Remembering Allan J. MacEachen: Parliament’s unmatched Celtic sphinx
Justin Trudeau called him a “peerless” Parliamentarian. Allan J. MacEachen was certainly that. MacEachen venerated Parliament as an MP and then a Senator; he mastered its procedures with effect. He used his skills to help shepherd through a remarkable package of social reforms including medicare, a labour code for Canadians, and insurance for Canadians out of work.
He taught me and the many who worked with him over his 38 years in Parliament that politics is much more than a competitive sport, that ideas do matter, and that it is your duty to influence, shape, and make public policy in support of the common good.
Our job, he told us, was “to help those who need our help to put bread on their table.” His liberalism drew from the Moses Coady school of a hand-up, self-help, and hard work.
Justin Trudeau described the relationship between Allan MacEachen and his father, Pierre Trudeau, as a “match made in heaven.” MacEachen served Pierre Trudeau as House leader and Canada’s first deputy prime minister as well as minister for Manpower and Immigration, External Affairs, and Finance. Pierre Trudeau would later write in his memoirs that MacEachen was “the kind of man I respected, because he had no ulterior motives. He said what he thought, and the reasons he would give were always his real reasons.”
Elected from Cape Breton, N.S., in 1953, MacEachen served as a private member during the St. Laurent years. He chastised me for describing an MP as a “backbencher.” He thought it unfairly diminished the independent role of the private member.
He worked for then-opposition leader Lester Pearson after losing his seat (by 16 votes) in the 1958 election. MacEachen, Maurice Lamontagne, and Tom Kent were a powerful brain trust to Pearson. MacEachen always described himself as a “Pearson Liberal.” A photograph of a smiling young MacEachen riding with Pearson in a convertible with the top down during a campaign tour in the early ‘60s occupied a place of honour in MacEachen’s parliamentary offices.
MacEachen profoundly believed in the redemptive power of government and the moral duty of the state to look after the sick, the poor, and the elderly. These were themes of his campaign for the Liberal leadership in 1968.
In his chronicle of the period, Distemper of our Times, Peter Newman described MacEachen during the campaign as an “authentic voice of the Liberal left.” As the Laird of Lake Ainslie, he left as his legacy new roads, airports, and harbours; improvements to the steel and coal industry; a heavy water processing plant; and a national citizenship office.
MacEachen deserved the sobriquet the “Celtic sphinx.”
Shortly before Question Period, I would enter his cavernous office, across from the House of Commons, to brief him while he finished the plate of cream cheese and fruit prepared by his indispensable assistant and gatekeeper Pearl Hunter. MacEachen would listen, nod, and then slowly walk over to the House. Three months had gone by and he had not said a word to me.
I had asked Sean Riley, who later become president of St. Francis Xavier University, if I should do anything. “Three months…it was at least that for me…just wait,” he replied.
Finally, one day when I had given him a particularly obtuse response on a Middle East issue, the Sphinx stirred.
The deep, rumbling baritone asked: “Would you really say that? Would you really say that in the House of Commons?” Pondering my loyalty to the foreign ministry (my department) against my service to its minister, I blurted “No minister.”
There was a pause. “What would you say?”
I burbled something. He nodded and went into the House. A variation on the question was asked but his answer bore no resemblance to what the department or I had offered. It was erudite and informed, earning him admiring laughter but leaving nothing for the opposition to chew on.
MacEachen also knew how to manage the mandarins. He would keep a piece of paper with two columns: what they wanted and what he wanted. Their list was always much longer and they would constantly push to get things done. He had some projects he wanted done–for the constituency and for Atlantic Canada–as well as policy initiatives around North/South relations or trade. He would take out the piece of paper and remind them the score was very much in their favour but his asks were still outstanding. It got results.
Canny, shrewd, and wily, Allan J. MacEachen knew how to get things done. Canada is a better place to live and work thanks to Allan J.
Colin Robertson is a former diplomat who worked as a departmental legislative assistant to Allan MacEachen from 1982 to 1984 while he was foreign affairs minister and deputy prime minister. Mr. Robertson is now vice-president and a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a senior adviser with Dentons, LLP.