The Hatfield Era in New Brunswick: The ‘Politics of Fun’?

By Greg Marquis

In 1969, columnist Dalton Camp informed his readers that in a year he considered bleak, he had found a reason to be hopeful. In New Brunswick, whose politics were marked by “belligerence and bellicosity,” the provincial Progressive Conservatives had chosen “a quiet young man” as their leader. For Camp, the selection of Richard Hatfield augured well for not only the party, which needed to become less vindictive and partisan and “more responsible,” but also for the province, which was facing important issues in relation to the federal government, such as regional economic development.[1]    

Slightly more than a year later, Hatfield, a lawyer from Hartland, defeated the government of Louis Robichaud, who had transformed the province over the past ten years. Hatfield, who had crossed the province in a helicopter during the campaign, was portrayed as a new type of politician. Over the next few years, the “quiet young man,” who remained a bachelor, would morph into one of Canada’s hippest premiers, befriending or socializing with journalists, writers (Alden Nowlan, Antonine Maillet), artists (Molly Lamb Bobak) and musicians (Edith Butler, Stompin’ Tom Connors) and travelling regularly to major urban centres to enjoy the nightlife. He also emerged as a prominent player in Canada’s evolving constitutional process in the early 1980s and as a political commentator in the media, a novel situation for a serving politician. More national exposure came through his role in helping to entrench francophone rights in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Common adjectives to describe the New Brunswick leader in this era were flamboyant and eccentric. In 1987, Fredericton-based journalist Chris Wood wrote a retrospective piece on Hatfield’s “politics of fun.”[2]     

His attraction to the metropolitan nightclub scene earned Hatfield the nickname “Disco Dick.” In 1980, a Liberal MLA claimed that the premier had the travel habits of “an oil sheik” and been out of the province for 168 days in 1978. His expense records indicated that since early 1978 he had visited not only Paris, London, Boston and Vancouver, but also New York (35 times) and Quebec City (25 times).  On Labour Day weekend in 1979 Hatfield stayed at New York’s prestigious Plaza Hotel and visited hip night spots such as Régine’s disco, La Folie, an upscale restaurant-disco in the Carlton House, and Randy Dandy’s. In the late 1970s these high-profile clubs attracted politicians like Henry Kissinger, writers such as Truman Capote, artists like Andy Warhol, musicians such as Mick Jagger, supermodels like Iman, actors such as Warren Beatty and other New York scenesters. This was a far cry from sedate Fredericton where the nightlife consisted of the bar in the Lady Beaverbrook hotel and the all-night restaurant in the Diplomat motel. The premier defended his trips by explaining that he was acting as a goodwill ambassador for the province and trying to secure investment.[3]

Despite the province’s economic challenges, simmering tensions between anglophones francophones over language policies and government spending, questionable mega projects, a mounting public debt and a series of scandals, Hatfield won four provincial elections in a row before being defeated in the 1987. In that election Frank McKenna’s Liberals-became the second party in Canadian history to win every seat in a provincial election. At the time this electoral disaster was viewed by many as a referendum on Hatfield’s leadership and character.  Under Hatfield the PCs never won more than 48% of the popular vote, and the 1978 election was a close call, but his electioneering skills in the past were impressive. Many of the tactics, such as accusing a Liberal opposition leader of being opposed to the British monarchy, belonged to an earlier age.

The best-known manifestation of fun politics was the buzz created by the Hatfield government’s support for American entrepreneur Malcom Bricklin’s proposal to manufacture a sports car in the province. The futuristic Bricklin SV-1, with its gull-wing doors, struck a chord with much of the public and the press. That together with manufacturing and assembly jobs in Minto and Saint John had considerable appeal in post-Energy crisis New Brunswick. Propelled by favourable publicity associated with the Bricklin project, the PCs won the 1974 election. In 1975 the company, which had been advanced $9 million by the province, ran into financial difficulties and despite a further $14 million in aid, it folded.[4] In this case the “politics of fun” hurt the taxpayers and the image of the Progressive Conservatives. Yet Hatfield was proud that the Bricklin buzz had landed him an interview on NBC’s popular morning program “The Today Show,” anchored by Barbara Walters. [5]  

