Remembering Roméo LeBlanc

A look back at how he functioned as a “regional minister” and his role during the October Crisis

The impressive biographical arc is what stand out in Roméo LeBlanc’s obituaries. Farm boy rises to be press secretary to two prime ministers, cabinet minister and finally the first Acadian governor-general—all after having passed on attending law school so he could work to support his hard-pressed family.

Beyond his compelling personal story, though, a couple of other elements strike me as worth mulling as we look back at LeBlanc’s remarkable career. I’m interested in how he functioned as what was sometimes called a “regional minister,” and, before that, in his role during the October Crisis.

As a Pierre Trudeau-era cabinet minister, LeBlanc can be categorized along with Lloyd Axworthy of Manitoba and Allan MacEachen on Nova Scotia as a regional chieftain. LeBlanc was known for taking good care of his New Brunswick.

Like Axworthy and MacEachen, the way LeBlanc tended to his home base helped make him a fixture in Ottawa. But like them his close identification with his regional fiefdom, rather than a national scope, limited his reach: none of these three emerged as a serious threat to become Liberal leader, although Axworthy had his aspirations.

As well, LeBlanc’s sense of himself as a regional champion seemed to limit his willingness or ability to implement potentially unpopular policies. For example, it was only after LeBlanc’s long run as Fisheries minister ended in 1982 that a more economically stringent approach to the department could be imposed by the forgotten reformer Pierre de Bané. In contrast, LeBlanc’s approach to Fisheries has been described, by Christina McCall and Stephen Clarkson in their two-volume Trudeau biography, as driven by “social welfare priorities.”

I wonder if the regional minister as a stock figure still exists in Ottawa in quite the same way. To me, it seems that in Jean Chrétien’s government and now in Stephen Harper’s, fewer truly substantial cabinet ministers have allowed themselves to be quite so narrowly associated with provincial or regional interests.

Of course, they still like to be seen announcing infrastructure projects and the like close to home. But it has grown less respectable to be mainly known for tending assiduously to flowing money home and crafting policy for regional advantage. I wonder if that change signals a genuine shift in how things get done around here, or just an evolution in the way political aims and priorities are communicated by self-aware, ambitious cabinet ministers.

On my second point, LeBlanc’s role in the October Crisis, I’m intrigued for narrower reasons. He was Trudeau’s press secretary at that historic moment, and clearly would have had an impact in shaping the way his boss communicated through those anxious weeks.

Perhaps this has already been documented in histories I haven’t read, but I wonder exactly what LeBlanc’s part was in, say, the crafting of Trudeau’s steely Oct. 16, 1970, television address explaining the implementation of the War Measures Act. I’ve read that LeBlanc was, along with the likes of Marc Lalonde, a source at the time for journalists probing the deliberations behind Trudeau’s moves, but beyond that I don’t have a satisfying sense of what he was up to.

As press secretary, and given that he had experience in that role under Lester B. Pearson before working for Trudeau, LeBlanc might well have had significant influence in the way the federal government, and especially the prime minister, communicated during one of those rare times when every phrase truly mattered. A footnote detail, perhaps, but one worth knowing more about.

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