Allan MacEachen dies at 96

MacEachen was an over­seer of so­cial re­form, skilled politi­cian


Allan J. MacEachen, a driv­ing force be­hind so­cial pol­icy changes un­der two prime min­is­ters, has died at the age of the 96 af­ter a life­time sat­u­rated with pol­i­tics and par­lia­men­tary ma­noeu­vres.

MacEachen was one of Canada’s most pow­er­ful cab­i­net min­is­ters of the post­war era and held a va­ri­ety of posts, in­clud­ing a term as min­is­ter of na­tional health and wel­fare from 1965-1968 dur­ing the cre­ation of medi­care.

As labour min­is­ter, MacEachen was also in­stru­men­tal in re­form­ing the labour code and es­tab­lish­ing a new­stan­dard­forthem­i­ni­mumwage. His other port­fo­lios also in­cluded fi­nance and he twice served as sec­re­tary of state for ex­ter­nal af­fairs.

Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau, whose fa­ther, Pierre, re­lied heav­ily on MacEachen when he was prime min­is­ter, said Wed­nes­day his cab­i­net had a moment of si­lence for “one of the very finest min­is­ters ever to serve this coun­try.”

“I’m not go­ing to list his many, many­ac­com­plish­ments­butI­dowant to re­flect on one,” he said at the end of a three-day cab­i­net re­treat in St. John’s, N.L. “Uni­ver­sal pub­lic medi­care is maybe our proud­est achieve­ment as a coun­try. It was the dream of many of us for many years.

“In 1966, when Prime Min­is­ter (Lester B.) Pear­son needed some­one to ac­tu­ally make it hap­pen, to de­sign the leg­is­la­tion to make it hap­pen and to get it through a mi­nor­ity par­lia­ment, he turned to Allan J.,” Trudeau said. “For that and for so many other things Canada is a bet­ter coun­try be­cause he was in it and he served it.”

In his me­moirs, Pierre Trudeau re­called the Cape Bre­toner as a in­tensely pri­vate per­son who had a finely tuned sense of po­lit­i­cal strat­egy.

“He lived and breathed pol­i­tics,” wrote the for­mer Lib­eral leader, who was pho­tographed on sev­eral oc­ca­sions lean­ing over and whis­per­ing con­fi­dences to his trusted col­league.

For­mer prime min­is­ter Jean Chre­tien de­scribed his for­mer cab­i­net col­league as “one of the great­est po­lit­i­cal fig­ures I’ve met in my long po­lit­i­cal ca­reer . ... In his life in the House of Com­mons, he was very skilled.”

Lib­er­als who spent brief tenures in MacEachen’s of­fice through the decades, or en­joyed his po­lit­i­cal sup­port later in life, de­scribe a man of con­trasts.

He could be a bril­liant bari­tone speech­maker in the House of Com­mons one day, and the next could fall into pe­ri­ods of such pro­longed si­lence that a press sec­re­tary meet­ing with him once asked, “Sir, have you left the room?”

He was a politi­cian com­fort­able on the in­ter­na­tional stage, bat­tling for is­sues such as an ex­ten­sion of Canada’s offshore fish­ing bound­aries, yet was equally fond of tele­phon­ing friends in In­ver­ness County, Cape Bre­ton, for ad­vice — or spend­ing a morn­ing bat­tling for a re­jected un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance claim.

Frank McKenna, one of many assistants who MacEachen men­tored, said each po­lit­i­cal pupil was taught to be­lieve in the value of govern­ment and the pos­si­bil­i­ties of cre­at­ing a “pub­lic good” in the longer term.

“It was a mind-blow­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for me watch­ing a mod­est man from a chal­lenged re­gion ... be­come one of the coun­try’s lead­ing voices. It was an in­spi­ra­tion to what is pos­si­ble,” said McKenna, a for­mer premier of New Brunswick.

Bob Rae, a friend and for­mer Lib­eral MP, said in an in­ter­view that MacEachen — who spoke flu­ent Gaelic — al­ways re­mem­bered he was the son of a Cape Bre­ton coal miner, and he was ul­ti­mately ded­i­cated to cre­at­ing last­ing leg­is­la­tion that led to so­cial im­prove­ments.

“He was the ar­chi­tect of the ma­jor so­cial pol­icy changes that took place in Canada in the mid 1960s,” said Rae, who once faced MacEachen as an NDP critic and later gained his sup­port in his 2006 bid for lead­er­ship of the Lib­eral party.

Rae de­scribed MacEachen as both a left-lean­ing Lib­eral who was in­flu­enced by the co-op­er­a­tive move­ment founded by Rev. Moses Coady in Antigo­nish, N.S., and a prag­ma­tist who aimed to make the­ory into re­al­ity.

It was largely MacEachen’s skill as a par­lia­men­tar­ian that helped de­feat then-Tory prime min­is­ter Joe Clark in a non-con­fi­dence mo­tion brought by Rae in 1979.

“He was in­stru­men­tal in the com­ing back of Trudeau,” re­called Chre­tien in an in­ter­view.

Some of his leg­is­la­tion didn’t work out as well, par­tic­u­larly a post-1980 bud­get.

Trudeau’s me­moirs re­call MacEachen’s ef­forts as fi­nance min­is­ter to bring in tax re­form that closed a num­ber of loop­holes, and the re­sult­ing op­po­si­tion.

“The outcry was such that MacEachen was forced to with­draw many of his mea­sures,” wrote the for­mer prime min­is­ter.

Chre­tien said that MacEachen sur­vived set­backs with good hu­mour, and in their fre­quent voy­ages to­gether to Cape Bre­ton he came to see a man beloved among his own peo­ple.

“We were talk­ing pol­i­tics like hockey play­ers must talk about hockey . ... Pol­i­tics can be a lot of fun,” said the for­mer prime min­is­ter.

The many politi­cians taught by MacEachen came to be part of his ex­tended net­work, said John Young, a for­mer leader of the Lib­eral Party in Nova Sco­tia who was his as­sis­tant in the early 1970s.

“He would sit you down and tell you, ‘Govern­ment has a pur­pose in so­ci­ety and that is to serve the pub­lic good,’ ” he re­called.

THE CANA­DIAN PRESS FILES Allan MacEachen, a long-serv­ing Lib­eral MP and sen­a­tor from Nova Sco­tia who was a driv­ing force be­hind many Cana­dian so­cial pro­grams, has died at the age of the 96.

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