Nova Scotia

Allan J. MacEachen, Canadian politician behind landmark social programs, dead at 96

Allan J. MacEachen, a long-serving Liberal MP and senator from Nova Scotia who was a driving force behind many Canadian social programs, has died at 96.

Cape Breton MP and senator from N.S. was one of the most powerful cabinet ministers of postwar era

Canadian political giant Allan MacEachen's portfolios included finance minister. He's shown here in the House of Commons during budget night on Nov. 12, 1981. MacEachen died at St. Martha's Hospital in Antigonish, N.S., on Tuesday. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

A giant in Canadian political history is gone.

Allan J. MacEachen, a long-serving Liberal MP and senator from Nova Scotia who helped write and pass legislation surrounding universal medicare, the minimum wage and national labour standards, has died at 96. 

Former Ontario premier and federal MP Bob Rae, who considered MacEachen a friend and mentor, announced the news on Twitter late Tuesday.

"He was an extraordinary man. I always felt that he was, without question, the most talented and deeply engaged parliamentarian of my time, the recent history of Canada," Rae told Information Morning Cape Breton. 

"He was an incredible MP, a great, devoted son of Cape Breton and Nova Scotia. He delivered a huge amount of work, and time and effort to being an MP. He did a lot for his community. Everything that moved in Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada had a lot to do with Allan J."

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, centre, shares a laugh with fellow Liberal MPs MacEachen, left, and John Munro, right, during voting on amendments to the Constitution in Ottawa on April 23, 1981. (Andy Clark/Canadian Press)

The son of a coal miner, MacEachen was born in Inverness on Cape Breton Island in 1921.

Fondly known in Cape Breton as Allan J. and "the Laird of Lake Ainslie," he often said he never wanted to lose sight of his roots. 

"He never forgot about being a Nova Scotian and a Cape Bretoner," said John Young, who worked as MacEachen's executive assistant on Parliament Hill and is the former president of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party.

"One day, he'd be having lunch with Henry Kissinger, and the next day he'd be sitting in the post office in Inverness listening to constituents who were worrying about their unemployment insurance — and he understood the two were equally important."

Longtime N.S. politician Allan J. MacEachen dies at 96

6 years ago
Duration 2:23
Liberal MP and senator was driving force behind many of Canada's social programs.

MacEachen was first elected in 1953 in Nova Scotia's Inverness–Richmond riding and won again in 1957. He lost the seat in 1958 but went on to win eight more elections, including the last five while representing Cape Breton Highlands–Canso. 

For five decades, he witnessed and helped shape Canadian policy as one of the most powerful cabinet ministers of the postwar era. His portfolios included minister of finance, health, labour and twice he served as secretary of state for external affairs.

His former colleagues and friends said his speaking and strategic-negotiating skills were only matched by his ability to listen — whether it be to his fellow caucus members, political opponents or constituents. 

"You could see it in the House or anywhere else: He paid rapt attention to every word that was spoken," said Lowell Murray, a former Progressive Conservative senator.

Rae said MacEachen was a close political adviser to Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, maintaining a lifelong commitment to his values. 

"The beliefs that he had as a young man, he retained his whole life. And he was able to do and to put into place a lot of things that he believed in, which not all of us get a chance to do. But he did it," Rae said. 

Trudeau, MacEachen, and Quebec Premier Rene Levesque attend the constitutional conference in Ottawa on Nov. 5, 1981. (The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described MacEachen as "one of the finest ministers ever to serve this country." 

​MacEachen sponsored the bill that became the Canada Health Act, and oversaw the creation of medicare as minister of national health and welfare from 1965 to 1968.

"In 1966, when Prime Minister Pearson needed someone to actually make it happen, to design the legislation and to make it happen and it to get it through a minority Parliament, he turned to Allan J.," said Trudeau.

"For that and for so many other things, Canada is a better country because he was in it and he served it. May he rest in peace."

He was known as someone who could get bills through when others couldn't. As labour minister, he was instrumental in reforming the labour code and establishing a new standard for the minimum wage.

MacEachen represented Canada at the height of the Cold War and helped orchestrate the fall of the Joe Clark government in 1979. Afterward, he was credited with rallying the Liberal caucus to take Trudeau back as leader. 

Allan J. MacEachen, a long-serving Liberal MP and senator from Cape Breton, has died at St. Martha's Hospital in Antigonish, N.S., on Monday night. (Mike Dembeck/Canadian Press)

Backbencher was a term MacEachen hated because it minimized the importance of persuading members of his own party, Murray said.

"He got it done, and he got it done by quiet diplomacy, and sometimes not so quiet diplomacy," the fellow Cape Bretoner told Information Morning after the passing of his friend. 

He could turn ideals into laws and his "fierce, moral commitment to improving people's lives was what he was all about," said Kenzie MacKinnon, who worked for him from 1979 to 1984.

MacEachen — who was also Canada's first deputy prime minister — was appointed to the Senate in 1984, where he remained until 1996, when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 75. As Liberal leader in the Senate, he spearheaded battles over free trade and the goods and services tax (GST).

Former senator and cabinet minister MacEachen is invested as Officer of the Order of Canada as by then Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean during a ceremony in Ottawa in 2009. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

He was educated at St. Francis Xavier University and entered politics at 32.

Speaking to CBC in 2009 in a rare interview after his retirement, he said he went into politics to share his knowledge, but quickly learned he had to focus on people's needs. 

MacEachen described himself as a "disciple" of St. FX professor Moses Coady, the Catholic priest from Cape Breton who was devoted to adult education and championed co-operative community organizations in the 1920s and '30s in northern Nova Scotia. 

From Coady, MacEachen said he "got the notion that the people could run themselves if they're given the chance. They could do anything if given the chance."

MacEachen also once said he thought maintaining trust with the electorate was the "very basis of politics."

If the "voter loses respect or identity with the elected person, then it's bad. I would rather regard that as an important test of whether I was a good political person or not, whether I maintained those necessary links with those who vote," he said. 

MacEachen ran an unsuccessful campaign for the leadership of the Liberal Party in 1968, and Rae remembers him giving advice after his own leadership loss in 2006: "Be patient, there are many ways to serve."

​MacEachen was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2008.

"You take life as it comes, and when it comes, you enjoy it. I enjoyed my political life, no regrets," he told CBC in 2009. 

MacEachen died at St. Martha's Hospital in Antigonish, N.S., on Tuesday night. Funeral plans weren't immediately known.

With files from The Canadian Press, Information Morning Cape Breton, Paul Palmeter