It was a gathering worthy of royalty because that, in the political sense, was what Allan J. MacEachen will forever be around here.
Justin Trudeau was in the auditorium at St. Francis Xavier University last week. Ditto some of MacEachen’s older friends: Jean Chretien and Donald Johnston, both Trudeau pere-era cabinet colleagues, as well as Bob Rae, who spoke movingly at the celebration of MacEachen’s 96 years of life.
The Atlantic political mafia, naturally, paid homage to the late, great Laird of Lake Ainslie. Four past and present Nova Scotia premiers were in attendance, along with sitting MLAs and MPs.
There, too, was David Dingwall, who worked in MacEachen’s Ottawa office before becoming a powerful federal cabinet minister himself, but who never stopped thinking of the fellow Cape Bretoner as a mentor.
Scheduled to be an honorary pallbearer was New Waterford’s Lowell Murray, a key advisor to Tory prime ministers Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney, who used to visit MacEachen in retirement to swap stories about long-ago political campaigns — much, I imagine, like old NHL warriors reliving past Stanley Cup battles.
So great is MacEachen’s stature — as a former federal finance minister, the architect of Canada’s medicare system, as well as being the perennial protector of Nova Scotia’s interests in Ottawa — that it transcends generations.
But it is also worth noting, in the close-knit way that politics works down east, that those in attendance with the greatest existing political currency had their own personal reasons for being there.
Federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc surely met MacEachen through his father, Romeo, who once held as much political sway in New Brunswick as MacEachen did in Nova Scotia, back in the Pierre Trudeau years.
Although generations apart, Gerald Butts, the current prime minister’s all-powerful principle secretary — who in the interest of full disclosure wrote a blurb for my latest book — shares many things with MacEachen: Cape Breton roots, fathers who were coal miners, the ear of a prime minister named Trudeau.
|Allan MacEachen’s coffin. (ANDREW VAUGHAN / CP)|
I wasn’t at the send-off for Allan J., the man who, as Jim Meek declared in these pages, was our greatest living politician. But everything I’ve heard about the event speaks to the scope of his influence as well as the immense role he played in the political life of this province.
The gaggle of past and present political heavyweights also makes me ponder something intriguing about the Atlantic Canadians of my lifetime: For a small, supposedly impoverished region, we sure seem to punch above our weight in the hard world of what has been called “the art of the possible, the attainable … the next best.”
“I’m a Maritimer, so of course I agree with your thesis,” University of Prince Edward Island political scientist Don Desserud said when I tried it out on him.
Even if, he says, it depends upon the prime minister. There’s no Alan J. in 2017 for the simple reason that the Trudeau government no longer follows the “regional political minister” model that allowed political clout to coalesce with a single minister, as it once did.
But times change. And when they do, our time will come again.
It’s of course in our best interests to have a seat at the table when the big decisions are being made. But it’s cultural, too, says Desserud.
“People have not lost faith in the political system,” he says.
“There’s a different mentality here. People think getting inside is the way to get things done.”
What’s more, Atlantic Canada is small enough that anyone who wants to make their mark in politics can, far more quickly than is possible in bigger places.
“You put exceptional, ambitious people into this kind of environment and they can do very well,” Desserud says.
There does seem to be something in the water around here. Nova Scotia, for example, can lay claim to not just MacEachen, Dingwall and the unelected Betts, as well as such PC stars as Murray and Flora MacDonald, but also a pair of national party leaders in Tory Bob Stanfield and NDPer Alexa McDonough.
Next door in New Brunswick, the list of heavyweights may be topped by Liberal strongman Romeo LeBlanc but it also includes Tory strategist Dalton Camp, who toppled John Diefenbaker, and later federal defence minister Doug Young.
Think of Newfoundlanders like Don Jamieson, John Crosbie and Brian Tobin, whose names were known to every Canadian during their time in the political sun.
Cast your mind back to Prince Edward Islanders like the MacMillan brothers, Charlie and Tom, as well as Daniel MacDonald.
At times, a political apprenticeship program almost seems to exist in a region where a father and son have been premiers of Prince Edward Island, and countless MPs and MLAs have cut their political teeth in the offices of their predecessors.
Politicians seem to like it in these parts. (Both Chretien and Mulroney picked Maritime ridings to run in. So, more recently, did Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.)
Even our provincial politicians can have national stature that goes on long after they’ve left elected office. Consider, for example, Frank McKenna, who although no longer a premier still manages to straddle the worlds of business and politics like few Canadians.
There’s a scrappiness to Atlantic politicos that puts them in good stead when they step onto the bigger stage, says Paul Zed, the former Liberal MP from Saint John, N.B., who now practises law in Toronto.
“You learn to keep your elbows up,” he says.
Dingwall, as tough as they come during his days in Ottawa, thinks most of the seminal political figures from the region are united by something else: values.
“We are educated and brought up to believe in the public good,” says the janitor’s son who grew up in a school basement in the Cape Breton hamlet of South Bar.
So in his view it’s no surprise that MacEachen, the son of a coal miner from Inverness — who according to his obituary “had first-hand exposure to the vulnerability of working families in early 20th-century Canada” — would go on to fight for miners’ pensions and to usher in federal minimum wage reforms and national medicare legislation through the House of Commons.
“Whether it was Lowell Murray or Allan J., the powers-that-be at the national level (from this area) did what they did under the auspices of the public good,” says Dingwall, himself responsible for passing the Tobacco Control Act in 1997, outlawing most tobacco advertising.
Or, as Halifax lawyer Kenzie MacKinnon, who worked in Alan J.’s Ottawa office, put it at his old boss’s send-off, “Mr. MacEachen believed to his core that a good government could make the lives of people better.”
Which, it goes without saying, could go for good politicians as well.