’re going to have a politically embarrassing failure,” he said, “it should be something you have a lot of fun with. Besides, it got me on The Today Show.”
Fun: The response was typical of a man who clearly enjoyed his reputation for flamboyance and who said repeatedly that he believed politics should be fun. Hatfield was as successful as he was colorful. Despite a succession of scandals before and after the Bricklin fiasco, he went on to win two more mandates, earning a reputation as one of the great survivors of Canadian politics. By the time he was defeated last week he had been in office longer than any of Canada’s current premiers—17 years —and
his tenure was the longest in New Brunswick history. Hatfield’s political vision was frequently far-reaching. And his achievements, especially in the sensitive area of language rights for the one-third of New Brunswickers who speak French, perma-
nently altered the face of his province.
But it was Hatfield’s image as a highliving nonconformist that stuck with most Canadians. The reputation was established in the early 1970s, when Hatfield lived in a fourth-floor suite in Fredericton’s Lord Beaverbrook hotel.
Out-of-town reporters staying in the hotel frequently answered the door to find the premier, a bottle of scotch in his hand, inviting himself in for a drink and a political bull session. Later, Hatfield moved to a white clapboard bungalow a few blocks away, decorating it with New Brunswick crafts and indulging a gregarious nature by asking artists and musicians who passed through town to drop in for what often turned into impromptu all-night parties. He called Montreal and New York his favorite cities, but his penchant for travel also took him to Morocco, Israel and Argentina. In one year, 1979, he was out of the province for 165 days.
Hug: The parties and travel earned Hatfield the nickname “Disco Dick,” but friends say that he is also generous and affectionate by nature. One friend, now living in England, has a collection of posters Hatfield mailed from stopovers during his trips abroad. Dalton Camp, a confidant for 30 years and now a senior adviser to the federal cabinet, recalled the delight of his teenage children when Hatfield let them drive his car, unsupervised, in a field. Said Camp: “He was just a very generous and giving person.” Hatfield reflected on his affectionate side when he wrote of another friend, Alden Nowlan, shortly after the poet’s death in 1983:
“What is missing for me is the hug Alelen always gave when one left him.”
African vacations and the company of poets were hardly expected of most boys growing up in Hatfield’s home town of Hartland, a quiet farming community of 1,000 in New Brunswick’s St. John River valley. Home to a bible college, Hartland is in an area dotted with neat white clapboard churches and boasts the world’s longest covered bridge. But an obsession with politics was awakened early in Hatfield by his father, Heber, a Conservative member of Parliament, and later nourished at Dalhousie law school in Halifax. After graduating, he spent a brief period in the family potato chip business and served a stint in Ottawa as a political aide to Conservative trade minister Gordon Churchill. Then, in 1961, the 30-year-old Hatfield won a seat in the New Brunswick legislature. Eight years later he captured the leadership of the province’s Conservative party, and in October, 1970, he toppled the 10year-old Liberal administration of Premier Louis Robichaud.
Left: Within two years Hatfield was beset by his first scandal. Tourism Minister Charles Van Horne, the man Hatfield had succeeded as the party leader, was charged with taking bribes and left the country. Before the echoes of the affair had faded, Hatfield’s government was rocked by the Bricklin failure in 1975 and by charges that his justice minister had interfered in a police investigation of a Conservative party fund-raising scheme. A judicial inquiry found no evidence of any interference, but in 1981 a Fredericton lawyer was convicted of accepting illegal kickbacks paid to the Conservative party. Still, Hatfield continued to win elections; his final victory, in 1982, marked the first time that a New Brunswick government had won four consecutive terms.
That success was widely regarded as a vindication of Hatfield’s passionate defence of language rights, a stand that may come to be seen as his most important legacy. Although his own French is halting, Hatfield’s fascination with French culture has deep roots.
During his time in Ottawa he often went to Montreal on weekends to hear Quebec folksingers perform in smoky cabarets. As premier, he set about
breaking down the mutual suspicion that divided New Brunswick’s 500,000 English speakers from its 260,000 French-speaking Acadians. Despite opposition from many in his own party, he pressed forward with reforms, passed in the dying days of the Robichaud government, that made the province officially bilingual. Some changes were cosmetic, such as making road signs bilingual. Others, such as promoting the use of French in the civil service, were profound. Roméo LeBlanc, a former Liberal cabinet minis-
ter in Ottawa and now a senator for New Brunswick, observed that Hatfield’s commitment to continuing Robichaud’s language reforms brought French-speaking New Brunswickers fully into the province’s political life.
Power: When the separatist Parti Québécois took power in Quebec in 1976, Hatfield took his faith in bilingualism to the nation. On the night of the PQ’s election victory, he startled CBC television viewers with an emotional expression of dismay. Blurted Hatfield: “This is terrible. We won’t be able to go to Montreal anymore.” Later, he spoke out repeatedly in support of constitutional reforms that would help address the frustrations of Quebecers—once arguing heatedly that Ontario should show its own faith in the country by becoming officially bilingual. Although that did not happen, Hatfield did succeed in entrenching New Brunswick’s bilingual status in the 1982 Constitution. Noted External Affairs Minister Joe Clark: “Richard Hatfield is one of a small handful whose leadership has genuinely changed the history of our country for the better.”
By his own admission, Hatfield has been “married to politics” for a quarter of a century. A confessed political junkie, he attends every U.S. presidential convention that he can and consumes biographies of other politicians, admiring especially former Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis. In a revealing comment, Hatfield told a reporter in 1985: “I cannot make a distinction between what I do in the interest of my person and my responsibilities as premier. I am always premier of the province.”
Title: But that title is now being passed to someone else. The memory of the decade in which Richard Hatfield reached political maturity—the footloose, freewheeling 1960s—faded with the onset of the new conformity of the 1980s. Language rights and constitutional reform are no longer the commanding issues of the day. And Hatfield’s eccentric charm strikes many New Brunswickers today as nothing more than irritating—and expensive— quirkiness. Many agree with Muriel Trenholm, a retired Moncton salesclerk who said before last week’s election, “There’s just been enough of Disco Dick, in plain English.”
Last week 62 per cent of New Brunswickers endorsed that verdict. Hatfield’s record, however, is likely to absorb historians for years to come as they seek to explain the essence of a man who dominated his province and played a significant role on the national stage for a generation.
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