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Heath Macquarrie

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 sake.

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 reflection.

Heath Macquarrie, The Senate (Ottawa)

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Vol 16 no 3

Last Updated: 2020-09-14