This article first appeared in the September issue of the Anglican Journal.
For the Hon. Clyde K. Wells, early education meant a one-room Anglican schoolhouse in the tiny railway town of Stephenville Crossing, Newfoundland-Labrador. “In Grade 7, I was taught by a 17-year-old boy who had just graduated from high school in the spring and took a six-week summer course in teacher training, ” he recalls.
As premier, Wells would work to abolish the province’s small uni-denominational schools. Yet those “four walls and a pot-bellied stove,” as Wells describes his school, stood him in very good stead. He went on to graduate from Memorial University in political science.
Wells is known as for his opposition to the 1987 Meech Lake Accord, a pact designed to bring Quebec into the constitutional fold by granting it special status within Confederation. “The amendments subordinated the entire Constitution of Canada to Quebec’s status as a distinct society,” he says, still audibly bristling. “I couldn’t believe that Prime Minister Mulroney and the premiers were willing to do that. No federation can survive such inequality among its constituents.”
In 1966, Premier Joey Smallwood approached Wells, asking him to run with other new faces such as John Crosbie. “Three of us were actually appointed to the cabinet before we ran,” says Wells, who became the unelected minister of labour at age 28.
From the start, he challenged Smallwood on the province’s financial direction. “He had the idea of running a Newfoundland family allowance matching the federal family allowance, and there was no way in the world we could afford that,” says Wells. Two years later, he and Crosbie resigned from cabinet over concerns about the financing of the Come by Chance oil refinery.
Wells remained in the assembly as an independent until 1971 and then returned to his law practice. In 1987, Wells was elected Liberal leader, and in 1989 he became the province’s fifth premier. He reformed the public school system, amending the constitutional entitlement of every religious denomination to its own schools. “You’d have four different denominational schools with a total among them of 150 students in all grades,” he recalls.
His greatest pride remains putting the province’s finances on a surer footing at a time that saw the catastrophic collapse of the cod fisheries.
He returned to private law practice and became chief justice of the province from 1999 to 2009.
Earlier this year, at age 76, Wells was asked to rejoin his former St. John’s law firm, as counsel, adviser and mentor. “That gave me an opportunity to keep my hand in the law and at least pretend that I still had some use,” he says modestly.
A lifelong Anglican, Wells remains a member of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in St. John’s.
Looking back, does he feel his Christian faith was challenged by politics? Says Wells: “The only issue that caused me concern was abortion. I have fairly strong personal beliefs about abortion, especially late abortion, and I was reluctant to provide public funding for these procedures.”
The courts resolved the issue, ruling that terminations must be covered by the provincial health-care plan. “It was difficult to deal with, but you have to recognize that despite your own religious beliefs, others have different beliefs, and you can’t impose the burdens of your beliefs on everybody else.”
He has this advice for people of faith considering a political career that may pit their religious convictions against the exigencies of secular democracy: “Think hard about it. Recognize that when these kinds of issues arise, your own religious principles can’t come first. If they do, you have no alternative but to resign.”