Fast Frank

How New Brunswick's premier turned his province into Canada's social laboratory

JOHN DeMONT April 11 1994

Fast Frank

How New Brunswick's premier turned his province into Canada's social laboratory

JOHN DeMONT April 11 1994

Fast Frank


How New Brunswick's premier turned his province into Canada's social laboratory


Twenty minutes after his seven-seat government plane takes off from Fredericton, Frank McKenna is napping like a baby. But he hits the tarmac running in Moncton, bounding out of the airplane cabin with a vigor that no middle-aged man working on a few hours’ sleep has a right to possess. The premier of New Brunswick always seems to be in motion. Yesterday was a 16-hour workday ending at 11 p.m. Today at 7:30 a.m., he breakfasted with officials from a high-tech company considering an office in New Brunswick. Now, in the van from the airport, McKenna is juggling several things at once: quizzing a functionaiy about potential investors, scanning a newspaper editorial page, asking one of his cabinet ministers a quick question on a cellular phone. Pulling up to a downtown hotel, he hustles into the lobby in search of his lunchtime speaking engagement. First, though, the man who many consider the most effective premier in Canada must shake hands with a passing admirer who exhorts him to “keep kicking Nova Scotia’s butt,” a reference to the long-standing rivalry between the neighboring provinces.

Inside, the air is warm—but that doesn’t wilt the crowd’s enthusiasm. In theory, they are here for an award presentation to the head of one of New Brunswick’s fastgrowing list of environmental companies. But that’s just the warm-up act for McKenna, one of the brightest stars in Canada’s political firmament. Today he’s at his inspirational best, telling New Brunswick companies in chipper tones that they have the right stuff to be world players in whatever business they pursue. Optimism and hard work—these are the perpetual themes of any speech by McKenna. With his thick head of dark chestnut hair and a face so unlined that it is still compared to Huckleberry Finn’s, McKenna looks a decade younger than his 46 years. In his book, negativism is the greatest sin; enthusiasm bursts from his spark-plug build, making him seem taller than his five feet, eight inches. As the premier leaves the room, the smiles among the crowd seem practically religious. No time to bask in the moment, though, Question Period awaits in the Fredericton legislature, where his party holds 44 of 58 seats. “Don’t look back,” he jokes as he buckles himself into a seat in the

government plane. “Somebody might be gaining on you.” Six-and-a-half years after sweeping into power, McKenna seems to have managed the impossible for a politician in this age of public cynicism about government. At home, his lustre is undimmed. His government commands an astonishing 69-per-cent approval rating, and he is largely credited with the economic and social reforms that are giving his downtrodden province a measure of hope for the future. Outside New Brunswick, too, he is a star. Businessmen praise his fiscally conservative approach to government and his eagerness to lure companies to his province. Academics hail him as a visionary for implementing innovative social programs. And politicians

in Ottawa and other provincial capitals increasingly look to New Brunswick as a testing ground for social reform. To many of them, McKenna has come closest to striking the right balance in tough times—making fundamental changes without either spending more money or slashing services. All that has given McKenna a national profile far beyond his province of 730,000 people: in recent years, Canada’s longest-serving first minister has been seriously touted for everything from president of the National

Hockey League to leader of the federal Liberal party.

The praise can sometimes seem excessive, and even McKenna acknowledges that he feels embarrassed at times by the adulation he receives from both ordinary people in small-town New Brunswick and the heavyweight analysts who regard the path he is charting for his province as one that has much to teach the rest of the country. As Thomas Kierans, president of the C. D. Howe Institute, a leading public policy think-tank in Toronto, puts it: “When people ask if there is any hope for a better and more effective [political] system, I say that it will come only when people in other provinces point to Frank McKenna and say, ‘I want one of those.’ ”

But however sincere, McKenna’s grand vision remains somewhere on the horizon. Critics say that the “McKenna Miracle,” the name which some journalists have given his attempts to revive the province, is more spin than substance: nothing much has really changed for most New Brunswickers, they claim. His harshest critics say that McKenna has failed to forge any real economic development policy for the province’s largely rural population, which remains dependent upon dwindling natural resources for its livelihood. To them, he appears obsessed with pushing trendy but mostly theoretical concepts such as “the electronic highway,” and with attracting high-profile technology and communications firms that bring relatively few jobs to the province. And in fact, the results of his efforts are still thin: the recession that ravaged New Brunswick’s traditional industries has killed more jobs than the McKenna government has brought in.

