On Christmas Eve, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien asked Brian Tobin to drop by 24 Sussex Drive for a private chat about the future. Longtime political colleagues and, more recently, personal friends, Chrétien and his fisheries minister had much to discuss. Several weeks earlier, amid speculation that Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells was about to announce his retirement from politics, the ambitious Tobin, ever the loyalist had told his boss that he was seriously thinking about seeking the job. That left Chrétien with his own dilemma: facing a need to shuffle a weary cabinet—and the possibility that he might lose one of his brightest lights, a brash but talented Newfoundland MP he was prepared to push even higher up the federal ladder. The Christmas Eve meeting ended with the question of Tobin’s future
unresolved. But finally, over breakfast with Chrétien on Jan. 4, Tobin declared that he was going home. As he later told Maclean’s, “At the end of the day, I made my decision with my heart and with my gut. And my heart and my gut are in absolute sync.”
The choice by Tobin to alter the course of •a promising career in Ottawa is certain to change the federal and provincial landscapes. Launching his peremptory campaign in St. John’s last Monday with no money, headquarters or specific platform, Tobin is all but assured of waltzing directly to office as Newfoundland and Labrador's sixth premier on Feb. 24—ironically, the same week Chrétien is expected to introduce his revised cabinet Privy to most of Ottawa's sensitive backroom decisions, the 15-year federal veteran has placed himself in both an enviable and an
awkward position. Convinced that Ottawa now needs to shift its focus from deficit reduction to job creation, Tobin is likely to be a powerful—and at times loud—voice among premiers battling Ottawa over diminishing funds and conflicting visions of how the country should be governed.
There are signs that Tobin’s political weaning from his federal Liberal colleagues has already begun. Among the wideranging topics Liberal insiders say Tobin discussed with Chrétien in a series of one-on-one talks leading up to his resignation from cabinet last week was the 41-yearold MP’s concerns over Ottawa’s haphazard policy on Quebec. Instrumental in promoting the llth-hour Montreal unity rally of some 150,000 Canadians before the Oct. 30 Quebec referendum—a gathering that he has described as the “magic highlight” of his federal career—Tobin is unlikely to be as intractable as Wells on the issue of granting some special powers to Quebec. But as Newfoundland’s premier, Tobin told Maclean’s, “I’ll be speaking for those Canadians who believe that no matter where we live or what our circumstance, the passport should carry with it an equal measure of citizenship.”
In his first week of campaigning, Tobin, a father of three whose wife, Jodean, is from Labrador, displayed a newfound public voice on another federal-provincial issue that will define his future with Liberal Ottawa: the reduction of Ottawa’s $32-billion deficit. “The question now is how to ensure a balance,” he noted, clearly aware of the fact that his province is heavily dependent on federal aid. ‘With one eye on the fiscal bottom line, you should try, if you can—and it’s a neat trick to achieve—to keep the other eye on the human bottom line. If you do one to the exclusion of the other, it’s going to be a problem.” By the standards of Tobin’s colorful career, the adjustment from defender ‘to sometime critic is not a particularly long stretch. While in Ottawa, the former radio broadcaster developed an uncanny ability to decipher the shifts in political and public moods. A charter member of the infamous Liberal Rat Pack, he was the first to leave it, trading shrill attacks for backroom strategy as one of Chrétien’s key architects of the 1993 election campaign. An aggressive deal maker, he also tempered a tart tongue that was often lethal. There was one notable exception: when Mulroney, like former Liberal prime minister
John Turner before him, made a rash of patronage appointments before retiring, Tobin lustily claimed that the Liberals “would never exchange patronage for principle.” As the House of Commons erupted into laughter, Tobin turned to his seatmate, Nova Scotia MP Mary Clancy, and groaned, “Did I really say that?” Responded Clancy: “No, my darling, I think it was your evil twin.”
Nowhere were Tobin’s political instincts— and luck—more apparent than in his twoyear roller-coaster stint in the sinkhole fisheries portfolio. Faced with a critical depletion of cod stocks, Tobin declared that he would “not trade the last fish for a job”—and in 1994 shut down the cod fishery on the Grand Banks and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the lifeblood of 35,000 people. But he deftly turned anger over his conservation measures into a benediction during the war he waged against foreign overfishing. He introduced legislation that banned overfishing outside Canada’s 200-mile limit by vessels flying flags of convenience; arrested a Spanish trawler for exceeding its allowable catch of turbot; and won admiration abroad with his grandstanding on behalf of the turbot— “the fish without a voice”—at last summer’s United Nations High Seas conference in New York City. “Never put an A-type personality in a department where there is a whole ton of problems,” Tobin once told Maclean’s. “He has the mistaken belief that he can solve some of them.”
In fact, those accomplishments overshadow the loose ends Tobin has left behind. While Canada led the 27 countries that signed the UN’s binding convention to end high-seas overfishing last July, the signatures of three more countries are needed before it is enacted. On the East Coast, an ambitious program to cut the domestic Atlantic fishery of 26,000 people by half, in part by a $300-million plan to buy back fishing licences, has barely started, with only $30 million spent so far to buy a paltry 252 licences. But Tobin, a popular minister among his staff, has left his mark. “He had a vision—and he invigorated everyone who was around him with it,” said one senior fisheries official last week.
Now, the fifth of nine children raised on air force bases in Stephenville and Goose Bay is returning home. During his childhood, Tobin and a boyhood friend, both of them small, skinny youngsters, were given the nicknames Toothpick and Termite. Asked by a reporter which nickname belonged to him, a perplexed Tobin replied that he honestly couldn’t remember. But Cyril McCann, once known as Toothpick and now a Stephenville businessman, can. “Brian was just one one of the boys back then,” McCann told Maclean’s. “If someone suggested to me that he would someday be premier, I would have laughed at them.” That, as it turns out is now Tobin’s destiny.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.