04/11/2014 07:49 EDT | Updated 06/11/2014 05:59 EDT

Nova Scotia New Democrats hail ex-premier Darrell Dexter at convention tribute

HALIFAX - Veteran New Democrats praised their former leader and premier Darrell Dexter in an emotional tribute on Friday night, saying his legacy is one to remain proud of.

In a brief ceremony at the outset of the party's annual meeting, longtime colleagues recalled Dexter's efforts to reduce poverty and bring shipbuilding jobs to the province.

Frank Corbett, a member of the legislature and former deputy premier, drew a standing ovation when he claimed Dexter was the best premier the province has ever had.

"Darrell you're the best god damn premier this ... province ever had and you never back down from that," said Corbett.

Dexter thanked his wife Kelly and his son Harris for enduring a decade and a half of political life.

He also said he was honoured to have led the province through tough economic times, a factor that he has said contributed to his party's resounding defeat in the last election.

He reminded delegates the party increased funding for seniors and helped bring the province the shipbuilding contract to build navy vessels.

"We cared for those whose life was most difficult ... We cared about communities, rescuing jobs rather than standing idly by," he said.

Dexter's government assisted a troubled pulp and paper mill in Port Hawkesbury, N.S., that faced bankruptcy without a government bailout.

"I am proud of these things and many others .... I will offer a tutorial later in the hospitality suite," said the former premier.

Dexter, 56, resigned as leader a month after the party's devastating election defeat in October.

He led the party to an historic victory in 2009, becoming the first NDP premier in Atlantic Canada.

The party's win was greeted by a wave of optimism as the New Democrats were rewarded with a strong majority after successive Tory minorities.

But the honeymoon didn't last long. The NDP's popularity began to slide after it raised the HST by two percentage points in 2010, giving the opposition parties a point of attack on the high-flying New Democrats because Dexter had promised no tax increases in the 2009 election campaign.

The NDP's defeat to the Liberals was decisive as its comfortable majority was shattered. The party won seven seats in the 51-seat legislature and Dexter lost the Halifax-area riding he had held for 15 years to a political unknown.

After the tribute, Dexter said in an interview he still hasn't decided what he will be doing now that he is a private citizen.

He said he's still receiving calls from people who are asking for his personal assistance.

"I'm taking stock. I'm taking the opportunity to let my thoughts settle and see whatever there is for me to do in life," he said.

An avid basketball fan who still found time to play the game when he was premier, Dexter grew up in the tiny community of Milton, one of six children, and the son of a sheet metal worker.

He served in the navy and worked as a lawyer before entering politics as a city councillor in Dartmouth in 1994.

Dexter's legacy in provincial politics started long before he became premier. He was among those who helped the party shake its position as a perennial third choice for voters.

The NDP's rise to power in Nova Scotia was slow as Dexter built on earlier breakthroughs by his predecessors. The party was beaten by the Progressive Conservatives by just three seats in the 2006 election before winning three years later.

After the 2009 victory, Dexter contrasted the party's approach to that of the New Democrats in Ontario in the early 1990s.

"I can assure you that Bob Rae will not be the model for our government," he said.

"I intend to approach my administration in this province in a pragmatic and realistic way."