John Crosbie: Political 'giant,' family man and N.L. icon remembered at state funeral

John Crosbie: Political 'giant,' family man and N.L. icon remembered at state funeral

Dignitaries, politicians, family and friends gathered in St. John's on Thursday for the state funeral for John Crosbie, a former provincial and federal minister, lieutenant-governor, and political icon in Newfoundland and Labrador who was remembered for his candour and dedication to political and family life.

Crosbie, 88, died Jan. 10 following a period of illness.

N.L. Conservative Opposition Leader Ches Crosbie — the eldest son of John and Jane Crosbie — began Thursday's funeral service at the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist with the first eulogy. He was followed by former prime minister Brian Mulroney, among dignitaries in attendance, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former prime minister Joe Clark.

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Ches Crosbie spoke of his father's reputation as a voracious reader, a lover of "pithy quotes," and a man who sometimes could not hold his tongue.

"My father was a great reader. And for those of you who knew him well, he was always prepared, and left little to chance," he said.

"In his later years, when asked what he was reading, with a glint in his eye he'd reply, 'The Bible. I want to be ready for my final exam.'"

John Crosbie was notorious for speaking about exactly what was on his mind — something his son recounted in the eulogy.

The Rooms/Ches Crosbie Twitter

"While his honesty was legendary, it often got dad into hot water. The CBC once wrote that, 'He carries around in that great head a little voice which murmurs from time to time, 'Go ahead, Johnny, say it. What the hell,"' Ches Crosbie said.

"That little voice led him to tell the press that he had not read the entire text of the Free Trade Agreement, and that no one else in government had, either. He was the only one truthful enough to say so."

But, more importantly, Crosbie was a dedicated family man, his son said.

"Dad revelled in his role as a parent. Michael, Beth and I always knew we were cherished. As grandchildren and great-grandchildren came along, his heart grew — a size larger with each child," Ches Crosbie said.

"While many knew him as a giant in the world of politics, for us, John Crosbie was a gentle giant in the life of our family."

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Mulroney, prime minister from 1984 to 1993, took to the pulpit and shared his fond memories of the years he relied on Crosbie as a senior cabinet minister and an integral part in major milestones of his governing years.

"If a prime minister of Canada is lucky — and I mean really lucky — he gets to have a John Crosbie in his cabinet. One — not two," Mulroney said with a laugh.

"As I sat across the cabinet table from John for nine years and watched him in action, I knew that as prime minister I had just been handed a major gift. A man of high principle and unassailable integrity, John was direct and thoughtful in his approach. Direct, humorous, fully prepared."

'Unprecedented achievement'

Mulroney remembered a difficult time in 1990, when the world was in the middle of a recession, the Meech Lake Accord had been defeated, free trade was off to a slow start and Canadians were "sharpening their knives" for him in anticipation of the GST. He and Crosbie met privately to talk about the Hibernia offshore project.

The oil companies wanted a $2.7-billion guarantee from Ottawa, something that was met with criticism from other corners of cabinet. Crosbie, Mulroney said, told him it was vital for Newfoundland and Labrador.

"As I looked at him that day in the fading sunlight of a lovely Ottawa summer afternoon, I just knew he was right. And I knew, as well, that I had to do it."

Mulroney decided that the Hibernia guarantee was a worthy venture, and when he told the rest of his cabinet, he knew that it meant "a chance at prosperity" for Newfoundland and Labrador.

"As I concluded I could sense that John, who this day was seated on my left, was overcome with emotion, only to recover and whisper, 'thank you prime minister,' and then looking at his colleagues, 'thank you all.'"

Crosbie was proven to be right, Mulroney said, a reality only made apparent years after the fact, and it was the "seminal moment" of their long friendship.

"The truth is, Hibernia was his moment. Hibernia was his dream," Mulroney said.

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The legacy of Crosbie will be long-lasting, Mulroney said, noting that if Canadians reflect on their political leaders in 100 years' time, Crosbie's name will certainly be mentioned.

