He is referred to as the best prime minister Canada never had and from 1967 to 1976, he served as the Leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and the Leader of the Official Opposition. In that time, he took part in three elections, more than any other Leader of the Opposition who never became prime minister, against the dynamic Pierre Trudeau.
His life story is much more than those elections, and his career in politics dated back to the 1940s where he would have a hand in shaping the future of his home province of Nova Scotia.
Born in Truro, Nova Scotia on April 11, 1914, he was the son of Sarah and Frank Stanfield. His father Frank, was at the time of Robert’s birth, the MLA for Colchester County, a position he would hold from 1911 to 1920 and again from 1925 to 1930. For one year from 1930 to 1931, he would serve as the Lt. Governor of Nova Scotia. He also owned Stanfield’s Limited, which had created unshrinkable underwear that was used by prospectors in the Klondike and would grow to become one of the largest producers of wool goods in Canada.
From an early age, Stanfield was involved in politics thanks to his father and that would shape his later life.
In fact, one story from his childhood came when he was 16 when he got into an argument with his sister Kit about global affairs. As the debate grew more impassioned, Stanfield took off his shoes and began banging them on a table to emphasize his points.
When he was 17, his father would die, and at the age of 25, Stanfield inherited $350,000, equivalent to about $6.5 million. Rather than blow through the money, Stanfield invested it and it would fund his political endeavors for years.
Stanfield would attend Dalhousie University where he studied economics and political science, and he would receive the Governor General’s Silver Medal for having the highest academic standing when he graduated in 1936.
From there he went on to Harvard, where he studied Law and became the first-ever Canadian editor of the Harvard Law Review.
During the Second World War, Stanfield worked with the Victory Bond program in Nova Scotia. Around this same time, in 1940, he would marry Joyce Frazee, who he remained married to until 1954 when she was killed in a car crash.
After the war, Stanfield turned his attention to politics. Aligning himself with the Progressive Conservative Party of Nova Scotia, he found the party not doing well. At the time, the Liberal Party had dominated provincial politics. Since Confederation in 1867, the Liberals had won all but three elections. The Progressive Conservative Party, when Stanfield joined, had no seats in the Legislature for the first time in its history. It was in this situation that Stanfield was elected as party leader in 1948, at the age of 34.
Why did Stanfield take over the leadership of a party at its lowest point? He would state, quote:
“I took over the leadership in 1948 because it was a choice between that and writing off the investment in time and energy we’d spent rebuilding the party. I didn’t think of myself then as a leader. I don’t think anybody else did either.”
He would begin to rebuild the party from that point, helping the party gain eight seats in the 1949 election, then 13 in the 1953 election.
On Oct. 30, 1956, after years of rebuilding the party, he would become the Premier of Nova Scotia after the Progressive Conservatives won 24 seats in the election.
One year after he became premier, he married Mary Hall, who he would remain married to until 1977.
Governing as a moderate and a Red Tory, Stanfield would bring in sweeping changes as premier, a role he would hold until 1967.
In the process, he would become the first Conservative premier to win four straight majority elections. As premier, he would bring in several reforms in human rights, education and health care in the province.
His party would modernize the road system of Nova Scotia, bring in its first form of Medicare, create an economic development agency and establish the Voluntary Economic Planning Board. His party also invested heavily in education, created vocational schools and provided the first consistent funding to the province’s universities.
By 1967, Stanfield was being touted as a potential successor to John Diefenbaker, the federal leader of the Progressive Conservatives who had served as prime minister from 1957 to 1963. By the time Canada’s Centennial Year rolled around, the party was heavily divided and a strong faction was against Diefenbaker after two election losses.
It was into this atmosphere that Stanfield entered into the race to become the new leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives.
At first, Stanfield was hesitant to enter into federal politics. His party had just won a majority government again and he seemed to be happy in his role as premier.
He was well-loved in Nova Scotia as well. One Truro truck driver would tell Macleans in 1968, quote:
“He’s like God to folks down here.”
One newspaper writer in the town at the same time described him as having the slow-speaking dignity of Gary Cooper.
