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The federalist

With Meech Lake long behind him, Clyde Wells reflects on law, Newfoundland and Labrador’s growing economy — and the changing legal profession.

Former Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Clyde Wells
Former Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Clyde Wells Photo by Greg Locke

When Clyde Wells takes stock of his distinguished career as a lawyer, politician and judge, he doesn’t hesitate when asked what he’s enjoyed most.

“Practising law,” Wells says, “by a wide margin.”

“If you look at the three areas where I would group my work, you could say: Politics is exciting and all that; the position of a judge is fairly influential and determinant of issues; but the one that provided the greatest professional gratification was the practice of law. No doubt.”

There’s also no doubt about the impact Wells has had on Canada and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, serving as its fifth premier from 1989 to 1996.

He’s seen enormous change and challenge. On the national stage he was a lightning rod in the highly charged debate over the Meech Lake Accord.

Shortly after Meech, he tackled a provincial economy “head over heels” in debt and only to be further gutted when the federal goverment indefinitely shut down the province’s lifeblood, the cod fishery.

Then, after years of “have-not status” Newfoundland and Labrador underwent a sea change. Wells negotiated agreements to start development in the Hibernia offshore oil field, the beginning of the province's economic turnaround.

He was a litigator for much of his career, served as chief justice of the appeals division of the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador [1999-2009]  and today acts as counsel and chair of the board at Atlantic Canada law firm Cox & Palmer.

He had always wanted to be a lawyer but there was no guarantee it would happen. Born in the tiny, inland settlement of Buchans Junction in 1937 — “there were three or four families” — his father worked for the railroad.

As the second oldest of nine children, Wells wondered whether there would be money for university. After high school, he worked in construction for two years then attended Memorial University [BA, 1959] and Dalhousie University [LL.B., 1962].

For the next 25 years, his career track included working in the Judge Advocate General’s office of the Canadian Army, starting a law practice in Corner Brook, and joining then-premier Joey Smallwood’s Liberal cabinet in 1966. In 1971, he left politics to practise law and raise a young family of three children before running for the Liberal Party leadership in 1987.

That was when Wells entered the spotlight, helping fan a fierce debate over Meech Lake. The accord was announced in 1987 and while campaigning in a remote community on the northern peninsula Wells wrote down his thoughts.

“I was so bothered by what was being done and what was being proposed that I couldn’t believe the prime minister and premiers of Canada had agreed with it . . . I still have that material in the archives where I place my papers.” 

Wells believes in a federation where tiny PEI has the same legislative powers as an Ontario or British Columbia. The accord, created to bring Quebec into the “constitutional family” would declare Quebec a distinct society, which Wells didn’t like.

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“But worse was that the Parliament and government of Quebec had a specific responsibility to preserve and promote that distinct society. And that gave it a constitutionally acknowledged and directed power that no other province would have. And that the whole of the Constitution was to be read as subordinate to that . . . it was inappropriate, totally wrong.”

Other provisions would only create more provincial imbalances but the distinct society issue resonated, creating an emotional rift with Canadians coast to coast. Hero and villain, Wells was applauded and blamed by some for the accord’s failure in 1990.

“In a lonely spot at times,” he says, the polls indicated three-quarters of the population wouldn’t support the accord.

“I took a great deal of comfort that there was widespread approval for the positions that I was expressing. I had a great deal of correspondence from people across the country who would write to me to express their views and there were tens of thousands of them.”

With Meech settled, an important task loomed. Across Canada, provincial deficits and debts soared. His province was in trouble. Wells needed to make difficult budget decisions, further complicated when the federal government closed the cod fishery in 1992 after fish stocks were dangerously depleted.

“The effect was to eliminate 42,000 to 45,000 job opportunities in Newfoundland,” Wells says. “I used to tell people at the time it would be roughly the equivalent of shutting down the entire automobile in-dustry in Ontario. By that I mean all the parts, manufacturing, as well as the car assembly. That was the relative impact on Newfoundland.”

Wells was also premier when the pro­vince’s economic landscape changed. Construction on the massive production plat­­form in the offshore Hibernia oil field would begin in the early 1990s. While Wells signed the agreements, he credits his predecessors, particularly former Progressive Con­servative premier Brian Peckford for laying the groundwork.

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By the last year of his term, Wells had balanced the budget although the province had major debt to deal with. It was his greatest achievement, he says, getting the financial difficulty under control and putting Newfoundland on a road to manage it on a sound basis.

Hibernia, followed by the Terra Nova and White Rose offshore oil fields and significant contributions from nickel and iron ore operations, helped Newfoundland become an economic leader in the country. 

“There’s a good deal of pride in it,” Wells says. “Speaking personally, I’m delighted to be in a position where the province is contributing back to the great country of Canada some of the tremendous financial support that Canada contributed to Newfoundland when it was in need. That’s the way a federation should work and it’s marvelous. It’s working beautifully.”

Catching up with Clyde Wells

As counsel at Cox & Palmer, Clyde Wells now has the flexibility to take on the tasks that suit him. It also allows him to enjoy winters in Florida with Eleanor, his wife of 52 years.

He currently chairs the independent statutory review of the province’s Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and makes presentations on constitutional issues. He shared a few thoughts about the legal profession with National.

National: The world of law has changed quite a bit since you started. What stands out?

Clyde Wells: “Quite a bit” isn’t sufficient to describe the change that has taken place. The court system has changed considerably and it’s reached the point where people are turning away from the courts to alternative dispute resolution. That’s a matter of concern because it impacts the development of the common law and impacts the system we’ve been used to. The cost of litigation has grown tremendously and I think that’s a primary factor that deters people. There are a lot more self-represented litigants before the courts now and that too is a problem. Most are not really capable of presenting their arguments fully and expressing the legal rights and benefits and the support they would find for their position in law if they had the skills of a lawyer available to them. It makes it difficult for courts to handle.

N: What can lawyers do?

CW: One of the challenges facing lawyers is to try and eliminate some of the factors that have caused this to happen. In an effort, I think, to make the system work more efficiently by having discovery and pre-trial procedures and so on, it was carried to such extremes it’s probably tripled or quadrupled the time required to take a case to court and an ultimate judgment. When I started to practise law, a client came in, you got the writ issued, got the matter in court and got a judgment. It might be three or four months. Now, it’s usually three or four years. That not only delays judgment and resolution of the issue, it impacts economic activity in the interim in that area and drives up the cost of it all.

N: Do you think you had more influence on the bench or the legislature?

CW: Overall in Canada, I would have to say I had more influence in the legislature as the premier. I doubt I’ve livened up the jurisprudential world with my judgments. I probably even had more influence as a litigator. When I
practised law, I did primarily major litigation work. I enjoyed it immensely.

N: You always wanted to be a lawyer. Was it the right decision?

CW: Yes. To be honest I can’t remember a day when I wasn’t eager to go to my law office. I have no doubt there must have been one or more days. If there were, I don’t remember them.