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Following the retirement of Jean Chretien, Paul Martin came in as the 21st prime minister of Canada during a time when Canada was going through several changes as a culture and on the political landscape as well. Paul Martin is the example of a prime minister who everyone knew would become prime minister, but when he did, did not meet the expectations that many had.

Born Paul Edgar Philippe Martin on Aug. 28, 1938 in Windsor, Ontario, he would spend his early life in the community until 1945 when his father, Paul Martin Sr., was appointed to the cabinet of William Lyon Mackenzie King. Martin’s mother, Eleanor, had one other child, a sister for Martin named Mary-Anne.

Paul Martin Sr. was a fascinating man who deserves at least a brief mention in the episode about his son. First elected to the House of Commons in 1935, he would become a cabinet minister in 1945, under Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. This would begin a stretch of cabinet posts that would continue all the way to the 1960s. During that time, he served as a cabinet minister with King, Louis St. Laurent, Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Trudeau. This included a stretch as the Minister of National Health and Welfare, in which he played an important role in the fight against polio, and he oversaw the creation of hospital insurance in Canada, earning him the name by some as the Father of Medicare. He would attempt to run for the leadership of the Liberal Party three times, in 1948, 1958 and 1968. The closest he came was in 1958, when he had 22.1 per cent of the vote. In 1968, he left Parliament and was appointed to the Senate, where he would remain for the rest of his life. While Martin Sr. never became prime minister, he also did not live long enough to see his son become prime minister, having died in 1992.

When Martin was only eight, he would contract polio, as his father had contracted in 1907. It was this incident that would push his father to help eradicate polio and get a vaccine developed in Canada. I look at that in detail in my episode about polio in Canada.

In Ottawa, Martin would be educated at a French elementary school and a bilingual high school.

After high school, Martin attended the University of Ottawa before transferring to St. Michael’s College.

In 1962, he graduated with a degree in philosophy from St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto.

In 1965, he graduated from the University of Toronto law school and was called to the Ontario bar the following year. He would also marry Sheila Ann Cowan, with whom he had three sons, Paul, Jamie, and David.

In 1966, Martin moved to Montreal where he worked as an assistant to the president of Power Corporation of Canada, Maurice Strong, who became his mentor. It was in that year that he also took part in his first provincial campaign when he volunteered for the local Liberal candidate. It also created a situation he would remember for the rest of his life. Martin accidently walked into the committee room for the rival candidate, wrestler Johnny Rougeau. Moments later, two large bodyguards accused him of spying on the campaign and one of them broke Martin’s nose with a punch.

While he had not been exposed to business by this point, Martin began to show great entrepreneurial skill.

Within three years of joining the company, he was made vice president and in 1973 after the company had suffered severe losses, became the president of Canada Steamship Lines, then its CEO in 1975. By 1976, the company had reversed direction and was once again doing well under the guidance of Martin.

In August of 1985, Martin and a partner bought the company for $180 million and named it CSL Group. Three years later, Martin was the sole owner. The following year, the company was a $500 million a year transportation conglomerate that owned 40 ships, 2,500 transport trucks, two shipyards and 350 buses. Martin would say quote:

“I could quite happily spend all my time in business but I’m beginning to think that maybe I ought to be trying to create economic involvement in the Third World, or perhaps I can contribute the most through politics.

Due to the influence of his father, who served as a mentor as well, he chose not to enter politics until he had become successful in business.

That did not stop politics from coming to him though. In 1984, after the Liberal Party had seen a collapse as Brian Mulroney cruised to the largest majority in Canadian history, a group of young Liberals approached Martin about being a candidate. Martin chose to eventually run for the leadership of the party if the opportunity ever arose. Many at the time considered Martin to be the ideological successor to Turner.

Martin would help heavily behind the scenes. He would speak at several nomination meetings during the 1984 election campaign, and even vetted some of the policy statements of Turner.

With free trade becoming the major topic of discussion in Canada around this time, Martin would emerge as a vocal critic of it, especially considering that he did so much business with Asia. He would say quote:

“All our efforts on one country precisely when the action is shifting away.”

