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His son served as Prime Minister from 2003 to 2006, but despite that high post, it can easily be said that Paul Martin Jr.’s father had a much bigger impact on Canada.
For decades, he was the right-hand man to prime ministers, and he helped shape Canada into what it is today.
As with so many things through, he is often forgotten and his impact fades into history.
So today, in our break between the premiers of Nova Scotia and British Columbia, we are looking at the life of Paul Martin Sr.
Paul Joseph James Martin was born in Ottawa on June 23, 1903. His paternal grandparents had come from Ireland, while his paternal grandmother came from a French Canadian family with deep roots in Canada.
When he was an infant, his parents moved to Pembroke, Ontario.
In 1907, Martin contracted polio, something that would shape him for the rest of his life. For a time, he was unable to walk and his siblings took him to school in a child’s wagon. Other boys would throw snowballs at him, tease him, and try to tip the wagon over.
He was left with a weakened left arm, and it showed him the importance of developing a vaccine to deal with the terrible disease. To counter the weakness in his arm, and leg muscles, he swam daily throughout his career, all the way up to his 80s.
As a child, he saw his father work at a grocery store, and for a time be unemployed. This pushed him to later advocate heavily for government unemployment insurance.
Originally planning to go into the priesthood, Martin became fascinated by Sir Wilfrid Laurier and chose instead to pursue politics. When Laurier died in 1919, Martin skipped classes and walked 15 kilometres to pay homage to the man lying in state.
He said years later,
“The following day, I went to the Basilica and watched with keen interest as Canadians from across the country gathered for the funeral. I could not get in, so I got boosted up a tree on the other side of Sussex Street and watched as the funeral procession came out.”
Martin attended St. Alexandre College in Gatineau, Quebec, and then studied philosophy at St. Michael’s College in Toronto.
Martin then studied law at Osgoode Hall Law School, doing his postgraduate studies at Harvard, Cambridge and Trinity College.
Moving to Windsor during his summer break at the age of 20, he worked in a Ford plant. Other summers he worked as a cashier at race tracks.
In 1928, he attempted to win a provincial seat in the Ontario Legislature but failed.
Upon his graduation as a lawyer, he worked briefly in Toronto but moved permanently to Windsor in 1930 to set up his own firm.
In 1935, Martin was elected to the House of Commons, where he would remain for over three decades.
The Liberals had just swept back into power, having defeated the Conservatives by winning 173 seats, the most in Canadian history to that point.
Almost immediately, Martin began to rise up the Liberal ranks thanks to his experience with international relations and law.
During the Second World War, despite the fact he was in Parliament, he tried three times to enlist for active service but did not qualify physically. He then enlisted as a private and served with pride.
Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King made him the Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Labour in 1943.
In 1945, Martin was appointed as the secretary of state.
One year later in 1946, he was the minister of national health and welfare.
In early 1946, Martin introduced the Canadian Citizenship Act. Prior to this point, a Canadian citizen was designated as a British subject who was born, naturalized or domiciled in Canada. In 1921, the status of Canadian national was introduced.
On April 2, 1946, the Act was given first reading in the House of Commons and received its Royal Assent on June 27, 1946. It was implemented on Jan. 1, 1947, with Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King becoming the first Canadian citizen.
In 1948, he launched the $30 million annual health grants system, followed by an expansion of the Family Allowances Act and Old Age Pensions Act.
At the Liberal convention on Aug. 7, 1948, the first held since 1919, Louis St. Laurent was nominated for leader along with three others, including Martin. In the end, Martin withdrew from consideration. The convention would ratify the decision on Nov. 15, 1948, making St. Laurent the 12th Prime Minister in Canadian history.
As health minister, Martin brought in a system of health grants and helped Canada move towards national health insurance. This was not favoured by Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent but Martin threatened to resign if it wasn’t implemented and St. Laurent agreed to implement it.
Martin said after being criticized for his support for hospital insurance,
“Hospital insurance is not socialism, nor is it a socialistic device or concept, nor does it have any essential relationship with the socialist philosophy.”
Often, his views within the Liberal cabinet were seen as too extreme, and the pace that he wanted things implemented, such as health insurance and old age pensions, too swift. He was known for fighting strongly in Parliament for what he believed in regardless of how the other people in his party may have viewed it.
Speaking in Parliament, he was known for his windy-speaking style that some said artfully concealed more than it revealed. He was fluently bilingual, and friends and foes said he had mastered the art of befuddlement in both languages.
The Vancouver Sun wrote of Martin,
“He was a short man with a face that could well have worried his mother. He was jowly, his bagged eyes behind strong glasses always surveying large and small groups for people to talk to. Martin was a professional politician who needed no professional handlers. He handled himself.”
