John Crosbie stood in the House of Commons wearing a new pair of sealskin mukluks as he delivered his 1979 budget speech.
By tradition, finance ministers buy a new pair of shoes for budget day and Mr. Crosbie’s fashion choice – meant to signal his support for the Newfoundland and Labrador seal hunt – captured the essence of his approach to politics.
Over nearly 50 years in public life, Mr. Crosbie was a strong advocate for his home province and a colourful politician known for placing his principles above any concerns about political correctness.
Mr. Crosbie died on Jan. 10 in St. John’s at the age of 88 after a period of declining health.
Many of the themes of that December, 1979, budget speech are not far removed from political debates now taking place more than 40 years later.
The one and only budget of prime minister Joe Clark’s short-lived Progressive Conservative minority government announced an immediate new increase to the federal gas tax in an effort to reduce the deficit and encourage energy conservation.
Mr. Crosbie’s budget also promised an energy tax credit to help offset the impact of the gas tax on consumers.
“In my view, one of the main reasons Canadians elected a new government last spring was to set a new and realistic course for this country,” Mr. Crosbie told the House of Commons that day. “This, I and my colleagues are determined to do, even if it means risking some unpopularity, hopefully short-term. We are committed to the proposition that in the long run, good economics is good sense and thus good politics.”
Two days later, the government was defeated in a 139-133 vote on a non-confidence motion presented by NDP MP Bob Rae. Pierre Trudeau returned from retirement to lead the Liberals to a majority win in the February, 1980, election.
It was the end of the Clark government, but Mr. Crosbie’s time on the national stage was only getting started.
“He was ahead of his time,” said former Newfoundland and Labrador premier Brian Tobin, who regularly sparred with Mr. Crosbie in the House of Commons. Mr. Tobin was one of several opposition Liberal MPs known as the “rat pack" when Mr. Crosbie was a minister in the Progressive Conservative governments led by prime minister Brian Mulroney.
“I think he had a very large impact on public policy both in Canada and certainly in Newfoundland and Labrador, and he was one of these guys that you could be going at it hammer and tongs across the aisle with, and 10 minutes later, you could be chuckling with him in the hallway," Mr. Tobin said, adding that the focus on Mr. Crosbie’s humour could overshadow the fact that he was often the smartest person in a room. “He was a big bear of a man. Deadly serious about public policy. Deadly serious about politics. But in a strange way, really not a terribly partisan person at all, and that’s what made him so endearing.”
John Carnell Crosbie was born in St. John’s on Jan. 30, 1931, into a Crosbie family that was already well established among the political and business leaders of Newfoundland. His grandfather John Chalker Crosbie worked in the hotel business and fish exporting before entering politics in the early 1900s. He was elected several times to the Newfoundland House of Assembly and served as a member of the pre-Confederation cabinet. Knighted by King George V, Sir John Crosbie became minister of finance for Newfoundland in 1924.
John Crosbie’s father, Ches Crosbie, was the fifth of 12 children born to Sir John Crosbie and Lady Mitchie Anne Crosbie. Ches’s career largely focused on business. But in the late 1940s, he led the short-lived Newfoundland Economic Union Party opposing the government’s plans to move directly from British rule – an arrangement imposed in 1934 known as the Commission of Government – to Confederation with Canada.
“He had no objection to Newfoundland’s joining Canada, but he believed firmly that, before Newfoundland decided to take such a final step, it should have the Commission of Government replaced by responsible government – to leave Newfoundland free to negotiate the best possible deal for itself, whether with Canada, with the United States, or with neither,” John Crosbie wrote in his 1997 autobiography, No Holds Barred. “As a seventeen-year-old Newfoundland patriot, I endorsed my father’s point of view completely and defended it on many occasions.”
Newfoundlanders disagreed, voting 78,323 to 71,344 in favour of joining Canada as the 10th province of Confederation.
Mr. Crosbie watched this all unfold from St. Andrew’s College boarding school in Aurora, Ont.
“At eighteen, I became, reluctantly, a Canadian,” he recalled.
His boarding school days also included writing letters to his girlfriend, Jane Furneaux. The couple later married when they were both 21.
“Jane has been a marvellous companion for me, and a tower of strength in all of my activities, when I have been up and when I have been down," he wrote.
John Crosbie graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1953 from Queen’s University, where he focused on political science and was president of the Queen’s Liberal Party. He then studied law in Halifax at Dalhousie Law School. A fellowship at the London School of Economics followed.
The couple had three children: Chesley Furneau, Michael John and Margaret Elizabeth.
