By all means, if you’re writing a political book set in Nova Scotia, find a central character in the Annapolis Valley. I can vouch for it as a research destination, especially when the inquiries are conducted in summer, amid the Valley’s verdant scenery and perfect crystal air. Exploring the Valley in search of insights about Stephen McNeil and his environment proved to be immersive for me, with my own ancestral roots back to Port Royale in the 1690s. Wandering the Valley was the fun part. Researching and writing about a contemporary politician, in near real time, means lots of hours at computer screens and many hours in interviews, followed by the drone work of transcription. Then there’s the actual writing to be done and then the very important task of editing what’s been written. Doing a book during the Covid-19 pandemic meant lots of time indoors, so the social distancing writers crave wasn’t difficult to achieve. Telephone and virtual meetings replaced the in-person interviews much preferred in non-fiction research. I wasn’t often able to do that, so getting to Annapolis County to interview McNeil is his native habitat felt like a reward for all the time spent peering into a screen.
Stephen McNeil: Principle and Politics, is not an “authorized biography.” There was no prior agreement between the former premier and me about any aspect of the book. McNeil owns his own life story and some day might well write his own personal or political biography. I asked him for an interview through his former chief of staff, Laurie Graham, a colleague of mine from our days at CBC News. McNeil asked for no preconditions so I assume he expected I would be fair, if also somewhat critical.
It’s also not a hostile book. McNeil gave me a generous interview and I think that signaled to many of his associates, advisers and campaigners that it was okay to talk to me, and many did. Not all the interviewers were conducted on the record, but the great majority were done that way, which is important for the reader’s confidence in the material. There’s a massive amount of information freely available about the words and actions of public office holders like McNeil, so I tried not to repeat what everybody already knew about him. I tried to understand his actions in office and his approach to politics. You might not agree with everything he did, and I don’t either, but I hope readers will get where he was coming from and what he wanted for Nova Scotia.
Like most liberals and almost all Liberals, McNeil doesn’t see politics or governing as a set of simple challenges with easy solutions. Life is too fast, too busy and the competition for influence too intense for anything to be easy. The paradox is that McNeil mastered the complexity of contemporary politics by relying on lessons from his own experience. He knew only too well that life can be fragile and sometimes insecure because it had happened in his own family, when his father suddenly died when McNeil was a boy. From that profound event, McNeil learned that families matter when it matters most and that making an impact on the community means offering your own ideas, efforts, and leadership. He learned through building a business and his defeat in an early election campaign that there is no straightforward path to leadership. He believed that his family, community and ethical values could benefit politics and government. That is what he set out to do, and the book revolves around that.
In today’s politics of talking points, hyper-partisanship and media manipulation, McNeil seems distinctly unfashionable. His values include loyalty to community, trust in people, and diligence in work. He enjoyed, or better yet he earned, intense loyalty among his close supporters, some of whom initially had underestimated him. The feeling was mutual. Even today with McNeil out of politics, you can’t pry a bad word from the former leader about any of his hard-working team, and I tried. McNeil and his people nurtured that trust, even as their collective decisions inevitably cost votes and public support. As to diligence and hard work, McNeil came from a family of seventeen kids raised by their widowed mother, a titanic presence in his life. He learned a trade and ran a business, all while volunteering in community groups and coaching local sports teams. In his spare time, what there was of it, he was absorbing the foundational lessons of politics. He lost his first campaign for public office, learned from his mistakes and never lost one again.
McNeil won the first of five in a row in Annapolis in 2003. He became opposition leader in 2009 and premier in 2013 when his Liberals swept the NDP out of office after only one term, something that had not happened in 131 years. In power, McNeil knew exactly what he wanted to do.
That’s what my book is really about: McNeil’s determination to govern in keeping with the values he believed to be essentially Nova Scotian and practical. He became the subject of bitter opposition but over time, it became clear that he was a leader of consequence. During his seven years as premier, Nova Scotia welcomed more immigrants than it had in many generations. The population grew and the economy expanded. Government costs were controlled, the books were balanced and fundamental power relationships within the government changed. Unions lost influence, the cabinet and premier gained it. He built overseas trade and business, including with China, and controversially, shook up the school system. He tampered with the film industry, with mixed results. He made significant gestures of reconciliation with Mi’kmaq and Black communities. He stared down a corporate polluter, at cost to his own political interests. And he emerged as an avuncular, if somewhat stern leader in challenging times, battling the Covid-19 pandemic with sensitivity and consoling Nova Scotians after the mass shootings in April, 2020.
In the book, you’ll see how the pandemic disrupted McNeil’s life as much as that of any Nova Scotian. McNeil told me he had decided before the pandemic to retire in his second term and not contest a third election as leader, even though polls suggested he could have won it. By then he was a household presence more than most political leaders, mostly because Nova Scotians really got to know him during his near-daily Covid briefings with Dr. Robert Strang. But McNeil was ready to move on.
As a politician and leader, McNeil played hardball and made enemies. No doubt they’ll find some fault with this book. Not every angle on every public issue could be explored in the context of this book. Let it be part of the debate. And if it helps readers better understand McNeil and our modern politics, I will count it as a worthwhile effort.
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