Byrne, Edward

Degree conferred: Doctor of Laws (LL.D.)

Orator: Patterson, Stephen E.

to be Doctor of Laws

Edward Byrne has become a legend in his own lifetime. In the 1960s, he was called upon to chair New Brunswick's Royal Commission on Finance and Municipal Taxation. The Byrne Report, as it was popularly called, rocked the province's social establishment to the core, and in the hands of the government of Premier Louis J. Robichaud, it revolutionized the delivery of publicly funded services in the province, leaving an enduring legacy that has survived to the present. One does not exaggerate by describing Mr. Byrne as one of the two or three most influential architects of New Brunswick society in the twentieth century.

He was born in Chatham, the son of a medical doctor, but he grew up in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, attended Saint-Mary's College, and went on to university with thoughts of following in his father's footsteps in medicine. He took his Bachelor of Science degree at Dalhousie University, but somewhere along the line, decided that he did not want to be a doctor. He switched to law and graduated with his LL. B. As an eager young lawyer, he moved to Bathurst, New Brunswick, and here he developed a brilliant career spanning thirty-four years, counting the time he took off to serve his country in the Second World War. He served in the RCAF and rose to the rank of Flight Lieutenant, and then returned to Bathurst where he practiced corporate law and particularly focused on all matters related to the lumbering, fishing, and mining industries, the life-blood of New Brunswick's North Shore.

He also made time for his family and community. He married a fellow New Brunswicker, Ruth Ann Coor, like himself a veteran, and together they had twin children. He served prominently in the Chamber of Commerce and held local, national, and international offices; he belonged to Rotary, sat on the school board and hospital board, and climaxed it all by serving two terms as the Mayor of Bathurst. He was a model citizen, yet none of these endeavours truly set him apart from other model citizens until he agreed, reluctantly it must be said, to take on the arduous task of studying the way New Brunswick municipalities financed their various social services. This is the endeavour that challenged every skill of intelligence and physical endurance he had ever possessed, and eventually revealed the power of his amazing intellect, the depth of his compassion for ordinary people, and the breadth of his vision.

He had help from his four fellow commissioners, and from commission secretary, a very young James F. O'Sullivan, who went on to serve with distinction as the vice-president (finance) of UNB. But he wrote much of the report himself, including its powerful and persuasive forward, and he left his indelible mark on every page. The sweep of the Byrne Report is obvious from the beginning. Quoting John Stuart Mill, he addressed the people of New Brunswick thus: "When the object is to raise the permanent condition of a people, small means do not merely produce small effects; they produce no effect at all." He promised root and branch reform, and urged that the report not be implemented piecemeal, but as a comprehensive whole. Abolish county councils and rural property taxes, he advised; centralize the delivery of social services, education, health including hospitals, and the delivery of justice. Lift the burden off the poorer parts of the province where some counties were near bankruptcy, and equalize services throughout. It was bold, it was sweeping, and, he warned, it would be enormously controversial.

Ultimately, it took a political partnership with Louis J. Robichaud to bring off what came to be known as the Program of Equal Opportunity. Like the Byrne Report itself, its premise was that everyone in the province deserves an equal chance. It is fitting, perhaps, that we honour Mr. Byrne today, on the day that Mr. Robichaud retires from public life. It does not diminish the individual achievements of either man to refer to their partnership, nor to say that there is no human progress nor political accomplishment without the ideas that drive them. Edward Byrne is the thinker of bold thoughts. He gave to New Brunswick a vision that, although challenged in its day, has since won the support of all political parties and has been studied with enormous interest by social planners and reformers all over North America. These many years after his enlightened contribution, we honour one of the great historic figures of twentieth-century New Brunswick. We welcome Mr. Ed Byrne to the family of UNB graduates.

From: Honoris Causa - UA Case 70, Box 3

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