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The first time I saw Stephen McNeil on the campaign trail was in 2013 as he and his Liberals were cruising into power.
The Liberal leader was in a buoyant mood, I recall, going door to door in Halifax’s north end. I don’t know if it was once or twice that the six-foot-seven politician counselled someone at the doorstep to, once election day rolled around, “remember to vote for the tallest candidate.”
I remember it, though, because it was a pretty good line, and also because I’ve heard him use versions of it so often over the years, including the last time I saw him speak in public, in February at his annual pre-budget state-of-the-province address at the Halifax Board of Trade.
I bring it up again following the news that he is stepping down as premier, because I think the way that McNeil goes back to such a line — funny in a self-deprecating way, lacking any pretense of highfalutin political rhetoric — gets to the core of the man.
Former Liberal leader Danny Graham, now the head of Engage Nova Scotia, was also elected to the legislature in 2003. Graham says the thing that you can never doubt about McNeil is his “absolute authenticity.”
Everything that I’ve seen makes me agree.
McNeil once and for all changed the narrative and proved that someone from humble beginnings could truly lead this province.
He was, you will recall, one of 17 kids raised singlehandedly in the Annapolis Valley by their mother, Theresa, who became Canada’s first female high sheriff.
Unlike the doctors, lawyers and business folk who mostly have sat in the premier’s office in this province, after high school McNeil went to community college to study refrigeration repair and opened a small business that saw some lean years.
Didn't try to please
And yet, other than dumping the Abraham Lincoln beard, he remains the same man who arrived at the legislature 17 years ago, still referring to himself as “a poor boy from Upper Granville."
I’m told McNeil usually smiles when he says that because he knows something: that his background — what former Nova Scotia MP and federal cabinet minister Scott Brison calls “his rural roots and entrepreneurial start," along with being part of a huge family that understood struggle, and the son of a legendary mother whose values he took to heart — is his superpower.
When I heard Thursday that McNeil was leaving the premier’s office, I walked outside and asked a neighbour what he thought of him. “He never seemed to be trying to please everyone,” I was told, which is absolutely true.
McNeil, therefore, seems stalwart to some, inflexible to others. So many times, he has displayed remarkable empathy (watch, for example, his speech apologizing to the residents of the Home for Colored Children). At other moments, he has become a lightning rod, as few premiers have, for his hard line on labour issues.
Reporters think him a stoic tough guy. But those who know him well call him "light-hearted, fun-loving" with an "often soft side."
I'll leave it to Jim Vibert elsewhere in these pages to assess McNeil's political record. Let me, though, say this: words matter for politicians. McNeil was a halting speaker in the early days. Now he’s a fine orator who is at his best speaking off the cuff, when his genuineness shines through.
We saw that, in my view, over and over again in recent months.
During a television interview after the Portapique killings, the premier was asked how, in the midst of so much death, he personally was doing.
His voice quavered and his eyes teared up as he talked about the imponderable nature of what had just happened in his province.
I will carry that image of McNeil with me.
Mostly, though, I will remember the premier we saw during the near-daily COVID-19 updates with Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, Bob Strang.
Not everyone liked the way McNeil handled himself before the cameras: too stern, some said, too lectury, according to other critics.
Yet he let Strang and the science run the show. When we screwed up by going to the beach or partying too hard, McNeil was the bad cop who told us all about it.
His face was a scowl on those days, an expression with which many reporters who dealt with him on a regular basis are familiar.
If ordinary Nova Scotians did not know him before the McNeil and Strang show began, they got to know him then — someone who cares deeply about this province, who calls things what they are and the way he sees them.
Someone who may have been just a poor boy from Upper Granville, but who sat there day after day, coming down hard on us when he had to, bucking up our spirits when we needed it, seeing us through the worst times most of us in this province will ever see.
- JIM VIBERT: McNeil’s departure brings the end of tough love
- MICHAEL de ADDER CARTOON: Aug. 7, 2020
- Outgoing Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil leaves office with 'mixed legacy'
- Nova Scotia union leaders won't miss Stephen McNeil
- Premier’s resignation surprises municipal leaders in McNeil’s Annapolis riding
- Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil announces he's stepping down