Canada

Memories of power

At 75, Allan MacEachen leaves the Senate

MERLE MacISAAC July 15 1996
Canada

Memories of power

At 75, Allan MacEachen leaves the Senate

MERLE MacISAAC July 15 1996

Memories of power

At 75, Allan MacEachen leaves the Senate

MERLE MacISAAC

On a blustery afternoon in Cape Breton, the waters of Lake Ainslie are roiled and choppy below the home of soon-to-be-retired Senator Allan MacEachen. But inside the kitchen of the rambling, ranch-style house, the view is lost on the island’s favorite son. Instead, he stares disconsolately at a twisted coat hanger lying on the table. For 22 years, MacEachen was a powerful cabinet minister and a brilliant strategist in the Pearson and Trudeau governments. Later, he was a fearsome adversary of the Mulroney government as Opposition leader in the Senate. But on this day, the man known locally as Allan J. is simply a man locked out of his Honda Accord. No aides, no chauffeured limo, just a pesky interviewer to whom he says: “I think you should leave me here alone with my inadequacy.”

Grudgingly, MacEachen accepts a ride to his next appointment, and a spare set of keys, in Antigonish— home of St. Francis Xavier University, his beloved alma mater, where he sits on the board of governors. He is relaxed and convivial during the hour-long drive, offering views on Gaelic culture, rural post offices and the Catholic church, of which he is a practising member. He has already stickhandled around awkward questions about his jealously guarded private life. An attempt to clarify his long, close relationship with Audrey MacAulay, a retired benefits administrator at Cape Breton Development Corp. (Devco) who lives in Sydney, meets with a gallant response. “She’s a friend and just that,” he says. ‘To project anything more would be unfair to her.” He also deflects a suggestion that gossip and innuendo about his lifelong bachelorhood possibly played a role in his failed bid for the Liberal leadership in 1968. “Look, I’ve lived what, almost 30 years since that leadership race,” MacEachen observes. “It seems to me it’s pretty irrelevant now. They said the same thing about Trudeau.”

The drive traverses much of MacEachen’s political fiefdom, the riding of Cape Breton Highlands/Canso. From this base, he launched an impressive political career that stretched over four decades and helped to give Canada many of its cherished social programs. But the hills and villages of this beautiful constituency and the surrounding region, where unemployment remains stubbornly high, serve up a more mixed verdict on MacEachen’s legacy as a tireless advocate of federal funding for regional economic development.

Those days of big spending are long gone and out of fashion. This spring, it took direct intervention and a good dollop of MacEachen’s political capital to merely soften the blow of continuing layoffs at Devco’s coal mines through more early retirements and the promise of continued public ownership. It was a meagre victory for miners by the standards of

MacEachen’s heyday, when he engineered the federal takeover of Sydney’s coalfields in 1967. And still to come in the region are further, wrenching changes to the unemployment insurance system that took its current shape under the Liberals of Pierre Trudeau and MacEachen in the early 1970s.

As the church spires of Antigonish appear on the horizon, MacEachen is reminded of a recent speech he made castigating the Reform party and the Ontario government of Tory Mike Harris as “forces gathered against Liberal values.” He is asked whether the current Liberal government, retreating from social program spending and its past interventionist posture, could be added to that list. He gives a pat answer, pointing to recent federal legislation he likes, and observing that governments appear right-wing when they grapple with fiscal problems. But one thing is certain: die liberals, the country and the public mood have changed mightily since MacEachen’s salad days. And his old school, St. F.X., could not have picked a better time than his official Senate retirement on Saturday, July 6, when he turned 75, to host a conference on the shape of public policy in the third millennium. In attendance, along with MacEachen, were his old boss Pierre Trudeau, cabinet colleague Marc Lalonde, and Sylvia

Ostry, former chairwoman of the Economic Council of Canada.

MacEachen’s future now includes plans to promote Gaelic culture. He says that he is also in the process of deciding whether to write his memoirs. A coal miner’s son, MacEachen grew up in company housing in dirt| poor Inverness on the west side of Cape Breton. One of his earliest memories was the sound of the whistle at the mines, signalling the availability of work for miners, as dictated by orders for coal. It was the shrill sound of the market, and it told men and women like his parents whether that week’s pay envelope would be merely thin, or even thinner. Much of MacEachen’s political career can be summed up as a struggle against that whistle, the fight to control the effect of raw market forces. “He believes,” says a former executive assistant, Dave MacLean, “that society is much more than a market.”

