A philanthropist, long-serving provincial cultural bureaucrat and escort to royalty, John Crosbie Perlin acted for decades as Queen Elizabeth II’s personal link to Newfoundland and Labrador. One of Mr. Perlin’s last public acts before his own death was to offer public commentary on her death.
“He was a reference point for this enormous moment in history,” said his cousin Tim Powers, a frequent political commentator on the CBC Television show Power & Politics.
As director of cultural affairs for the province and later as Canadian secretary to the Queen (from 1989 to 1991), Mr. Perlin co-ordinated and oversaw royal tours, starting with Prince Philip’s visit in 1974 to mark the 25th anniversary of Newfoundland’s Confederation. The visit by the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1983, not long after their highly publicized wedding, was a particular challenge because of the intrusive media coverage that ensued. He also co-ordinated with Princess Anne, Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, including at such special events as the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme at Beaumont-Hamel.
But he was most fond of the late Queen, whom he first met during her 1978 visit to the province. He found her to be a kind and courteous person who put people at ease. ”It’s been a very, very interesting part of my life to be involved in so many of these royal visits,” he told the CBC after the monarch’s death on Sept. 8, “and to work with the Queen was quite amazing.”
Mr. Perlin died of cancer on Oct. 9, at his home in St. John’s.
“Now that the Queen has passed, John found it okay to go off duty,” Mr. Powers told the CBC, “because he was always kind of on duty for the Royal Family and had a great fondness for the Queen in particular.”
Mr. Perlin volunteered for more than 50 charity and community groups over seven decades. He was active with the Duke of Edinburgh awards, served on the board of Rising Tide Theatre in Trinity, N.L., and was still on the board with the Fluvarium, a public centre in St. John’s for environmental education. He was recently given honourary life presidency of the Royal Regatta Committee, which he first joined in the 1950s.
“His name alone would make you think of Newfoundland and Labrador,” Premier Andrew Furey said at his funeral. “It was synonymous with the history, culture, and fabric of this place.”
Mr. Perlin’s father, Albert B. Perlin, was an influential journalist who, though he opposed Newfoundland’s Confederation with Canada, became a confidante and ally of Premier J.R. Smallwood. His mother, Vera (née Crosbie), championed the cause of special-needs children, culminating in a charitable society named for her. Provincial and federal politician and Newfoundland and Labrador Lieutenant-Governor John Crosbie was his cousin, and his aunt Rae Perlin was one of the province’s first professional visual artists.
The merchant family lineage began with Israel Perlin, who emigrated from Minsk, Russia, via New York, and after working as a peddler in Fortune and Placentia bays established I.F. Perlin and Co. Ltd. in St. John’s in 1893. The wholesale dry goods firm operated until 1971, employing many Jewish immigrants as peddlers, selling goods ranging from jewellery and tea to stationery and pocket knives. He also founded the province’s first synagogue in 1909, but his children married “out,” changing their religion, with his permission.
John Crosbie Perlin was christened Protestant and volunteered at Cochrane Street United Church.
Mr. Smallwood appointed Mr. Perlin Newfoundland’s director of cultural affairs in October, 1967, initially primarily to manage the Arts and Culture Centre, built in St. John’s that year as a Centennial legacy project. It was originally meant to be administered by Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN), but Mr. Perlin, encountering Mr. Smallwood in a receiving line at the Dominion Drama Festival (where he volunteered), persuaded the premier to change his mind.
The brand new $8-million, 1,000-seat theatre was something of a “white elephant,” Mr. Perlin later recalled in The Evening Telegram. It also housed the provincial art gallery (formerly based at MUN and now located in The Rooms); the provincial adult, children’s, and reference libraries; and a full-service restaurant and concourse bar, both since closed. This seeded a network of five smaller sister structures elsewhere in the province, including Gander, where a cultural facility was partially built from the Czech pavilion at the Montreal Expo. The structure was a gift recognizing the rescue effort following the Sept. 5, 1967, crash of Czechoslovakian Airlines flight 523, in which 37 people died and 32 survived.
During Mr. Perlin’s more than two decades at the post he managed all these facilities, much of it as virtually a one-man department of culture. His division also voted on the budget of the new provincial arts council (now ArtsNL) introduced by the Peckford administration.
It was a lot of power and he was often criticized for the ACC’s programming of symphonies, ballet and middle-of-the-road entertainment, considered by some to be overly conservative and catering to upper-middle-class audiences. Mr. Perlin would argue it was a matter of budget. Many of the acts who appeared there were subsidized but still required about 70-per-cent capacity, and that meant booking the Canadian-Irish Carlton Showband, from Ontario, and the Australian illusionist and hypnotist Reveen rather than the homegrown CODCO, which drew smaller audiences at the time.
Mr. Perlin’s decisions were particularly targeted by visual artist, critic and curator Peter Bell, and Chris Brookes of the Mummers Troupe.
The animosity was such that in 1978 when Mr. Perlin accepted the Royal Canadian Academy Medal at the Park Plaza Hotel in Toronto he was hit with a custard pie. “It sort of hit the dinner jacket as opposed to the face so I was able to go upstairs and change very quickly,” he told the Sunday Express. His calmness and lack of comment defused the incident, for which no one claimed responsibility.
Mr. Perlin retired from the role in 1989.
Among his honours, he was named St John’s Citizen of the Year in 1988 and received an honourary doctorate from MUN in 2008, as well as being appointed to the Order of Canada (1999) and the Order of Newfoundland (2009).
When he was inducted into the Order of Newfoundland, premier Danny Williams said, “His lifelong legacy of community and charitable work is formidable. He has touched the lives of literally hundreds of thousands of our people.”
“He embodied what it is to be a good citizen,” Dr. Furey said.
He also received the Victorian Order from the Queen herself, at Buckingham Palace in 1990.
John Crosbie Perlin was born March 2, 1934. He attended Holloway School and Bishop Field in St. John’s and then Appleby College, a private school in Oakville, Ont., and from there witnessed Newfoundland joining Canada in 1949.
“The Canadians thought they were doing us a big favour,” he later recalled, “until the oil arrived.”
He enrolled in McGill University but soon left and worked with the family business for a time. Then came his long stint with the provincial civil service. After retiring, he ran for city council in Saint John’s in 1990 but did not win.
He served at Government House to several lieutenants-governor in positions including aide-de-camp and acting private secretary. Along with his affinity for ceremony and protocol, he was kind and warm and had a great sense of humour. He was very occasionally cantankerous, “but he had a way of setting things right again,” Mr. Powers said.
“And he was all about family. Though he had no children of his own he was beloved by so many of his cousins and kids of his friends,” Mr. Powers said. “He always made time to play with, horse around and engage with the kids. Just six months ago, even when he wasn’t feeling particularly well, he played tic tac toe with my seven-year-old for hours.”
Predeceased by his sister, Ann Harvey, he leaves his brother, Dr. George Perlin, numerous other relatives, and many friends.