Edward Moxon Roberts, 1940 - 2022
There are no shortages of biographies of Edward Roberts. Anyone who wants to know the official version of his life can find it easily on the Internet or in the local library. There is no way that anyone can be as active in public life as Roberts was for more than half a century without leaving traces everywhere.
There will also be no shortage of tributes to him or kind words said about him. Most will resort to the familiar words and phrases used so often they have lost their meaning. They are cliché.
That does not diminish in any way the deep feeling people have about Edward Roberts, though. That deep feeling is the mark he left on many. In some ways, the fact people cannot find words unique to the job of describing Edward Roberts says less about the man than it does about the poverty of the English language and the way we use it. And remember, English is no poor language.
The words people use might be cliché but Edward Roberts was never a cliché.
Roberts had a sharp mind. He was endlessly inquisitive. Curious. Roberts read more books on a wider range of subjects while on vacation for two weeks than most of us read in a year. What was most telling was that Roberts could put the knowledge he gained to use on whatever subject was in front of him. Whether as a practicing lawyer, an advisor, a cabinet minister, as lieutenant governor, or as a friend, Roberts had a mental database built over every day of his life that was ready-to-hand. Most importantly, Roberts had the keen intellect to put the storehouse of knowledge to the right use. He also had the good sense to know how to keep secrets, which is why so many relied on him.
When he retired from public life, Roberts returned to writing. Given his connection to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, Roberts edited an annotated a memoir by Sid Frost, a Canadian who joined the regiment at the start of the Great War and served until the end. Roberts also edited a volume of Peter Cashin’s memoirs. The footnotes and additions Roberts made in both cases – but especially in the Cashin book - add immeasurably to our understanding of two key figures in our past. With Cashin, Roberts gave us a better view of a man who played a key role in Newfoundland and Labrador during the first half of the 20th century.
After he retired, the former editor of Varsity – the University of Toronto student newspaper - also wrote a column for one of the weekly newspapers in Newfoundland that he later put together as a book for his publisher, Flanker with the title How Newfoundlanders got the baby bonus. Sadly, Roberts never wrote about himself unless there is a secret manuscript somewhere that will turn up in the months ahead. If there isn’t, then Roberts deserves as full and fair a treatment in a book on his own life as he gave Cashin. The rest of us deserve to know more of the man than we do, as well.
Roberts himself deserves such a biography because Roberts played a part in building the province as it is today. Graduating from law school at the University of Toronto in 1964, Roberts worked as a political aide to Jack Pickersgill and then as executive assistant to Joe Smallwood. He won a seat in the 1966 general election, aged 26, along with Clyde Wells, John Crosbie and Alec Hickman. The other three went into cabinet. Roberts became Smallwood’s Parliamentary Assistant before entering cabinet in 1968 as minister of public welfare. He became minister of health in 1969 and held the portfolio until the end of Smallwood’s time as premier.
Both as leader of the opposition and as a member of shadow cabinets from 1972 until 1985, Roberts harried the governments of Frank Moores and Brian Peckford. Clyde Wells coaxed him back into politics in 1991, appointing him as minister of justice and attorney general. Except for a brief time when he was a minister without portfolio, Roberts remained in cabinet until the spring of 1996 when he left politics for good. His last job in Confederation Building was on the floor where he started working in 1964, filling in very briefly as Brian Tobin’s chief of staff.
People sometimes talk of the bright young men who came into the public service in the early 1970s and the role they played in government and society in the years after. That’s all true. But to fair and to appreciate the generation and the changes they brought, start your calendar six years earlier. The truth is there was a generation of bright young men starting in the mid-1960s who, as politicians and as public servants and later as lawyers and business leaders in some cases, transformed Newfoundland and Labrador. Whatever happened at Confederation is one thing. What came in the 30 years between 1966 and 1996 is something else again.
We tend to associate famous people with one episode. The thing about people like Edward Roberts is that if you look at their lives, you cannot do that. You cannot limit them. You can associate Roberts with health care, in many respects what was the family business. His father – Harry – was a prominent surgeon and businessman, head of the provincial medical association and later the Canadian Medical Association. People might best remember him as the man who built the Battery Hotel or who owned Elizabeth Drugs.
Edward’s brother Peter was executive director of the International Grenfell Association from 1979 until the provincial government took over the job of providing health services throughout Labrador and Northern Newfoundland. To borrow a line from Peter’s obituary, Sir Wilfred was the first director of the Association and Peter was the last, and the only Newfoundlander or Labradorian to hold the job. At the last of it, Peter Roberts’ organization employed more than 80 people and served more than 30,000.
Edward Roberts had his own association with health care, first as minister of public welfare and then of health or as chair of the General Hospital Board. But aside from any specific improvements that came in public health and welfare while Roberts was minister, Roberts’ impact was far broader. Anything that went on in government while he was a minister either in Smallwood’s cabinet, Wells’, or Tobin’s, Edward Roberts had a hand in it somehow. He was – to return a compliment he once gave to a colleague – always in command of his briefs. He spoke his mind. He did not trifle and he was not one to be trifled with.
Roberts had a savage wit, a sometimes biting sense of humour, and a seldom-matched dexterity with language, all of which made him a feared opponent or valuable ally. There are simply too many examples of Roberts in action in the House of Assembly to pick one that stands out. Even in the most heated moments, Roberts stayed calm, which is part of how he could be so effective.
Instead, let us finish with two examples of Roberts that are not the best but typical. The first shows how the House could be, how it used to be, not only with Roberts as House leader, but with other members as well. It is from December 1992. You will recognize the names.
The House met at 10:00 a.m.