As for the would-be savior of New Brunswick, he confesses to dark nights of the soul when he wonders if he is really up to the job. But doubt is never allowed to linger long in McKenna’s straightforward world. “I’m a firm believer that believing in yourself becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he says. Yet the question remains: is the force of one man’s will enough to transform an entire province?

Back home in his riding of Chatham, the van is heading south on a stretch of highway that runs through rolling hills and a thick blanket of forest. It rides from one hamlet to another, through Derby Junction to Rogersville, past aging cars and lonely houses with peeling paint. It is, in some respects, typical rural New Brunswick landscape—similar to the geography that produced McKenna, who grew up in tiny Apohaqui, midway between Moncton and Fredericton. The fourth of eight children in a dairy farming family, he was a scholarship student, eventually completing a law degree at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton before setting up practice in the pulp-and-paper town of Chatham. From there, he launched his political career, becoming Liberal leader in 1985 and premier two years later when his party took all 58 seats from Richard Hatfield’s scandal-plagued Tory government.

Today, driving through the familiar countryside with two other MLAs, McKenna points out passing landmarks and asks about old acquaintances. After 12 years in the legislature, he has evolved into the very essence of a New Age politician, a man who can talk in the same breath about the information highway and repaving New Brunswick’s potholed stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway. His policies defy categorization as either liberal or conservative. And he also seems to straddle the social fence between his elite education and the impres-

sion he gives that he’s never actually left the farm.

“I know these people,” he says, peering out the van window. “They are good, proud, hardworking people.” And McKenna, as much as anyone, realizes that these attributes are hardly enough when people have lost their livelihoods and self-respect—as they did long ago throughout much of backwoods New Brunswick. Little wonder his face literally lights up when he walks into an old building in Rogersville, a town of 1,200. There, two dozen men and women in their 20s, 30s and 40s are struggling to reinvent themselves.

Across the province there are almost 300 of these makeshift classrooms—known as Community Academic Services Program (CASP) literacy centres—where unemployed New Brunswickers spend their days studying the basics of English, math and science rather than sitting at home collecting social assistance. For McKenna, who is constantly preaching the gospel of self-reliance, a scene like this is downright moving. “I can’t guarantee that at the end of it you will get a job,” he tells them, alternating between English and halting French, “but I can guarantee that without it you won’t be able to get one.” Then, in what could be the mantra for his approach to life and government he intones: “Travaillez fort (work hard), travaillez fort, travaillez fort.”

That is something McKenna understands.

Aides talk with a mixture of admiration and horror about how he arrives at the office most mornings by 7:30 after making the 25-minute walk from the unpretentious white clapboard house where he lives with his wife, Julie, a community college teacher, and 16-year-old Jamie, the youngest of their three children (the others, Toby, 21, and Tina, 18, attend Saint Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.). His typical 14-hour workday often ends after midnight: McKenna has been known to call civil servants at home as late as 2 a.m. “Ifs exhausting,” he admits. “Work becomes so obsessive that it dominates every aspect of your life.”

Not that he necessarily begrudges the sacrifice. Work, as McKenna sees it, is the key to everything. The reforms that his government has implemented may be radical, but the philosophy behind them is deceptively simple: create jobs. Not, mind you, the old-fashioned jobs in the woods and mines and on the rivers that have always been the province’s lifeblood. McKenna has done his homework: well-versed in the neoliberal theories of MIT economist Lester Thurow and Harvard business guru Michael Porter, he wants to create up-to-date jobs that will get New Brunswickers off the dole, and create a new, self-sufficient economy. His pitch includes extolling his province’s advantages—bilingual workers, sophisticated telecommunications, low property and labor costs and relatively little bureaucratic red tape. “I am obsessed with creating jobs,” he says. “I believe that it deals both with the physical and spiritual needs of people.”

The magnitude of the task requires that sort of fundamentalist zeal. When McKenna took power in October, 1987, he commissioned a study of attitudes in Canada and U.S. border states towards New Brunswick, Canada’s third-poorest province after Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island. The results were disheartening: the province had a poor image in Canada and was viewed as a sort of backwoods Appalachia in the United States. Even New Brunswickers saw themselves as living in a province with few possibilities and without a strong identity. A stagnant, resource-dependent economy, Canada’s third-highest illiteracy rate, a population devoid of hope for the future—the challenges seemed insurmountable.

