Early Life and Education
Frank McKenna was born in the rural community of Apohaqui, New Brunswick, one of eight children of Olive and Joseph McKenna, who were farmers. From about the age of five, Frank lived not with his parents and siblings, but in the nearby home of his paternal grandparents, Mary and Durward. He was particularly close to his grandmother, who had a profound influence on his life, encouraging hard work and high ambitions.
McKenna attended schools in Apohaqui and Sussex, NB. He studied political science and economics at St Francis Xavier University, and then completed a post-graduate degree in political science at Queen's University. In 1971, he worked briefly as an assistant to Nova Scotia Liberal member of Parliament and federal Cabinet minister Allan MacEachen. He then went on to law school at the University of New Brunswick, and was admitted to the legal bar in 1974.
In 1972, while at law school, McKenna married Julie Friel. They would have three children.
Criminal Law and Politics
McKenna joined a criminal law practice in Chatham, New Brunswick, a small city on the Miramichi River. He became famous in the province in 1977 when he defended Acadian boxing legend Yvon Durelle, who was tried for murder after shooting a man in a bar. Durelle was acquitted on the grounds of self-defence, and McKenna was hailed as a hero by Durelle's fans, particularly in New Brunswick's large Acadian community.
Through the 1970s, McKenna was active in Liberal Party circles in Chatham, where he also served on local law and business associations. In 1982 he was elected for Chatham as a Liberal member of the New Brunswick legislature, sitting on the opposition benches, and becoming leader of the New Brunswick Liberal Party in 1985.
On 13 October, 1987 he led the Liberals to an extraordinary victory, ending Progressive Conservative Richard Hatfield’s 17-year reign as premier by winning all 58 seats in the legislature. It was only the second time in Canada that a party had swept all the seats in a provincial election (the first being in Prince Edward Island in 1935).
The year 1987 marked the beginning of a decade-long lock on New Brunswick politics by the McKenna Liberals. He would lead his party to two more landslide victories, in 1991 (winning 46 of 58 seats) and 1995 (winning 48 of 55). The only significant political threat he faced was the sudden re-emergence of anti-francophone sentiment in New Brunswick's rural, English-speaking heartland, represented by the upstart Confederation of Regions Party. The party won eight seats in the 1991 election and became the official opposition, however, it was wiped out in the 1995 election.
As premier, McKenna embarked on initiatives to modernize New Brunswick, make its government leaner and more efficient, and generally increase the confidence of New Brunswickers as part of a wider plan to grow the economy. The province had long been reliant on resource extraction industries such as forestry, where jobs were being lost to machines and other technologies. McKenna's government was driven by efforts to boost employment, via tax incentives to companies willing to relocate to New Brunswick. However, much of its success in this area would ultimately come from the arrival of low-paying, call center industry jobs.
So closely was the McKenna brand identified with job creation, that his government created a toll-free number, 1-800-MCKENNA, aimed at attracting inquiries about New Brunswick from business owners across North America.
McKenna also championed French and English as official languages in New Brunswick, brought in balanced budgets, and on the national stage, promoted the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement. Although his government failed to solve New Brunswick's structural economic problems, he was after a decade in power still popular in the province – acquiring the nickname, the “tiny, perfect premier” – and increasingly seen as a possible future prime minister.
On 7 October 1997, McKenna made good on a promise to retire from office after 10 years. “There is no magic number, but I watched so many political leaders who flamed out and stayed too long. In doing so, they did not honour their populations and did not leave with respect,” he said. “I felt like if I set a time limit I would turn it into a sprint instead of a marathon. In that way, for me at least, it was a great motivation.”
McKenna was now considered a potential star candidate to replace Prime Minister Paul Martin as Liberal Party leader. However, he declined to run for the leadership, explaining that after 10 years as premier, he needed a break from politics. “Having escaped the trap, I wouldn't go back for the cheese,” he said. Instead, he returned to practicing law, became a corporate director, and moved to the seaside village of Cap-Pélé, New Brunswick, where he purchased a local custom-cabinet manufacturing business with family members.
In 2005, he was lured back into public life with his appointment by Martin as Canadian ambassador to the United States. McKenna was more outspoken on issues of cross-border concern than most diplomats. A year later he resigned from the post, following the election in Ottawa of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
After leaving Washington, DC, McKenna was named deputy chair of TD Bank Group, responsible for supporting its customer acquisition strategy in wholesale and commercial banking. He also served at times on a variety of other corporate boards including CanWest Global, Noranda, Shoppers Drug Mart, General Motors and Canadian Natural Resources.
McKenna was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2008.
In private life, he continued to be an advocate for the economic renewal of the Atlantic provinces. In a 2014 speech, he said the region must embrace the shale gas industry, despite its controversial fracking practices. “You can’t have it all, ” he warned, “and we are in a bit of a death spiral of a declining population base, high deficits and an aging population.”
In a 2016 opinion article, he urged governments on the East Coast to reverse the region's declining and aging population through immigration. He said a program should be created that requires immigrants to live three to five years in Atlantic Canada before they are granted citizenship. “Immigrants go where immigrants are. They are all going to Montréal, Toronto and Vancouver. We have to break that mold somehow and it’s going to take a stiff dose of medicine to do that.”
In 2016, Canadian Business magazine named McKenna the 28th most powerful business person in Canada for his vast array of personal contacts and his direct line to many leaders in business and government.