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ALAN HOLMAN: A pipe dream in wrong era

Canadian political giant Allan MacEachen's portfolios included finance minister. He's shown here in the House of Commons during budget night on Nov. 12, 1981. MacEachen died last month at St. Martha's Hospital in Antigonish.
Canadian political giant Allan MacEachen's portfolios included finance minister. He's shown here in the House of Commons during budget night on Nov. 12, 1981. MacEachen died last month at St. Martha's Hospital in Antigonish.

A little over three weeks ago, Allan J. MacEachen died. He was a Cape Bretoner who was a giant in Ottawa politics during the time Lester Pearson and Trudeau-the-Elder were prime ministers.

In his hey-day, whatever Allan J. wanted, Allan J. got. Federal money poured into Cape Breton, particularly for projects in Port Hawkesbury, close to Inverness, the area where he grew up.
At one time, Port Hawkesbury, a town not much bigger than Montague, had a plant producing heavy water for nuclear reactors that generate electricity, there was an oil refinery, a paper mill and an airport. All these projects were recipients of generous federal funding. Only the airport and paper mill remain.
The status of the paper mill is uncertain, but the airport has never been busier, hosting the private jets of the rich tourists who fly into play golf at two high-end golf courses in Allan J’s home town - a successful economic endeavour he had nothing to do with.
In light of Thursday’s announcement that TransCanada Pipeline was abandoning its Canada East project, a pipeline to carry Alberta crude to the refinery in Saint John, one can’t help but wonder, would this cancellation have happened if people of the stature and influence of Romeo LeBlanc and Allan J. were still representing the Maritimes in the federal cabinet?
It is hard to imagine that a project with the economic potential Canada East had for the region, that they would have allowed it to die without a political fight. The Irving refinery in Saint John is the largest refinery on the east coast of North America, it’s a shame it will continue to produce its products mainly from foreign-sourced crude oil when it could have been refining Canadian crude.
It might be argued that back in those days, political heavyweights were able to exert their extraordinary influence because governments were much more precarious; opposition parties were stronger, and, minority governments were not uncommon. The people in the centre paid attention because every seat mattered.
That assessment may be a little crass. It may simply be that those heavyweights knew how to make the prime minister of the day acutely aware of the issues and concerns of their region.
When Brian Mulroney formed back-to-back majority governments in the 1980s, there were no strong ministers from the Maritimes in his cabinet. But, Mr. Mulroney, who grew up in a small mill town in Quebec, had spent four or five years attending university in Nova Scotia and developed some understanding and sensitivity to the concerns of the region.
When it closed the air force base in Summerside, the Mulroney government made up for that by replacing it with aerospace industrial developments and the tax centre. The replacement of the year-round ferry service with the Confederation Bridge was also a product of the Mulroney government.
Brian Mulroney knew the Maritimes and Quebec. He provides a good example that when the man at the top isn’t aware or in tune with a region, then that region had better have good representation at the cabinet table. Mulroney’s strongest cabinet ministers were from Ontario and the West, areas he personally knew the least about.
Today, though all 25 Maritime seats are held by Liberals, there are no strong, political heavyweights from the region and Trudeau-the-Younger hasn’t spent enough time in the Maritimes to be sensitive to, or to fully understand its concerns and needs.
But, these are different times, some might say. Today there’s no way, even someone as politically astute as Danny J. MacDonald, would be able to dislodge the department of Veterans’ Affairs from Ottawa and move it to sleepy little Charlottetown. These days there’s a new political ethos in Ottawa. Even if Allan J. were still involved, he wouldn’t be able to access the federal mega-millions like he did.
These things don’t happen any more . . . and yet, it is still possible to get more than $2 billion in federal funds for a toll-free bridge in Montreal.


- Alan Holman is a freelance journalist living in Charlottetown. He can be reached at: acholman@pei.eastlink.ca
 

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