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The Right Honourable Robert L. Stanfield served the Canadian public from 1948 until 1979, first as the Premier of Nova Scotia and later transitioning into federal politics as the Leader of the Official Opposition.[1] Though never holding office as Prime Minister, Stanfield is often described as the “best prime minister we never had”.[2] He was a politician that exuded intelligence and integrity, caring more about Canadian unity than aggravative manoeuvring. Although it has been forty years since Stanfield left federal politics, his legacy of civility, cooperation and humanity continue to permeate provincial and national politics today.

Born in Nova Scotia, Stanfield studied economics and political science at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Gaining high honours and the Governor General’s Gold Medal upon graduation, he continued his education at Harvard Law School.[3] Though a practising lawyer and known to be relatively apolitical, he faced an unwavering insistence from citizens to run for public office.[4] Paired with public support, his devotion to bettering Nova Scotia compelled him to enter provincial politics. Stanfield’s success as the Premier of Nova Scotia was the culmination of eighteen years of meticulous political organization and maintaining an active concern for “grassroots” interests.[5] Though his provincial successes led many to encourage him to enter the federal realm, Stanfield was firm in his commitment to his efforts locally. Unexpectedly, his attitude changed in 1967 when he resigned as premier and began his career in Ottawa.[6]

When asked about his decision to shift into federal politics, Stanfield simply replied that “the best answer, of course, is sheer patriotism”.[7] This eloquent and understated sentence exemplifies that legacy left by Robert L. Stanfield. His years in parliament revolved around achieving unity through cohesive efforts of consultation and the ready recognition of differing interests and points of view. These values continued later in life through his active service in “retirement” on various boards and committees.[8] As a core belief, Stanfield asserted the necessity for political parties to not disagree on everything. Instead, some acceptance of common ground among the major parties is essential for an effective and stable democracy.[9] In a political realm known for ruthlessness and partisanship, Stanfield was a voice of reasonableness and good sense, devoted to making a better Canada, and indeed a better world.

While the thoughts and concepts of Stanfield emerged from a particular place and time in history, many of these themes provide critical insights when reimagined into the current political and social environment. When we consider the issues faced by every stakeholder in society – citizens, politicians, businesses, to name a few – Stanfield offers conceptualizations of these topics far ahead of his time. Throughout his career, there were three core foundations to his approach: democratic values, cooperative governance, and inclusive and ethical international relations. Looking forward, these foundations provide valuable lessons in relation to the challenges faced by our institutions and society as a whole.

  1. Clippingdale, R. (2008). Robert Stanfield's Canada: Perspectives of the Best Prime Minister We Never Had. Montréal: School of Policy Studies, Queen's University by McGill-Queen's University Press.
  2. McQueen, R. (2004). Remembering Robert Stanfield: A good-humoured and gallant man. Policy Options, 25(2):8-11.
  3. Grescoe, P. (1967, November 11). “Stanfield: At Home with a Quiet, Lonely Gardener,” The Canadian: 2-6.
  4. Haliburton, E. (1972). My Years with Stanfield. Windsor, N.S.: Lancelot Press.
  5. Camp, D. (1967). “Robert Stanfield: The Leader and The Party,” The Atlantic Advocate: 12-16.
  6. Stevens, G. (1973). Stanfield. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.
  7. Time: Canada. (1967, September 15). “Tory Leader Robert Stanfield,” 90(11): 14-18.
  8. Clippingdale, R. (2008). Robert Stanfield's Canada: Perspectives of the Best Prime Minister We Never Had. Montréal: School of Policy Studies, Queen's University by McGill-Queen's University Press.
  9. Stanfield, R. (1974, November 14). Leader of the Opposition: Special Meeting – November 20th. Library of Parliament Canada.


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Introduction by Julia Rodgers is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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