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 new standard for the minimum wage. 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, many accomplishments but I do want 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.