Canadian healthcare trailblazer passes on at 96

He broke a standoff that threatened to pre-empt the formation of the public health system

Canadian healthcare trailblazer passes on at 96
Allan J. MacEachen, Canada’s first deputy prime minister and a key influence in establishing Canada’s national healthcare system, passed away on Sept. 12. He was 96 years old.

He was born on July 6, 1921 on Cape Breton Island to an impoverished family, according to the New York Times. Born to Angus MacEachen, a coal miner, and the former Annie Gillies, he had three brothers and two sisters, all of whom he outlived.

After earning his undergraduate degree from St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, he acquired a master’s degree in political economy at the University of Toronto. He went on to study economics at the University of Chicago and started doctoral studies in economics and social science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and eventually returned as a professor of economics to St. Francis Xavier.

MacEachen’s political career began with a successful run for Parliament in 1953. Through a career that included eight successful re-elections and just one defeat, he figured in numerous political events. Most importantly, he was a key parliamentary operative for the late Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, whose government initially pushed for the funding that would eventually create Canada’s public healthcare system in 1966.

In the House of Commons, the proposal faced two-pronged resistance. Right-leaning parties supported by private health insurers opposed the plan, saying it would encroach on provincial powers, undermine doctors, and be too costly. The New Democratic Party, which stood to the left of the Liberals, panned it for not covering more products and services, including eyeglasses, prescription drugs, and dental care.

The opposition was too much for Pearson and his government. A former diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Pearson was not skilled at parliamentary manoeuvring. His government also did not command a majority of votes in the House.

With an encyclopaedic knowledge of parliamentary rules and precedents, a network of contacts through all the parties, and remarkable political intuition, MacEachen was generally accepted to have been instrumental in allowing the legislation to pass by winning over the New Democrats. After getting appointed as national health minister, he pushed government administrators to quickly implement the new system.

“Canadians are living in a country that Allan J. built, and they like it,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at MacEachen’s funeral, reported the Canadian Press. “Seniors are living in dignity because of the old-age supplement. We all enjoy health care according to our needs, rather than our ability to pay.”

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