Martin was instrumental in ensuring that the polio vaccine was available to Canadians, even as some worried about its safety.
On April 25, 1955, reports began to appear that some batches of the vaccine produced by Cutter Laboratories in California had not fully activated. A total of 79 cases of polio were tied to the vaccine and the US Surgeon General recalled all of the Cutter vaccine and a new polio surveillance system was set up. In total, 200 children were left paralyzed and 10 would die. On May 7, the United States suspended its vaccine program.
There was a great deal of debate about what to do. Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent was resistant to allowing vaccines to continue but his health minister, Paul Martin Sr., decided to continue the program in Canada. Martin was a survivor of polio and had been blinded in one eye from it. Polio also hit his son, future prime minister Paul Martin Jr. Martin chose to continue with the vaccination after getting advice from experts and seeing no cases of polio linked with the Connaught vaccine, which was the only one used in Canada. By not stopping the program, Canada was able to show that the vaccine was safe and effective. Due to this, the United States restarted its polio vaccine program in July of 1955.
Paul Martin Jr. would speak about his memories of polio, which had contracted at age eight in 1945, saying quote:
“What I remember growing up in southwestern Ontario was the polio was an annual affair that took place in the summer. Every kid was warned by his mother and his father about it. You knew it was going to happen. That was a fact of life. It was also, by the way, probably what saved my life.”
Martin woke up one morning and felt strange, telling his mother he had a plate in his stomach. He was then on his way to a hospital in Windsor, where he would stay for a month and a half. He would say quote:
“There was a fellow older than me in the ward, in the bed just down from me, and they brought in an iron lung.”
Martin had polio in his lungs and when he asked what that machine was, he was told it was an iron lung, and that was where he was going to end up. Martin said later, quote:
“I’ve got to tell you, that’s when I suddenly realized what I was in for.”
In 1955, Martin negotiated an agreement that allowed for the expansion of the membership of the United Nations, allowing it to become the organization it is today. His work allowed 16 new members to join the General Assembly.
In 1956, he steered through the House of Commons the legislation that would allow for a national hospital insurance system in Canada.
After Louis St. Laurent retired as leader of the party, another leadership convention was held in 1958. This was arguably his best chance to lead the party.
Only three candidates ran, Lester B. Pearson, Martin and Harold Henderson.
On the first ballot, Pearson received 1,074 votes, Martin received 305 and Henderson received one.
Pearson was the new leader of the party, on his way to becoming prime minister and Martin had to wait another decade to try again, hoping for a different result.
In 1963, Pearson appointed Martin as the secretary of state for external affairs.
During his time in that cabinet post, internal conflicts erupted on Cyprus. Martin played an instrumental role in having a peacekeeping force sent to the island. That force remains on the island to this day.
Finally, with Lester B. Pearson retiring, Martin once again tried to become leader of the party. Unfortunately, this time he was up against the up and coming Pierre Trudeau, who was the choice of Lester B. Pearson to run. Trudeau didn’t confirm if he was running or not and Martin attempted to find out whether that was the case. In the election race, Trudeau would be his main challenger despite the age difference. On Jan. 23, 1968, he even sent his son to spread the message that he wanted to be identified with the leading wing of the party, not the old guard. Despite his best efforts, the leading wing of the party put their support behind Trudeau.
Early in the race, the first polls had Martin leading but this was because the poll released in early March was taken in early February, before Trudeau officially announced his candidacy. In that poll, Trudeau still stood second nonetheless.
As Trudeaumania swept Canada, Martin found he was sinking behind Trudeau in the polls but it was not for a lack of trying to win. Martin often spent the entire day on the phone, from breakfast until late in the night, talking to supporters and Liberal Party members coast to coast.
It was the 1960s, the world was changing and Canada seemed to want new faces, not someone who had been in Parliament since The Great Depression. Despite his best efforts, Martin was no longer a front runner by the time the convention arrived.
On April 6, 1968, the leadership convention was held. On the first ballot, Martin finished a distant fourth with 11.6 per cent of the vote, tying with the young and dynamic John Turner, while Trudeau had 31.5 per cent of the vote.
Martin knew he had no chance of winning, and he gave an emotional withdrawal address that turned out to be his farewell address to politics. He chose not to endorse any other candidate.
The Windsor Star wrote,
“It eluded him, and with heart break. Few men have come so close to making it. And then having it nipped away with jet-speed. Why? Time and the times ran out on Martin. Suddenly, an era had changed and left Martin behind.”