While Martin was critical of the Mulroney free trade policy, he was close friends with the prime minister. He would say quote:

“He is a friend. When he was in Montreal, he was our lawyer and lived a block away from us. I went to his wedding. We go back a long way together.”

In 1986, Martin would state that he was interested in running for the leadership of the Liberal Party but that he wanted to get experience in the House of Commons first, and likely only if Turner resigned. He would state to Maclean’s, quote:

“I am behind John Turner 100 per cent.”

In 1988, at the age of 50, he ran for the House of Commons and while Mulroney and his Progressive Conservatives dominated the election, Martin was able to earn a seat in Parliament as a Liberal.

His first foray into politics did not go great. He would stumble several times, including when he made comments about Meech Lake that went against the policy of John Turner. There were also criticisms over his uncomfortable manner on television. Working with advisors, he would begin to change the view that had come up of him, improving his campaign style in the process.

When John Turner resigned as leader of the party, Martin went up against Jean Chretien to become leader of the party. He would campaign heavily for the position, stating quote:

“We cannot continue to sit at home in front of our televisions watching the world change and wondering all the time when someone is at last going to come to Canada and build an industrial plant.”

Unfortunately, he lost on the first ballot, taking 1,176 votes of 25 per cent to Chretien’s 2,652 votes and 56.81 per cent. At the time, Chretien had not given a position on the topic of the Meech Lake Accord. Martin attempted to get Chretien to choose a side during a discussion, but Chretien did not. Later, when several young delegates yelled sellout and Judas at Chretien, Chretien blamed Martin for inciting the response from the floor, which Martin denied.

This leadership race would have long standing consequences between the two men, and it would create a rivalry that would come to a head over a decade later.

Despite the rivalry, Chretien appointed Martin as the man in charge of co-authoring the party’s 1993 election platform, called the Red Book. This would help bring the Liberals to power with a majority government in the election, and Chretien rewarded Martin by making him the Minister of Finance.

For the next nine years, Martin served in that role, presenting budgets that would slowly bring Canada from deep in the red with deficits, to having surpluses but that came with great criticism as well due to cutbacks as Canada dealt with a recession in the mid-1990s. When Martin came in as the Finance Minister, Canada’s Standard & Poor rating had been downgraded from AAA to AA+, due to the public debt. In his first budget, Martin made massive budget cuts that scaled the government down to pre-1951 levels, which decreased economic growth by 3.5 percentage points, which almost eliminated the savings made by the cuts. The Bank of Canada would then lower interest rates to avoid causing a growing recession, which then caused a huge spurt in economic growth, and a subsequent increase in government revenue.

In 1995, he would introduce a landmark Canadian budget that reduced government spending by $25 billion over three years and cut 45,000 public service jobs. It also cut federal transfer payments to provinces for health and education by $7 billion.

In 1998, Martin introduced a balanced budget, something that had only happened twice before since 1960. That year, Martin would help create the National Child Benefit, which lifted 22,900 families out of the poverty line within only two years.

Ken Battle, president of the Caledon Institute of Social Policy, would say, quote:

“I talked a lot with Martin about it. He’s a tough guy. We debated it. But he was supportive of the basic idea and without him, there would be no National Child Benefit. It is the most important social policy change in a generation.”

In the 1980s, Martin would say in an interview, quote:

“We talk about the need for skilled labour, and 52 per cent of the population is women. If we don’t provide adequate childcare centres, we are not going to get the full potential out of a skilled female labor force and will impose on the next generation children who have been brought up in a hop-skip-and-jump fashion.

Through his budgets, Martin was able to erase a $42 billion deficit and he gained the reputation as being a deficit cutter. In 2002, Standard and Poor restored Canada’s debt rating to AAA. As finance minister, Martin was able to lower the debt-to-GDP ratio from 70 per cent to 50 per cent.

