Afterward All Those Years: Practice and Purpose in Politics


This essay was previously published in Tom Kent (ed.),
In Pursuit of the Public Good, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997

The ways to get things done in government are not unique. In other organizations too, alliances have to be made, compromises worked out. But the circumstances of political practice are considerably different from those of other activities, not least because of the continual scrutiny that is the essence of parliamentary democracy. Often, the link between purpose and practice in government is far from agreed among political colleagues. Theoretically, a government comes to office with a mandate based on the party’s election platform. In practice, the mandate is open to very varied interpretations by MPs and ministers, whose purposes in politics are drawn from diverse backgrounds and who owe their election to greatly diverse constituencies across Canada.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that political purpose and practice are not widely understood. My aim here is to try to offer some illumination from my own experience.

"How strong we are"

The announcing of my decision not to seek reelection to the House of Commons in the election of 1984 was surprisingly easy in view of the lengthy process of consultation and discussion that had gone before. I made my announcement at a press conference at the Skye Motel in Port Hastings, NS and then went to Antigonish to unveil a plaque at the new and relocated National Philatelic Centre. The centre is now a moneymaking institution and a model of service and efficiency. But its relocation to Antigonish from Ottawa, as part of the government decentralization program of jobs and services, was resisted by the bureaucracy, to the point of ensuring that notices advising unsuccessful applicants for the new jobs were delivered on the morning of the election of 4 September 1984.

This timing caused consternation and indignation among disappointed applicants who were entitled to believe they were mere pawns in a power game invisible to them. The project that had been intended to be a symbol and provider of jobs now mocked the job seekers. "Look how strong we are," said the bureaucrats. "We are telling you to stuff it, and we are doing it on election morning." No doubt these bureaucrats had noted that the program had its detractors within the government itself and, in view of the way the election was going, they knew also they might never be called upon to explain and justify their callous and unfeeling conduct. Following the election, which the Liberals lost, I explained what had happened in Antigonish to a former postmaster general and sought his opinion as to whether the arrival of these rejection notices on election day was an unhappy coincidence or deliberately planned. His opinion was that the timing was deliberate. It confirmed the view that the notices were a parting shot by officials in the battle to prevent decentralization of jobs and services from Ottawa.

Challenging the mandate

This incident is recited here to underline that change does not come easily and that in order to achieve change the policy battle has to be fought out at many levels. Policy conception is one phase. Final implementation is another. Within a political party, policy development is a crucial first step. The process is easier to discern in a party in opposition as it lays out its policy objectives in the platform for the election. Elected on its policy platform, a new government may think it is clear sailing to policy implementation.

No sooner is a new government sworn in, however, than the implementation of its policies is opposed, slowed down, attenuated by a possible combination of new ministers and a bureaucracy skilled at bringing forward hitherto unarticulated objections. No party is monolithic in ideology. Hence a new minister who has never entered the debate at an earlier stage will be inclined to join like-minded officials and like-minded colleagues to put a new and different face on a policy that had passed the party test (it made the platform) and the electoral test (the election was won.) It is to me still a surprising aspect of politics that policies which have been put in the window during a campaign and have been approved in the preelection process of building the platform can be laid waste by new players who appear on the field late in the game. These new players now rely on power and position to advance ideas which had been excluded from previous political discussion. They had not been advanced previously, clearly incapable of surviving any preelection political test. Power squashes principle and previous commitments. Power becomes the ally of the hidden agenda.

The scenario I have described happens. It does not always happen. It need not happen as frequently as I have seen it happen. It could be resisted by insisting more forcibly on the legitimacy of the mandate – that is, the party platform and the election result – in determining public policy. The first force which works against the supremacy of the mandate is the broad authority assumed by government, which is held to be of a higher order of legitimacy than any particular policy in the mandate. "We have been given the power to govern for the good of the country as we see it now." The second force is the gradual erosion of political resolve as the complexities of policy are explained by the bureaucracy and as ministers are systematically inducted into the sacred mysteries of government. It is within this not so clearly defined and frequently shifting environment that the two legitimacies struggle for ascendancy. The art of government manifests itself most clearly when satisfactory compromises are worked out. Getting along with the bureaucracy does not mean becoming its puppet. In its most rewarding and constructive form it impels ministers to understand clearly the specific role of the bureaucrat and to extend generously the respect and support that role demands in order to discharge its responsibilities. However, there is a line in the sand.


