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Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams gives an interview at his St. John's office on Nov. 13, 2009. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams gives an interview at his St. John's office on Nov. 13, 2009. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)


A pugnacious Premier who filled his people with pride Add to ...

More than any politician in living memory, he was the place that he was from. Danny Williams is Newfoundland: a street-fighting poet who took on the world and won.

He fought prime ministers Liberal and Conservative, fought the oil interests and the mining interests, raged at Quebec's intransigence and Central Canada's condescension, shouted "No more giveaways!" and wrested deals that all the smart minds said could never be won.

Time after time he walked away from the table, and time after time they invited him back, because Newfoundland had the oil. He banished the Canadian flag in anger, but in the end he and Stephen Harper were positively … well, they were on speaking terms, at least.

His greatest asset was his honest populism. He was a Rhodes scholar and millionaire businessman who spoke for the little guy without affectation. He could be loud and tough, but then tender and even tearful. He choked back a few Thursday at the end of speech announcing his resignation, as he invoked the closing words of the provincial anthem: "God guard thee, Newfoundland."

But he was a bully, who threw a punch first and then waited for the explanation. "The ones that try to jam us, they're going to get it right back," he once said. "That will continue till the day I walk out that door for the last time."

On Dec. 3, he walks out that door for the last time.

He leaves with a formidable list of economic and political achievements, But even those impressive parts are less than the sum. Mr. Williams did more than force the oil companies to give Newfoundland a piece of the action; he did more than compel Paul Martin to renegotiate Ottawa's fiscal arrangement with the province; he did more than rein in public spending.

He did even more than finally conclude a tentative deal that will see Newfoundland exploit hydro power from the Lower Churchill River by laying an underwater cable to Nova Scotia so that Newfoundland can finally sell its electricity at market rates, doing an end run around Quebec. More than any of that, he gave the people of Newfoundland and Labrador something intangible: reason to believe in themselves; reason to look at the future with hope.

"He left people with a huge amount of pride and a huge amount of confidence in their province," observed Frank McKenna, the former premier of New Brunswick. "And that is probably the most lasting legacy that any politician could achieve."

It wasn't all sweetness and light. The Premier's pugnacity left scars on the country.

"He could be overly bombastic at times with respect to Canada," Mr. McKenna acknowledges. "He wasn't always as respectful of the national interest as he might have been. But he was fighting for his people."

Still, when the premier of a province strips the Canadian flag from government buildings because of a dispute over equalization, the federation trembles. Newfoundland nationalism under Danny Williams had its ugly side.

Nonetheless, Canada is better off because of this man, who led his province to prosperity. It was such a tired old tale he put an end to: wealthy Central Canada props up the poorer periphery, while siphoning its talent and resources.

"When dependent provinces grow stronger and are able to stand on their own feet, this strengthens Canada," observed John Crosbie, the legendary Newfoundland politician who is now the province's Lieutenant-Governor. "I don't think there's been any weakening of Confederation. In fact, I think it's the other way."

Newfoundland and Labrador remains a province beset by challenges. The hinterland continues to drain population to the Avalon peninsula. The old resource industries face an uncertain future. And if there are no more oil finds, then we'll see in a dozen years or so when the existing stocks run out whether Mr. Williams really launched his province on a path toward modernization, or simply let it drink from the well until it ran dry.

Danny's battles over the years

Squashing a Beatle

Debating Paul McCartney and his then wife Heather Mills on Larry King Live in 2006, Mr. Williams defended the seal hunt and burned the celebrity couple for saying they were in Newfoundland when they were actually in Prince Edward Island. But he ducked Ms. Mills's question on why he was unwilling to give the sealers an alternative income.

Giving Canada's health-care system a big hiccup

After a torrent of words and argument over his decision to go to the United States for cardiac surgery in February, Mr. Williams made no apologies. "I did not sign away my right to get the best possible health care for myself when I entered politics," he declared.

Undercutting Quebec

Overturning the infamous deal that gives Quebec the lion's share of profits from hydro-electric plants on the Churchill River has been the dream of generations of Newfoundlanders. Mr. Williams has been unable to do that, but last week did an end run around Quebec on development of the Lower Churchill, power from which will be exported through the Maritimes.

Lowering the boom on Ottawa

Mainlanders were outraged when Mr. Williams ordered Canadian flags lowered over a 2004 equalization dispute with then-prime-minister Paul Martin. His support remained steady in Newfoundland, though, and residents backed him again in 2008, this time during a dispute with Stephen Harper. The Premier urged residents to vote "anybody but Conservative" and the party was shut out.

Trading blows with AbitibiBowater

Late in 2008, the Williams government appropriated AbitibiBowater's holdings near Grand Falls-Windsor, claiming the company had reneged on its responsibilities. Appearing sanguine amid threats of a free-trade challenge, Mr. Williams shrugged off warnings that businesses would avoid the province. And in the end it was Ottawa, as signatory to NAFTA, that paid the paper giant $130-million.

-Oliver Moore

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