Richard Hatfield: Power and
Disobedience by Michael
Cormier and Achille Michaud, translated by Daphne Ponder, Goose Lane Editions,
1992, 253 pages.
I first saw Richard Hatfield in the
summer of 1957. He was then assistant to the new Minister of Trade and
Commerce, Gordon Churchill, whose parliamentary office was next to mine. I saw
very little of the good-looking young New Brunswicker, except when he put out
the silver service for the messengers to return to the parliamentary restaurant
after his afternoon tea. (Perhaps an early indicator of the dilettante). He did
not exude the surprised delight that beamed from many Ottawa-based Tories after
the great breakthrough of the June 1957 election.
In his last months, the long-time
premier, national statesman, and enigmatic iconoclast was again my next door
neighbour on the Senatorial floor of the East Block. As is typical of political
veterans, we sometimes talked of battles lost and won. We also swapped recipes
for baked beans. Once he came back from Fredericton with all the ingredients
for his recipe, which I tried and found almost as good as mine. This small
gesture of kindly sensitivity was a part of his charm.
Through the years, I often saw him
at political, public and university gatherings. In the elections of 1970 and
1982, I accepted his invitations to campaign in a New Brunswick election,
although I thought it perhaps presumptuous for a Prince Edward Islander. In
fact, I enjoyed it immensely, especially the North Shore meetings.
Despite the long years of
acquaintance, I could not claim to have known him well. Richard Hatfield was an
interesting person (although sometimes his speeches were not). Often indeed, he
could be fascinating, but always he was opaque. No matter how closely one
viewed him, one felt that he was still being seen through a glass darkly.
In this highly readable book, the
authors, correspondents Michel Cormier and Achille Michaud, do well in their
analysis of a complex and sometimes contradictory character. We see Hatfield
the loner remaining aloof from most of his colleagues. He was moved by symbols,
but bored by details. Often languid and underactivated, he nevertheless led the
Dalhousie University class in criminal law outshining the brilliant and
ambitious John Crosbie. To some of his political associates, Hatfield was a
"dandy" and a "prima donna," but it is clear that while he
was an unorthodox premier, he was by no means a weakling leader. In fact, he
was very much in charge of the New Brunswick government every day of the year,
whether he himself was in the province, or in more exotic climes.
On the whole, this is an
interesting and well-written book. But there are lapses. The chapter on the
Atkinson affair is both too long and too vague. There are some factual errors.
For instance, if the seven-year-old Hatfield was presented to R.B. Bennett at a
Conservative Convention, it was in Ottawa, not Winnipeg (p. 25). But the
authors do well when they discuss Hatfield's relations with Acadians. For years
in New Brunswick, being Acadian was synonymous with being Grit. The correlation
of ethnic and partisan lines is generally unfortunate in a multi-ethnic
democracy. Whatever Hatfield was or was not, did or did not, his capacity to
reach out to the Acadian population of his province entitles him to the highest
accolades of historians. He brought about a new and better province. His same
ecumenical values were exercised in the interest of his country as well as his
province, and both are better for it.
Inevitably, this biography ends on
a tragic note. The 1987 New Brunswick election was an unmitigated disaster. Not
since Walter M. Lea took every seat in the thirty member P.E.I. legislature in
1935 had there been a total electoral sweep in Canada.
It is always more difficult to
explain elections than to predict them. The authors suggest that there was a
blending of Hatfield's personal and political life. As I read about the
identification of the man and the position, I could not but think of Louis
XIV's dictum, "L'Útat c'est moi." It may be that innuendos, smears,
and uncertainties about his lifestyle brought on the terrible political
annihilation of 1987. But was there not more to it than that?
Richard Hatfield was anything but a
hypocrite or a phoney. Nor were New Brunswickers the greatest prudes on earth.
As the book reports, his fellow citizens seemed proud that he could get to
Montmartre without asking the way. Other political leaders seem to get away
with personal idiosyncrasies. Was the big failure solely that of the man, or
was it also that of the party?
Of course, Hatfield ran one
election too many. Here he was unlike Brian Mulroney who, despite those about
him counselling otherwise, chose the wiser course for his party's and his own
As the authors put it, "The
remaining years of his government read like the log of a sinking ship." (p.
213) "The Conservatives went into the election like lemmings headed for
the sea." (p. 222) No matter who the leader, a political party is more
than a leader. Did no one notice that it is generally dangerous to delay an
election too long? Was there no concern about the delay in ratifying Meech, of
which Hatfield was an ardent supporter?
This book will prompt further and
deep reflections on the man and the Hatfield era. It merits careful study and
Heath Macquarrie, The Senate (Ottawa)