The shadow of ‘Allan J’

As a child and a teenager growing up in L’Ardoise, I got much of my early political education on Sunday mornings at my grandparents’ house, when my family would get together after Mass and hash out the issues of the day.

Throughout these often-heated arguments, I received my first taste of the shifting sands of Canadian politics in the mid-’80s, as a Liberal administration that had run the country for most of the previous three decades gave way to the Progressive Conservatives’ two straight majority wins under Brian Mulroney.

And even as my dyed-in-the-wool Tory relatives, led by my Grandpere “Frankie I” Mombourquette, waged war against the few Liberals in the room, there was one name that kept popping up. And it usually generated at least a minimum of respect from those in attendance, no matter what side of the political divide anybody happened to occupy at any given moment.

That name, of course, was Allan J. MacEachen. Or, more specifically, “Allan J.”

I recognized the name but was too young to fully wrap my head around its importance. Another hint came quickly, however, as the Laird of Lake Ainslie served as a punchline in the final edition of The Rise and Follies of Cape Breton Island, a gag that still lands 32 years later and resurfaced more than once after we learned of MacEachen’s passing last week at the age of 96.

Frustrated with the level of political discourse in her family home, a young woman concerned about environmental issues was gently advised by her grandmother to avoid talking politics with her staunchly-Liberal, anti-Tory grandfather: “He still thinks the ‘J’ in ‘Allan J.’ stands for ‘Jesus’!”

Strangely, you’d have a tough time arguing that point with a lot of people around here, especially those of a certain age. First elected to the former Inverness-Richmond riding in 1953 and serving the majority of that constituency within the now-defunct Cape Breton Highlands-Canso district for the back end of his 27 years as an MP, MacEachen’s name would be spoken in hushed tones by leaders of all political stripes over the following three decades.

Locally, he was recognized as a true constituency politician, a man who would meet world leaders one day in Ottawa and share a cup of tea in the home of a constituent the following day. And whenever discussions emerged about leveraging governing funding and/or launching a major infrastructure initiative or employment effort in the Strait, someone would inevitably murmur some variation of the phrase, “We sure could use an ‘Allan J’ right now.”

He couldn’t fix everything. Some of my earliest education on MacEachen involved his frustrated efforts to deal with a crippling recession as the first Finance Minister of Pierre Trudeau’s final term in office during the early 1980s. As Liberal Senate Leader in 1990, he fought tooth and nail against Mulroney’s Goods and Services Tax, only to be foiled when the Prime Minister of the day used a little-known constitutional amendment to stuff the Senate with loyal Tories willing to rubber-stamp the GST legislation.

And yet these memories fit the overall picture of MacEachen as a never-say-die negotiator, a political scrapper determined to battle for the common good. He shares in everything from Canada’s defining characteristic, our universal health care system, to one of the Strait’s crown jewels, the NSCC Nautical Institute. These very different achievements are only two items on a long list that we could spend hours reciting.

He will continue to cast a long shadow for decades to come, and he will only require the recitation of one name and one initial to preserve his memory.

Thank you, Allan J.

L’Ardoise native and Port Hawkesbury resident Adam Cooke is a musician and freelance journalist. He blogs at: