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Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing: In appreciation of Paul Martin Sr.

OpenCanada is featuring excerpts from
all five Shaughnessy Cohen finalists this week. This is
Donaghy’s Grit: The Life and Politics of Paul Martin Sr.

By: /
13 April, 2016
Greg Greg Donaghy
By: Greg Greg Donaghy

Historian and adjunct professor at St Jerome's University


One of five finalists for this year’s Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, here is Grit: The Life and Politics of Paul Martin Sr., by historian and foreign policy expert Greg Donaghy.

“Paul Martin Senior was a giant in our nation’s politics,” the jury writes.  “Greg Donaghy’s biography explores the understudied life and underappreciated politics of one of the builders of modern Canada. A Member of Parliament for Windsor, Ontario and Liberal government minister, Martin was a champion of ground-breaking policy reform – from pensions and health care, to universal rights and global citizenship – that would lay the foundations of what many still consider to be the core elements of the Canadian identity. Donaghy’s highly readable and important book gives credit where it is due.”

The following passage is excerpted with permission from Grit: The Life and Politics of Paul Martin Sr. by Greg Donaghy, 2015, by UBC Press, Vancouver and Toronto, Canada.  

From the author: Elected MP for the Windsor riding of Essex East in 1935, Paul Martin Sr. was finally appointed to the junior cabinet portfolio of Secretary of State in April 1945, just in time for the June general election. After a busy fall, Martin spent the early part of 1946 in London at the United Nations’ first General Assembly. We catch up to him soon after he returned home. 

Excited by a UN willingness ‘to bite into everything.’

The spring of 1946 gave Martin a short respite from the grinding pace he had followed since the election. He had been on the road almost constantly from September to March but could now spend more time in Ottawa and Windsor. Essex County turned out in force for a testimonial dinner in March to mark his tenth anniversary in the House. Hometown Pembroke declared 7 March “Paul Martin Day” and served cold turkey and baked ham in his honour. Thrilled by the recognition, he kidded friends from his youth in the Ottawa Valley that “I am still the same Paul Martin of yore.” By late April, he was back in southwestern Ontario, marching in the Easter Parade in downtown London. His wife, Nell, celebrated his return by purchasing a deep-wine boucle with a white fox collar and a pair of nylons, her first spring outfit since 1939.

The easy pace lasted until August. On holiday at the cottage in Colchester, Paul Jr. was struck down by polio in mid-August, the same disease that had devastated his father’s health and would kill or cripple thousands of Canadian children each year until the mid-1950s. Martin heard the news by telephone from Nell while sitting in cabinet and rushed home to Windsor on a government plane arranged by his colleague C.D. Howe. During the next four “very anxious” days, he and Nell hovered beside Paul Jr.’s hospital bed, worried that he “would likely die or spend [his] days in an iron lung.” Fortunately, young Paul rebounded quickly, and within days, Martin was back in Ottawa, preparing to join Canada’s delegations to upcoming Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and General Assembly meetings at the temporary UN headquarters in Flushing Meadows, just outside New York City. But he never forgot his son’s crisis, which fuelled his commitment to activist government and provided his politics with a wellspring of deeply personal inspiration for the next two decades.

The Windsor MP had only a small role to play at the two UN conferences. He led the Canadian delegation to the ECOSOC session in September, where elections to its many commissions were the major item of business. On his toughest decision, choosing between election to the commission on human rights or statistics, he deferred to the minister in Ottawa, Louis St. Laurent, who favoured numbers over rights. Martin returned to the General Assembly in October, but he was overshadowed by King, St. Laurent, and Andrew McNaughton, the charismatic general who spoke for Canada on the UN Atomic Energy Commission. As Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union worsened during the fall of 1946, they made sure that Canada hewed tightly to a policy of “moderation and restraint.”

Martin still found scope for individual initiative. He backed an unsuccessful move among the delegation’s more progressive members, including M.J. Coldwell, the CCF representative, and diplomats Hugh Keenleyside and Escott Reid, to convince the Liberal government to vote with the UN majority in isolating fascist Spain. The effort failed to convince the skeptical deputy foreign minister, Lester B. “Mike” Pearson, or his more conservative Catholic boss, St. Laurent, the new secretary of state for external affairs. Martin did better with his work on refugees and relief. St. Laurent was “very pleased” with his pragmatic efforts to work around the scrappy Cold War debate that threatened a solution to global relief problems and to find a way to keep international aid flowing when wartime arrangements were wrapped up at the end of 1946.

Martin found his UN experiences hopeful and inspiring, but in this he was virtually alone. King, for instance, returned from New York in a gloomy frame of mind, warning his cabinet of “inevitable conflict … with Communism versus Capitalism … a sort of Armageddon.” For Martin, the meetings confirmed the views he had reached in London. After the “evasions of Geneva,” he told reporter Blair Fraser, he was excited by the UN willingness “to bite into everything.” He was particularly impressed by the General Assembly’s decision to condemn South Africa for its racist treatment of Indian nationals. Though Canada abstained on a technicality, Martin relished the debate as “fresh, forthright, and healthy, a speaking out against injustice no matter whom it might embarrass.”

New York that fall also provided a rare and important chance for Martin and Nell to enjoy some time on their own. They had honeymooned in the quintessentially American city in 1938, revelling in that “pulsating, dynamic, and unbelievable place.” Nell joined Martin at the Biltmore Hotel, and the break restored both their spirits after Paul Jr.’s illness. “She has represented the family in the night club circuit, while I have gone to bed early,” Martin reported happily to Claxton. “She has enjoyed every minute of her stay and has been unofficial chairman of the delegation this last week.” Nell and Paul resolved the family’s most important issue. In the new year, the Martins would finally move to Ottawa, living at 22 Goulburn Avenue for a few years before settling a few streets over, at 448 Daly Avenue. For the next decade, this modest red-brick house in Sandy Hill, a solid middleclass neighbourhood just east of Parliament Hill, would be home for the Martins.

Martin’s success as secretary of state fuelled his ambitions. He had hoped to become secretary of state for external affairs when the aging prime minister shed this heavy portfolio in September 1946. He had been disappointed (but hardly surprised) when King asked Justice Minister Louis St. Laurent to succeed him. The promotion made a larger cabinet shuffle virtually certain, and the rumours that swirled about insular Ottawa attested to Martin’s rising political stock. The press labelled him one of King’s “bright young men” and speculated that he might soon go to Labour or possibly External Affairs, if St. Laurent left early in the new year. Blair Fraser even argued that Martin made a credible compromise candidate to replace King, whose retirement was surely imminent now that he had surpassed Sir John A. Macdonald as the country’s longest-serving prime minister.

Martin figured prominently in King’s plans for remaking his government, and he considered him for several possible positions, including Justice, Labour, and Health and Welfare. From King’s perspective, Health and Welfare seemed a natural fit. Martin was demonstrably interested in social issues and had worked out well at the International Labour Organization (ILO) and ECOSOC. On 12 December, King called him in New York and told him of his promotion to minister of national health and welfare. Though Martin later claimed that he took the job on the condition that he enjoyed King’s full support for an expanded department and deeper commitment to social security policies, this seems unlikely. He accepted the offer with such alacrity that the prime minister cruelly mocked him in the privacy of his diary. “Mr. King,” he mimicked Martin, “anything that you wish will be all right as far as I am concerned.” As he observed with breathtaking hypocrisy, this was exactly how ministers ought to behave. Martin was justifiably hurt and angry when he read King’s published diary thirty years later.

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