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Political giant Allan J. MacEachen remembered as the ‘Laird of Lake Ainslie’

This file photo shows Finance Minister Allan J. MacEachen in the House of Commons during budget night, Nov 12, 1981 MacEachen, a long-serving Liberal MP and senator from Cape Breton who was a driving force behind many Canadian social programs, has died at the age of the 96.
This file photo shows Finance Minister Allan J. MacEachen in the House of Commons during budget night, Nov 12, 1981 MacEachen, a long-serving Liberal MP and senator from Cape Breton who was a driving force behind many Canadian social programs, has died at the age of the 96.

SYDNEY, N.S. — In Inverness County where Allan J. MacEachen was born and raised, the community is remembering a humble man whose eyes would gleam when he heard the sound of the Gaelic language.

He died Tuesday night at a hospital in Antigonish at age 96.

A Scottish descendant and the son of a coal miner, MacEachen was fiercely proud of his Celtic roots and would often dress in a kilt when asked to speak at local functions.

A distant cousin of MacEachen’s, Stanley Beaton, said the renowned parliamentarian was among a generation of Gaels who were discouraged from speaking their mother tongue.

“My mother was the same age and they basically weren’t allowed to speak it (Gaelic) in school,” said Beaton. “It was forbidden.

“In the 1970s, with the revival of Gaelic, he pushed a pilot project to bring it back into the schools in Cape Breton and as a result of that my wife ended up coming here.”

Members of the Cape Breton Gaelic Society had approached MacEachen in 1972, the same year in which he served as a cabinet minister under Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal minority government. The society’s pilot project would bring in fluent speakers from Scotland to aid in the island’s language revival.

Among those who came to teach was Beaton’s wife Margie (Mairead) who took part in a five-year trial that led to Gaelic being added into the Nova Scotia school curriculum.

Mairead said after a series of cutbacks to education in the 1980s, several schools dropped their Gaelic course offerings, with the exception of Mabou. Since that time, there have been increasing efforts to preserve Gaelic history in Nova Scotia.

“We’re actually exporting teachers to Scotland now,” said Mairead. “We’re producing our own teachers and the Gaelic college (in St. Anns) has all kinds of former students who are now teaching the language.”

For his devotion to the Gaelic language and higher education, in 2000 MacEachen’s name was mounted onto Mabou’s high school and performing arts centre. He is also the namesake to a non-partisan think-tank at Dalhousie University and each year at his alma mater, St. Francis Xavier University, there is a lecture series in his honour.

A next-door neighbour of MacEachen’s said in recent years the former senator had been living at his Trout River cottage in Lake Ainslie with the help of a full-time caregiver.

MacEachen was known for always stopping to speak with local residents. He was also a devout Roman Catholic who never missed the opportunity to attend a Sunday mass.

“I always struck up a conversation in basic Gaelic and that would always please him,” said Michael Gillis, who operates MacKinnon’s campground in Lake Ainslie.

“We’d have some little short conversations and you could see it brought joy to him to hear that and in the earlier years he and my mom would share some stories in Gaelic as well. In his later years, where it was hard to strike up much conversation, (speaking Gaelic) would always bring a twinkle in his eye.

Inverness County Warden Betty Ann MacQuarrie said MacEachen was a humble man who set the tone for how a politician should act in the interest of his community.

 “He was such an inspiration to all of us,” she said. “His goals and aspirations are certainly recognized here and his way of associating with his constituents is to be marvelled at. “

Cathy MacLean, president of Lake Ainslie’s historical society, said MacEachen was a firm supporter of their MacDonald House Museum, which offers visitors a glimpse into rural life in Cape Breton in the last century and into the 1940's.

“He would come in his kilt to all of our gatherings,” said MacLean. “He came to all functions and would be introduced and would speak, and then if we were looking for some grant or some other help through the federal government he was always willing to give it and was very gracious.”

Inverness Oran editor, Rankin MacDonald, said Wednesday that like MacEachen he too grew up in a coal mining family in Cape Breton. He looked up to MacEachen, who became his friend and neighbour in Lake Ainslie.

MacDonald said he once asked the ‘Laird of Lake’ if a steady influx of government funding to Cape Breton might create a climate of dependency.

“He stopped and looked at me with those piercing eyes and he said ‘You know Rankin, I never thought that sharing the wealth of Canada was a bad thing.’ That’s how he was, he wanted everybody to have a good life. … He was our greatest citizen, there’s no doubt about that.”

MacEachen was first elected into federal office in 1953 and won nine subsequent elections, losing his seat only once in 1958. He held various cabinet positions and was considered instrumental is bringing forward some of Canada’s foremost social programs.

He was named the country’s first deputy prime minister in 1977 and served as a Liberal senator for 12 years.



Allan J. MacEachen :

• Born in Inverness on July 6, 1921

• Federal political experience: 38 years, 8 months, 9 days

• Liberal senator: 1984 to 1996

• First elected to office in 1953, under the Liberal government of Louis St. Laurent.

• He would win 10 elections total, losing his seat only once in 1958 to a Progressive Conservative sweep.

• Liberal Party leadership candidate in 1968

• Instrumental in having the Medical Care Act passed through parliament in 1966.

• Named cabinet minister 11 times under three Prime Ministers

• Invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2008. 

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