Forget the NDP’s young Quebec caucus: Jack Layton’s biggest management problem when the House of Commons reconvenes may well be the newly elected MP from St. John’s South-Mount Pearl. After failing to win the suburban Newfoundland riding in 2008, Ryan Cleary astonished himself on election night by unseating Liberal incumbent Siobhan Coady by more than 7,000 votes. Making it all the more surprising is the fact that in his previous life as a journalist, Cleary called the NDP a bunch of “losers,” “a small pocket of aging granolas and artsy-fartsies,” and “a party that wouldn’t win an election if Jackie Layton was given a 100-seat head start.”
As the former editor-in-chief of the Independent, a St. John’s newspaper, and as an open-line radio host on the popular St. John’s station VOCM (Voice of the Common Man), Cleary also carved out a reputation as an unapologetic Newfoundland separatist. “I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but now that we’re rolling in the cash it may be time to consider breaking away from the country of Canada,” he wrote in May 2008, five months before hoisting the federal NDP banner for the first time. “If we’re teetering on the edge of economic independence anyway, why not go all the way?”
Today, Cleary, 44, pauses when asked if he still favours independence. “I do not consider myself a separatist,” he says finally. “There have been points when I was younger, when I was gung-ho in terms of separation. But that’s not what people want, and that’s not what I want.”
Visitors to his new office on Parliament Hill will likely see a photograph on the wall showing Cleary, in a tuxedo, accepting an award from then-governor general Adrienne Clarkson. In 2005, Cleary’s newspaper was a finalist for the Michener Award for public service journalism, for publishing a groundbreaking cost-benefit analysis that claimed, contrary to popular wisdom, that Newfoundland and Labrador had contributed more to Canada financially than it had received. The analysis included the usual measurement of taxes paid and transfer payments received, but also added up the billions earned from offshore oil projects, and the indirect revenues collected by Quebec from decades of access to cheap Labrador hydro power—a calculation that was disputed by many economists.
Cleary says he still believes Confederation has been a raw deal for his province, particularly because of the chokehold Quebec exerts over the transmission of hydroelectric power at Churchill Falls, Labrador, and because of what he calls the “annihilation” by federal bureaucrats of the once-great fishery. His personal mission in Ottawa, he says, is to seek a national energy policy that would liberalize electricity transmission, and to demand a judicial inquiry into the collapse of the cod fishery. “I’m going to be in the Conservative government’s face every single day that I’m in Ottawa in terms of fisheries issues,” he says. “This is what I’m used to doing as a newspaper journalist, as an open-line host. And I’m not going to change my style.”
Making friends with his new Quebec colleagues—the NDP now has 58 MPs from the province—might be tough considering that Cleary once said an independent Newfoundland would be free to tear up the 1968 contract that gives Hydro-Quebec cheap access to Churchill Falls power. As Edward Hollett, an influential St. John’s blogger pointed out, the New Democrats “can’t keep Ryan under wraps forever . . . this guy could be an accident waiting to happen.” Cleary isn’t worried. “I don’t think I have a big mouth. I just have something to say and I’m going to say it.”