Decentralization was a settled policy of the government reelected in 1974. To declare the policy was much easier than to decide what programs from which departments were to be relocated. It was not easy to make progress in the face of opposition from the public service and Ottawa area MPs. Eventually projects were selected, including the relocation of the Philatelic Centre. This proposal was submitted to Treasury Board on 1 March 1977, approved on 5 May 1977, and announced five months later on 3 October 1977. In retrospect, the gap in time from submission to announcement was a signal of trouble ahead. The public was told that the relocation would be in place by 1979. It was modest in employment impact and well suited to the requirements and life style of the university town of Antigonish. There was also modest jubilation that this project, as well as several others, was coming to Nova Scotia. Jubilation was overtaken by frustration at delays in moving to the implementation stage. Delay also occurred from local concerns about site and land acquisition. The process was interrupted, and then put in jeopardy, by the election of the Clark government, which cancelled the relocation in July 1979.

A new phase was reached with the defeat of the Clark government and the return of the Trudeau government. We then looked to an early implementation of the program. In the meantime, however, the opponents of this policy had been given an opportunity to regroup. The scuttling of the project by the Clark government was an important gain for its opponents and one not readily relinquished. Before the 1980 election, assurances were sought directly from Mr. Trudeau that the program would go ahead following the election. Despite his support and the successful outcome of the election, the program remained under siege. The endless reappraisals and delays help to explain why the unveiling of the plaque came almost four years after Mr. Trudeau’s positive assurances.

When I walk by the splendid home of the Philatelic Centre, as I do regularly when in Antigonish, I reframe in my mind the issues which make the project worth mentioning many years later. First, it was a commitment to the citizens of the community which I took more seriously than others. Second, decentralization was a litmus test of the government’s commitment to regional development. Third, it was a measure of the commitment of the government to job creation. These considerations taken together, particularly in moments of frustration brought on by seemingly endless stalling tactics, were enough for any minister to consider calling it a day.

Learning from constituents

As I campaigned in the election of 1953, fresh from a two-year immersion in economics at graduate school, I was filled, or so I thought, with the latest in the subject and felt obliged to show my mastery of the material to my electors, whom I knew respected knowledge. If I showed them I had knowledge, I reasoned, they were likely to accept me as their MP. Eventually I learned that this might not be the right approach. The people, I came to understand, wanted to hear from me, not what I knew. They wanted to know what I had to offer; what I could do to meet their needs for better incomes, employment opportunities, and health and social services. My understanding of this reality deepened as my career in politics was extended. Also, I learned that an important element in the relationship between the elected person and the electors was trust, which could be gradually and surely built up, in part, by the tedious day-to-day work of representing individual and group needs. Once this trust is built up, it will not be first broken by electors.

Citizens do keep under surveillance the conduct of politicians, and more closely when they have placed confidence in their words. This aspect of political life came to the fore in a vivid encounter with a female elector. The encounter involved Mr. Trudeau. In the 1968 election he talked about the Just Society. People had such confidence in his charisma that they expected it to be ushered in immediately. Naturally, they raised the matter in the 1972 election.

During that campaign, I was canvassing in the district of Little Narrows and entered a home just as the lady of the house, all dressed up, with a handbag in her hand, was leaving to attend a church meeting. However, she delayed her departure and asked us to sit down. In this district, people were attached to the church and religion. The lady of the house began the conversation by saying: "We have always been Liberals in this house. Not that we think we are any better than others. It just suits us to be Liberals."

It was a singular moment for me to hear any Liberal make such an admission. Then she went on: "Your Prime Minister is causing me great difficulty." Mr. Trudeau had now become my Prime Minister. She opened her handbag and removed a press clipping reporting on a meeting in Ontario.

"It says here that when Mr. Trudeau was heckled and asked about the Just Society, he replied, ‘Ask Jesus Christ, he promised it before I did.’" She folded the paper and put it away, saying, "Mr. MacEachen, that is close to blasphemy."