In 1982, Hatfield reaped political rewards for having reached out to the Acadian population when he won half of the ridings dominated by francophones or having a major francophone presence.  But at the height of public career, the PC leader was vulnerable to an anglophone backlash, much of in within his own party, against extending language rights to the province’s minority. This welled up when a task force was appointed to review the provinces Official Languages Act. The resulting Bastarache-Poirier Report was rejected by many anglophones, and the situation became worse when Hatfield decided in 1984 to hold public hearings on linguistic equality. Outwardly the Progressive Conservative party remained loyal to its leader, but this fealty was tested starting in late 1984 when Hatfield was charged with possession of marijuana, found by the RCMP in his luggage at the Fredericton airport during a Royal visit. Given the premier’s jet setting private life, many assumed that the bag of pot was his; if this was the case, it offered another understanding of “the politics of fun.” In early 1985 he was acquitted but allegations soon surfaced-covered in great detail in the national media-that Hatfield had socialized with and given drugs to male university students in Fredericton. This led to more discussion of the premier’s personal life, although speculation about his sexuality was not a subject of media coverage. Nonetheless, the damage had been done, and Hatfield’s image continued to erode. Two years later, his party was wiped out at the polls.  Language controversies and the PC government’s endorsement of the Meech Lake Accord, with its commitment to recognition of Quebec as a distinct society, cannot be overlooked as a factor, but neither can the recasting of the premier’s personal image. [6]

Overall, aside for the feel-good moment of the Bricklin in 1974, and possibly the province’s bicentennial celebrations in 1984, it is difficult to associate New Brunswick politics during the Hatfield years with fun. The anglophone backlash over languages policies led in the late 1980s to the founding of the Confederation of Regions (COR) party which opposed official bilingualism. Many New Brunswickers continued to live below the poverty line and unemployment and outmigration persisted. Politicians and the public rarely commented on the inordinate economic power of the Irving interests, which also controlled most of the province’s print media. Political conservatism overlapped with social conservatism. The Hatfield government, pressured by pro-life opinion and in cooperation with physicians, worked to limit access to abortion.[7] Although the topic has not been researched in much detail,[8] the 1980s does not appear to have been a decade where the general public in New Brunswick was welcoming to 2LGBT+ citizens. COR, which formed the official opposition in 1991 and helped to keep the Progressive Conservatives out of power until 1999, epitomized the extreme end of the blend of social and political conservatism. In 1989, the president of the West Kings COR association, who favoured referenda on abortion and capital punishment, produced a pamphlet extolling his leadership qualities. One was a promise “to strengthen the family unit, while maintaining personal moral standards befitting of a leader.”[9] Coming two years after Hatfield’s spectacular defeat and four years after the allegations about his personal life, this appeared to be an attack on the former Tory leader’s drug use. It can also be interpreted as a homophobic slur. In 1990 Hatfield was appointed to the Senate after the Mulroney government expanded the size of that body in order to pass the controversial Goods and Services Tax. He died the following year


Greg Marquis is a Professor in the Department of History and Politics at the University of New Brunswick, Saint John.


Sources:

[1] Dalton Camp,” Dalton Camp: Tory Hatfield good for New Brunswick,” Toronto Telegram, June 16, 1969, 7.

[2] Chris Wood, “Richard Hatfield’s politics of fun,” MacLean’s, Oct. 26, 1987: https://archive.macleans.ca/article/1987/10/26/hatfields-politics-of-fun.

[3] Barbara Yaffee, “Hatfield Travels Like an Oil Sheik, Opposition Says” Globe and Mail, July 2, 1980, 9.  Hatfield was identified with fun seeking, but he also had a quiet, introspective side: Jacques Poitras, “Richard Hatfield’s 1987 train diary reveals wistful ex-premier,” CBC News New Brunswick, Feb. 20, 2018: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/richard-hatfield-diary-canada-train-ride-1.4539401.

[4] Dimitry Anastakis, “The Quest of the Volk(swagen): The Bricklin Car, Industrial Modernity, and New Brunswick. Acadiensis43 (1) (2014): 89-108.

[5] Wood, “Richard Hatfield.”

[6] Greg Marquis, “Canada’s First Celebrity Drug Trial: R. v. Hatfield, 1985,” Journal of Canadian Studies, Volume55 (2) (Summer 2021: 337-361.

[7] Katrina R. Ackerman, “Not in the Atlantic Provinces”: The Abortion Debate in New Brunswick, 1980-1987,” Acadiensis, 41 (1) (Winter/Spring 2012):  75-101.

[8] The Queer History Initiative of New Brunswick, an archival project that seeks document the province’s LGBT history, has been operating for several years:  https://www.queerhistoriesmatter.org/qhinb.

[9] Blaine Higgs, The Leader for All Ages (1989). The author of the pamphlet was Blaine Higgs, the current PC premier of New Brunswick. 

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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