Edward Roberts, former lieutenant governor of Newfoundland and prominent politician, dies at 81

Edward Roberts, 11th Lieutenant Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador, a political mainstay for much of the province’s post-Confederation era and an avid student of history, has died.

Roberts died on Friday. He was 81 years old.

His legacy as a political leader who helped steer reforms in health, education, social services, and government administration, and his long career as a lawyer and businessman , make Roberts one of the most remarkable citizens of Newfoundland and Labrador, said former Premier Roger Grimes.

“The phrase used among politicians was that Ed Roberts will go down as the best prime minister we’ve ever had,” Grimes said.

Roberts’ passing prompted tributes from other notable leaders, past and present.

Another former Liberal premier, Clyde Wells, described Roberts’ contributions to the province as “substantial and always principled, and always caring for the people he thought of.”

Seamus O’Regan, Liberal MP for St. John’s South-Mount Pearl, and Federal Labor Minister, described Roberts’ passing as “a profound loss”.

“I don’t know if there will ever be someone like him,” he said.

O’Regan began his political career as an executive assistant to Roberts in the early 1990s.

“What I got out of it was an incredible education from perhaps one of the greatest teachers and students in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador that we’ve ever had,” O said. ‘Regan.

A fractured liberal party and a missed opportunity

Roberts cut his political teeth as an aide to Prime Minister Joey Smallwood in the 1960s, then served in his cabinet. He became Liberal leader in the early 1970s, but his aspirations to lead the province were cut short, in part by Smallwood himself, who formed a breakaway party that split the Liberal vote in the 1975 general election.

“It’s unfortunate because Newfoundland has missed having a very, very good and capable premier,” Wells said.

Grimes, who served as prime minister from 2001 to 2003, befriended Roberts in the early 1970s.

“He was smart and educated, and very seriously committed to trying to make sure the right things were done for the province,” Grimes told CBC News.

“It’s almost like he should have been prime minister, but since that didn’t happen, he was definitely born to be lieutenant governor.”

This photo shows a young Roberts, center, scrambling to follow Premier Joey Smallwood. The photo dates back to the mid-1960s, when Roberts was the Prime Minister’s executive assistant. (JR Smallwood Collection, Memorial University)

A longtime resident of the St. John’s area, Roberts concluded a six-year term as the province’s viceregal representative in February 2008.

He’s kept a pretty low profile ever since. The COVID-19 pandemic has kept Roberts and his wife, attorney Eve Roberts, largely confined to their home for the past two years.

A continental education, but a rural politician

Roberts was the son of Harry and Katharine Roberts. His father was a prominent St. John’s physician who established a major pharmaceutical distribution company in the province and owned the Battery Hotel.

Roberts completed high school at St. Andrew’s College, a prestigious independent boys’ school in Ontario, and went on to earn a law degree at the University of Toronto in 1964.

Returning home to be Smallwood’s first executive assistant, Roberts won his first of eight electoral victories in the fall of 1966 in the northern peninsula district of White Bay North.

He went on to a political career that spanned four decades and saw him linked to many pivotal moments in the province’s history.

He had a reputation as a sharp-tongued debater – those close to him called him ‘Scrap’ – who thrived on the cut and thrust of parliamentary-style politics, said Wells, who served as prime minister from 1989 to 1996, and was either alongside or opposite Roberts for some of the most intense political debates of the past six decades.

Former Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Clyde Wells, whose political interactions with Roberts began in 1965, said: “I never had anything but the greatest respect for his intelligence and his competence, as well as for his integrity and principles.” (Terry Roberts/CBC)

“He had a great intelligence. A very bright man. And could respond very quickly, and see things very quickly, and could sometimes have a somewhat acerbic tongue in his comments. But he was never mean,” said Wells.

“I never had anything but the utmost respect for his intelligence and his skill, his integrity and his principles.”

Smallwood and the Liberal Reformers

With Smallwood having left the political arena and the Progressive Conservatives in government, Roberts became leader of the Liberal party in early 1972 with a convincing first-round victory over three other candidates.