Hardly anyone questions the sincerity and gusto with which McKenna has tackled the problems. “He is showing an abundance of leadership, initiative and courage,” declares Louis Robichaud, now a senator, who implemented his own sweeping education and tax reforms when he was the Liberal premier of New Brunswick from 1960

lam obsessed with creating jobs. I believe that it deals both with the physical and spiritual needs of people.’

to 1970. All the same, noble sentiments are one thing, results another.

Education is one undeniable success. A 1992 review of the provincial education system sparked such wide-ranging changes as longer school years, publicly funded kindergarten and measures to lower the dropout rate (which has since fallen to 14 per cent from 22 per cent, the

lowest in Canada). Moreover, the government found $61 million to spend on teacher training and refocusing the public school system on such core subjects as math, science and language arts.

Then there is McKenna’s attack on the province’s $270-million deficit, which has decreased in the past three years from a high of $516 million. After three years during which he first froze government wage increases and then held them to tiny increases and cut 1,300 civil service jobs, provincial Treasurer Allan Maher predicted last month that the province would balance its books during the 1994-1995 fiscal year on both its capital and operating budgets. New Brunswick will even start to pay off its accumulated debt of $4.1 billion some time next year, he pledged.

The government has been equally decisive when it comes to social reform. To get people off social assistance, the province convinced Ottawa in 1992 to redirect $177 million in funding from welfare, unemployment insurance and other sources into a new program called New Brunswick Works. The initiative—which has sparked inquiries from provincial governments across the country—offers longtime welfare recipients the chance to return to the workforce under a three-year program of paid employment, education and training, in which they agree to complete their high-school studies while receiving a training allowance. As experiments go, it is expensive—more than $100,000 for each of the 3,000 people scheduled to go through the system. At the same time, the program to date has been less than a raving success: fully 50 per cent of the first 2,000 people who have entered the program since May, 1992, have dropped out.

Even so, McKenna’s resolve has not faltered. Early this year, his

government introduced a pilot project in which unemployed young people receive basic military training and specialized job skills at Canadian Forces Base Gagetown, near Fredericton. And in late March, with the help of Ottawa, the province again attracted national attention by introducing the N.B. Job Corps, which gives older workers with few job prospects an annual income of $12,000 in return for six months’ work on government-sponsored projects like cleaning up beaches and clearing park trails. The project is aimed at getting people off the welfare rolls, where the maximum annual payment is $8,000, and into a program that will let them work at other jobs without forfeiting their payments or benefits. Like the other experimental projects, it may set the pattern for a national program.

More than anything, of course, McKenna wants to be judged as a creator of jobs. During his 1991 election campaign, he went so far as promising to create 25,000 new jobs by the time he steps down. What he could not have predicted was that the prolonged recession would severely dampen his plans, or that the dramatic downturn in forestry, mining and other resource sectors—which account for more than 80 per cent of New Brunswick’s employment—would wipe out most of the employment gains his government achieved. “At some point, you have to have some luck,” notes McKenna. “If we had luck, New Brunswick would be booming right now. We just haven’t had the luck.”

The numbers bear that out. When asked how their job-creation programs have fared, McKenna’s officials produce a table that estimates that a total of 4,216 jobs have been created “in part” from provincial initiatives since September, 1991. Upon closer scrutiny, however, the impact has been less impressive. That total, for example, includes 480 jobs on the New Brunswick-P.E.I. fixed link— which McKenna’s government had only a secondary role in creating. And Statistics Canada figures show that 265,000 New Brunswickers were working in January, 1994, compared with 271,000 in January, 1991. During the same period, the unemployment rate actually rose marginally—to 13.1 per cent from 13 per cent three years earlier.

Yet without the government’s job programs the picture would undoubtedly be bleaker. Most of the new jobs that the government takes credit for creating came from small businesses that have received start-up capital and other provincial funding. But what is really putting the McKenna government on the map is its commitment to attracting new companies and back-office support operations for other firms to counterbalance the lost mining and forestry jobs. Newcomers can expect roughly $10,000 for each new job in training and relocation incentives. But most companies say that factors like cheap labor and land, and the presence of New Brunswick Telephone Co. Ltd., the province’s innovative communications utility, are a far greater lure.