With that loss, he knew his chance at becoming prime minister was over. According to his son, Paul Martin Jr., his father was filled with anguish. The evening of the loss, Turner called Martin and invited him and the entire family out to brunch. Paul Martin Jr. would say later, quote:
“He didn’t have to do that, but he did.”
Paul Martin Jr. was at the convention, and seeing his father finish fourth has been cited as the spark of ambition Martin himself had that led him to eventually becoming prime minister himself.
Martin didn’t run in the 1968 federal election, ending 33 years in Parliament but his time in the government wasn’t over yet.
The Windsor Star wrote,
“Known around the world and across the land, he’s best known here where he has dominated politics for years. Admired, and sometimes hated, Martin’s constituency ranged far bigger than Essex East. He had power, and he used it.”
Over the course of his Parliamentary career, he never lost an election in his riding, 10 straight wins in all. Often, he took 50 to 60 per cent of the vote in those elections. One reason for his success was he was a pioneer when it came to using poll-by-poll surveys, check back visits, direct mail methods and vote projections. It was said his workers could predict, almost exactly, to the vote, how the election would turn out in the riding days before the election happened.
He also kept track of birthdays and anniversaries long before computers came along. Once he bought 2,000 roses and sent them to individual constitutions, saying they were from the coffin of William Lyon Mackenzie King. He was known to remember the names of constituents he had not seen in years, and some said he had a database of 50,000 names in his head ready to identify anyone who came up to him in Windsor.
One story told of a woman who came to his Windsor office and expressed dismay that she feared she was not worthy of her Roman Catholic faith. Martin, who had just returned from the Vatican, pulled a rosary from his pocket and gave it to her with the words,
“The Pope heard of your good works. He asked me to give you this.”
As the story goes, the woman was on Cloud 9 when she left the office. Then, in a humorous part of the story, told his aide to order another shipment of rosaries.
True or not, they showed the importance Martin put on those who voted him in.
From 1968 to 1974, he was the government leader in the Senate of Canada, and from 1975 to 1979, was the High Commissioner to Britain.
The Windsor Star reported,
“At age 69, Mr. Martin astounded the staid London diplomatic community with his energy and knowledge, and his aggressive promotion of Canadian interests.”
In 1976, he was awarded the Order of Canada.
In 1983, Martin released the first volume of his memoirs, A Very Public Life. The second volume was released in 1986.
There was plenty to talk about in his memoirs thanks to half a century in public life. He once said,
“I’ve met everyone there is to meet.”
One of the greatest honours of Martin’s life came in 1992 when he was given the rare honour of the title Right Honourable. This is reserved for the Chief Justice of Canada, the Governor General and the Prime Minister. Due to the immense impact Martin had on Canada, the honour was extended to him.
In late August 1992, Martin broke his hip, spending three weeks in the hospital and while it seemed as though his condition was improving, it suddenly took a turn for the worst.
On Sept. 14, 1992 in Windsor, Martin passed away.
The Ottawa Citizen said of him,
“He was an institution. Familiar, enduring, as Canadian as hockey or maple syrup. He seemed to have been with us forever, and would remain for a long time to come.”
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said,
“The life of Paul martin is an example of patriotism, devotion and honesty and one that will live on forever in the history of Canada.”
Liberal leader Jean Chretien said,
“One of the key builders of modern Canada is gone.”
Flags across the country were put at half mast, and the 900-seat Assumption Church in Windsor was filled with dignitaries. His body travelled along an 11-kilometre journey with police officers controlling traffic.
Some of the attendees of his funeral included John Turner, Jean Chretien, Sheila Copps, Bob Rae, Mike Harris and Allan MacEachen. They were joined by a few dozen Members of Parliament, most who had not been in Parliament when Martin was serving as an MP.
An honour guard of 75 Knights of Columbus stood outside the church during his funeral.
On Dec. 12, 2003, Paul Martin Jr. became the 21st Prime Minister of Canada. 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.
Several places are named for Martin including a building in downtown Windsor and the University of Windsor’s law library.
When asked in 1974 about how he imagined his retirement years, Martin said,
“I envisage myself years hence, walking along Wellington Street on a quiet night when the snow has completely engulfed the ground. Through the iron fence I see our stately Centre Block, all lighted up, the two Houses in session. Mr. Pearson’s flag is moving in the breeze and I say to myself, with pride, and with a felling of ennui: I used to work there.”
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Windsor Public Library, Citizen of the World Volume 1, Wikipedia, Grande Prairie Daily Herald Tribune, Windsor Star, Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette, Vancouver Sun,