Crosbie earned praise —
and criticism — for his quick wit, saucy tongue and controversial
John Crosbie 1931-2020. John Crosbie had a remarkable career that took
him from St. John's city council to the inner sanctum of Parliament
Hill, from fishing wharfs to the negotiating rooms of international
trade agreements. He was 88. (CBC)
Read Comments John
Crosbie, a firebrand of a politician who served in several federal
cabinet portfolios and who played a dominant role in his beloved
Newfoundland and Labrador for decades, has died.
He was 88.
"To Newfoundland and Labrador and to Canada, he was an independent
spirit, a passionate nation builder, an orator of biting wit and charm,
and always — forever — a tireless fighter for the people," reads a
family statement released Friday morning.
"John's is a legacy worth celebrating, a life worth emulating, a name
indelibly etched in the history of this place we love."
Arrangements for his memorial wake and funeral will be announced soon,
the family said.
During a remarkable career that took him from St. John's city council to
the inner sanctum of Parliament Hill, from fishing wharfs to the
negotiating rooms of international trade agreements, Crosbie earned
praise — and criticism — for his quick wit, saucy tongue and willingness
to make controversial decisions.
Chief among those was a stomach-churning decision to shut down the
northern cod fishery off Newfoundland and Labrador in 1992, a decision
that instantly put an estimated 30,000 people out of work and triggered
what was called the single largest industrial layoff in Canadian
He also oversaw Canada's fateful 1989 free-trade agreement with the
United States, championed the Hibernia offshore oil megaproject in the
years before its development, and served as a powerful regional minister
in an era when cabinet portfolios were allowed that kind of clout. A
titan of Tory politics, he was unapologetic about patronage, claiming
that appointing qualified supporters to public positions was key to
Crosbie never served as premier of Newfoundland and Labrador nor prime
minister, but he was politically ambitious, launching unsuccessful
leadership attempts at the provincial and federal levels.
In his later years, he served as Newfoundland and Labrador's
lieutenant-governor, a ceremonial role he embraced between 2008 and
His last major public appearance was in September 2018, when his son
Ches Crosbie won a provincial byelection. Ches Crosbie is now the leader
of the Opposition Tories in Newfoundland and Labrador's House of
Born into privilege
John Carnell Crosbie was born Jan. 30, 1931, in St. John's to a
prominent business family. He overcame the painful shyness of his youth
to emerge as a potent political force, with his career in public life
stretching from the 1960s through to his final years.
Although known for a caustic wit and a willingness to argue with any
political opponent, Crosbie — who trained first as a lawyer — once found
public speaking so mortifying that he enrolled in a Dale Carnegie course
to muster the courage to speak in public.
His political career accelerated quickly. Crosbie jumped from a seat on
St. John's city council to a cabinet seat in the Liberal government of
legendary Newfoundland premier Joseph R. Smallwood in 1966.
But Crosbie resisted becoming a Smallwood protegé, and in 1967 quit
cabinet — with future Liberal premier Clyde Wells — over frustrations
with a deal Smallwood wanted to make with American industrialist John
Shaheen over an oil refinery at Come By Chance.
Crosbie stayed on the sidelines of the provincial Liberals before
stepping into a leadership race in 1969 to replace Smallwood. His
ambitions were thwarted in bizarre fashion, though, when Smallwood —
still the sitting premier — entered the leadership race to replace
himself, insisting that Liberals could not trust the young politician he
decried as a "merchant princeling."
Crosbie broke ranks with the Liberals and, in a fateful move, jumped to
the Progressive Conservatives, helping the once-feeble Newfoundland
Tories muster enough strength to topple the 23-year grip on power that
Smallwood had enjoyed. With Frank Moores as premier, Crosbie emerged as
the de facto powerhouse of the PC government, serving in roles that
included finance and government House leader.
By 1976, the lure of federal politics took Crosbie to Ottawa, after he
won a byelection in St. John's West — the riding he would represent for
most of the next two decades.
In 1979, he was finance minister in Joe Clark's short-lived Tory
government, wearing mukluks (rather than the traditional new pair of
shoes) to bring in a tough-love budget that included tax increases for
what Crosbie called "short-term pain for long-term gain."
Clark's government wound up having a short term, with the Liberals
putting Crosbie's budget to a non-confidence vote that triggered a new
In 1983, Crosbie entered the subsequent PC leadership contest that Clark
called to resolve tensions within the party. He wound up placing third,
behind Clark and the victor, Brian Mulroney. Crosbie declined to endorse
either candidate, and earned attention as the largest defender of free
trade in the race. But his campaign came under attack when, defending
his inability to speak French, he quipped that he could not speak
Mandarin Chinese, either.
