Big Man on the Hill

The “happy warrior” whose legislative legacy shaped modern Canada

Donald Stovel Macdonald was probably one of Canada’s most capable federal politicians since Confederation, and his memoirs are a welcome addition to the collection of accounts that make up our nation’s history. But, as is always the case with this genre, we need to read across the grain, and stay fully alert to the memoirist’s temptation to be self-serving.

If not born to the purple, Macdonald came into this world in 1933 with almost every conceivable advantage. His father was a senior public servant—the Dominion Forester—and there was wealth on his mother’s side. “Our family didn’t suffer during the Great Depression,” he notes. He attended exclusive Ashbury College in Ottawa because his family thought the public school system was getting too crowded, and he lived in upper-class Rockcliffe Village where his elite neighbours, young and old, included Ian Scott, Gratton O’Leary, Blair Fraser, and John and Bob Rae. He learned to play cricket, and seems to have done tolerably well at it.

He was literally a towering figure—6’5″—and acquired his nickname “Thumper” at his university fraternity. Apparently his “toothy grin and size 13 shoes” reminded his frat brothers of the rabbit in Bambi.

After a brief stint at Carleton, he attended Trinity College in Toronto, Osgoode Hall, Harvard and finally Cambridge, where he studied international law and trade. He became a corporate lawyer, but he found the practice of law tedious, and turned his attention to politics.

The Liberal flavour was an easy choice for him. The Progressive Conservatives were too backward looking, with a “gasbag” at the helm (George Drew); the CCF (later the NDP) “too socialistic.” Macdonald was a classic Whig, with an unshakeable belief in human progress as measured by technological advances and prosperity.

In those early days under Lester B. Pearson, he described himself as a “centre-left Liberal.” He was an economic nationalist à la Walter Gordon (whom he describes as a mentor), and an opponent of Canada’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He became an “accidental candidate” for the Liberals in the affluent Toronto riding of Rosedale, and won that seat for the first time in 1961. Once launched, he never looked back.

Like the late Jack Layton, Macdonald was a happy warrior, on the hustings and in the House of Commons. He is frequently generous about his Progressive Conservative opponents, but descends into mean-spirited sniping when referring to the NDP. He despised Stanley Knowles, for example, and his critique of T.C. Douglas’s opposition to invoking the War Measures Act in 1970 is nasty and shallow.

Macdonald is still fighting some of those old battles, or at least reliving them. He supported nuclear-tipped BOMARC missiles on Canadian soil, even as the U.S. secretary of defence described the weapons as “ineffective” but possibly useful in drawing Soviet fire. But he also points to undeniably substantial and progressive Liberal achievements in those Pearson years: medicare (without crediting the CCF, which first introduced it in Saskatchewan), the Canada Pension Plan and the Canada-U.S. Auto Pact.

Macdonald also mounts a spirited defence of Pierre Trudeau’s wage and price controls, imposed in 1975 (mooted by the Liberals even as they defeated Robert Stanfield for supporting them). He fails to mention that the Anti-Inflation Board routinely approved price increases in excess of the prescribed limits, while systematically reducing the real income of Canadian workers. Inflation came down, but on their backs. Unsurprisingly, labour was hostile from the outset, but the business community soon tired of the controls as well, and Jean Chrétien repealed them in 1978.

Some of Macdonald’s commentary borders on the disingenuous. He glancingly refers to Vietnam as “a country with which Canada had little involvement,” a ludicrous assertion given Canada’s membership since 1954 on the International Control Commission there, faithfully playing its Cold War role as an American proxy. Canada also contributed considerable resources to the American war effort, a trade that spiked under Trudeau.

But Macdonald’s overall record in government speaks for itself. He held several demanding portfolios that tended to throw up crises almost as soon as he was appointed. The October Crisis of 1970 erupted just as he had been made minister of defence; the 1973 energy crisis was upon us soon after he became minister of energy, mines and resources; and he stickhandled Trudeau’s anti-inflation measures as a newly minted minister of finance. He met all of these challenges with dexterity and decisiveness.

The book gives us a glimpse of life around the Cabinet table with Trudeau, whom Macdonald often presents in near-hagiographical terms. The two got on very well; for all his faults, Trudeau did reward competence, and I would agree with Macdonald that the Cabinets of his day were filled with impressive individuals, a far cry indeed from the underperforming yes-persons in government today.

And yet we can also see from Macdonald’s account how the present rot set in. As government house leader, he piloted procedural changes in the House of Commons to make Parliament more efficient, or, put another way, to make things easier for the executive. The over-concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office has arguably been the result. A new system of committees made a lot of sense, involving numerous members of Parliament of all stripes in hands-on legislative work, and saving time. But the introduction of closure and time allocation, as we have seen under the current administration, has proven ripe for abuse.

Macdonald left politics in 1978, but his public life did not come to an end by any means. He chaired one of the more credible royal commissions, which effectively set Canadian economic policy thereafter and paved the way for free trade. According to Macdonald, it was during his work in that role that he became a free trade convert—embracing economic liberalism with missionary zeal.

Brian Mulroney won the 1988 election, fought on the free trade issue, and later that year appointed Macdonald high commissioner to the United Kingdom, where he became an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, even expressing support for her anti-sanctions position on South Africa. On his return to Canada, he was chosen by Ontario premier Mike Harris to head up a commission that aimed (unsuccessfully) to dismantle the hydro monopoly.

With an assist from author Rod McQueen, Macdonald’s recollections are for the most part immensely readable, although his corporate boardroom activities—by 1998 he was serving on eight boards and chairing two of them—held my interest less. The book is peppered with glowing quotations from others about his performance over the years, no doubt well deserved, and a number of anecdotes about the world leaders he met. My favourite was Alexei Kosygin recalling Stalin: “In later years, [he] became grim and difficult to deal with.”

With a track record more like a superhighway, Macdonald might have become prime minister but for his insufficient French—and the fact that Trudeau, who had anointed him his successor, changed his mind and fought the election of 1980 himself. But it seems that he hardly needed to. Despite moments of self-doubt, which I suspect were rather few, Macdonald shaped the future of our country, with unshakable energy and determination. For better or worse, his legacy is, to a large extent, the Canada we live in.