"I believe that many will whisper a special word of gratitude to John Crosbie, whose nation-building contributions will then be even more evident than they are today," Mulroney said.

"Indomitable defender of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador and a proud Canadian who served our country with high distinction, unblemished integrity and unprecedented achievement. No one — no one — could ask for more."

Sealskin in abundance

Along with Trudeau and Clark, current Lt.-Gov. Judy Foote also arrived ahead of the family, returning to St. John's early from a vacation to attend the ceremony for Crosbie, who had previously occupied her office.

The former lieutenant-governor's ashes spent two days at Confederation Building in St. John's. Crosbie is only the second political figure in the province to receive a state funeral, after his political rival, former premier Joey Smallwood.

The two days of public visitation saw hundreds of people filtering through Confederation Building to pay their respects to a political icon.

Members of the Progressive Conservative Party filled the pews at the cathedral well ahead of the service, all donning sealskin bow ties in Crosbie's honour.

A slew of other attendees donned their sealskin products in memory of Crosbie, who was long a staunch defender of the sealing industry and was integral to the establishment in Elliston, N.L., of a memorial to sealers, including 251 men who died in a storm in 1914. 

Bill Gaulton was emotional as he made his way to the cathedral; Gaulton calls himself one of the few remaining volunteers of Crosbie's municipal campaign in 1965, when Crosbie ran for St. John's city council.

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"It's hard on me. I've been with him every step of his … political career. So that's why I'm here — to honour him," said Gaulton, who campaigned across the country for Crosbie.

"I've never met the like of John Crosbie. That's why I'm here. He had a thousand people who would take a bullet for him."

Among the people arriving hours ahead of the ceremony was Bud Davidge, a Newfoundland and Labrador musician from Fortune Bay who met Crosbie on a number of occasions.

"He's probably the greatest Newfoundland representative, or patriot, or whatever you want to call it, that we've ever had," Davidge said outside the cathedral.

Malone Mullin/CBC

"He had the heart of the province all the time. He spoke his mind clearly and he was involved in all of the things that mean so much for the future of the province. It's impossible to say all the things that he's done."

Gordon Slade, provincial deputy minister of fisheries under Crosbie in the 1970s, said the legacy left behind by Crosbie won't be forgotten.

"He's a giant in terms of Newfoundland and Labrador politics, but also he was … the most significant minister we've had in Parliament since Confederation," said Slade.

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"And he's done so much that people don't know anything about."

Archdeacon Roger Whalen presided over the ceremony. Prior to the service, Whalen said it would be a traditional Anglican service, as requested by the family, in a place familiar to them.

"His wife Jane grew up coming to the cathedral — this was her parish — and the Crosbies were married here. And they've had a connection here for many years," said Whalen, who expected a full house for his first-ever state funeral.

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Whalen said earlier he was nervous about the ceremony, but "tremendously honoured" to deliver the service.

"With due respect to the current politicians, I don't think there's a politician from Newfoundland right now who would have the stature of Mr. Crosbie."

The service ended with a resounding rendition of the Ode to Newfoundland.

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Long political history

Crosbie was a political juggernaut, starting his early political career with St. John's city council, before joining the Smallwood Liberal government.

Following a leadership challenge against Smallwood — which Crosbie lost — and a falling out with Smallwood, Crosbie set his sights on federal politics.


Crosbie was elected as the Conservative MP for St. John's West in a byelection in 1976.

He would represent that riding for the next two decades, sitting in the House of Commons in Ottawa under Tory governments and on the opposition bench through the years.

A cabinet minister under both Clark and Mulroney, Crosbie held a number of portfolios, including Finance, Fisheries, Justice and International Trade.

Paul Daly/The Canadian Press

Crosbie had an integral role in the negotiations for the Free Trade Agreement; he was also fisheries minister when the Atlantic cod moratorium came down, putting thousands of people in Newfoundland and Labrador out of work.

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 members.

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