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Clyde Wells

Q&A with the fifth Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador

Campus and Community |

By Dave Penney

When former Liberal premier and Chief Justice Dr. Clyde Wells, BA’59, Honorary LLD ’96, agreed to chair the province’s first Independent Appointments Commission in 2016, he was focused on inspiring others to consider public service.

If the goal is to lead by example, there may not be a better representative in Newfoundland and Labrador. His life in politics began as a MHA in Premier Smallwood’s cabinet in 1966, a start that eventually saw Dr. Wells become the fifth Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador in 1989. In between political stops, a stellar law career provided the foundation for his appointment as Justice of the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador (Court of Appeal) two years after his retirement from politics. Dr. Wells was then appointed Chief Justice of the province in 1999, a position he held for ten years.

“I think at a very basic level, if you were born and lived in Newfoundland and Labrador, and have an awareness of its circumstances, there comes with that an aspiration or motivation to contribute and help make things better.”

Recently the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador recipient and Memorial graduate spoke with the Gazette about the progress of the Independent Appointments Commission (IAC), the importance of public service and his own career as the top public servant in this province.

DP: You’ve had an incredible career, but throughout it all, you always went back to the law. How did you first decide to become a lawyer?

CW: You know, I don’t really know the answer to that myself. All I remember is that all I ever wanted to be was a lawyer. I really can’t trace where it came from – maybe it came from one of the very few movies I saw as a young boy in Western Newfoundland or the books I was reading as a young person. But my enduring memory is that I always wanted to be a lawyer. I was the second eldest of a family of nine and my father worked with the railroad so there wasn’t a lot of financial resources. When I finished Grade 11 I couldn’t go to university immediately so I worked for two years, saved some money and gave it to my father. And when things got a little better for him, I decided I would go and be a lawyer. To be honest I had so little information and knowledge at the time I didn’t really know how to go about it. I spoke with the parish priest and he told me, ‘Well you’ve got to go to Memorial first and get some undergraduate training and then go to law school’. So, I registered to attend Memorial and it went from there.

DP: You first got involved with politics and public service as a member of Premier Smallwood’s government. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

CW: I first got formally involved in public service and political life when I was a member of Mr. Joey Smallwood’s cabinet in the mid-1960’s, in 1966, and elected to the House of Assembly that same year. Mr. John Crosbie and I were involved in negotiating the Come By Chance Refinery agreement and the Labrador linerboard agreement and we disagreed strongly with the approach that government wanted to take. So strongly that we eventually had to resign because we couldn’t support what Mr. Smallwood’s government insisted on doing. That was all about making economic life in the province better. Mr. Crosbie and I both had the same aspiration to achieve this and we both spent a good deal of time in public life trying to achieve that objective.

DP: When you returned to provincial politics in 1987 and then became premier in 1989, the province was facing some enormous challenges. How did you tackle that?

CW: There were a number of major issues that we were facing. At the top of the list was the massive debt the province was carrying at that time, but the other file that required immediate attention was the Meech Lake Accord. The federal government was seeking to change the constitution of the country in a manner that would affect the status of the provinces and create a special status for one province. It would have been virtually impossible for the country to continue on a fair basis and I strongly objected to that. The third major item was the closure of the cod fishery in 1992 that had a devastating economic effect on the province and created a major challenge for the government. The fourth thing I was trying to do was increase economic activity and have it spread to other parts of the province, outside the immediate St. John’s area, which was better positioned to survive economically.

We managed to deal effectively with the Meech Lake issue. We also worked through major deficits every year and eventually got that under control. By my last year in office we didn’t have to borrow any money and had a balanced budget. That gave me some satisfaction that I had achieved one of the major objectives that brought me into politics. With the help of the federal government we were also able to manage the closure of the cod fishery and increase fishing of other species and begin the process of creating a more diversified fishery and aquaculture program. Since then other governments have facilitated that work. I was also able to build on the oil industry with the first Hibernia agreement negotiated by the government I led, but that successful industry today is based on work that started as far back as Mr. Smallwood’s time, and was significantly carried forward by Mr. Frank Moores and Mr. Brian Peckford.

DP: Your appointment as chair of the Independent Appointments Commission is yet another example of a career that’s been defined by public service at the highest levels – executive, legislative and judicial. Why is public service important to you and what is your focus for the Independent Appointments Commission?

CW: I think at a very basic level, if you were born and lived in Newfoundland and Labrador, and have an awareness of its circumstances, there comes with that an aspiration or motivation to contribute and help make things better. I believe most people feel that way – they want to see the province thrive and be more successful.

By extension, my goal for the IAC is to cause a change in public opinion as to the motivation of people who are appointed to the various agencies, boards and commissions in this province. In the past, governments made appointments based on either the information the minister, premier or government had at their disposal or individuals they chose to seek out for these roles. That led a great many people, in particular if you weren’t a supporter of the political party at the time, to think that political considerations other than competence or ability to perform are what made the decision or was the motivation.

After the legislation was passed, and Premier Ball asked me if I would agree to head the first commission, he made it clear that his objective was to create a greater level of confidence from the general public when it came to the independence and objectivity and competence of the individuals being appointed. I think it was an excellent idea and I give him full credit. I only wish that I had the foresight to put it in place when I was premier.

DP: What are some of the numbers that demonstrate the scope of the IAC’s work and successes to date?

CW: Since July 2016, we’ve made significant progress in our merit-based appointments. Over 1,900 individuals have applied through our online application process, which you can find on our website at www.iacnl.ca. Over 482 people have been appointed to serve on over 90 separate boards and tribunals. The opportunities are structured on the website as Tier 1 and Tier 2. Tier 1 are the approximately 30 entities that the IAC is solely responsible for when it comes to merit-based recommendations for appointments. The Public Service Commission (PSC), while providing support to the IAC, primarily handles the merit-based recommendations for the other 130 agencies, boards and commissions that are categorized as Tier 2 entities. Of those 482 appointments I mentioned, 192 have been Tier 1 and 290 for Tier 2 opportunities. The IAC has also been involved in a number of executive appointments, a broad range that includes the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Chief of Police, Auditor General, Child Youth Advocate, Seniors Advocate, Chief Procurement Officer, as well as Commissioners of the Public Utilities Board.

DP: What is your opinion or feeling on the talent and experience that exists in Newfoundland and Labrador to serve in these various capacities?

CW: We have an incredible resource in this province. And that’s our main focus at the IAC, to tap into this resource by inviting people to visit our website where we have all the opportunities listed, to consider the kind of position that you’d be interested in and how your skills, experience and training would allow you to contribute.

We’ve put this process in place but we’ve found that the overwhelming number of people who have indicated an interest to participate are from the Avalon peninsula area, in particular the St. John’s metro area. We want to make sure we tap into the great wealth of talent that is elsewhere in the province, including the many small communities on the island and in Labrador. When we make recommendations for people to be appointed to a board or commission that would be administering a service to the whole province, we want to ensure we have a board that can bring together the views of persons from all parts of the province. That’s the biggest concern we have at the moment – that we aren’t getting that – I hope people from across Newfoundland and Labrador will consider getting involved.

For more information on the Independent Appointments Commission, and the various opportunities with provincial agencies, boards and commissions, visit: https://www.iacnl.ca/

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