Federal front bench
As a key member of Mulroney's team in the wake of the Tory triumph in
the 1984 election, Crosbie held several portfolios in the years to come:
justice, transport, international trade and fishery.
Far from a temporary move: N.L.'s cod moratorium is 25 years old
A near miss: Hibernia almost canned before meeting with John Crosbie,
former PM Mulroney recalls
A dedicated free trader, Crosbie held the torch for Canada as it
negotiated the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. The FTA
became the template for NAFTA, the trilateral agreement later reached
His time in Parliament was marked as much by colour and controversy as
by his political ambitions.
Federal Fisheries Minister Crosbie confronts fishermen in Bay Bulls on
July 1, 1992. (CBC)
"Just quiet down,
baby," he told Liberal MP Sheila Copps in an infamous June 1985 exchange
in the House of Commons. "I'm not his baby, and I'm nobody's baby,"
Copps fired back.
Five years later, Crosbie ignited another controversy about Copps when
he quoted the lyrics of a Bobby Bare song at a B.C. fundraising dinner.
"Pass the tequila, Sheila, and lay down and love me again," he said.
Crosbie and Copps, despite the headlines, became friends. She titled her
1986 autobiography Nobody's Baby and he wrote the introduction for her
second book, Worth Fighting For, in 2004.
Crosbie frequently earned the ire of feminists — New Democrat Dawn
Black, one of what Crosbie called the "four horsewomen of the
apocalypse" once called him a "Crosbiesaurus" — but he also held firm to
Red Tory beliefs. Pro-choice, Crosbie actually fought in 1990 for the
reinstatement of funding that had been cut for women's programs across
Canada, and held progressive views on social issues, including
protecting LGBT people from discrimination.
Shutting down the fishery
In his final years in cabinet, Crosbie took on the fisheries portfolio —
as well as the politically difficult decision to shut down the northern
cod fishery on July 2, 1992. The decision came after months of
consistently worsening reports of the state of cod stocks, and would be
followed by other closures in Atlantic Canadian waters.
The day before, on Canada Day, Crosbie uttered one of his most famous
remarks when he was confronted by angry fishermen on the wharf in Bay
"Why are you yelling at me? I didn't take the fish from the God damn
water," Crosbie yelled back.
It was a sign of Crosbie's clout in cabinet that he was able to deliver
a massive compensation package that provided transitional income for
about 28,000 people who either fished for a living or worked in fish
plants that subsequently closed.
Crosbie retired from federal politics in 1993, the same year the PCs
would be not only cleared out of office but reduced to a caucus of just
two seats. Crosbie, who thought little of Kim Campbell's leadership,
found himself to be the blunt party member who called it the way he saw
it after the loss.
"The world knows who's responsible," Crosbie told CBC News. "It's the
leader and those immediately around her who advised during the course of
the election campaign. They must bear the burden of responsibility."
Although Crosbie would toy with the idea of a return to elected office —
he briefly entertained the thought of a federal comeback leading into
the 2004 election — he found other pursuits after Ottawa.
He wrote a 1997 memoir, No Holds Barred: My Life In Politics, in which
he detailed behind-the-scenes exchanges with his former colleagues among
the high and mighty. He also acknowledged that his sense of humour could
be a liability with some pundits and journalists.
Conservative cabinet minister Crosbie is invested as Officer to the
Order of Canada by Gov. Gen. Romeo LeBlanc at a ceremony at Rideau hall
in Ottawa in 1999. (Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)
"I refused to act as though I'd been weaned on a pickle," he wrote,
describing how he stood out from other politicians.
"The media, however, wouldn't make the effort to listen to what I was
saying or understand what I was doing. Instead, they stereotyped me as a
buffoon, an entertainer, a jokester who was incapable of taking serious
Crosbie also found himself bristling at having been often labelled a
"loose cannon because I refused to pussyfoot around issues and only say
safe, predictable things."
Away from the political limelight, Crosbie returned to a private legal
practice, but found new ways to participate in public life.
Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, left, shares a laugh with Crosbie,
chancellor of Memorial University, as Chrétien receives an honorary
doctor of laws degree in St. John's on May, 24, 2000. (Andrew
Vaughan/The Canadian Press)
In 1994, he was named
chancellor of Memorial University, a post he held for 14 years.
In 2008, he was appointed lieutenant-governor of Newfoundland and
Labrador. His five-year term returned him often to the public eye,
albeit in a much more ceremonial fashion.
During his tenure as lieutenant-governor, Crosbie pursued a project of
passion: developing a memorial to sealers, particularly those killed in
a notorious 1914 disaster. The Home From The Sea centre and memorial was
formally unveiled in 2014.