The ability of Chretien to win several majority elections, comes down hugely on the shoulders of Martin who was able to move Canada from deficits to surpluses. As a result of this success as finance minister, in 2001 Martin was named to the World Economic Forum’s Dream Cabinet, and he was listed along with Colin Powell and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as top world leaders.

Lost among the talk of bringing Canada to balanced budgets is the fact that Martin also avoided Canada having a pension crisis. In 1996, he oversaw the creation of a public consultation process that led to major reforms of the Canada Pension Plan. The results of the consultation were collected by the Finance Ministry, and that was turned into a proposal to overhaul the CPP, which was approved by Parliament and prevented the pension crisis.

Of course, achieving these balanced budgets came at great costs elsewhere. The cuts to health care resulted in significant cuts in service delivery across Canada, as well as with employment insurance.

Throughout his time as the Minister of Finance, Martin had a strained relationship with Chretien but the two would still work closely together and rarely let the tension between them be seen in public. It was reported that Chretien would condemn Martin privately and still held anger towards him for running against him in 1990. By the time 1997 rolled around, there was speculation that Martin was after Chretien’s job and wanted him to retire. Martin began to slowly gain support from those who disagreed with Chretien, but Chretien would stay on as leader for several more years. By the time 2000 rolled around, Martin was controlling a lot of the party machinery.

In 2002, Martin believed that Chretien was finally moving towards retirement, and he began to campaign for the leadership of the party. At the same time, there were accusations from the media of incompetence and corruption in the party and the misuse of funds for sponsorships, which became known as the Sponsorship Scandal. Chretien believed that the leaks related to these scandals was coming from the party and he ordered all leadership campaigning to stop.

In May of 2002, Liberal Party controversies were starting to take hold in the media and Martin was about to resign as Minister of Finance. Before he could, on June 2, 2002, he was fired from his post by Chretien. Martin then said he would continue to sit as a regular MP in the House of Commons. There is some speculation that Martin resigned, but either way, leaving his post meant Martin no longer had to disclose his donors. Soon after leaving his cabinet post, Martin declared his intention to run for leadership. He would travel through the summer of 2002 across the country on a campaign to succeed Chretien among Liberal organizers.

In March of 2003, a leadership review was set as it followed the general election, and Chretien stated he would resign from office. In November of that year, a leadership vote was held, and Martin easily won, succeeding as the Leader of the Liberal Party, something his father had always strived for but was never able to achieve over the course of four decades. In that vote, Martin easily captured the leadership of the party with 93.8 per cent of the votes, far ahead of his rival Sheila Copps. This huge victory came about because Martin controlled party machinery, had been campaigning for years and Chretien supporters did not rally around Copps.

In his acceptance speech, Martin would say quote:

“We stand together on the edge of historic possibility. At a moment that comes rarely in the life of a country. It is a time when destiny is ours to hold.”

On Dec. 12, 2003, Martin became the 21st Prime Minister of Canada. He soon removed the Chretien loyalists from their posts and installed his own key supporters. As he walked in to be sworn in as prime minister, he carried the flag that flew over Parliament Hill on the day that his father died in 1992.

At first, Martin enjoyed immense popularity and an approval rating of 64 per cent but even though he had a high-profile cabinet post for almost a decade, many in the country still did not know much about him.

Upon being sworn in, Martin chose to only retain half of the ministers from the previous government, which was a break in tradition from previous instances when a prime minister retired. Another break in tradition was that Martin and his supports controlled the riding nomination process, which broke with the precedent of automatically signing the nomination papers of back benchers and former ministers who wanted to run again. At the same time, while Martin was enjoying a great deal of popularity, there was open party infighting.

Many in Parliament were critical of his management style, which was described as Byzantine with meeting endlessly and whose decisions seem to cancel each other out. One example given by some in Parliament was when the three times, from 2003 to 2004 that the entire staff of the Department of Foreign Affairs were required to meet for transition meetings during which, quote:

“confused bureaucrats crowd into an auditorium and talk through their frustration and confusion.”