MR. SPEAKER (Lush): Order, please!
The hon. the Opposition House Leader, on a point of order.
MR. MATTHEWS: Point of order, Mr. Speaker. For the last week or ten days we have been having a real set-to here in the House about legislation coming in late and so on. I arrive in my place this morning and find a new Bill tabled here, Bill 666, An Act To Restrain Christmas in the Public Sector of the Province, I say to hon. members. So, I wanted to rise on a point of order to get this into the record this morning and it goes on and on. I am not going to read the contents of the Bill but I want to tell the Government House Leader that after the great progress that we made last evening, where we really got in the Christmas spirit, to come back and find this Bill here this morning. The Bill is in the name of hon. Ebenezer, president of Treasury Board and for hon. members information it was printed by Bob Cratchit, the Queen's Printer. I was wondering if the Government House Leader could defend this piece of legislation?
MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Government House Leader.
MR. ROBERTS: Mr. Speaker, there is a well known tradition that if you are a good boy you get gifts at Christmas and I would say to my friend from Grand Bank that because he has been a good boy he is now getting gifts at Christmas.
PREMIER WELLS: While you are on your feet move closure on the Bill.
MR. ROBERTS: I have the notice here but what I really want to say-
SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!
MR. ROBERTS: - what I really want to say is that Santa Claus is not Santa Clause by Clause. We will take the matter under advisement and in due course, my friend the Minister of Municipal Affairs will give one of his patented answers on this question.
AN HON. MEMBER: He is blaming you for it.
MR. ROBERTS: It is all your fault, Bill. And in the spirit of the season, that it is more blessed to give than to receive, we shall continue in the House as we carried on before. I thank my hon. friend and tell him that we look forward to exchanging more Christmas greetings when we finish this Bill today. My friend from Twillingate makes the point that under the constitution, as it was not revised last Fall, this is a federal responsibility. So, we shall refer the matter to Mr. Crosbie and he can deal with it on our behalf. There is a place here for all of us because the enacting Clause begins - be it enacted by Ebenezer Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Future, in legislative session convened as follows - and as my hon. friend said it was printed by Bob Cratchit, Queen's Printer, Scrooge's Printer, the guy probably wanted the whole day off at Christmas but we have been able to arrange that here.
MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Member for St. John's East.
MR. HARRIS: Thank you, Mr. Speaker, I was convinced that it must have been a ministerial statement because I was not provided with an advanced copy of it. I did have one document, Mr. Speaker, in the spirit of Christmas that all hon. members will be pleased to know. I think there have been some jokes passed around about it these last few days, but I did in fact receive a very important Christmas greeting from the Efford family-
SOME HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear!
MR. HARRIS: - complete with a picture of the Member for Port de Grave and his family and I have been asked to table it as proof.
I would be quite willing to do that but I want to thank the hon. Member for Port de Grave for sending this Christmas greeting. It lets us know that despite the differences we have in this hon. House we do have the spirit of Christmas and that continues despite whatever political differences we may have. I want to wish the Member for Port de Grave and his family and all hon. members a Merry Christmas.
MR. EFFORD: A point of order, Mr. Speaker.
MR. SPEAKER: The hon. the Member for Port de Grave on a point of order.
MR. EFFORD: Mr. Speaker, I want to inform the Member for St. John's East that there is a card missing off my desk and my assistant is now on the unemployment line.
The second is, coincidentally from that same day. Loyola Hearn decided to leave provincial politics and it fell to Roberts as House Leader to say something on behalf of the government party to a departing colleague.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I shall be very brief. I know that my colleagues on this side would want me to say a word or two to mark the occasion that the hon. gentleman for St. Mary's - The Capes may be in his last day in the House. I can't go beyond that.
I would say to him three things. Number one, there is life after elected politics in the House of Assembly, as I know better than most. Number two, that -
Well, there are those who wonder why I have come back. My bank manager, my psychiatrist, my mother, my wife. But I say to him, there is life after elected politics. My second point is that when he leaves, as he is of his own volition, as I left. It's an honourable way out of politics. Simply when an election comes not to seek re-election. It's equally honourable to go out at the request of the electorate. We come in at their request and if we go out at their request, so be it.
I would say to him as it was said to me, that while the light holds out to burn the vilest sinners may return, in the words of that grand old Methodist hymn. He may yet - who knows what the future may hold? He may yet be back in the House. If so, whoever sits here at this time will welcome him.
Thirdly, I want to say that both personally - because he and I were in the House together during my Mark 1 political experiences. On behalf of all of my colleagues here who worked with him, one or the other, that it's not only a pleasure to work with him, he has left this House, this Province, and his constituency a better place for having been there. That's all that any of us can ever hope to achieve. That's all that any of us should ever achieve. Because we are but ships that pass in the night. In the sense that the House has been here for 160 years, near enough, with a brief interruption in the mid-thirties and through the 'forties, but members come and members go.
Those of us who are here, from time to time if we can feel when we've come to lay down the burdens of office, which can be heavy, if we can feel that at the end of that we have made a contribution, left the place better than we found it, than that I think is a considerable achievement. I know I speak for all members on this side, and I'm sure I speak for all members on all sides of the House, when I say that the hon. Member for St. Mary's - The Capes can say that he has done that.
It's been a pleasure to know him and we hope we'll see him again. Not necessarily across the House, but wherever fate may bring us together we look forward to it.
It was many things to know Edward Roberts, a pleasure certainly being one of them. We hope we will see him again, now not in this life but, for those who believe in a life after this one, then surely in the next.
We will all look forward to it.
And until then, we will miss him, deeply and sorely.
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