So far, most of the new recruits have been as notable for their high-profile names—Purolator Courier Ltd., Federal Express Canada Ltd., Canada Post Corp., Canada Trust, Unisys Canada Inc.—as for the number of jobs they have created. Just as important is the critical role the new firms play in rebuilding the province’s wounded self-image. The logic is compelling: if big-name national companies value what the province has to offer, how can New Brunswickers not feel better about themselves? So New Brunswick’s chief pitchman hits the road.

The early morning turbulence shook the small Piper Cheyenne turboprop as it headed west from Fredericton. Last year, McKenna’s plane made an emergency landing on its belly after the landing gear failed to descend. But the premier seemed unfazed late last month as his plane rattled and bounced across the cloudy afternoon sky. In truth, the farther away McKenna, chief of staff Georgio Gaudet and press secretary Maurice Robichaud got from Fredericton, the more excited they seemed to grow. Ahead, after all, lay Ontario, the most bountiful hunting ground in the premier’s tireless campaign to bag new business.

There, as in the rest of Canada, his star bums bright. In three days, he visited three cities, met five federal ministers, announced the $80million N.B. Job Corps program, gave four speeches and six national media interviews, sat down for a discussion with Maclean’s editors,

pressed the flesh in Ottawa and Toronto with alumni from New Brunswick universities, made his sales pitch to executives from she companies and one Crown corporation and won praise from Ontario’s Liberal leader, Lyn McLeod. “I feel we have to do some of the things here that he is doing in New Brunswick,” she said. ‘We need to say to business, We value your presence.’ ”

Everywhere he went, McKenna seemed to cause a stir. In Ottawa, when he dined in the parliamentary restaurant with Human Resources Minister Lloyd Axworthy and Transport Minister Douglas Young—to discuss the immense hardship that base closures and cuts in the UI program announced in the federal budget are causing in his province— MPs from both the Reform and Tory parties interrupted to congratulate him on the overall thrust of his policies. The next day, after a speech in Ottawa to 500 New Brunswick university alumni, a middle-aged woman stood and spoke emotionally about how she used to be embarrassed about being a New Brunswicker—until McKenna rekindled her pride in her native province.

‘Life after politics for me is just a big black void.

I see no images. I see nothing/

centre in Moncton rather than Winnipeg, as originally planned.

Chasing new business is what seems to make him happiest. The day’s appointments are timed to the minute: a major investment firm, an educational publishing outfit, a large communications company, a multinational computer giant—all interested in seeing what New Brunswick has to offer. The shirtsleeved premier, accompanied by economic development adviser Charles Harling, does not disappoint. When he smells a deal, McKenna can hardly contain himself. “I like what I hear,” he finally blurts to one team of executives. “How quickly can we get this going and what can we do to help?” If negotiations continue, the executives will learn that New Brunswick is happy to smooth the way with grants and tax breaks.

The national media have certainly helped to establish McKenna’s credibility—so much so that recently a satirical story about “McKennamania” appeared in The Globe and Mail, suggesting that Canada’s other first

“All this [adulation] makes me uncomfortable,” McKenna confessed later.

The reality is that McKenna and his staff have made a conscious decision to thrust him into the spotlight. That approach, cynics suggest, is designed to raise his national profile enough so that he can one day take a run at the federal Liberal leadership. The premier insists that his only goal is to help improve the province’s image, both among New Brunswickers and potential investors.

Whatever the motivation, to many people McKenna is New Brunswick.

His face peers out from newspaper and magazine ads urging corporations interested in setting up in

New Brunswick to “call me.” He gives out his electronic mail address at press conferences; prospective investors can call the 1-800-Mc-

Kenna hotline, and often get a return call from the first minister later the same day.

The winner of the Economic Developers Association of Canada’s 1993 “developer of the year” award doesn’t just wait for the phone to ring. His routine greeting to his cabinet ministers is: “Do any deals today?” Last month, executives at 3,500 Canadian companies received mailouts under McKenna’s name extolling the virtues of New Brunswick. And each day, he takes and makes several calls, assuring corporate executives that New Brunswick is open for business. His aggressive approach has ruffled feathers. Poaching companies from Nova Scotia and Manitoba has cooled relations with those provinces. And the Ontario Provincial Police officers who act as chauffeurs during his sales trips to Ontario have been instructed to notify Premier Bob Rae’s office whenever McKenna arrives.