Martin would speak about his style in a speech, contradicting what others said, on March 26, 2004, saying quote:

“Some people have said that in our desire to transform the way Ottawa works, we are moving too fast. I don’t agree. I believe there are times when the only way to achieve genuine change is to shock the system. In any large institution, there is simply too much inertia supporting the status quo.”

As prime minister, Martin set several priorities including creating improved ties with the United States, improving the skilled workforce and developing a stronger military. He also pledged to reduce health care wait lists and poverty among the Indigenous. As part of developing a stronger military, Martin had the Canadian Armed Forces assume a stronger role in Afghanistan, with a 3-D role of defence, diplomacy and development.

Martin would welcome President George W. Bush to Ottawa in the Autumn of 2004, and the relationship appeared to be an improvement over the relationship between Chretien and Bush. The relationship did not seem to be hurt much when Martin stated that Canada would not participate in the United States’ ballistic missile defence proposal.

Unfortunately for Martin, he inherited a party that was beset with scandals, the biggest of which was the Sponsorship Scandal and the report that stated $100 million was misspent in federal funds, most of which was sent to Liberal supporters in Quebec.

This caused the Liberals to sink heavily in the polls, and Martin denied any knowledge and stated he would resign if he was proven to be untruthful. He then appointed the Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program and Advertising Activities and he attempted to ally himself with the Canadian public, often going on talk shows and saying he would punish all responsible. The scandal would severely impact Martin’s popularity in Quebec, and Gilles Duceppe, the leader of the Bloc Quebecois, even suggested that Martin wanted to widen the St. Lawrence Seaway to benefit Canada Steamship Lines. Going back to Martin’s chose to only use half of the ministers from Chretien’s cabinet, this was seen as the prime minister ridding the government of Chretien supports to distance the Liberals from the Sponsorship Scandal.

In February of 2004, he fired ambassador Alfonso Galgiano who was implicated in a public works scandal, and then suspended the presidents of Canada Post, VIA Rail and the Business Development Bank. He then promised that all future senior appointments to Crown Corporations would be vetted by Parliament.

Despite his efforts, the Sponsorship Scandal greatly reduced his popularity across Canada. Martin then asked Governor General Adrienne Clarkson to dissolve the government.

During the election campaign, the Liberals were unable to raise enough money for the campaign as Chretien had passed a bill in 2003 that banned corporate donations. In Ontario, Dalton McGuinty, the Liberal Premier, broke his promise not to raise taxes, which hurt the federal Liberals in the province. Martin also did poorly in the leaders debate and the Conservatives took the lead in the polls. Before the election date hit, the Liberals were able to regain momentum.  

On June 28, 2004, the Liberals were reduced to a minority government for the first time since 1972 winning only 135 seats out of 308. This would be the first minority government since Joe Clark came to power in 1979.

With a minority government, the Conservatives began to push to bring down the government, including announcing plans to move an amendment to the Speech from the Throne on Oct. 5, 2004. The government did not fall due to an agreement on a watered-down version of the amendment.

Prior to the throne speech, Martin would hold a First Ministers Meeting to reach an agreement on increased funding for healthcare. A deal was reached that would lower the anger between the provinces and federal government, which had been impacted during the years of Chretien.

On Feb. 23, 2005, the federal budget was presented to the House of Commons, with spending focused on the Armed Forces, a national child-care program and the environment.

The Conservatives would then use Opposition Day, when the opposition was given the opportunity to set the Parliamentary Agenda, to force a vote of no confidence. To avoid this, Martin removed all opposition days from the schedule. Jack Layton and the NDP then offered support to Martin if they canceled proposed corporate tax cuts in the budget, which the Liberals agreed to.

