A Conversation with John Crosbie

The Honorable John Crosbie's political career spanned more than four decades. Now, at 85, the charismatic Officer of the Order of Canada and former lieutenant-governor of Newfoundland and Labrador reflects on his time at law school and his legal and political careers. Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

When you graduated from Dalhousie Law School, you won several awards, including the Viscount Bennett Scholarship, bestowed by the Canadian Bar Association to the outstanding law student of the year. Why do you believe you were chosen to receive it?

As I recollect, the Viscount Bennett Scholarship was given mainly on the basis of scholastic achievement during law school. I don’t recall there being an interview process. I enjoyed the academic side of law school and excelled at it. I used the scholarship at the London School of Economics because of my interest in English Law and political institutions, and the desire to live in London.

However, I found that the coursework repeated learning that I had already acquired at Dalhousie Law School. About halfway through the academic year, I ceased to attend LSE and decided I would learn more law by working at Homewood Back & Manson, a firm of insurance brokers with a seat at Lloyd’s. They had a relationship with businesses owned by my family in Newfoundland and were specialists in marine insurance.

What did you enjoy most about your days as a Dalhousie Law School student?

I was fortunate enough that my parents were able to support me and my wife, Jane, while we were at Dalhousie. We had a house on Beech Street, close to the law school, and these days were carefree. I enjoyed the courses; for example, property with Professor Graham Murray and contracts with Dean Horace Read. We also learned about Nova Scotia and enjoyed getting around the province.

Much has been written about your political career, but less about your law career. What can you tell us about it?

Conservative finance critic John Crosbie feigns a Nazi salute while preparing to ask Finance Minister Marc Lalonde a question about his budget in the House of Commons February 16, 1984. Ron Poling/UPC/The Canadian Press

Conservative finance critic John Crosbie feigns a Nazi salute while preparing to ask Finance Minister Marc Lalonde a question about his budget in the House of Commons February 16, 1984. Ron Poling/UPC/The Canadian Press

I have been a great reader all my life, and I started reading about the law when I was as young as six or seven years old. I was entranced by the English system and the stories behind the cases, and the personalities involved in the law. The English cases always seemed more interesting and more learned than the Canadian ones.

I decided to become a lawyer because of my interest and reading in the law, and because I also had a long interest in and read a lot about politics, and the two seemed to be a good complement. When I returned to St. John’s from London, I articled with the well-known admiralty lawyer P.J. Lewis. Due to space limitations, my office was a broom closet. My practice in the 1950s and 1960s was varied, but when I started I did a lot of criminal law.

Broadly speaking, there are barristers who do court work, and solicitors who don’t, and I enjoyed the barrister work more. One of my early cases involved an appeal by a grandfather who had been convicted by a magistrate of raping his young granddaughter. He would get her up to make the fires in the morning, and that would be the excuse for the criminal activity. Under the criminal code of that day there had to be corroborative evidence, and an accused could not be convicted solely on the evidence of the complainant. When I read the transcript, I realized that there was no corroborating evidence.

When I took the case before the Court of Appeal, it was composed of the three judges of the Supreme Court sitting en banc. They were Chief Justice Sir Albert Walsh, Sir Brian Dunfield, and Justice Harry Winter. I had not gotten far into my argument when Sir Brian burst out: “Look here, Mr. Crosbie, you know very well this man is guilty.” Sir Brian was opinionated and irascible, and he had essentially announced in open court that in his opinion, corroboration did not matter despite what the criminal code said. The other two judges were shocked and astounded at this interrogation by Sir Brian and adjourned the hearing, coming back several hours later with a decision that overturned the conviction.

News that there was a new lawyer in town whose fees were reasonable quickly got around the penitentiary, and my criminal practice built from there. Unfortunately, the robbers were not brilliant back then, and there were no narcotics cases, so although the work was interesting, the fees were modest. Another of my triumphs occurred when I defended a man from the southern shore who was accused of stealing a sheep. It turned out that he had not stolen the sheep at all; he had stolen a pig.

Why do you think lawyers make good politicians?
Lawyers don’t necessarily make good politicians. A good courtroom lawyer knows that everyone, including judges, has their prejudices, and that to be persuasive and win cases you need to know what those prejudices are. This can be a transferable skill, because the electorate too has prejudices, and if you want to persuade the electorate, you have to know what those are. Of course, training in the law teaches you how laws are made and applied, and how to make an argument, but if you don’t know the prejudices of the audience, then your argument may fall on deaf ears.

I gained a lot of my reputation there by questioning [then prime minister Pierre] Trudeau. I learned a lot from him—you learn a lot from your opponents.

As a politician, you were famous for using colourful language and making what many people considered were politically incorrect statements, even though they were based in truth. How did you get the confidence to let loose in such a way?

It’s part of my personality. Also, I think the public appreciates politicians who don’t always agree with their premiers and prime ministers. I enjoyed a good battle and making my point of view known. I wasn’t afraid of authority, and I liked to be able to stand up to people. I particularly liked Question Period in the House of Commons. The whole point of Question Period is for politicians to get publicity for themselves or to embarrass the government. I gained a lot of my reputation there by questioning [then prime minister Pierre] Trudeau. I learned a lot from him—you learn a lot from your opponents. Trudeau wouldn’t come back with a tame answer, he’d counterattack and often flatten you, so you had better have your counterattack ready. That made me sharper and a better parliamentarian.

Were you as fiery in the courtroom?

Law school encourages debate, particularly in mock courts, but you can’t just go wild in court and roughhouse the judge—you have to be respectful, mannerly, and polite, or you’ll be held in contempt. You definitely have more freedom to express yourself as an elected politician.

What reforms do you think need to be made to the justice system?

Litigation is becoming more and more expensive, so it’s more difficult for people who don’t have deep resources to get justice. It’s very costly for clients, because the process often takes a very long time.

It’s easy for a judge appointed to the bench for life to acquire bad habits. Some of them get on the bench and think they’re like the Lord! I call them “lazy louts on the bench”—they don’t think they have any obligations to the lawyers and litigants before them. There should be a legal award given to the judges who reach their well-thought-out decisions quickly. This is important to both lawyers and their clients.

We also need an intelligent press and good reporters for the whole system to work properly. Journalists have to report fairly what’s happening in the courts so the public will really know what’s going on in the justice system.

What advice would you give to law students who are about to launch their careers?

They should realize that the law profession is becoming increasingly popular, crowded, and competitive, and that law schools are attracting more students who want to become lawyers. To become a lawyer, you have to work diligently. It isn’t an easy path to follow unless you’re serious, a hard worker, and ambitious. My legal education was good experience and training for politics, especially when it came to representing myself in public.

The Hon. John C. Crosbie Weldon Tradition Scholarship

was created in 2011 to honour the public service of John Crosbie and provide an entrance scholarship for students from Newfoundland and Labrador to attend the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie. Fundraising continues for this worthy scholarship.

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