Robert Lorne Stanfield was
born on April 11, 1914, in Truro, Nova Scotia. A lawyer he became
president of the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Party in 1947; party
leader in 1948; first elected to the provincial legislature in 1949 and premier
of the province from 1956-67. He won the federal PC leadership in September
1967 and was elected to the House of Commons in June 1968. He resigned as
party leader in 1976 having failed three times to lead his party to victory in
general elections. He relinquished his Commons seat in 1979. Robert
Stanfield died in December 2003. This article is based on a eulogy delivered
in St. Bartholomew’s Church, Ottawa, on December 19, 2003.
We will never know for sure, but it may be that reports of
the Robert Stanfield’s modesty were somewhat exaggerated. For example, upon his
departure from federal politics, and upon hearing allies and adversaries
fulsomely and in unison singing his praises, he was heard to remark that, all
in all, he was probably just too good for this country anyway. On another
occasion, I had drafted some notes for him, containing a sentence that began “In
my humble opinion…” He handed the draft back to me with that phrase erased, his
wife commenting – without protest from him – “Bob Stanfield never had a humble
opinion in his whole life”.
What is truly remarkable about
the tributes that came forth in the days immediately following his death was
that it had been almost 30 years since his retirement from politics, most of
them entirely out of the public eye. He published no memoir. There
was no one tending a flame on his behalf or creating a mythology about
him. Yet there has survived in the collective Canadian
consciousness a vivid memory of Robert Stanfield as a leader of a major
party, a man of civility, humanity, and integrity, who adorned our national
Almost 10 years ago, at a
dinner in Ottawa celebrating his 80th birthday, Mr. Stanfield reflected on the
good fortune that had been his throughout his life. He spoke first of his
parents who had left him with the financial security to pursue a political
career at a relatively young age. Then of his wives – Joyce and Mary who had
predeceased him, and Anne who would be with him for the last 25 years of his
life; then, of his children. Finally, the opportunity that politics had
provided to know so many different people, across the widest spectrum of Canadian
life, and to be joined with them in working for the betterment of the country.
“This opportunity” he said, “has given my life a depth and a meaning I had no
right to expect. I owe that opportunity to my party”.
In Nova Scotia where he began,
the first thing he had to impress upon his Tory followers was that there were
not enough of them to elect a government. It was not quite the message many of
them wanted to hear after 23 years in the political wilderness. However, they
knew he spoke from experience, and for the future of their party. From zero
seats in the House of Assembly when he became leader, he had brought them to a
majority government eight years later.
Given the opportunity to
govern, he and his party earned increasing support – dramatically increasing
support – year after year, election after election, for the next 11 years.
It is hardly an exaggeration, nor a reflection on those who came after
him, to say that his Premiership, although now long past, is for many Nova
Scotians still the template, the standard by which his successors have been
He was a very effective
campaigner, if somewhat unconventional by today’s standards. Rather than make a
grand entrance into a political rally after a number of preliminary events had
whipped up enthusiasm among the crowd, he preferred to arrive early, in fact
ahead of everybody else. (If it is possible to be punctual to a fault,
Stanfield was). He would say hello and shake hands with one and all as they
filed into the hall. Otherwise he accommodated himself to whatever the local
people had arranged. One of his few instructions to campaign organizers was to
try to make sure, if at all possible, to get him out of Cape Breton before
For most of his 11 years as Premier
he was also Minister of Education. This was a labour of love for him. He
expanded government involvement in primary and secondary, vocational and
university education, and extended French language education through high
He led an activist, and in the
context of those times a very progressive government in Nova Scotia. Then, as a
candidate for the national leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in
1967, when he was asked what kind of leader he would be, he replied by telling
them what kind of party he intended to lead – “a party” he said, “that will be
recognized not merely for its affluence, for its comfort, for its power – but
for its humanity, for its compassion and for its decency”.
It was his fate to defend
these values not as Prime Minister but as Leader of the Opposition, and so he
did, unfailingly, throughout his time in Parliament. To him, Mr. Trudeau’s
concept of the “just society” seemed more legalistic than compassionate, and so
he came at it from that perspective.
When Mr. Trudeau asked,
rhetorically, à propos the civil war in Nigeria “where is Biafra”, it was the
Prime Minister’s way of declaring his extreme reluctance to say or do anything
that might be construed as recognition or support of a breakaway state in
another federation. However, Mr. Stanfield was appalled by the unfolding
humanitarian catastrophe. Together with David MacDonald, Gordon Fairweather and
the NDP’s Andy Brewin, he helped alert and arouse Canadian public opinion and
from opening day in the new Parliament of 1968, kept the government’s feet to
the fire until there was some softening of the hard line official position.
