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Danny Williams in his office at the Confederation Building in St. John's, one day after announcing his resignation as Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. (Paul Daly for the Globe and Mail/Paul Daly for the Globe and Mail)
Danny Williams in his office at the Confederation Building in St. John's, one day after announcing his resignation as Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. (Paul Daly for the Globe and Mail/Paul Daly for the Globe and Mail)

Danny Williams: A proud Newfoundlander, walking the talk Add to ...

For Pierre Trudeau, it was a walk in the snow. For Danny Williams, the perennially popular Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, it was inking the Lower Churchill deal at seven in the morning a week ago last Tuesday that convinced him it was time to leave.

"I thought to myself, my goodness, this is going to happen," he recalled on Friday in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "... And I thought, I have to shift into a different mode here, and make a commitment to go. And that's when I did it."

The proposal to send electricity from the Lower Churchill River in Labrador to Newfoundland and Cape Breton by undersea cables is still that - a proposal, contingent on raising capital and on electricity prices increasing over time.

But the project promises to free Newfoundland and Labrador from the shackles of Quebec, which has blocked its efforts to export electricity since it agreed to the Upper Churchill project on terms that mostly benefited the larger province.

It caps the rising fortunes of Newfoundland, which, under Mr. Williams, has advanced from the poorest province in Confederation to something close to top of the heap in only seven years, a province that pays rather than receives equalization.

Mr. Williams' departure at the top of his game - he is arguably one of the most popular politicians in Canadian history, with approval ratings consistently above 80 per cent - creates a political vacuum on the Rock, and raises questions about his health and his future.

About his health, he says he's in the pink, after causing controversy earlier this year by having heart surgery in Florida.

About his future, he candidly acknowledges that he has been courted by both federal Conservatives and Liberals, and that the door is far from shut.

"I never rule out anything," Mr. Williams said. "As long as I can walk and talk and I've got energy left in this body, I'll keep going.

"But right now that's not a consideration, that's not a priority for me."

If Mr. Williams were to run federally, it would likely be under the banner of Stephen Harper's Conservatives, the party he campaigned so vociferously against in 2008 when he was at war with Ottawa over equalization.

That doesn't matter now. "The Conservatives, the Progressive Conservatives, have been my party since birth," he said, adding that the federal Conservatives have moved "from the right very much to the centre" over the years.

Right now, though, Newfoundland's 13th premier is still coping with the emotional fallout of Thursday's announcement that he's leaving his job.

"It would be easier to get kicked out of office," he suspects. Announcing he was stepping down "was really hard ... a lot of tears were shed."

The Premier is in a reflective mood, as he considers where he has taken his province and where it may be headed. Offshore oil was the key to Newfoundland's renaissance. But oil runs out. The real question is whether the province can change the fundamentals, whether its 500,000-odd souls can adapt an economy once based on fish and lumber to the knowledge-based world that steals the brightest and best right out from under you.

After years of losses, out-migration has stopped in Newfoundland. But keeping the only resource that matters - human potential - on the island rather than shipping it west is the real challenge.

Mr. Williams is confident the challenge can be met. "We haven't just taken a piggy bank filled up with oil and spent it," he insisted.

On his watch, the province has substantially increased financing for education and health care and to fight poverty. The mining sector is expanding, and aquaculture could replace the exhausted fishery. Tourism is booming.

"It's the edge of the earth," he said. "It's the raw beauty of this place. People come here for this experience."

And as Newfoundland moves to exploit its full energy potential, the province is set to become "a green-energy superpower," he predicted.

This transformation has come with a price: battles with the federal government over resource royalties; and the equalization formula, insisting it could stand on its own two feet but still demanding special breaks from Ottawa.

Those wars are largely over, although the Premier still trots out a shopping list of asks - from help with the Lower Churchill project to increased financing for ferries to more federal public-service jobs on the Rock.

Relations with Jean Charest's Quebec government - which would not co-operate on the Lower Churchill project and which is trying to block the underwater cable, claiming unfair competition - remain Arctic.

For too many years, Mr. Williams said, "we sat back and took it on the chin," from Quebec. No more. The Lower Churchill project will allow the province to export electricity from hydro and wind into the Maritimes and northeastern U.S. markets.

The myth of Newfoundland, like so many nationalist myths, jars with reality. The province is, for one thing, more urban than rural, with half the population now living in or near St. John's. The old outport culture is withering away.

Mr. Williams acknowledges that there is much still to be done.

"We have to spend our money wisely," he said. "We have to put in the proper infrastructure - roads, schools, hospitals, broadband, a proper communications infrastructure - so that we can encourage people to come and live and work and prosper here. That's always been the game plan."

Whatever lies ahead for Newfoundland, Danny Williams will continue to be inextricably involved in it. "This land is the province of opportunity. There is enormous opportunity in Newfoundland right now," he insisted.

"I want to stay involved. I want to keep this brain active."

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