Early Life and Education
John attended school at Sydney Academy, and worked in the Sydney steel mill after finishing high school. He left Cape Breton to attend Mount Allison University, graduating in 1954 with a Bachelor of Science degree and a certificate in engineering. He then studied metallurgy at the Nova Scotia Technical College, and law at Dalhousie University. After graduating in 1958, he began practicing law in Halifax.
Buchanan entered provincial politics in 1967 and was elected as a Progressive Conservative (PC) member of the Nova Scotia legislature (MLA) in the government of Robert Stanfield. Buchanan represented the new riding of Halifax Atlantic. After Stanfield’s departure from provincial politics, Buchanan was appointed to the cabinet of Premier George Isaac Smith, serving from 1969–70 as minister of Fisheries and Public Works.
On 6 March 1971 Buchanan was chosen as provincial PC leader to replace Smith. He lost the provincial election of 1974 to Liberal Premier Gerald Regan. Four years later, Buchanan led the Progressive Conservatives to victory on 19 September 1978, winning 31 of 52 legislature seats. He was sworn in as Nova Scotia’s 20th premier on 5 October 1978.
Buchanan added to his majority in the 1981 election, winning 37 seats, and won a third time with a landslide victory in 1984 with 42 seats. Much of Buchanan’s success came as a result of his easy, down-home charm and his ability to connect with ordinary voters. Along with his wife Mavis, he was a masterful campaigner, who in visits to small communities across Nova Scotia would happily sit down for a friendly tea, even with long-time Liberal voters.
However, Buchanan eventually wore out his welcome. Although he won a fourth election victory in 1988, 10 years of governing had taken its toll on his administration. Mounting provincial debt and financial scandals had sapped the strength and vitality of his government, and the PCs were reduced to 28 of the 52 seats, a slim majority.
As premier, Buchanan focused, not always successfully, on revitalizing Sysco, the publicly owned steel plant in Sydney, Cape Breton; on controlling domestic energy costs; increasing coal production by opening new mines; developing offshore petroleum resources; and proposing the transmission of coal-generated power by underwater cable to New England. His government did successfully promote a pilot tidal electricity project at the head of the Annapolis Basin, the first step towards harnessing the power of the Bay of Fundy tides. The Annapolis Tidal Station, the first tidal power plant in North America, began operating in 1984.
After his first term as premier, Buchanan also championed Nova Scotia’s Acadian population — naming several Acadian MLAs to his cabinets, promoting francophone school boards and education rights, and pushing for the delivery of government services in French in Acadian communities.
On 17 April 1982, Buchanan was appointed a member of the Privy Council of Canada, along with other premiers who had participated in the dramatic negotiations for repatriation of the Canadian Constitution. Buchanan was one of several premiers, known as the “Gang of Eight,” who opposed any constitutional deal that would include a new Charter of Rights and Freedoms with limits on provincial legislative powers — a concern that was ultimately resolved by the inclusion of a “notwithstanding” clause in the Charter, allowing provinces to opt-out of certain provisions.
In Nova Scotia, Buchanan earned the nickname “Teflon John” for his ability to sidestep scandal. Most serious of all were allegations near the end of his tenure by former deputy minister of government services Michael Zareski, that members of the Buchanan government had given public contracts to friends, and may have received kickbacks in return. Zareski detailed an alleged, far-reaching patronage system, during a two-hour appearance before a Nova Scotia legislature committee in June 1990. Allegations were later made that Buchanan himself had received payments from trust funds to help clear debts from real estate investments. However, in September 1991, the RCMP concluded there was no evidence to support criminal wrongdoing by Buchanan.
Eventually, the mounting scandals proved too much for Buchanan to continue. He resigned in September 1990, 12 years after becoming premier, giving way to Roger Bacon who became caretaker premier until the following year. Buchanan was almost immediately appointed to the Senate by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
Buchanan sat in the Senate for nearly 16 years, where he continued to champion Acadian and francophone language and education issues. He stepped down on 22 April 2006, at the Senate’s mandatory retirement age of 75. A one-time critic of the Senate, Buchanan supported the idea of an elected upper chamber, while noting that it would be difficult to achieve since this would require a constitutional change.
Federal politicians who traveled from Ottawa to their home constituencies in Atlantic Canada on the weekends remembered Buchanan for the way he often delayed flights as they prepared to depart for Halifax. As Senator Jane Cordy told Buchanan in her farewell address in the Senate upon his retirement: “When you were at the front of the plane, it took forever to load the passengers because you would know almost everyone on the plane, and they would all stop to have a little chat before sitting down.”
Buchanan received numerous awards and honours, including five honorary degrees from Maritime universities.
In 2012, Policy Options magazine published a list in which experts ranked 18 selected Canadian premiers of the previous 40 years. Buchanan was ranked at the bottom, tied for 18th place.
During a speech in 2010, he urged Nova Scotians to have more pride in their province. “We don't do enough bragging about Nova Scotia — many criticize it,” he said. “There can be too much pessimism in the media and elsewhere. Brag about the people, the resources, the entrepreneurs — like the people here tonight — and our heritage as the birthplace of New Scotland."