Bread on the table

Ottawa is never a primary source of inspiration and political nourishment. Those essential nutrients of political longevity came from other, varied and, at times, unexpected sources. Shortly after deciding not to seek reelection, I travelled in Invemess County to touch base with my constituents and listen to comments. As I stood around in the cooperative store in Margaree Forks, a constituent, who made his living on the land and in the forest, said to me, "I hear you are not running again. You certainly kept bread on the table here in the north all those years." As a compliment it was enormous. As a summation of one’s political career from a citizen who made a living the hard way, it was heart-warming. His use of "bread" to identify projects and policies resulting in improved living conditions and services showed imagination and perceptiveness. Though keeping bread on the table as an aim of government has fallen into disfavour, in the mind of my chance conversationalist it was the positive face of government. His appraisal at the end of my service in the House of Commons took me back to its beginnings and why keeping bread on the table, in the widest interpretation of that expression, was the principal reason I left a university teaching post to enter politics.

Though the regular visits I made to the various communities of my constituency – holding "clinics" – were demanding of energy and time, they were useful as early warning signals of the issues emerging in the country. For me they were more than exercises to maintain electoral support. They were my link with reality, a source of motivation, and an antidote to the perspectives of the bureaucrats and politicians in Ottawa. Even before I thought of running for elective office, I sensed the importance of the local community. What is happening locally can be a harbinger of future national undertakings. As a professor at St Francis Xavier, and an activist in the Antigonish Movement, I took part in one such event in April 1950, when medical care was the subject of a discussion broadcast from the university auditorium. I was one of a panel that included the president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour and representatives of the Nova Scotia Medical Society and the Maritime Hospital Service Association.

Lines were drawn, opinions differed sharply. The audiences in the auditorium and the community were excited by the prospect of a people-controlled medical care system. We hit a number of key issues which, in retrospect, were prophetic. Universal access and comprehensive coverage of services were stressed as elements of the necessary major change in the system of medical care. Neither I nor anyone in the over-filled auditorium on that Sunday afternoon forty-seven years ago could have foreseen the role which the youngest member of the panel would play in the enactment of Canada’s Medical Care Act.

The formula for success and longevity in politics involves a relationship with electors based on mutual trust and on a responsiveness which, for the local community, guarantees that their views be heard and factored into policy formulation at the highest level.

Working with caucus

In political life, getting things done involves other factors, including relationships with cabinet and caucus colleagues. The Canadian Labour Code, for example, was a major happening for members of the Liberal caucus elected from such industrial cities as Windsor and Hamilton, where they always had to fend off threats from the left flank by the NDP. Now they could argue with the evidence to back them up, that the government which they supported had enacted the most far-reaching, comprehensive, and progressive provisions in the held of labour standards ever enacted in Canada by any jurisdiction.

They were entitled to make such a claim because they had a voice in the framing of its provisions through their membership in the caucus group I had established for the purpose of securing their views and later their support. It was a signal success. Those newly elected members who later became ministers, like Herb Grey and John Munro, were able to draw on that experience in outlining what could be achieved within the caucus between ministers and members working together in pursuit of common policy objectives. It was a real lesson to me in welcoming, not resisting, the voice of caucus members in policy formation.

Also important in refining the provisions of the Canada Labour Code was the contribution of ministers like Walter Gordon who, before the election, had worked on the policy proposals which were now making their way through the legislative process. At one cabinet committee meeting, Walter Gordon and I disagreed on the amount at which the mandatory minimum wage should be set. I wanted a higher rate than he, as Minister of Finance, thought was economically justified. Walter Gordon was in support of the Canada Labour Code and its provisions. But on the rate to be set he was adamant. So was I. Then Mr. Gordon signalled that we ought to have a private discussion in the corridor to settle our differences. He cautioned about the danger of going too far and asking for too much.

This style of one-on-one conversation was very much Mr. Gordon’s way. He relied greatly on his undoubted personal charm and had a definite distaste for prolonged debate and argument in meetings. His brother-in-law, Bud Drury, remarked to me, "Walter dislikes arguing in defence of his positions. That makes it difficult."

My political tool box was enhanced by my acquisition of skills and knowledge in a critical aspect of political life: Parliament itself. Inability to operate effectively in the House is still exacting its toll on ministers. I believe that my confidence in the legislative role, when combined with my grounding in social and economic matters, was a valuable combination. Without it, I doubt whether I could have succeeded in getting through Parliament in my first two ministries, Labour and Health and Welfare, such a volume of significant legislation.

Practices of parliament

The acquisition of my skills and knowledge of Parliament was the result of one of those sharp unexpected turns that occur in a political career. In my case, the occasion was joining Mr. Pearson’s staff following my personal defeat in the election of 1958. The president of St Francis Xavier had asked me to rejoin the faculty at the university. The prospect of resuming my teaching career was appealing but was put to one side at Mr. Pearson’s phone call to my parents’ home in Inverness, asking me to return to Ottawa to give him a hand in the daunting task that lay ahead of him. I accepted.

