ANTIGONISH: Canada would not be what it is today without him.
This was one of the points made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in his remarks at a celebration of the life of Allan J. MacEachen last Sunday. MacEachen passed away on September 12. He was 96.
MacEachen was born and raised in Inverness by his parents Annie and Angus, a coal miner. He graduated from StFX in 1944 and returned to run the Department of Economics and Social Sciences at the Antigonish school after stints at the University of Toronto and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
A long-serving politician, MacEachen first ran for office in 1953, winning what was the Inverness-Richmond federal riding. He won again in 1957, before losing his only election in 1958. He won the same seat again in 1962, 1963, and 1965. The seat changed to the Cape Breton Highlands-Canso but MacEachen remained as the riding representative in the 1968 election, and remained there through the 1972, 1974, 1979, and 1980 elections. He served as Government House Header three times and was named as the first Deputy Prime Minister in Canada’s history in 1977. He served as minister for a number of portfolios including Labour, National Health and Welfare, manpower and Immigration, the Privy Council, and External Affairs and Finance.
In 1984, he began serving in the senate and remained there until reaching mandatory retirement age in 1996. He was selected as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2008.
A number of friends and co-workers took part in a weekend ceremony at StFX, with remarks coming from MacEachen’s long serving executive assistant Kenzie MacKinnon, former Ontario Premier and federal Liberal Party leader Bob Rae, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil, and Trudeau. Also attending was former Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Nova Scotia Lieutenant-Governor Arthur LeBlanc.
“My father and Allan J believed [Canada] ought to be made into a country that lived up to its own ideals, where freedom and quality of opportunity were not just words spoken in Parliament, but lives lived in every Canadian community,” said Trudeau. “For Allan J., it meant creating public goods like Medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, and the Guaranteed Income Supplement, goods that gave regular people a real chance to make their lives better.”
Trudeau said Allan J. understood that making change is difficult, especially when those changes mean giving power and resources to the people. If there were to be a movie made of MacEachen’s life, Trudeau suggested it could be titled “Hard Things Done Well,” adding while a lot of politicians believed in universal Healthcare, MacEachen made it happen.
Trudeau also shared the story of his father’s government, which held only a two-seat advantage in the House of Commons and was expected to fall in months. He said MacEachen’s parliamentary genius led to the government lasting for two years, before MacEachen engineered its defeat and set the stage for a liberal Majority government and his father’s return to politics in 1980. He said it is no stretch to say Canada wouldn’t have the current Charter of Rights and Freedoms without MacEachen’s work.
“Allan J.’s long, hard work made Canada look a lot more like the county Canadians wanted it to be,” he said. “May the blessings of God attend you, Allan. May you rest in the peace that you have so honourably earned.”
Premier McNeil said MacEachen’s early life in Cape Breton, seeing miners who retired without pensions, helped shaped MacEachen’s political and personal views.
“He could have ignored that but, instead, he carried it with him [and] fought for what was right and just,” said McNeil. “He created policies that served those that might otherwise be forgotten.”
McNeil said those who knew and worked with MacEachen characterized him as kind, a teacher, mentor, and a lifelong student with a love for learning.
“He influenced a generation of young Nova Scotians and Canadians to get involved in politics and public life,” said McNeil. “Allan J. lived long after his retirement from public office, so perhaps his impact may not be understood by our youth today. But it is important that we all remember and remind future generations of a simple lesson Allan J. taught us; just because you come from a small town doesn’t mean you can’t do big things.”
Former Cape Breton-Richmond MLA Michel Samson also attended the service. Samson, who just accepted a position at Halifax law firm Cox Palmer, said MacEachen was a consummate politician in that he always stayed in touch with the people he represented and they remained his top priority.
“I remember going to political events with Richie Mann was our member and Allan J. would walk in a work the room,” said Samson. “[He] could almost name every single individual there was in the room. This was someone how had held the position of Deputy Prime Minister… yet could still work a room down in Little Anse.”
Samson said MacEachen did everything he could to bring infrastructure back to Cape Breton.
“One of the things that struck me most about Allan J. is that he was asked after an election that he had won how many votes he got,” said Samson. “He said ‘I got them all.’ The interviewer said you obviously didn’t get them all. [Allan J] said ‘The day after the election, as far as I am concerned, I got them all and I will represent them as if they all voted for me.’”
A funeral service for MacEachen was planned for Tuesday at Stella Maris Catholic Church in Inverness, the same church in which he was baptized.