His biographer, Geoffrey Stevens, would say of Stanfield’s time as premier, quote:
“He convinced them they did not have to remain a backwater, retarded and depressed. He convinced them that they had a future worth fighting for.”
There were supporters for him, who saw him as an Abraham Lincoln type, and those who felt he was not Winston Churchill enough, in that he did not give lightning policy decisions or rousing public speeches.
John Stewart, a Nova Scotia MP, would say quote:
He would finally agree after being pressured by several members of the federal party, including party president Dalton Camp.
Upon entering the race, the Toronto Star stated he set himself apart with his, quote:
“honesty, forthrightness and quiet demeanor.”
On the first ballot, Stanfield picked up 519 votes and 23.3 per cent of the vote. As the leadership election went on, Stanfield increased his share of the support in every round and by the fourth round, the number of candidates had reduced from 11 to just four. Stanfield again led the field with 865 votes and 40.1 per cent of the vote on that ballot.
Finally, on the fifth ballot, Stanfield won the leadership of the party with 54.3 per cent of the vote over main challenger Dufferin Roblin.
As soon as he was elected as leader, the Progressive Conservatives rose in the polls and many believed that in the coming election, he would beat the aging Lester B. Pearson, who had served as prime minister since 1963. What they did not count on was not only did Pearson retire at the end of 1967, but a new man would take over the party in February of 1968, Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
The kind nature of Stanfield was seen in the fact that he did not jump at the chance to go after the Liberals when the opportunity presented itself. In early 1968, the Liberals were defeated in a no-confidence vote, which would have triggered an election. The Governor of the Bank of Canada then spoke with Stanfield stating that an election would cripple Canada’s international reputation and hurt the dollar. In response, Stanfield agreed to another vote, which the Liberals won, saving the government from falling for a few months.
If Stanfield had of gone up against a different Liberal leader, it is likely his party would win but Trudeau was unlike any prime minister Canada had ever had. He was a charismatic public speaker, who performed well on television and was extremely popular in Quebec. While Trudeaumania swept the country, Stanfield’s poor grasp of French and his laconic speaking style contrasted poorly with Trudeau and his dynamic persona.
As Stanfield approached the 1968 election, his first as federal leader, he had his work cut out for him.
The 1968 election would see the Progressive Conservatives lose 22 seats to fall to 72. They would retain their Official Opposition status but Trudeau and the Liberals gained 27 seats to finish with 155, giving the party its first majority government since 1953.
Stanfield would state jokingly that if he walked on water, the news headlines the next day would say Bob Stanfield can’t swim.
Despite the loss, Stanfield was able to carry on as leader but he still faced several problems in the party including his support of the Official Languages Act and official bilingualism, which angered the supporters of Diefenbaker. While many criticized him at the time in the party, in later years his stance would gain him respect from his former critics.
Stanfield was known for working hard as leader. He would arrive at his office in the Centre Block at 9 a.m., and not head home until 6:30 p.m., where he would have dinner, and then come back to work.
By the time 1972 came along, Stanfield and the Progressive Conservatives were in a much better position as the public felt the Liberals were not managing the economy well. At the same time, Trudeaumania had faded and the Liberals would put forward a lackluster campaign in the election of that year.
In the Oct. 30, 1972 election, Stanfield played off of his honest but bumbling image and projected himself as a grandfatherly type, much in the same vein as Louis St. Laurent did in the 1950s as Uncle Louis.
The 1972 election would prove to be one of the closest in Canadian history, with the Liberals winning 109 seats to the 107 won by the Progressive Conservatives. Trudeau was able to maintain power for the next two years through an alliance he formed with the New Democratic Party.
This would prove to the high point for Stanfield in his leadership of the party, and by the time the 1974 election came along, the Liberals were better prepared and the Progressive Conservatives would have several blunders.
As the 1974 campaign began, Stanfield ran on a policy of wage and price controls to deal with the rapid inflation of the time. While Trudeau mocked the idea with the famous “Zap! You’re frozen!” phrase, he would later implement the controls a year later.
