Monday, August 1, 2016

Richard Hatfield: A colourful NB flashback

(Back in the winter, I shared a piece I had written about Alden Nowlan: The poet from Desolation Creek, Nova Scotia. Alden and the Premier of New Brunswick at the time, Richard Hatfield, were good friends. Richard was a regular at Alden's, hob-nobbing with poets and novelists and artists. I met him there often and always enjoyed his company. I took a special interest in this book and this is a review I wrote when it was published in 1992.)

Richard Hatfield: Power and Disobedience

Michel Cormier & Achille Michaud (publisher: Goose Lane Editions)

This is a terrific book. Authors Michel Cormier and Achille Michaud have captured an era in New Brunswick political history that is as lively as good daily journalism and as relevant as good history.

In spite of the title, the book isn’t a biography of Richard Hatfield in any strict sense; it’s a picture of a province through a changing time, with Hatfield at the centre and the usual cast of characters peopling the inner circle, the outer circle, the margins and the fringes. How can anyone say New Brunswick is dull?

Both authors were journalists in New Brunswick during part of Hatfield’s tenure but they didn’t decide to write the book until 1985, the year the premier went on trial for possession of marijuana. They used a combination of interviews, archives and personal observations to put together this work, originally published in French by Editions Libre Expression. The translation is by Daphne Ponder. (Cormier is now Ottawa correspondent for CBC Radio’s Sunday Morning and Michaud is the Toronto correspondent for Radio-Canada’s Le Point.)

Hatfield was certainly one of the more interesting premiers in our country in the recent past and all the predictable stories are here: Bricklin, kickbacks and Francis Atkinson, the doll collection, the membership in the Parti Quebecois and the bizarre toast to the Princess of Wales and, of course, the marijuana affair. Some of the stories are more familiar (and more frivolous) than others but all, especially the chapter about the Atkinson affair, are meticulously researched and clearly presented.

Hatfield with Bricklin

Other stories (and I was a journalist in New Brunswick and knew Richard Hatfield socially) are less familiar; the authors had good sources and have an engaging way with anecdotes.

Maybe the most interesting thing these authors bring to the book is their own Acadian background. Not a lot has been written for English-speaking readers about the political dynamics of the Acadian communities and the relationship Hatfield was able to build with them – which most certainly was one factor in his longevity as premier.

Not so his administrative skills. The book is riddled with examples of his carelessness in running his government, his lack of interest in how things get done. One typical story involved the hiring of Marcel Mass‚ as deputy minister of finance in 1973. Mass, an economic advisor in Pierre Trudeau’s office, was interviewed for the position and went back to Ottawa:

“Four months later...Hatfield called Mass‚ and said, ‘You start as deputy minister of finance in two weeks.’ Taken aback, Mass‚ explained that he needed more time to resign from the Prime Minister’s Office, sell his house and discuss the move with his wife. ‘That’s your problem,’ Hatfield replied, apparently amused. Before hanging up, Hatfield asked Mass‚ to draw up his own employment contract because he was not sure of the responsibilities of a deputy minister of finance.”

The authors observe that he preferred to forget about day-to-day problems or let them be dealt with by others – or not. “Not only was he more interested in principles than in their application, but he also believed that it was up to individuals to demand their rights...”

Certainly Hatfield was a charming and engaging man and his life makes for an interesting story but a reader coming to New Brunswick politics for the first time must wonder how anything got done in the province, how any progress could be made. And in truth, many things didn’t get done; progress was limited to one or two areas of Hatfield’s special interest.

There was an ambivalence about Hatfield in the province which I think these authors understand very well. Some people voted for his governments because to vote for another party was not an option to be considered.

They were your lifelong Tories. The Liberal party went through several destructive changes during the ‘70s making them a less desirable alternative than they would become later. But Hatfield was able to stitch together odds and ends of support to bolster the core Tories and some of the Acadian communities to win four consecutive terms – unprecedented in New Brunswick. (His final election, when he lost every seat to the Liberals, has also gone into the record books.)

This book is beautifully written – and beautifully translated. In a passage about former Liberal leader, Joe Daigle: “He was respected for his integrity and discipline, and for the long hours he worked on the public’s behalf, but only in the way a boring priest is called a saintly man. His appointment to the bench at the age of thirty-five seemed less an impressive career advancement than a sign that he had grown old too early.”

In this day and age, it’s a wonderful thing to read a book that has all the words spelled right and is almost completely devoid of editing inaccuracies. (Okay, IODE stands for Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, not International etc. etc. In the authors’ defence, this is an organization not commonly found in Acadian communities.) In general, Goose Lane has made an attractive, readable book – with photographs interspersed rather than bunched in the middle.

Oh yes. Some of you want to know how the question of Hatfield’s sexuality was handled. And these authors have added little to the discussion on the eternal question: was Hatfield gay? They asked him, choosing their words carefully and assuring him (and us) that their only reason for asking was because it had become an issue in the last campaign. His response was vintage Hatfield:

“If it was a factor in 1987, it was also in 1982 and 1978. In 1978, Joe Daigle made an accusation he retracted because of the adverse reaction to it. So regardless of what they may have said or what they may have whispered, you know, sometimes people would tell me things and sometimes they wouldn’t. But it never bothered me. I had a very generous respect for the people.”

People in New Brunswick knew that, I think. That would be another reason for his political success over such a long period.


The book is still available and anyone interested in looking back at fairly recent history would definitely enjoy it.

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