After becoming a lawyer, he was first elected to the Newfoundland legislature in 1966 and served as a cabinet minister in the Liberal government led by premier Joey Smallwood. The relationship between the two men soured and Mr. Crosbie campaigned unsuccessfully to unseat Mr. Smallwood as Liberal leader.
After failing to remove Mr. Smallwood from inside the Newfoundland Liberal Party, he switched to the Tories, who defeated the Smallwood government in 1972.
“Having joined the Conservatives, I needed a new campaign song,” Mr. Crosbie recalled in his memoirs. “The one I used during the Liberal leadership campaign, ‘John is every inch a Liberal,’ would clearly not do.”
An October, 1976, by-election allowed him to jump from provincial to federal politics, where he would stay for 17 years.
During the 1983 Progressive Conservative leadership race, Mr. Crosbie was among several challengers to Mr. Clark for the party leadership. His inability to speak French was an issue and he ultimately finished in third place, behind Mr. Clark and the new party leader, Brian Mulroney.
“He was really a mountain of a man,” said John Laschinger, who ran Mr. Crosbie’s leadership campaign and has since worked on campaigns with John’s son Ches, who is currently leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Newfoundland and Labrador.
“Some people would think it was stubborn, but he had his ideas, and if it was a good idea, he wasn’t going to back off it," Mr. Laschinger said of John Crosbie. "But he was great to work with, because if you presented a good counter argument to him and it made sense, he would listen and he would go along with good advice.”
Elected to government in 1984, Prime Minister Mulroney trusted Mr. Crosbie with several important cabinet posts, including Justice, Transport and International Trade. But it was after the 1988 election that Mr. Crosbie faced his most challenging cabinet post.
As minister of fisheries and oceans, he approved the 1992 moratorium on the northern cod fishery, which triggered about 40,000 job losses and devastated the economy of his home province.
During the controversy, he famously squared off with a group of angry fishermen who were yelling and pointing at him in protest of the government’s handling of the issue.
“I didn’t take the fish from the goddamn water, so don’t go abusing me,” he told the crowd, standing his ground.
The moratorium was only supposed to last a couple of years. It is still largely in place, with some limited exceptions.
Mr. Mulroney will offer a eulogy Thursday at Mr. Crosbie’s funeral in St. John’s.
“He was one of the most valuable public servants for Canada and his province during our challenging debates over resources and our constitution,” Mr. Mulroney said in a statement. “He will be long remembered for his courage, his humour and his passion.”
By his own admission, Mr. Crosbie was not politically correct. In his 1992 biography, Rare Ambition: The Crosbies of Newfoundland, author Michael Harris described John as “the best stand-up comic in Canadian politics.”
Some of Mr. Crosbie’s most famous exchanges in the House of Commons were with then-opposition Liberal MP Sheila Copps, including some that landed him in political trouble.
Ms. Copps pushed back in 1985 when told by Mr. Crosbie to “Quiet down, baby,” during Question Period.
“I resent his remarks in the House, talking about ‘Quiet down, baby.’ I’m not his baby and I’m nobody’s baby,” Ms. Copps said.
An even bigger dust-up occurred five years later. While making fun of Liberal politicians before a crowd of Tory partisans at a party fundraiser in Vancouver, he quoted the lyrics of a country song called Tequila Sheila, as his comments turned to Ms. Copps.
“The words of the chorus popped into my head and I said them: ‘Pass the tequila, Sheila, and lie down and love me again,’ ” Mr. Crosbie recalled. The line prompted laughter in the room, followed by several days of public outrage, news stories and a statement of regret by Mr. Crosbie.
“Depressingly, it appears to be the incident for which I am best remembered,” he wrote, adding that he regularly received bottles of tequila as gifts after public speaking events. “The problem is, I’m a Scotch drinker.”
The two would later work out their differences and became close friends. They sang The More We Get Together when Ms. Copps and her husband, Austin Thorne, visited the Crosbies in August, 2019. Upon his death, Ms. Copps expressed sadness at the passing of “our dear friend John Crosbie,” calling him a great Newfoundlander and a great Canadian.
The finance minister who wore sealskin mukluks on the floor of the House of Commons ended his career in St. John’s as lieutenant-governor of Newfoundland and Labrador, a non-partisan role that allowed him to represent Newfoundlanders of all political stripes.
“Someone once asked how you can tell which ones are Newfoundlanders when you visit heaven,” he concluded his memoirs. “The answer is, you can always tell the Newfoundlanders because they’re the ones who want to go home.”
Mr. Crosbie leaves his wife, three children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.