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Frank: The Life and Politics of Frank Mckenna

by Philip Lee

Frank McKenna’s political importance cannot be denied. His first mandate as premier of New Brunswick was unanimous – his Liberals utterly defeated Richard Hatfield’s Tories in 1987 and sat unopposed in the legislature. While in office, he managed to enshrine in law the right to promote and preserve both official languages in New Brunswick, no small feat in a province that once had an anti-francophone party as its official opposition. McKenna was a player on the national scene as well, trying three times – at Meech Lake, in Charlottetown, and in Calgary – to achieve constitutional reform.
Frank, a major new biography from journalist Philip Lee, is a breathless account of McKenna’s reign, and of McKenna himself. Lee presents his subject as an early riser and a go-getter who would work into the night, a man who expected the best from everyone, an indomitable spirit utterly committed to his province. A portrait of McKenna as a man who can’t stay still for long, a self-confessed “political addict,” vividly emerges.
All of these things McKenna may be, but readers with imagination will wonder what people said about him behind his back, and if he was hell at home. Some may be tempted to recast good qualities as bad ones: neurotic, insecure, a workaholic, impossible to please, mean.
Lee also all but ignores McKenna’s family until the last chapters, those that focus on his retirement from politics after 10 years at the helm of the province. That’s too bad: weaving in the difficulties Julie McKenna faced as Frank’s wife would have offered a more balanced picture of the premier who solved New Brunswick’s French-English divide, created thousands of long-term jobs in a perpetually underdoggish province, and was tapped by Jean Chrétien to be Canada’s next prime minister.