Edward Roberts, Newfoundland and Labrador’s 11th Lieutenant Governor, a politically faithful during much of the province’s post-Confederation era and a passionate student of history, is dead.
Roberts died Friday. He was 81.
His legacy as a political leader who helped lead reforms in health, education, social services and government administration, and his long career as a lawyer and businessman, distinguish Roberts as one of Newfoundland’s and Labrador’s most notable citizens, says former Prime Minister 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 led to tribute from other notable leaders, both past and present.
Another former Liberal prime minister, Clyde Wells, described Roberts’ contribution to the province as “essential and always principled, and always with concern for the people he was thinking of.”
Seamus O’Regan, the Liberal MP for St. John’s South-Mount Pearl, and the federal Secretary of Labor, described Roberts’ passing as “a profound loss.”
“I do not know if there will ever be anyone like him,” he said.
O’Regan began his political career as executive assistant to Roberts in the early 1990s.
“What I got out of it was an incredible education from perhaps one of the best teachers and students in Newfoundland and Labrador history that we’ve ever had,” O’Regan said.
A divided Left Party and a missed opportunity
Roberts cut his political teeth teeth as an aide to the then Prime Minister Joey Smallwood in the 1960s and later served in his cabinet. He became a liberal leader in the early 1970s, but his hopes of leading the province were cut short, in part by Smallwood himself, who formed a breakaway party that split the liberal vote in the 1975 parliamentary elections.
“It was unfortunate because Newfoundland missed having a very, very good and capable premier,” Wells said.
Grimes, who served as premier from 2001 to 2003, became friends with Roberts in the early 1970s.
“He was intelligent and well-read, and so really seriously committed to trying to make sure the right things were done for the province,” Grimes told CBC News.
“It’s almost as if he should have been the premiere, but when that did not happen, he was certainly born to be a lieutenant governor.”
A lifelong resident of St. John’s area, Roberts completed a six-year term as the province’s vice-regal representative in February 2008.
Since then, he has kept a fairly low profile. The COVID-19 pandemic kept Roberts and his wife, attorney Eve Roberts, largely confined to their homes for the past two years.
A mainland education, but a rural politician
Roberts was the son of Harry and Katharine Roberts. His father was a prominent physician in St. Louis. John’s, which established a leading pharmaceutical distribution company in the province and owned the Battery Hotel.
Roberts completed his secondary education at St. Andrew’s College, an independent and prestigious boys’ school in Ontario, continued with a law degree from the University of Toronto in 1964.
When he returned home to be Smallwood’s first director, Roberts won his first of eight election victories in the fall of 1966 in the Northern Peninsula district of White Bay North.
He continued to have a political career that spanned four decades, and saw him attached to many crucial moments in the province’s history.
He had a reputation as a sharp-tongued debater – those closest to him called him “Scrap” – who thrived on cuts and pulls in parliamentary style politics, said Wells, who served as prime minister from 1989 to 1996 and was either alongside or opposed to Roberts in some of the most intense political debates of the last six decades.
“He had a great intellect. A very light man. And could react very quickly and see things very quickly, and could at times have a somewhat sharp tongue in his comment. But he was never unkind,” Wells said.
“I have never had anything but the greatest respect for his intelligence and competence, and his integrity and principles.”
Smallwood and the Liberal Reformers
When Smallwood had left the political arena, and the progressive conservatives in government, Robert became leader of the Liberal Party in early 1972 with a convincing victory in the first ballot over three other candidates.
But after many years in power, the Liberals were deeply divided, and Smallwood reappeared and challenged Roberts to leadership less than three years later. Roberts defeated Smallwood in the second ballot.
But Smallwood refused to leave the stage, launched the Liberal Reform Party and went into the 1975 election with a list of candidates.
Smallwood’s movement split the Liberal vote, allowing PCs and Prime Minister Frank Moores to retain power with 30 of the 51 districts at stake.
In my opinion, he would almost certainly have won that election if Mr. Smallwood had not decided he would still be prime minister.– Clyde Wells
“In my opinion, he would almost certainly have won that election if Mr. Smallwood had not decided that he would still be prime minister,” said Wells, who, along with then-liberal John Crosbie, famously broke the ranks with Smallwood at the end of 1960s.
“Summarizing the votes the Independent Liberals got with the votes that the Liberal Party under Ed Roberts got, they would certainly have had a clear majority in Parliament, except for the way Mr. Smallwood got the votes to be. delt. “
An unelected minister
After many years in opposition, Robert left politics in 1985 to focus on his legal practice. He was a senior partner for Halley Hunt, a prominent St. John’s company.
Clyde Wells lobbied hard to persuade Roberts to run in the 1989 election, when the Liberals gained control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 1971, but Roberts refused.
In early 1992, however, Wells invited the then-unelected Roberts into 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 Minister of Justice,” Wells said.
Roberts was re-elected a few months later in the former Labrador district of Naskaupi and re-elected for a final term in 1993, before retiring from politics in early 1996, shortly after Wells retired.
Roberts served briefly in the cabinet for Wells’ successor, Brian Tobin.
“I do not know many who did not have respect for him,” Wells said.
A fresh approach to the role of deputy
Roberts had deep ties with senior liberals in Ottawa and made no secret of his desire to take up residence in Government House. In 2002, on the advice of then-Prime Minister Jean Chrètien, he was appointed lieutenant governor.
“It’s almost as if he was born to be a lieutenant governor,” said Grimes, who was prime minister at the time of Roberts’ appointment.
“He fit the role so perfectly and was so knowledgeable about everything Newfoundland and Labrador were, and so great a believer and supporter of our province.”
Grimes said Roberts transformed the role of vice-regal by opening up Government House to the public in ways never seen before, giving the media access and even opening up about his love of country music.
“Ed wanted to let everyone know that people owned this place. He wanted to make them realize that this was a place where someone lived,” Grimes said.
Roberts also served as honorary colonel for the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, which he was particularly proud of because of his passion for history and the regiment’s bloody role in World War I, 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 investment statement described him as “a model of duty, leadership and performance” and that he “oversaw the implementation of the provincial medical system as well as the creation of a new tertiary hospital at St. John’s and a medical faculty at Memorial University.”
He was also presented with the Newfoundland Order in 2004.
Before being appointed lieutenant governor in 2002, Roberts served for nearly six years as chairman of the board of directors of the Memorial University of Newfoundland.
The university awarded Roberts the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws in 2003.
During his time as the Queen’s representative, Roberts obtained a master’s degree in Newfoundland’s history from the Memorial, consistent with his keen interest in the economic, social, and political issues of his home province.
“He wanted to know everything about everything. He wanted to know how we got there where we are today,” Grimes said.
He has also been praised for his support of military veterans and his commitment to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.
Wells said the loss is a blow to the county.
“The people of the province are losing the benefit of his thinking, his tolerance and understanding and justice,” he said.
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