ANTIGONISH, N.S. – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered a moving tribute to the late Allan J. MacEachen on Sunday, saying the former Liberal cabinet minister should be remembered as a key architect who shaped some of Canada’s most cherished institutions.
“I bring the thanks of a grateful country,” he told about 400 people gathered for a public memorial service at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., the institution where MacEachen served as an economics professor before entering politics in the early 1950s.
“Whether they credit him or not, Canadians are living in the country that Allan J. built, and they like it,” Trudeau said, referring to MacEachen’s nickname. “Let us honour him by recommitting ourselves as Canadians to continuing his life’s work of hard things done well.”
MacEachen died last Tuesday. He was 96.
As his memorial service began, the skirl of the bagpipes filled the auditorium, and MacEachen’s flagged-draped coffin was carried in by six Mounties in red serge. The ceremony also featured a Mi’kmaq smudging ceremony, a Gaelic prayer and traditional Celtic music, performed by fiddler Ashley MacIsaac.
The prime minister bowed his head before MacEachen’s coffin as he took to the stage in a tartan tie honouring his own Scottish heritage.
Like so many others who have recounted MacEachen’s many accomplishments during his 40-year political career, Trudeau made it clear that Canadians have the wily Cape Bretoner to thank for universal health care.
WATCH: Justin Trudeau remembers Allan MacEachen for work on medicare
“We all enjoy health care because of our needs instead of our ability to pay because of medicare,” Trudeau said, noting that it was MacEachen who, as health minister in 1966, used his “peerless parliamentary instincts” to get the Medical Care Act through Parliament.
The prime minister said MacEachen also helped bring in the guaranteed income supplement for vulnerable seniors, the Canada Pension Plan and key reforms to the country’s labour laws.
Trudeau said MacEachen and his father, Pierre, were “a match made in heaven,” because they shared the same core values.
Both men believed that all people are equal, “deserving of equal treatment under the law, equal opportunity to be whom we are, and to do with our lives what we choose,” he said.
“They believed in their bones that freedom and equality of opportunity ought to be every Canadian’s birthright.”
Former Ontario premier Bob Rae, who ran for the federal Liberal leadership in 2006, said MacEachen was a funny, loyal and warm man with an incredible talent for delivering speeches.
“He loved politics,” Rae said. “He loved the battles. He loved the jokes. He loved the stories … All of us who had a chance to work with him … understood that while there was always an elusive, private quality to his personality, there was also a very deep love of what politics brought to his life.”
Rae said MacEachen’s life was an “eloquent testimony” to the trials and rewards of public service, describing his former parliamentary colleague – and sometimes adversary – as a “gladiator” with a flare for the political stage, but a reserved private temperament.
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said MacEachen, the son of a coal miner, was a “champion of social justice” who never forgot where he came from.
“He was the son of Inverness, Cape Breton,” the premier said. “He was focused and dedicated to his community, his province, he country and its people. He had his fingerprints on some of the most progressive social policies of our time.”
Amid the many laudatory tributes, however, there was also plenty of humour.
Trudeau recalled how his father once wore a kilt when he attended a Cape Breton community event with MacEachen in the early 1970s. But the elder Trudeau forgot to bring his sporran, the small pouch that is typically worn around the waste and hangs in front of the kilt.
“But as many of you know, the sporran serves a practical purpose, beyond the carrying of coins,” Trudeau said. “As Allan J. recounted many years later … the absence of the sporran may have resulted in more exposure than my father’s communications staff had counted on.”
Former prime minister Jean Chretien was among the honorary pallbearers, as was federal cabinet minister Dominic LeBlanc and former Nova Scotia premiers Rodney MacDonald, Russel MacLellan and Gerald Regan.
MacEachen is to be buried in Inverness on Tuesday following a funeral service in the church in which he was baptized.
– With files from Adina Besge in Halifax.