HALIFAX — Former Nova Scotia premier John Buchanan, who led the province from 1978 to 1990, has died at the age of 88.
A Halifax lawyer before entering politics, Buchanan was known for his outgoing personality and folksy manner.
It was those traits that were fondly remembered at the Nova Scotia legislature Friday shortly after news of his death. The legislature stood for a moment of silence in tribute and respect.
"He was a true champion of Nova Scotia," Liberal Premier Stephen McNeil told reporters outside the house chamber.
McNeil said Buchanan would be best remembered for his ability to be "connected to a place and connected to people."
The man who would gain prominence as an old-style, glad-handing politician, joined the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservatives at the request of then-premier Robert Stanfield.
He was first elected to the legislature as the member for the constituency of Halifax Atlantic in May 1967 and later held various cabinet posts, including finance, public works and fisheries before being elected party leader in 1971.
After an emphatic defeat to the Gerald Regan Liberals in 1974, Buchanan was elected as Nova Scotia's 20th premier in September 1978 at the age of 47.
The morning after the win Buchanan and his wife Mavis famously stood in the middle of the Armdale Rotary in west-end Halifax, waving at rush hour traffic with a sign that read "Thank You."
Personable and often more popular than his party, he subsequently led the Tories to three more election victories in 1981, 1984 and 1988. The tireless extrovert used expressions like "gosh" and "golly" and took great pride in his ability to connect with people.
While in government Buchanan sought to make the province self-sufficient. He was an enthusiastic supporter of offshore energy development and championed the development of the tidal power plant in Annapolis Royal, the first of its kind in North America.
But he was criticized for his financial policies, which massively ballooned Nova Scotia's net debt, and by 1986 his government was also reeling under the weight of a messy expense-claims scandal that landed two members in court.
Billy Joe MacLean, the culture minister of the day and a close friend of Buchanan, was eventually convicted and fined on four counts of uttering forged expense claims, while Cape Breton backbencher Greg MacIsaac was sentenced to a year in jail on similar charges and was disbarred by the provincial barrister's society.
Fiercely loyal, Buchanan nonetheless recalled the legislature to expel MacLean after he refused to quit. He broke down and cried inside the chamber before casting his vote.
"I still consider him a friend," Buchanan said later in an interview with The Canadian Press. "Some people say that kind of statement hurts you. Well if it hurts me, it hurts me. I've always been pretty blunt about that kind of thing."
In June 1990, the controversy surrounding Buchanan's government reached a crescendo when Michael Zareski, the former deputy minister of the Government Services Department, alleged widespread corruption reaching into the premier's office.
Buchanan denied the claims that he accepted kickbacks and personally interfered with government spending decisions by directing work to friends.
But in a stunning turn two months later, he abruptly resigned in the midst of an RCMP criminal investigation to accept a Senate appointment offered by then-prime minister Brian Mulroney.
He was the first sitting premier in Canada to leave the job to sit directly in the upper house, a move that earned widespread political condemnation. Buchanan left for Ottawa that August after holding a meeting with his caucus and issuing a terse news release.
The Mounties cleared him a year later of the kickback and patronage allegations, and in 1992 they said there was insufficient evidence to charge him in relation to a separate investigation into a secret Tory trust fund that supplemented Buchanan's income.
Regardless, the damage was already done to his meticulously built public image as "Honest John."
Tim Houston, Nova Scotia's current Tory leader, hailed Buchanan Friday as a master campaigner and skilled politician who never lost his sense of humour.
He said Buchanan was "full of life" in his later years, often turning up to speak and even sing at party events.
"He was certainly proud of his four majority governments," Houston said. "He would often say to me 'You know Tim I won four majorities,' and I would say 'Yes John I know'. He would reply, 'I hope you win three'."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 4, 2019.
The Canadian Press