Similarly, Mr. Stanfield
maintained a constant and heartfelt criticism of the government’s economic
advisors for what he saw as their casual acceptance of higher unemployment as
the necessary cost of bringing inflation down. In time this led him, with
politically fatal results, to advocate a temporary freeze on wages and prices,
followed by a brief period of mandatory controls, followed – hopefully – by
voluntary restraints. His defense of the policy was simple: whatever its
shortcomings, he saw it as much better than the human misery of prolonged high
unemployment or runaway inflation.
Later, he might have said, and
probably did say, that his approach had turned out only to be a bit premature.
Rejected in the 1974 election, wage and price controls were adopted by the
government a year later.
Relentless as he was in opposing
some government policies, he was unstinting in his support for Mr. Trudeau’s Official
Languages Act. Notwithstanding a revolt by a group of MPs led by Mr.
Diefenbaker, he defended the policy then, and to the end of his days, as noble
in conception and necessary to the future of the country.
In 1974 he went as far as to
reject the candidacy of Leonard Jones of Moncton on account of Mr. Jones
virulent opposition to Acadian rights in New Brunswick. As the leader of a
national party Mr. Stanfield called on English speaking Canadians to support
measures designed to protect the French language and culture. He asked
them to understand why Quebeceurs and their governments were so preoccupied by
He brought into the
Conservative Party a number of eminent Francophones such as Marcel Faribault,
Yves Ryan and Claude Wagner. In the tradition of Georges-Etienne Cartier he was
convinced that English and French Canadians had to work together to build the
party and the country. His vision, in this regard, was not fulfilled until the
1980s but although retired for many years he took up with vigour and energy
defense of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords.
Of his latter years he said “I
am enjoying life and hopefully doing some things that are useful”. This
“useful” activity was extensive. It included the Chairmanship of the Institute
for Research on Public Policy, Director of the North-South Institute, Vice
President of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Director of the
Parliamentary Centre for Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Governor of the
Windsor Foundation, Associate Governor of Dalhousie University, Honorary
Director of Canada Life, Chair of the Commonwealth Foundation; and regular
participant with scholars, diplomats, journalists, parliamentarians and others
in a discussion group devoted to the Middle East. Those who were associated
with him in these undertakings, know that his commitment was anything but
perfunctory. The truth is he loved these opportunities to work on questions he
considered important to public policy and to the future of the country.
Occasionally he accepted
speaking or writing engagements. Reading the texts, some of them written or
heavily annotated in his inimitable handwriting, it is obvious they were
intended to stimulate, indeed provoke, his audiences. There was a nice edge to
some of the prose, and maybe some mischief, perhaps because he was out of
politics and away from political advisors.
To the Albany Club of Toronto
in 1979 he saw “just a touch of hypocrisy” in Ontario’s criticism of “wicked”
Alberta’s defense of provincial rights, when historically Ontario had been the
first to challenge effectively the strength of the federal government. That
said, he acknowledged the generous support of the people and government of
Ontario for policies intended to increase opportunities for the people of
Atlantic Canada, and he hoped that the people of Alberta would use their wealth
with the same degree of national responsibility, as had the people of Ontario
in his time.
Before the Quebec referendum
of 1980, he said, “The concept of sovereignty-association seems mad to English
speaking Canadians.” In 1980 he spoke to the Canada West Foundation in Banff
while controversy raged on both energy and the Constitution. Remarking on
a certain “nationalist” opinion aligned against some western aims and which was
lecturing the west that they must act in the interests of the whole nation, he
said, “Now you know how French-speaking Canadians have felt”. Where were
Western Canadians in 1970, he asked, when the War Measures Act was
invoked? Then he added: “Perhaps their attitude would have been different if I
had set a better example”.
At a Halifax conference, he
wondered whether the Atlantic Provinces would ever develop a joint economic strategy
on their own, or whether they needed Ottawa to force the issue. “It is perhaps
a terrible question for me to ask” he concluded, “but do we need to have our
heads knocked together a little”.
To his own party’s supporters,
he warned repeatedly against trying “to pile ideological confrontation and
polarization on top of the tensions inherent in our country”. As far back as 25
years ago, he was concerned about the overloading of the federal government and
parliament and had come to the conclusion that “we must make a choice between
all-pervasive government and parliamentary responsible government, that we
cannot have both”.
Perhaps we ought to pull
together an anthology of those speeches. While they are of some historical
interest on the issues they addressed at the time, many of them are really
worth reading as essays in public philosophy.
Robert Stanfield was never
much given to grand peroration himself and often thought it overdone in the
speeches of others, so let me conclude with a prediction made, fifty years ago
the great Liberal Premier of Nova Scotia, Angus L. Macdonald.
Robert Stanfield he said “will always do right by Nova Scotia”.
At the end of his long life,
Bob Stanfield – who was personally modest - would be more than content to have
it said of him that he had done right by Nova Scotia; by his country, Canada;
by his party, the Progressive Conservative party; by his family, his friends
and associates. We know that he was a statesman of the highest quality, and we
were privileged and fortunate to have known him.