Instead of a doctor for premier, Nova Scotia will have a fisherman. It’s not that John Hamm, now stepping down to make way for the winner of this weekend’s Progressive Conservative convention, brought his stethoscope to work (but the image was used over and over by political cartoonists), or that there’ll be a lobster in every pot courtesy of Neil LeBlanc (but it’s easy to imagine cartoons showing LeBlanc in a dory, tossed upon a stormy sea labeled Health Care). It’s more like what careers and life skills can give someone as prerequisites for entering the premiership.
Neil LeBlanc is 49, medium tall and trim with white hair and eyebrows. He has hooded, greeny eyes and keeps a gaze going. He favours clothing in blue and other dark colours (jeans at home; suits at work) and speaks with only the occasional hint of a South Shore accent; it comes out when he gets on a bit of a roll. Or it could be French; he’s bilingual.
Inside the door of a rented suite of offices on the seventh floor of a glass-clad building on Argyle Street, two charming women work at terminals. I am offered coffee, which I am glad to take. LeBlanc and I speak not in his office, but down the hall in what looks like a West Wing war room with seating for 20 at folding banquet tables. Our chaperone is Allison MacLellan, LeBlanc’s media person and niece of Russell.
If LeBlanc were a comic book superhero he could be The Cleaner, as in Jean Reno’s character of Victor the Cleaner in La Femme Nikita or Harvey Keitel as The Wolf in Pulp Fiction. A job is getting botched, folks are getting worried, somebody makes a phone call and The Cleaner comes in quietly and takes over, does what needs to be done and disappears. And that’s how LeBlanc operates: He’s the guy who commits to NS politics when planets align and there’s a need or space for him, and then goes home to Yarmouth County. This is his third time on the job, just like Le Nettoyeur. Well, actually The Cleaner is a hitman, but the name LeBlanc does hint at a clean job. Uh… without the guns; he don’t have to kill nobody.
As a boy he worked in his dad’s fish processing business, constructing boxes; gutting and filleting. “The first jobs were easier,” he says, “and then came harder stuff.” When asked what the difference is between the gutting and filleting, LeBlanc says gutting is about guts and filleting is about getting the meat off. “You cut so,” he says, and his hand slices the air in a horizontal, even stroke. The movement is beautiful, and I almost see the fish. It’s obvious he knows, at a deep level and through long, long, experience, what he is talking about.
From the fish processing he moved on to business at SMU, majoring in accounting, articling with the accounting firm KPMG (“I learned a lot but realized it wasn’t the career for me”). LeBlanc has gone home to be general manager of the Atlantic Herring Co-op in Yarmouth County. It’s a complicated job: looking after the fortunes of 35 herring seiners, their domestic sales plus over-the-side sales, where Russian ships come alongside the seiners far out to sea and the fish are sold without ever touching land.
His first job as The Cleaner, his first entry into politics, is more than 20 years ago. LeBlanc is in Wedgeport, Yarmouth County, married to high school sweetheart Grace d’Entremont (LeBlanc has a terrific memory for numbers. Their first date was at a dance in West Pubnico on January 4, 1974) and father to Jordan.
Just before the 1984 election (“three weeks and six days,” LeBlanc supplies) Delbert Meuse calls him. Meuse had been his high school English teacher. “He calls,” says LeBlanc, “and asks me to let my name stand for the Conservatives. I had never committed a political act! My wife is eight months pregnant with our second son, Shawn.” LeBlanc makes a few information calls. “A guy says I’ll be gone a few weeks in the spring and otherwise I’ll be home,” says LeBlanc, laughing. He runs. If Delbert Meuse had been a Liberal it might have ended differently. “I was a Conservative,” he says, “although I hadn’t displayed it. Trudeau was very smart but I admire Stanfield more—he was a statesman, a gentleman.”
So LeBlanc wins, on November 6, 1984. He is 28 years old. He serves nine years and is re-elected in 1988, but by 1993 the fortunes of Yarmouth County are in freefall. The Rio Algom Tin Mine has closed: 400 jobs lost. The Dominion Textile Mill has closed: 800 jobs lost. In the election that year the Liberals, led by Donald Cameron, sweep into office. LeBlanc loses his seat by less than 500 votes to Liberal Allister Surette.
The Cleaner goes back to Wedgeport and establishes his own lobster wholesale business, LeBlanc Enterprises Ltd., but is voted back in, in 1998, beating Surette by 1,200 votes, and re-elected in 1999 with 77 percent of the vote.
In August 2003 LeBlanc doesn’t reoffer. He’s at the top of his game and finance minister, but he is also a man of his word. “The deal with my wife,” he says, “had been that we would do two terms and then assess. It’s a three-and-one-half hour drive from home to Halifax. Our daughter Monique was growing.”
LeBlanc stays home and becomes CAO of the Municipality of Argyle. He joins boards—the IWK, Canadian Unity Council, Universite Sainte-Anne.
Last fall (September 25, 2005, says LeBlanc) he hears John Hamm announce he is stepping down as premier and leader of the NS Conservative party. He hears it on the radio, considers his third entry into politics and The Cleaner makes some calls. “I called people I could trust,” he says, “I spoke with my wife and daughter. To do this right means a move; we’re going to have to move to the city.” LeBlanc hasn’t bought a house yet. Monique will finish the school year in Wedgeport and LeBlanc will look for a seat that’s good for him and his family. He’s not a sitting member. He is coming back for this job; the premiership is his only job goal. And the man sitting in his traditional seat of Argyle, Chris d’Entremont, is someone he encouraged to run, and LeBlanc won’t go back and boot him out.
So is LeBlanc The Cleaner? Why is he the guy we need?
He has a clear vision of the job he is applying for. “Anyone who looks at the premier as just one person doesn’t understand,” he says firmly. “There’s the caucus, the cabinet. There are people close to you—a lot of right-hand people. I believe in the team. I like working in a team and learning to delegate and trusting opinion. In politics, if you work as a team you can accomplish a lot.” And later, “the premier is a communicator. You must clearly enunciate reasons for policies, and think on your feet.”
He knows the firm. “I judge myself against what I can contribute. I can bring experience; 14 years as MLA; eight years in the cabinet, the second time at the heart of government as finance minister. I’ve held difficult portfolios.”
He has support. Eleven cabinet ministers are in his camp, and 10 HRM councillors.
He does delegate and trust opinion. In this year’s campaign for the leadership of the NS Progressive Conservative party LeBlanc’s brand stands out. It was designed by Matt Godwin and John Deveau, party and campaign youth volunteers. They are excited about having energetic colours that stand out from the usual navy blue and red generic political colours. The brand features a hand-brushed Neil in blue, underlined by a robust undulating line. This all is on a yellow background that changes depending on the paper it is printed on. On flyers the yellow is a slightly sickly green. On business cards it’s a nice egg yolk.
In the days before Saturday’s convention at the Halifax Metro Centre LeBlanc is working on his speech. “This is a major speech. Some people are more polished; that’s not my strong point.” And then LeBlanc says something that is a terrific selling point. He says, “Passion is my strong point.”
“It’s about making a difference,” he says. “We have worked hard to be where we are—made a lot of hard decisions. I believe in what we’ve done and I don’t want to go back to the disorganization of where we were before, before we enunciated where we wanted to go and actually went there.”
Sounds like the perfect job for The Cleaner.