On May 17, 2005, Belinda Stronach, a Conservative Party MP, crossed the floor to join the Liberals. This event would give the Liberals the balance of power in the House of Commons. On May 19, 2005, Chuck Cadman flew to Ottawa after going through chemotherapy, to vote with the Liberals on the 2005 budget, which created a tie in the House of Commons. Following his death, allegations came froward that two Conservative Party officials offered him a million-dollar life insurance policy in exchange for his vote against the Liberals. Cadman’s daughter would say later her father was disturbed by the offer. Peter Milliken, the Speaker of the House, then cast the deciding vote, following a tradition that the Speaker continues debate, allowing the budget to pass on May 19, 2005.   

The defining aspect of Martin’s time as prime minister would be the legalization of same sex marriage across Canada. In 1999, Martin had opposed same sex marriage in a vote on the issue, along with most Members of Parliament. In 2004, he changed his view stating court rulings and his personal belief that same sex marriage was a human rights issue. By 2004, seven provinces had legalized same sex marriage and in June of 2005, the House of Commons would pass the Civil Marriage Act, which came after a late-night vote that came down to the wire before Parliament closed down. In July 2005, it passed the Senate and received Royal Assent on July 20, 2005, making Canada the fourth country in the world to legalize same sex marriages.

Also in 2005, Martin appeared as himself in an episode of Corner Gas, becoming the first of three prime ministers to appear on the show.

On the foreign affairs side of things, Martin would promote the expansion of the G8 into the G20 during his time as Finance Minister and served as the first chair of the organization from 1999 to 2001. He would also forge stronger ties with the People’s Republic of China by announcing a strategic partnership.

On Aug. 4, 2005, Martin advised Queen Elizabeth II to appoint Michaelle Jean as Governor General. The reception was mixed by some due accusations that she and her husband had dined with former members of the FLQ and supported Quebec separatism, at least for a time.

On Nov. 1, 2005, the commission looking at the sponsorship scandal exonerated Martin, but by this point it did not matter. His government’s reputation was damaged by the report.

The NDP then notified Martin that they had conditions for their continued support, but the two parties were unable to come to an agreement. Now, with the support of the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois, the Conservatives introduced a motion of no confidence against the Liberals. This passed on Nov. 28 by a count of 171-133, defeating the government.

In the election, Martin and the Liberals campaigned on the issues of health care, daycare, tax cutting and national autonomy. At the time the writ dropped, the Liberals were ahead of the Conservatives by as much as 10 per cent, but this lead began to slip. The Liberals did not campaign much in December, which allowed the Conservatives to take the initiative. At the end of December, an RCMP investigation leaked regarding a federal tax change for income taxes, which brought the Sponsorship Scandal back into the public attention. By early January, Liberal support was down to 26 per cent. In the leaders’ debates, Martin had an unbalanced performance, even making a surprise pledge to eliminate the notwithstanding clause, to which the Conservatives pointed out was not a Liberal campaign promise.

On Jan. 23, 2006, the Liberals won 103 seats, while the Conservatives under Stephen Harper took 124, to gain a minority government. The night of the election loss, Martin stated he would resign as leader of the party. He would not take office as the Leader of the Opposition, the first defeated Prime Minister who retained his seat to not do so. For the next nine years, there would be disorder in the Liberal Party. From 1919 to 2015, there would be 11 leadership conventions for the Liberal Party, three of which came from 2003 to 2015, when the Liberals went through three leaders, two of which never served as Prime Minister, the only time that ever happened for the Liberals from 1919 to today.

While much of his time as prime minister was focused on the Sponsorship Scandal, Martin actually did accomplish some things in his two years in office. Along with legalizing same sex marriage, his government created a national child care program, negotiated a $41 billion health accord with the provinces and forged the Kelowna Accord, which had the goal of improving the quality of life for Indigenous people across Canada.

In 2008, Martin left politics for good, having sat as a regular MP since 2006. In 2008, Martin released his memoirs, Hell or High Water, My Life In And Out Of Politics. He would also co-chair the Congo Basin Forest Fund, and he would serve as an advisor for the International Monetary Fund and the Coalition for Dialogue on Africa. In 2011, he was awarded the Order of Canada.

Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, The Canada Guide, Library and Archives Canada, Wikipedia, Macleans,

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