Joining Mr. Pearson’s staff had its own rewards: an inside view of the anxieties of a political leader recovering from defeat and seeking to reestablish his political status, an intimate view of the Liberal party from the leader’s perspective, and an inside view of the operation of the House of Commons and the Senate from this preferred vantage point. The day-to-day challenges were more absorbing and valuable than I had expected.

The principal long-term benefit was becoming, through force of circumstances, Mr. Pearson’s principal adviser on Parliament and especially on the procedures of the House of Commons. These have to be fully understood in carrying out the manoeuvres required of an opposition. Mr. Pearson wanted solid advice and expected his staff to anticipate all responses that might flow from any parliamentary initiative he took. He was concerned about Speakers’ rulings, and what the government and other political parties might do to frustrate his moves. Hence my spending long hours pouring over the principal authorities on the subject, previous Speakers’ rulings in the journals. When I became hopelessly confused in the tangle, the Clerk of the House was superb in making sense of the arcane universe of rules and precedents.

The result was that when I returned to the House in the 1962 election, I was well grounded and could take part in any technical discussion – and some quite political – involving the rules and procedures of Parliament as an institution. When I became a minister in 1963, I was equipped to put through the House unprecedented, controversial, complex, and pioneering legislation:

The Maritime Transportation Unions Trustees Act (1963), which provided for the placing of five maritime transportation unions under the supervision of trustees appointed by the government, was unprecedented. The enactment was intended to promote clean and democratic trade unionism for Canadian seamen, the stabilization of maritime shipping, and the end of the harassment of Canadian vessels in United States ports.

The Canada Labour (Standards) Code (1965) was comprehensive in its enactment of standards in employment within federal jurisdiction for hours of work, minimum wages, and holidays and annual vacations with pay.

The Health Resources Fund (1966) provided for the establishment of a fund to assist provinces in the acquisition, construction, and renovation of health training facilities and research institutions. Projects to be established with the assistance of the fund were to amount to one billion dollars.

The Canada Assistance Plan (1966) established a new and wider definition of need and for the sharing of cost between the federal and provincial governments. The concept was an important step ahead in establishing more acceptable levels of income support and shielding those in need from undue variations in provincial and municipal support.

The Medical Care Act (1966) authorizecl the payment of contributions by Canada towards the cost of services provided by provinces pursuant to medical care insurance plans. Through this enactment, which laid out the four governing principles of universal coverage, public administration, portability from province to province of insured status, and that insured services be provided under uniform terms and conditions to all residents of a province, Canada’s medical care system was brought into being.

An amendment to the Old Age Security Act to provide for a guaranteed income supplement (1966) as a substitute for a flat rate in Old Age Security pensions, was designed to help those most in need and to deploy more effectively limited financial resources. Through this change, an estimated 600,000 Old Age Security pensioners were eligible for an increase in pension of $30 a month and a guaranteed income of $1260 a year.

One cannot overlook the role which actors outside the government can play in the political and legislative process. In the enactment of the trustee legislation, the Canadian Labour Congress played a constructive role at all stages and reflected a considerable level of trust between the labour movement and the government. Consultations were frequent and informal and labour leaders had access to the Prime Minister and ministers and vice versa. 

Likewise, the support that can be provided by a career civil service is invaluable. One small but important example took place in connection with the Canada Labour Code. On ships and in the grain elevators, particular and workable regimes had to be devised to meet unique requirements. The skill of the officials in the Department of Labour in devising solutions to these problems was instrumental in inducing acceptance of the provisions and in turning aside criticism which was motivated by resistance in principle to any move of any kind to set standards for working conditions.

