On This Day in Canada's Political History: The Birth, 100 Years Ago, of Political Legend Allan J. MacEachen

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One of the great honours of my career was the opportunity I had to get to know the late Allan J. MacEachen, who was born on this day, 100 years ago, in Inverness, Nova Scotia.About a decade ago, I worked as one of the editors of his (still) unpublished memoirs. Each week I would travel to Ottawa from Kingston and meet with Senator MacEachen as we worked together to transfer his remarkable life's story into words.To help mark this important anniversary, I have turned to one of Allan J.'s greatest admirers, former Ontario Premier and now Canada's Ambassador to the United Nations, my friend Bob Rae.  Over to you Ambassador Rae.


by the Honourable Bob RaeNo other politician better personifies the great achievements of the St Laurent and Pearson governments of the 1950's and 1960's than the late Allan J. MacEachen. He went on to serve in the Trudeau years with great distinction - becoming Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister, and later as leader of the Liberal Party in the Senate.Beyond all the titles is the man himself: enormously intelligent and well read, assiduous at maintaining his friendships, a source of great stories and good humour, delighting in his mastery of the political craft, and still elusive for all that.A product of "the clearances" of the Highland Scots as a result of the steady pace of what we would now call privatisation of great tracts of land, no son of Scotland was ever more faithful to his roots and tradition. His ancestors were followers of Bonny Prince Charlie and the great resistance to the triumphalism of the Protestant Ascendancy.His father was a coal miner, and "Allan J" never forgot his roots, or why politics was important. I first saw him speak in the House of Commons in the summer of 1966. He was a senior Minister in the Pearson government at the time, and the House had been brought back in August to deal with a national railway strike that left farmers unable to get their goods to market. The Bill needed to be passed quickly. Even the New Democrats, who opposed back to work legislation, knew that holding up the law for too long was a problem. Indeed, the Saskatchewan and Manitoba members of that party were caught in the middle of the dispute.Watching MacEachen speak was an education in itself. He started slowly, almost hesitantly, as if mentally clearing his throat. The government had been attacked by the Conservatives for moving too slowly, by the NDP for not giving collective bargaining a chance. His voice was rich, strong, and wonderfully controlled.Most in politics today read their speeches in the House from a laboriously prepared text. Others wing it, and start with a shout, never losing speed until the final bombastic climax. Allan J did neither - he used notes but was not a slave to them. He was building a case, dealing with his opponents' arguments, demolishing them one by one. He defended collective bargaining and the rights of unions to the Tories. He defended the national economic interest to the NDP. He exploited the internal divisions on the other side to great effect. At the end there seemed no logical alternative to where his argument brought him and much of the House. He roused his colleagues with the joy of the combat.I saw these skills at work a decade later when I was first elected to the Parliament of Canada as a New Democrat in 1978. He always used three or four gears in a speech, and was without question one of the great parliamentarians in the history of the country.But his contributions went far beyond rhetorical capacity and canny House management. The circumstances of his upbringing made him a believer in the power of government for good, and in particular the power of the federal government for helping the country to achieve its potential, and to assist all the regions of the country. He understood instinctively that the Canada of the post war years needed national leadership to succeed, and that this would require a more decisive approach than anything done before.As a member of parliament under Mr. St Laurent, he was a strong advocate of the expansion in hospital insurance that began in those years under the leadership of Paul Martin, Sr.  A victim of the Diefenbaker sweep, he was very much present at the creation of the renewal of the Liberal Party under Mr. Pearson's stewardship as Leader of the Opposition. He worked on the Kingston Conference, and was a key advisor between 1958 and 1962.Returning to parliament in that year, he was instrumental in the truly remarkable achievements of the two minority Pearson governments: introduction of the Canada Pension Plan, reforms in manpower training, regional development, immigration expansion, and of course the introduction of Medicare.In his little book "The Liberal Hour", John Kenneth Galbraith (a friend of Allan's) reminds us that these moments of reform come rarely in politics, and that they must be seized when the opening is there. It requires shrewd and determined leadership, a clear sense of what is to be done, and penetrating capacity to take advantage of the moment. Allan was a critical member of a generation who knew what they believed in, knew what they wanted to do, and had a gritty sense of how to do it. Canadians are much the better for it.Allan's legacy reminds us that these changes did not come without a fight. Politics is not for the squeamish and the weak of heart. Many elites - including many inside the Liberal Party - were either lukewarm or opposed the reforms, and there were battles in the country, in the caucus, and in the Cabinet itself to get them done. These were tough battles, and as everyone knows, the toughest struggles are often the ones on the inside.Always a loyal son of Cape Breton and Nova Scotia, Allan J's Liberal partisanship remains deep as well. But, neither of these two great loyalties clouded his judgment on the biggest prize, to serve Canada and the world with eloquence, deep commitment, and shrewd judgment. His life's story is so much about what has made Canada the country it is today.[caption id="attachment_295349" align="aligncenter" width="514"] Former Deputy Prime Minister Allan J. MacEachen, in the House of Commons[/caption]Birthday alerts!  Sending out birthday greetings today to my friend John Honderich of the Toronto Star, MP Alain Therrien, legendary broadcaster-journalist Peter Mansbridge and Premier Brian Pallister of Manitoba.Arthur Milnes is an accomplished public historian and award-winning journalist.  He was research assistant on The Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney's best-selling Memoirs and also served as a speechwriter to then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper and as a Fellow of the Queen's Centre for the Study of Democracy under the leadership of Tom Axworthy.  A resident of Kingston, Ontario, Milnes serves as the in-house historian at the 175 year-old Frontenac Club Hotel.