The most famous image of that campaign, and one that would become the first example of image politics, was of Stanfield trying to catch a football. On May 30, Doug Ball, a photographer, took several pictures of Stanfield catching a football. In the last set of photos, Stanfield fumbled the ball. While all the photos were sent to the wire, the one of Stanfield fumbling the ball was the one used on the front pages of several newspapers. Many believe that this was the moment Stanfield lost the campaign.
In the 1974 election, the Progressive Conservatives would lose 11 seats, while Trudeau and the Liberals gained another majority with 141 seats.
After the election loss, Stanfield would remain as leader of the party until 1976 when he resigned and was replaced by Joe Clark.
Upon his resignation, Stanfield would state, quote:
“I came with the ambition of substantially increasing the support of Quebecers for our party but I must accept the evidence that I did not meet with any great success”
Throughout his time as the Leader of the Official Opposition, he was known for being a gentleman with his opponents and a civil person.
One story tells of NDP MP Stanley Knowles entering a room where Stanfield was answering questions. He yelled, quote:
“Speak up Bob, we can’t hear you.”
Stanfield responded by making fun of his halting speech pattern, stating, quote:
“I’m in the middle of one of my pauses.”
While John Diefenbaker often attacked Stanfield verbally, angry that he had been replaced by him, no one ever heard Stanfield utter a rude word about Diefenbaker in his life.
Stanfield would say years later, quote:
“Some Progressive Conservatives would rather fight than win. Some of us wish to elevate a legitimate concern for individual self-reliance and individual enterprise into the central and dominating dogma and theme of our party. Why do we spoil a good cause by exaggeration? Why do we try to polarize a society that is already taut with tension and confrontation?”
For many in the Progressive Conservative party, his gentleman nature was a problem as he did not attack the Liberals as much as they expected, something Joe Clark would do when he came to power.
Stanfield tended to differ from the other Conservative members of Parliament. An example of this was seen in 1976 when he stated, quote:
“Increasing the size of the GNP is important but it is not in itself a sufficient goal for a civilized society.”
His wit was seen in 1979 when he stated, quote:
“I have come to realize from all the eulogies I have received after I retired that the country did not deserve to have me as prime minister.”
One year after resigning as leader, Stanfield married Anne Austin, who would remain his wife until the day he died.
Following his time as leader, Stanfield mostly stayed out of politics except when he told John Diefenbaker to stop attacking Joe Clark in the press, and then during the constitutional debates when he came campaigned for the free trade agreement, the Charlottetown Accord and Meech Lake Accord. He would spend most of his time attending to his beloved roses, and having time for his wife, children and grandchildren.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, showing the respect he had for his opponent, offered a senate seat to Stanfield, which Stanfield declined.
Stanfield would be offered the role of UN Ambassador by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney but he would turn it down. Mulroney would state, quote:
In 1996, Stanfield suffered a stroke that left him severely disabled for the rest of his life.
On Dec. 16, 2003, eight days after the Progressive Conservatives merged with the Canadian Alliance to create the Conservative Party of Canada, Stanfield died in Ottawa.
He was buried in Halifax next to his first wife Joyce, and his second wife Mary.
Prime Minister Paul Martin would say upon Stanfield’s death, quote:
“He was one of the most distinguished and committed Canadians of the past half-century.”
Joe Clark would state, quote:
Throughout his life, Stanfield was honoured extensively. From 1967 to 1990, he was awarded six honorary degrees and he was named a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society of Canada.
Arguably the biggest honour came in 1992 when Stanfield became one of only nine people in history to that point to be granted the title The Right Honourable, a title typically reserved for Canadians who hold a certain office such as prime minister. The honour was bestowed on him by the Queen on the advice of Brian Mulroney in honour of Canada’s 125th anniversary celebrations.
In 2007, the Halifax Robert L. Stanfield International Airport was named for him in a ceremony attended by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Years after Stanfield had dropped the football that quite possibly cost him the election, he would meet with Doug Ball and sign the infamous photograph. He would write on the photograph, quote:
“To Doug Ball, I should have taken off my tie.”
Information from Macleans, Dalhousie University, Wikipedia, Policy Options, The Guardian, Red Deer Advocate, Ottawa Citizen, National Post,
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