Cabinet posts and leadership

Another aspect of the political process is illustrated by how I became Minister of Labour and then Minister of National Health and Welfare. In the first case, personal preference prevailed. It was not the post which Mr. Pearson asked me to take on in my first conversation with him following the election. His working sheet had me listed to become Minister of Mines and leader of the government in the House of Commons. In asking me to become leader in the House, Mr. Pearson was passing over a number of ministers who were senior to me and who may have wanted the job. It was made clear to me by Paul Martin that I ought to back off. "Mike is giving you too much," were his words. The idea was eventually dropped. No doubt my seniors had gotten through to the future Prime Minister. That did not agitate me at all. I was, however, disturbed by the idea of becoming Minister of Mines. I told Mr. Pearson that if, as I believed, I was a natural choice to become Minister of Labour, the opposite would apply if I were to become Minister of Mines. Coming as I did from a constituency in Cape Breton, on the doorstep of the Cape Breton coal area, I would be in danger of becoming a single issue minister expected to solve single-handedly the deep problems of the industry. Mr. Pearson saw my unease and told me he would think the matter over. On my next visit he said to me quite casually, "I’ve decided to give you the Labour job." It was the decision I had hoped for. Now I had a harmony between past preparation and the requirements of the job.

Visiting for the first time the office of the Minister of Labour in the Confederation Building revealed that Mr. King had occupied the same office when he was Minister of Labour. The office still had his desk and the wooden fixture he used to show the day, month, and year. It was still in my office thirty-three years later when I left for the Senate.

The request to me to move to National Health and Welfare was for the express purpose of legislating the Medical Care Act. The House of Commons was not the strong suit of the previous minister, Judy LaMarsh.

The toolbox which I mentioned earlier was to come in handy time and time again. As my ministerial future unfolded, it became my duty to serve as leader of the government in the House of Commons in three separate circumstances, each of these in a different Parliament. Two were minority Parliaments. I also served, for a short and action-filled period, as deputy leader of the opposition. The resignation of Mr. Trudeau as leader of the Liberal party, the defeat of the Clark government, the withdrawal of Mr. Trudeau’s resignation all occurred in rapid succession. At critical moments, I was the de facto leader of our group in the House of Commons. Later, my years as leader of the opposition in the Senate were, at times, equally action.

The necessity and value of different skills were apparent in leading individuals and groups through a process of discussion to conclusions acceptable to all participants. The flip side is the endurance of prolonged frustration, at times, in the task of listening to all, coping with recalcitrant partners, taking into account, and finally reconciling, all points of view. A balance is required between authoritarianism and permissiveness. One never fully knows when one succeeds at the task. Failure is apparent when meetings drag on and, at a certain point, everybody knows they are getting nowhere. Usually it is a failure at the top.

International development

I participated in a leadership role in such processes regularly as a minister, but the three cases I single out all relate to foreign policy, especially for international development. They illustrate a much neglected and important aspect of ministerial and political practice.

Canadian development policy was reviewed in house, for the purpose of reconciling overall foreign policy objectives and the specific objectives of Canada’s International Development Agency (CIDA). Michel Dupuy represented External Affairs and Paul Gerin Lajoie as president represented CIDA. They differed in style and perspective. The perspective of Mr. Gerin Lajoie on the process and the weight he expected to have on the outcome were influenced by his background as Minister of Education and as a prominent political figure in his native province of Quebec. It was my task to recognize that I was not dealing with a career official accustomed to the culture of the public service, and, at the same time, ensure that policy decisions were not taken for that reason alone. Carrying out that task required time and occasional firmness. The process finally succeeded.

The resulting policy was unveiled in a speech in New York at the General Assembly of the United Nations. The reaction there was positive and enthusiastic. For the first time I encountered the UN practice of country representatives forming a long line as they waited each for his or her turn to congratulate the speaker. If the impact of the statement were to be measured by the length of the queue, as some Canadian officials believed, then the international impact of the Canadian policy statement so painstakingly put together was strong and positive.

The concept of creating a "New International Economic Order" was the subject of the Conference on International Economic Cooperation convened in Paris under the sponsorship of the then President of France, Giscard D’Estaing. Shifting the debate from the United Nations system to a representative body of limited size was more likely, he reasoned, to produce results. There were twenty-seven participants – nineteen developing countries, and eight developed members including the European Community. Seven of the developing countries were members of OPEC, whereas twelve were oil importing countries. The membership of the conference was selected to be broadly representative of the interests of the world community as a whole, with the exception of eastern Europe and China, which did not participate.

Since my focus is on political practice, on how things do or do not get done, I will set aside the substantive issues under discussion and deal with three aspects of the conference: the organization of the dialogue, the role of ideology, and the opportunity missed. The dialogue took place at the ministerial level assisted by four commissions – energy, raw materials, development, and financial affairs. They were expected to prepare concrete proposals for ministerial consideration and decision. Usually the foreign ministers of each country were present at the ministerial sessions. Each commission had a minister as chairman. The process had two unique and important features: the dialogue was restricted and issues under review were receiving ministerial attention as required in the international capitals. The groundwork had been carefully laid; interesting proposals were prepared.