MacEachen had his political awakening at St. F.X., where the legendary Fa-

ther Moses Coady, founder of the Antigonish Movement, preached a gospel of co-operation as a way to address poverty and social ills. MacEachen continued his studies in political economy at the University of Toronto, earning graduate degrees in economics at the University of Chicago and the Massachussets Institute of Technology. He also tried to find ways in which political action could address social problems. His chosen instrument was the

Liberal Party of Canada, and his beginnings were inauspicious. He lost his first federal nomination battle in 1949 to a retired judge who once served under Wilfrid Laurier. “It’s ironic,” says MacEachen, noting that he has clung to political office longer than his first adversary. “I was young and eager, and I thought he was too old for the job.”

He soon had a chance to harness his youthful energy when, four years later, he won the nomination and was elected to the House of Commons. He was re-elected in 1957, then narrowly lost his seat in the Tory landslide the following year. In 1962, his constituents returned MacEachen to Parliament, where he was appointed labor minister by Lester Pearson and introduced a national labor standards code, which improved conditions for workers. As health and welfare minister, he brought in medicare in 1966 after a titanic struggle with fiscal conservatives in his own party. He played a key role in the country’s adoption of the Canada Pension Plan and the Guaranteed Income Supplement. “He was a linchpin in the creation of the modern welfare state,” says Peter Nicholson, a former Nova Scotia MLA who says he is an “unreserved fan” of MacEachen. Nicholson, who was also an adviser to Finance Minister Paul Martin and is now senior vice-president of corporate strategy with BCE Inc., adds: “It is a legacy that enables Canada to be named the best country in the world by the United Nations.” Still, MacEachen’s imprimatur is most distinct in Atlantic Canada, where he displayed an unrelenting loyalty to his constituents and their regional neighbors. With rapid growth in government revenues during the 1960s and 1970s, MacEachen and progressive cabinet colleagues like Newfoundland’s Don Jamieson were driving forces behind an aggressive program of regional economic development. MacEachen’s stomping grounds became a laboratory for experiments in job creation, and job underwriting, by the federal government and its provincial partners.

Examples abound, from the nationalization of the Sydney coalfields in 1967, to federal support for the provincial takeover of Sydney’s antiquated, tur n-of-th e-century steel works in the same year. MacEachen used federal grants, tax breaks and his political clout to attract large industry like oil refineries, tire manufacturing, pulp and paper makers, and heavy water production in support of Canada’s nuclear reactor sales. The region received a mountain of infrastructure money for such projects as roads, vocational schools and universities, hospitals and hundreds of federal wharfs and breakwaters in tiny coastal communities.

In combination with spiralling federal transfer payments to individuals, from indexed pensions to an expanded unemployment insurance program that encouraged seasonal work, the Liberals fostered enormous growth in public spending. But even admirers like Judith Maxwell, a Nova Scotian and former president of the Economic Council of Canada, have mixed feelings about the results of MacEachen’s regional loyalty. “Most—not all, but most—

of the infrastructure spending was desperately needed,” she says, “but the other part of the legacy of MacEachen and his times was the dependence. It was always the right thing, for that day or that week, but I don’t think it was always right for the long term. You wonder, for example, what constructive amendments could have been made to unemployment insurance while there was still lots of money around.” MacEachen defends his record ferociously. He notes, for example, that spending on infrastructure remains popular, and he reacts with earthy disgust when the words of a Globe and Mail columnist, charging that the Atlantic region is “littered with make-work projects” from his era, are put to him. ‘That’s shit,” he says bluntly, “and you treat it the way you treat shit. You move away from it.” He also disputes the notion that a culture of dependence has emerged in Atlantic Canada. When reminded of the heavy reliance on unemployment insurance in rural areas, he answers: “Are we supposed to turn our backs on these communities? We can’t do that.”

But although MacEachen, throughout his career, struggled for control of the market’s whistle in Cape Breton and beyond, that control has proved elusive.

Now, as his public career ends, the whistle is blasting loudly again in the form of globalization and privatization; in the relentless pressure of energy competition that threatens the future of Cape Breton coal; and in the country’s fatigue with the costs of subsidies and social programs. But MacEachen continues to have a democrat’s faith in the public’s wisdom to shape humane government policies. During his 27-year Commons career, after all, MacEachen drew political strength from his “clinics”: monthly rituals in his riding during which, like a church prelate, he held private audiences with constituents who told him their problems in their own words. “Liberal values have to be debated and discussed,” he says. “You can’t just conclude that everything that is proposed is good for the country, simply because there is a mood. Moods change. And I have the impression that the mood is changing again. From my reading, people are asking, if we want the government downsized, then who is responsible for the unemployed? Is that a matter of indifference? Do the corporations have any responsibility? Or do you accept the notion of very high unemployment, which leads to a lot of other problems?” After four decades, MacEachen, at least, is still asking questions that matter. □