The Late Honourable Allan J. MacEachen, P.C., O.C.—TributePublished on 19 September 2017 Hansard and Statements by Senator Joseph Day
Hon. Joseph A. Day (Leader of the Senate Liberals):
Today as I speak, a funeral is taking place in Cape Breton for one of our more remarkable former colleagues, the Honourable Allan J. MacEachen. The service is taking place in the Stella Maris Catholic Church in Inverness, Nova Scotia, in Cape Breton, in the same church where he was baptized 96 years ago.
Allan J., as he was known, was a Cape Bretoner through and through. He may have travelled throughout Canada and then as Minister of External Affairs throughout the world, but his heart and his soul always belonged to Cape Breton, and that is where he has always returned, and that is where his mortal remains are now being laid to rest.
On Sunday, a celebration of his life was held at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish where he first studied and subsequently taught economics. The speakers included the Prime Minister of Canada, the Premier of Nova Scotia, Bob Rae and a long-serving executive assistant, Kenzie MacKinnon. They all spoke very eloquently about the remarkable life of this coal miner’s son.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke of the close relationship between Allan J. and his father, saying that were it not for his extraordinary skills as a parliamentarian, “it’s no stretch to say that we wouldn’t have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms today.”
The Prime Minister also spoke of his earlier work as a member of Prime Minister Pearson’s cabinet, when he brought in Medicare as the Minister of Health and Welfare, and then the Old Age Supplement that allowed seniors to live in dignity.
The Prime Minister said: “Allan J. understood that strong public institutions are the only way to make sure that regular people have a fair shot at life. . . . Whether they credit him or not, Canadians are living in the country that Allan J. built, and they like it.”
It is not surprising that Andrew Coyne has described him as “a close contender for the greatest parliamentarian in Canadian history.”
But just as Allan J. MacEachen transformed Canadian social policy, he also transformed the Senate. Senator MacEachen arrived in the Senate in 1984 as a social activist, but the Senate at the time was seen as a defender of powerful corporate interests, particularly through the technique of pre-studying all important government financial legislation in one committee, the Banking Committee. As one reviewer put it, “The interests of big business could not be in better hands.”
But not only did Senator MacEachen quickly end the routine use of pre-study, but in one of his first actions as leader of the majority Senate opposition in early 1985, he refused passage of a Borrowing Authority bill because the government had not announced its spending plans. The government fumed, but when the Main Estimates were finally tabled a month later, detailing where the borrowed money was to be spent, Senator MacEachen allowed the borrowing bill to proceed.
Senator MacEachen took his role as a parliamentarian very seriously, no matter in which chamber he served. He said, on numerous occasions, that he did not come to the Senate to join a debating club or an advisory body but rather to be a member of a serious legislative chamber.
Under his leadership, the Senate Liberal opposition carefully scrutinized all legislation that came to the Senate and proposed changes that they believed were in the public interest, such as those dealing with unemployment insurance, prisons, immigration and pharmaceutical drugs.
During his time here, there was the epic fight with the government over the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement legislation, which culminated in the general election of 1987, and the GST bill in 1990.
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, in 2014, that:
If the Senate serves a purpose at all, it is to act as a check on the extraordinary power of the Prime Minister and his office, especially in a majority government —
— he could not have better described Allan J. MacEachen’s approach to his role as a senator while a member of this chamber.
In his unpublished memoir, Senator MacEachen wrote at length about Dr. Moses Coady of St. Francis Xavier University, citing six critical principles of the original Antigonish movement that ended with these words:
“The ultimate objective of the movement is a full and abundant life for everyone in the community.”
Allan J. spent his life pursuing this objective for everyone in his communities of Cape Breton and Canada, and, as Prime Minister Trudeau concluded on Sunday at the memorial service in Antigonish:
“Inspired by his example, let us honour him by recommitting ourselves as Canadians to continuing his work . . . [where] “good enough’” is never good enough, and better is always possible.”
Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!