However, the ideological attitude and maximalist demands of the Group of 77 developing countries produced a disappointing result. The President of France received both cochairmen in his office at the end of the conference. He expressed his disappointment to my Venezuelan colleague, saying bluntly that the incentive for the western countries to do more could not be revived in the face of the total lack of recognition for the responses which had been made at the conference by the industrialized countries but which had been turned aside by the other participants.

The opportunity missed was the offer made by US Secretary of State, Mr. Cyrus Vance, as part of a comprehensive response on the part of the industrialized countries. He proposed the continuation of the forum for an indefinite period in order to maintain work on the issues that had been raised. That, in itself, would have been a major achievement in view of the failure in subsequent periods to continue the process. But the opportunity for a continuing dialogue was rejected, and nothing of a similar magnitude has since occurred. The issues involved in the concept of a new economic order dropped out of the sights of the international community.

In becoming cochair of the joint parliamentary committee reviewing Canada’s foreign policy, I confronted once again the many complicated factors involved in carrying such an undertaking to a successful conclusion. It is to be acknowledged that a committee made up of members of the House of Commons in a new Parliament, on the one hand, and members of the Senate on the other, is not necessarily in itself a recipe for success. Members of the House of Commons, fresh from their electoral victories, find themselves working as partners with fellow parliamentarians from the Senate with security of tenure. The latter, if they wish to be respected, have to bring to the table skills and assets other than the legitimacy of speaking as direct representatives of electors. It was the job of chairmanship to ensure that the two groups worked in harmony, which, on the whole, fumed out to be the case.

Among the numerous challenges facing the cochairs, two were crucial to a successful outcome. First was the organization of the work to take into account the unevenness in the experience and knowledge of the committee membership in the field of foreign policy; almost all the members on the House of Commons side were newly elected. The second was to establish broad areas for consideration and, within such broad areas, to identify specific goals and problems.

The stream of knowledge was provided from numerous sources: hearings across the country and in Ottawa; specially organized exchanges between committee members and panels of experts in such areas as culture and security; the preparation of papers by acknowledged professionals in key areas of the enquiry; summaries of testimony by committee staff; and, finally, in camera discussions amongst committee members. The attendance of the House of Commons members of the committee was exemplary, as was their devotion to doing a good job.

Among the broad areas for committee enquiry was international development. It soon became apparent that CIDA, in particular, had problems. One was the financial support for structural adjustment programs, which, in general, were a major and sustained target of criticism by witnesses from nongovernmental organizations. The second was a perception that its aims ought to be more strictly defined in pursuit of specific sectors of development. The committee made an exceptional contribution to the future of Canada’s international development program by offering concrete solutions to both of these problems.

From a mining background

I delivered my maiden speech in the House of Commons on 14 February 1954. The choice of employment policy as the subject is easily understood. Unemployment was rife in Cape Breton where I grew up. Its alleviation had personal overtones for me. My experience of unemployment growing up in a coal mining town turned my interest at university to courses and professors who had a view on social and economic issues. My first election to the House of Commons followed two years in graduate school at MIT in economics. Among the gifted group of professors who guided our efforts there was Paul Samuelson, an expositor of Keynes’s General Theory of Income and Employment.

The gifted essayist A. L. Rowse, in his volume A Cornish Childhood: Autobiography of a Cornishman, paints a vivid picture of how the beliefs and practice of his local community in Cornwall had a lasting effect. The more sensitive and imaginative the person, the more likely are the hues of his youthful existence to appear in the tapestry of his life. That is certainly the case for Rowse.

Living in a coal mining town leaves its indelible imprint. The novelist A. J. Cronin made career writing about its special fascination. Recently, Sheldon Currie gave further impetus to the genre in Margaret’s Museum, with its almost overly harsh treatment of the life of coal miners. Currie will not be the last author to mine this field of pain, solidarity, and heroism. In my coal mining town, virtually everybody was in the same social and economic class. We were denied the outlet of envy. In retrospect, there is a temptation to repudiate the experience and to soften its rigours. Survivors admit the hard times, but insist they were also happy times. This softening of the reality flows from loyalty to parents and community. Honesty is better than misguided loyalty. Honesty honours the best miners and especially their wives who bore their frustration in the silence made necessary by the lack of alternatives.

