For the first 30 years that Newfoundland existed as a province in Canada, it had only two premiers. In 1979, after the resignation of Frank Moores, it was time for a new man to step into the top job.
That man was Brian Peckford.
Brian Peckford was born in Whitbourne, Newfoundland on Aug. 27, 1942 and was raised throughout the area in various communities. His grandfathers were both outport fishermen, and his father was a Newfoundland Ranger, part of the colonial police force, who eventually became a shopkeeper and then a government social worker.
“Politics wasn’t really discussed in any partisan sense in my family.”
In 1959, he spent a year as a student at Jarvis Collegiate in Toronto while his father was upgrading his social work qualifications at the University of Toronto. Peckford by all accounts hated it.
“I hated it with a passion. I found a total lack of knowledge of the world as it existed outside of Toronto, let alone outside Ontario.”
After gaining a Bachelor of Education from Memorial University of Newfoundland, he began working as a school teacher in rural Newfoundland.
Peckford was at the founding meeting of the Green Bay district. While still working as a teacher, he became the secretary of the local Progressive Conservative organization. John Crosbie, in his autobiography said of Peckford,
“I spoke with him following the meeting and could see that he was the kind of person who would be very helpful to our cause.”
Peckford had also a supported Crosbie previously in 1969 during his run to become the leader of the Liberal Party against Joey Smallwood.
In 1972, Peckford made the jump to politics when he ran in the Green Bay riding for the Progressive Conservatives. While the party won a majority government, Peckford barely won his own district over the Liberal candidate. The Liberals had held the riding since Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949.
In 1973, Peckford was appointed as the parliamentary assistant to Premier Frank Moores, and one year later was appointed the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing.
When the 1975 election came along, Peckford was elected with over 70 per cent of the vote in his riding, a great improvement from his narrow victory three years earlier.
One year after that election, Peckford became the Mines and Energy minister, replacing John Crosbie. As minister, Peckford fought the federal government for control of the offshore oil industry and was successful in 1977 in better terms for Newfoundland. These terms included maximizing local economic benefits, while minimizing social and environmental disruption. The oil companies also agreed to train and employ local residents, thereby helping the province overall.
Peckford was relatively unknown to many. One reporter said,
“Every time he stood up in the House, I had to rack my brain. Brian who? Minister of what?”
Many in Newfoundland began to like Peckford for his brashness and cocky nature as a politician.
He was also tough with oil companies. At one point, Eastcan offered $50 million worth of exploration in the summer of 1977. They added they would only go ahead if Newfoundland made some major concessions. Peckford refused to budge on the matter. This caused Eastcan to call his bluff and go to Baffin Island for exploration. Some in the cabinet criticized him for it but he refused to budge.
Then in 1978, Texaco came to them and said they would bring oil rigs to Newfoundland on his terms.
Peckford was known to work constantly. By the fall of 1977, his friends told him he was smoking too much, sleeping too little and eating too much bad fast food. While they warned him, they also knew that he had an overwhelming ambition and that was just part of it. He wanted to be the top guy calling the shots and he worked to make that happen.
“I’d always wanted to be the top guy so that I could have the kind of influence I needed to get my views implemented. I just never knew it would work out this quickly. I thought it might take longer.”
When Moores stepped down as premier, Peckford put his name in the running to succeed him as premier. For most in the media, Peckford was seen as the front runner in the field of 10 looking to replace Moores.
In the March 17, 1979 leadership convention, Peckford led on the first two ballots and then won the leadership on the third ballot.
Now premier of Newfoundland, he was the youngest premier in Newfoundland’s history.
“Newfoundland will be a have province.”
Moores stated that the party had chosen a good man to lead the province.
“There are some back-benchers I have to look at.”
Within days of being sworn in, he brought in four fresh faces to cabinet and shuffled 13 others to new positions. Only one had the same job as before.
Almost immediately, Peckford called an election for June 18, 1979. He chose this time to call an election as the Liberals were in disarray and there was dissention over Bill Rowe serving as leader of the party.
