John Crosbie and the Promise of Oil

“You have driven my husband wild with your book!”

This is how Jane Crosbie welcomed me on my first visit to Government House in Saint John’s, Newfoundland in 2012.

When my book The Ocean Ranger: Remaking the Promise of Oil came out, the then-Lieutenant Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador roared into local bookstores to make sure it was prominently displayed.

“It has to be the first thing people see when they walk in the doors,” he later told me.  “Everybody needs to read this book.”

John and Jane Crosbie

John and Jane Crosbie

I had interviewed Crosbie a few years before, in the early stages of my research into the disaster that took my brother Jim’s life, and the lives of his 83 co-workers (most of them Newfoundlanders) in 1982. Crosbie spent hours with me, explaining how the shock of the loss of the cod fishery related to public resistance to investing in the offshore. He cried talking about the night the Ocean Ranger capsized, and he frankly admitted the failure of power-holders – including himself — to protect those men from easily anticipated dangers. They were floating in the North Atlantic in February, after all.

Crosbie was a great help to me in getting my head around the complex cultural environment that made the Ocean Ranger disaster all but inevitable, but I didn’t think he would take much notice of my final product.

In fact, given Crosbie’s commitment to free-market capitalism, I didn’t think he’d agree at all with two of my central arguments:

  1. Those men died because the Newfoundland and Canadian governments were so busy fighting over the anticipated proceeds from offshore development that they forgot to regulate the oil companies; and
  2. the Ocean Ranger disaster broke the “promise” that oil would liberate Newfoundland from decades of crushing poverty.

So, I was amazed, shortly after my book came out, to receive both a letter on Government House stationery and a voice mail from John Crosbie insisting that I come to Saint John’s to see him immediately.


When I arrived at Government House, within five minutes of the breathless greeting from Jane described above, John installed me at his work desk, called up the host of a radio call-in on “Voice of the Common Man,” and thrust the receiver into my hand. Sitting at John Crosbie’s desk, with his thundering endorsement, I was describing my book to listeners all across Newfoundland and Labrador.

The next time I was in Saint John’s was on the anniversary of the disaster itself. I had been invited to speak on behalf of all the families who lost men on the Ocean Ranger at the annual memorial service hosted by Gonzaga High School. Just as the service was set to begin, the Royal Salute sounded and John and Jane Crosbie arrived, accompanied by their son Ches.

When I spoke, I raged my way through a denunciation of the oil companies, governments and deadbeat regulators. I was a mess. After my public melt-down, and when the service ended, John and Jane invited me and my mother to dinner that night at Government House.

Over dinner, John waved his copy of my book at the other guests, summarized parts and proclaimed:

This is the best book on Canadian public policy that I have ever read! And all I do is read.

“Yes,” said Jane, “all you do is read.”

This was surreal… and actually kind of frightening: John Crosbie is a serious free market guy, and I am some kind of socialist. So, if he loves my book, what did I get wrong?

At the same time, I thought, this man’s heart beats with his people, so if he found my account of this Newfoundland-changing event convincing I must have something right.

The Ocean Ranger

The Ocean Ranger in a photo taken in the 1980s by David Butcher, one of the 84 crew members who died when the rig sank in February 1982. The photo was one of a series donated to the Rooms Provincial Archives in St. John’s in 2015.

It was only when I heard the eulogies at John Crosbie’s funeral that I really understood his enthusiasm for my book. Both Ches Crosbie and Brian Mulroney singled out the development of the Hibernia offshore as John Crosbie’s proudest achievement. As Mulroney put it, Crosbie saw the federal investment in Hibernia as a way of giving “a hand up, not a handout” so as to give “all of Newfoundland finally the hope for a better day.”

John Crosbie loved my book in part because I showed that the “promise” of oil had been broken by the loss of those 84 men in February 1982. I showed, too, that this “promise” had to be “remade,” which is to say, it required political stewardship to convince the public, civil servants and all levels of government that Newfoundland culture could be transformed by a successful—and safety-regulated—offshore industry. In 1990, John Crosbie was the moving force precisely in “remaking the promise of oil” for the people of Newfoundland.

“Hibernia was his moment. Hibernia was his dream,” Mulroney said.

Mulroney’s eulogy emphasized the “free market” John Crosbie. But of course, Crosbie was interwoven with his community, and this came across in his response to the Ocean Ranger disaster: even given his free market ethos, he lobbied hard to adapt the NL Worker’s Compensation law so that bereaved families could receive provincial no-fault insurance funds and pursue law suits against the oil companies, and then in his various federal cabinet posts, he shepherded many of the recommendations of the Royal Commission Inquiry into law.

Reflecting on it now, it seems to me that John Crosbie was moved by my book, and that he saw in it a recognition of his work in “remaking the promise of oil” to bring jobs to Newfoundland and Labrador. Even more, it seems to me that he saw through my brash academic ambition to the teenage girl who had been crushed by the Ocean Ranger disaster just as he had been chastened by it.

For Canadians outside Newfoundland and Labrador it might be hard to understand why this smart-mouthed fiscal conservative was so deeply loved by the people of his province, and by his political colleagues from across the spectrum and the country. My encounter with him and Jane was just the kind of thing they did, and yet for me it was also a gesture of reconciliation… in a big, cosmic way.



Susan Dodd

Susan Dodd is an associate professor of Humanities at the University of King’s College in Halifax. She is the author of The Ocean Ranger: remaking the promise of oil (Fernwood, 2012), co-editor (with Neil Robertson) of Unity of Opposites? Hegel and Canadian Political Thought (University of Toronto Press, 2018) and author of The Halifax Explosion: the Apocalypse of Samuel Prince (a commentary on Catastrophe and Social Change), Underhill Books, 2017. She can also be heard in a recent episode of Canadaland’s Commons, “CRUDE #6 — The Devil in the Deep Blue Sea”