Mining coal economically in the seams available at Inverness was beyond the wit of management, either private or public. The unions, and there were a number competing for the support of the miners, did not succeed any better. At one point, an attempt at running the mines through a loose application of cooperative principles in a new enterprise led by the parish priest turned out to be a disaster. It produced all sorts of deep divisions in the community and fractured badly the harmony which had existed previously within and between the churches in the community. Subsequently, this episode in the community’s history became the skeleton in the closet which had to be excluded from conversation. The risk of a verbal explosion from unwittingly touching upon a sore point in the factional bitterness was too great. Added to the economic uncertainty was the new burden of social disharmony.

The mines did not operate regularly. Whether a miner would have work on any given day was made known the night before through the mine whistle: one whistle work, two whistles no work. The whistle was the impersonal voice of the unseen forces which controlled the destiny of all. It was also the harbinger of injury and death. It was an awesome sound when the whistle was used to inform the community that an accident had occurred. These accidents were, at times, fatal.

The miners usually had one suit of clothes to be worn on special occasions and always to church on Sunday. Few miners could save enough to buy a suit outright. One of three clothing merchants in town devised a system called a suit club by which miners could pay a small amount each week towards the purchase of a new suit. When enough funds were on deposit at the store, the miner could pick up his suit. The bonus for this waiting game was a tailor-made suit.

Pensions for miners were unknown. The lack of provision for future security was accepted stoically. The coal mines on the west coast of Cape Breton had been long closed when a reasonable pension system for miners was instituted in the mines of Cape Breton County, which had been taken over by the Cape Breton Development Corporation. This crown corporation was established by the Parliament of Canada, and I had the opportunity to influence key provisions of the bill as it received Cabinet consideration, in particular, giving the corporation power to open new mines. It has provided hitherto unknown stability in the coal communities of eastern Cape Breton. Devco, as the corporation is locally known, eliminated the whistle.

In July of 1995 a boyhood friend, now a retired coal miner, and I in a long conversation engaged in a social and economic account of our experiences in growing up near each other in company houses in our coal mining town in the twenties and thirties. Quietly, and without realizing what we were doing, we engaged in a sort of social and economic survey.

We lived in the north end of town in company houses built on a piece of high ground overlooking the Gulf. Between the houses and the beautiful sandy beach were the coal pits, the bank head, the coal dump, and rail lines for coal cars. All of that is now gone, replaced first by blueberry and cranberry barrens and now by nothing much at all. My father, in his retirement, following forty-six years underground, used to pick berries there instead of coal.

In our location, there were three rows of company houses. Each row had seven houses, each house had two self-contained dwellings and each of the dwelling spaces was identical to the forty-one others. There was no central heating and no inside toilets. There was running water, however, and electricity. In fact, the electricity was provided at a nominal fixed charge by the company, with the result that lights were left on day and night. People who travelled through the town late at night wondered why it was all lit up at three o’clock in the morning. Coal was supplied also at reduced rates to the miners. Even so, a preferred option was for the young boys to pick coal at the dump and, when necessary, to steal it. Stealing coal from the company was totally accepted, if not legally permitted.

The pay for a day’s work was about $3 or $3.25. My boyhood friend, who still had in his possession his late father’s pay envelopes, confirmed that the total weekly wage when the mines were in operation was $17 per week. In our review, we confirmed to each other that every family in that block of houses made its living in the coal mines. Every household on that high ground overlooking the Gulf, every employee, whether on the surface or underground, was governed by the whistle. The storekeepers, the clergy, the hospital, the convent were exempt in their daily lives from the direct governance of the whistle. Their households had the usual amenities, including telephones. No miner had a telephone.

The school curriculum was distant from life as it was lived in the community. The restructuring of society or the economy as ways of alleviating conditions was not a subject for discussion. The solution for many was to avoid the mines by seeking a job elsewhere or to get a higher education. The latter was my escape route.