The real spadework, McKenna likes to say, is done by people in his economic development department who scour the globe for prospects. Nevertheless, when it comes time to make a deal, it certainly helps if McKenna is sitting at the negotiating table. “He is the province’s greatest salesman,” explains Gerald Schwartz, president of Toronto-based Onex Corp., which until last year was controlling shareholder in Purolator Courier Ltd. Indeed, McKenna’s repeated visits and phone calls were largely responsible two years ago for convincing the courier company to build its national customer service

ministers suffer “premier envy” when they read all the good press he receives. Back in New Brunswick, though, people are amused by the concept of Frank McKenna Superstar. Recently, a story circulated in the Fredericton legislature that the premier had been in a nasty accident: a passing speedboat hit him while he was walking on the water. Says Elizabeth Weir, leader of New Brunswick’s New Democrats: “It’s gotten to the point where you head for the Gravol bottle before even opening a newspaper.”

Not everyone shares this exalted opinion of McKenna. Privately, even fellow Liberals say that he has little tolerance for criticism and a stubborn tendency to disregard the opinions of others. He runs his government in an autocratic manner that has left a number of cabinet ministers angry and disgruntled. And he is not immune from the occasional embarrassing mistake. Last week, he was forced to apologize after suggesting during a speech to law students at Ontario’s University of Windsor that native women all look alike. All that, however, clearly has no impact on ordinary New Brunswickers. After seven years in power, his government remains astoundingly popular: a poll released in March by Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates showed that 54 per cent of New Brunswickers felt he was the best person for premier, while 69 per cent approved of the job his government has

been doing (up from 61 per cent a year ago). :

Then there is McKenna’s personal style, : which is a marked contrast to that of his flam; boyant predecessor. As Dalton Camp, a Toiy : political strategist and commentator who lives : near Cambridge, N.B., puts it: “Part of the : key to McKenna’s popularity is the simple : fact that he is not Richard Hatfield.” His aw; shucks, self-deprecating manner remains un: changed and his personal life seems beyond : reproach. Aside from Tom Clancy thrillers and Havana cigars, his main passion is sports: he captains and plays centre on the government hockey team, plays twice-weekly games : of racquetball, golfs and skis.

Ultimately, though, New Brunswickers I support him more for what he is trying to do than for any deep-seated personal attach: ment. “The numbers may not be coming in quite yet,” explains Constantine Passaris, an : economics professor at the University of I New Brunswick. “But this government is ; making great strides in creating an environi ment which will allow people to pull up their ; own socks.” For many, in fact, the govern; ment has already provided something profound—a sense of self-worth and optimism : about the future. Declares Ginette Richard, : 26, a single mother of two who hopes to go on to university after completing her studies i at the Rogersville literacy centre: “I know this sounds really corny, but thanks to Frank McKenna I can finally dream of a better life ; for myself and my children.”

A full moon hangs over the Saint John River as McKenna, slightly punchy with fatigue, drives home. There are times, he concedes, when he feels like an impostor who cannot possibly accomplish what is being asked of him. But any signs of brooding selfdoubt are well-hidden as he wheels the car through the familiar streets of Fredericton.

Ahead lies only uncertainty: McKenna, who feels that a politician outlives his usefulness after a decade, is still sticking with his original plan to resign by 1997. “Life after politics for me is just a big black void,” he explains. “I see no images. I see nothing.” Once touted as a possible federal Liberal leader, he says categorically that he will not go into federal politics—although many who know him believe McKenna would change his mind if Chrétien resigned some time in the near future. That leaves the here and now—his all-consuming vision on which his 10 years of public service will be judged. “If I can complete this major transformation of New Brunswick, that, for me, will represent all the fulfilment I need in public life,” he says, pulling into his driveway.

And if his grand dream doesn’t come to pass? “I’ll be disappointed, but at peace,” McKenna answers in a firm voice. “I’ve put so much into the job every night and every week that I don’t know how I could do more.” Then, abruptly, he got out of the car and headed for the lights of home. It was nearly 11 p.m. But Frank McKenna was still running. □