He stated that it was time for Newfoundland to take charge of its own future, weed out unnecessary federal interference and other influences from mainland Canada.
Before Moores resigned, the Liberals had led the PCs in the polls, but due to Peckford picking the time he did for the election, that allowed the PCs to win the election and gain their third straight majority, winning 33 of 52 seats in the House of Assembly, while the Liberals had 19 and the NDP had none.
“We have grown up in 1979. Newfoundland is ready to take its part and fight for its just share.”
Throughout his time as premier, Peckford made resource management the most important issue, especially the development of offshore oil, hydroelectricity and the fisheries. He was able to gain greater control for the province in those industries, bringing in more money to raise the standard of living in Newfoundland.
John Crosbie briefly worked with Peckford when they were both members of the legislature and in his autobiography, Crosbie would call the leadership style of Peckford as ruthless, which was something he admired.
Like Moores, his government tried to renegotiate the terrible Upper Churchill Contract with Hydro Quebec that Joey Smallwood had signed a decade earlier in 1969. He was unsuccessful in this, even though he took it to the Supreme Court of Canada twice.
During his early years as premier, he was working 12 to 15 hour days, but he worked that down so that he could spend more time with his family.
He also developed a love for football and often went to see the Super Bowl and arranged provincial travels so he could see the Grey Cup.
In 1982, during the Canadian Constitution negotiations, Peckford attempted to gain greater control over fisheries for the province but was not able to get the support of the other premiers. Under his time as premier, overfishing continued to be a problem and little was done to stop it, leading to a crisis after he left office.
While in this dispute with the federal government, Peckford called an election for April 6, 1982 hoping to gain a stronger mandate for his negotiations with Quebec and the federal government.
Once again, Peckford led his party to victory, winning 44 of 52 seats in the House of Assembly. This was the most seats ever won by a party in Newfoundland’s history, and remains so to this day. The Progressive Conservatives also won 44 seats in 2007.
When the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in March 1984 that the federal government owned the rights to minerals on the continental shelf, Peckford began to look for join management and revenues from the oil resources off the coast.
At one point, he stated he would resign if the battle for offshore oil failed. Some even called him English-Canada’s separatist for his steadfast determination in the matter.
On Feb. 11, 1985, with new Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Peckford and the premiers of the other Maritime Provinces signed the Atlantic Accord. This gave them more decision making power and financial benefits from resource extraction. It is estimated the agreements he negotiated have brought in $30 billion to Newfoundland since the 1980s.
“If standing up for Newfoundland’s right to be equal is considered to be making war, then boys, I am making war.”
With this huge victory, Peckford once again called an election, this time for April 2, 1985. In the election campaign, Peckford called himself The Great Negotiator but any good press he had from the Atlantic Accord was countered by teachers and public service employees who protested the two-year government-imposed wage freeze.
Nonetheless, the party was able to win the election with 36 seats, but this would be the last election win for the party until 2003.
In 1987, the government partnered with a company to construct a hydroponic greenhouse complex. It was said that the greenhouse would generate jobs but within two years, and $22 million later, the project went bankrupt.
On Jan. 21, 1989, Peckford announced he was leaving politics, citing family considerations.
“Once I get out of here I got to get another job because my pension will not sustain me, so it is going to be difficult. I don’t have a house, I don’t have a car and I don’t even have very much furniture. So, I have to start like a 21-year-old almost and begin life anew.”
During his time as premier, he had several successes such as naming the first female cabinet ministers in Newfoundland’s history, the first female to the Newfoundland Supreme Court, introducing a new flag, bringing grade 12 into the high school curriculum and starting construction on the Trans-Labrador Highway.
After he was done in politics, he became a business consultant and sat on several boards including the CBC in the 1990s. In the 1990s, he relocated to Vancouver Island, where he continues to live.
In 2021, he endorsed the People’s Party and Maxime Bernier in the federal election, and stated that the Canadian government infringed on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Information from CBC, Canadian Encyclopedia, National Post, Wikipedia, Vancouver Province, North Bay Nugget, Calgary Herald,