But after many years in office, the Liberals were deeply fractured, and Smallwood reemerged and challenged Roberts for the leadership less than three years later. Roberts defeated Smallwood in the second round.

But Smallwood refused to leave the scene, launching the Reform Liberal Party and entering the 1975 election with a slate of candidates.

Smallwood’s move split the Liberal vote, allowing PCs and Premier Frank Moores to retain power with 30 of 51 districts up for grabs.

In my opinion, he almost certainly would have won this election if Mr. Smallwood had not decided that he still wanted to be Prime Minister.-Clyde Wells

“In my opinion, he almost certainly would have won this election if Mr. Smallwood had not decided he still wanted to be prime minister,” said Wells, who with then-Liberal John Crosbie broke ties. ranks with Smallwood in the late 1960s.

“When you add up the votes that the Independent Liberals got with the votes that the Liberal Party under Ed Roberts got, they would certainly have had a clear majority in the House, except for the way Mr. Smallwood caused the division of votes.

An unelected minister

After many years in opposition, Roberts left politics in 1985 to focus on his legal practice. He was the senior partner of Halley Hunt, a major firm in St. John’s.

Clyde Wells lobbied to convince Roberts to stand in the 1989 election, which saw the Liberals take control of the House of Assembly for the first time since 1971, but Roberts refused.

In early 1992, however, Wells invited the then unelected Roberts to his cabinet as Attorney General, Attorney General, and House Leader, and Roberts accepted.

“My life as prime minister was made easier when he accepted my invitation to become justice minister,” Wells said.

Roberts was elected in a by-election a few months later in the former Labrador district of Naskaupi, and re-elected for a final time in 1993, before retiring from politics in early 1996, shortly after the Wells retirement.

Roberts served briefly in the cabinet of Wells’ successor, Brian Tobin.

“I don’t know a lot of people who didn’t have respect for him,” Wells said.

A new approach to the role of viceroy

Roberts had close ties to powerful Liberals in Ottawa and made no secret of his desire to settle in Government House. In 2002, on the advice of then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, he was appointed Lieutenant Governor.

“It’s almost like he was born to be lieutenant governor,” said Grimes, who was premier at the time of Roberts’ appointment.

“He fit the role so perfectly and was so knowledgeable about all things Newfoundland and Labrador and such a big believer and supporter of our province.”

Grimes said Roberts transformed the role of viceroy by opening up Government House to the public in a way never before possible, allowing the media to access and even talk about his love of country music.

“Ed wanted everyone to know that people owned this place. He wanted them to know it was a place where someone lived,” Grimes said.

Roberts also served as honorary colonel of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, of which he was particularly proud because of his passion for history and the regiment’s bloody role in the First World War, O’Regan said.

A lifelong learner, with a passion for history

Roberts was invested in 2010 as a Member of the Order of Canada. His inauguration statement described him as “a model of duty, leadership and achievement” and that he “oversaw the implementation of the provincial health insurance plan, as well as the creation of a new tertiary care in St. John’s and a medical school. at Memorial University.”

He was also awarded the Order of Newfoundland in 2004.

Prior to being appointed Lieutenant Governor in 2002, Roberts served for nearly six years as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Memorial University of Newfoundland.

The university awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws to Roberts in 2003.

While serving as Lieutenant Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador, Roberts also served as Honorary Colonel of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. In 2006, on the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Beaumont Hamel, Roberts was part of a large contingent of soldiers who returned to the European battlefields of World War I. He is seen here marching with the regiment, third row, left. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

During his tenure as Queen’s Representative, Roberts earned a master’s degree in Newfoundland history from Memorial University, in keeping with his keen interest in the economic, social and political issues of his native province.

“He wanted to know everything about everything. He wanted to know how we got to where we are today,” Grimes said.

He was also praised for his support of veterans and his involvement with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.

Wells said the loss is a blow to the province.

“The people of the province are losing the benefit of his thought, his tolerance, his understanding and his spirit of fairness,” he said.

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