Inspiration from the Antigonish Movement

St Francis Xavier University did more for me than provide a liberal arts education. It demonstrated, through its espousal of the Antigonish Movement, that social and economic change were possible, legitimate, and justified. It further demonstrated that there were instruments at hand, both public and private, that offered the prospect of achieving real change. It was a liberating influence. In the bleak uncertainties of growing up in a coal mining town, it was possible to sense wrongs of society and the economy. It was at St Francis Xavier where a way of change was laid out. Adult education and economic group action were Dr M. M. Coady’s way of achieving significant social change. We students were stirred by his message, and his philosophy made a lasting impact upon some of us.

In the past year, because of my involvement in an examination of the current state of the Antigonish Movement, I had cause to dig deeply once again into its origins, its principles, and concrete results. In my days at St Francis Xavier, the movement and its chief expositor, Dr. Coady, were each at their zenith. I never lost an opportunity to listen to Coady’s eloquence, as often in private as in public. I was his disciple. I am still his disciple to the extent that his basic principles have continuing relevance.

With the perspective of time, it is clear that an essence of the Antigonish Movement was social and economic criticism accompanied by adult education leading to self-help economic action organized on the basis of cooperative principles. The results were a network of new institutions built up in the Atlantic provinces. All of this creative thought and activity was stimulating and motivational. As a member of the teaching staff at the university, I became deeply involved in these activities. Apart from participating generally in the movement, specific programs of adult education became outlets for my interest and enthusiasm.

"Life in These Maritimes" was a radio program broadcast throughout the fall and winter months, directed to the rural population and dealing with both technical and economic subjects. To serve the urban area, especially the industrial workers of Pictou and Cape Breton counties, a second series was developed entitled, "The Peoples School," a title revived from an earlier period of the university’s history when Dr. Tompkins brought prospective leaders from outside the university to the campus for short periods of training. The title was old. Using the medium of radio for educational programs linked through study material with discussion groups in the field was new to the area. The broadcast panel, in which I usually took part, was moved into the halls of the communities with discussion before an audience able to participate through questions and comments. Supplementing this radio phase was a series of "classes" among steelworkers and mineworkers. Nothing was more real in all my experience than these encounters. 

Among Dr Coady’s listeners at this time was Harry Johnson who joined the faculty at St Francis Xavier as a totally inexperienced professor for one year to fill an unexpected gap in the already small social sciences group. We who attended his first lecture (those who knew him later as a world-famous economist will disbelieve this) recall that he had to conclude well before the allotted time because he ran out of things to say. Harry Johnson was interested in the Antigonish Movement and later made a speech that distilled its principles. So thorough and accurate was Harry’s distillation that Dr. Coady used it in his comprehensive statement to the Royal Commission on the Taxation of Cooperatives in 1945.

The orientation my activities took on in my political career was influenced by this period. To some, it was my distinctive mark. In the protracted debate following the 1981 budget, I was reproached because I was believed to have betrayed the principles which had been upheld by Dr. Coady. I had believed then, as I do now, that the equity I strove to implant in the taxation system would have been applauded by Dr. Coady.

Bread and the state

If the Antigonish Movement provided the initial impetus, later influences at the Universities of Toronto and Chicago and at MIT reinforced my interest in the possibilities for change and helped to clarify the role of the state in the pursuit of reform.

In my maiden speech in the House of Commons in 1954, I discussed the positive place of the state in reducing unemployment. Since then, the state has demonstrated its capacity to affect decisively the well-being of citizens. I have recounted, in this essay, a number of measures which have made their particular contribution to citizen well-being. The most cherished is our medical care system.

In March of 1996, I made my last parliamentary speech on economic issues, dealing with a Senate resolution establishing a special committee to inquire into the plans of the Cape Breton Development Corporation for the future management of the coal fields in Cape Breton. I recalled the statement made on 29 December 1966 by then Prime Minister Pearson in setting up the corporation: "It is because of its awareness of and concerns for the well-being of individuals and their communities that the federal government is prepared to assist on a massive scale." He saw the role of government in a positive light, in much the same way as my former constituent did when he spoke about "keeping bread on the table."

The question is: who puts bread on the table when private markets fail to do so? The long-term role of the state will not be determined by the necessity, in the short run, to solve fiscal problems. There are signs now that the fashion of denying, on principle, a positive role for the state is losing its grip. The avoidance of social disharmony makes it imperative that those in authority will not lag behind their public in realizing that the state has still a role in keeping bread on the table. The people as a whole will have the final say in determining the future role of government. I am content to rely on their judgment.


Political Science Department

4th Floor Mulroney Hall
2333 Notre Dame Avenue
Antigonish NS B2G 2W5