The Hon. Donald S. Macdonald 1932-2018

To understand Donald Stovel Macdonald, who died yesterday, you have to know that he was born and raised in Ottawa amidst great players on the national and international stage. In December 1941, at the age of nine, he walked by himself to Parliament Hill, just to get a glimpse of Winston Churchill being bundled into Centre Block to deliver his “some chicken, some neck” speech. Among the congregation at the church his family attended were two cabinet ministers in the Mackenzie King government, James Lorimer Ilsley and James Layton Ralston. His Sunday School teacher was John Read who later became the only Canadian ever appointed to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

His father, also called Donald, was Dominion Forester, and responsible for launching reforestation in Canada. He’d take his young son on field trips to see projects and meet premiers. After graduating from the University of Toronto, Harvard, Cambridge, and Osgoode Hall, Macdonald practiced law in Toronto and joined the Liberal Party in the riding of Rosedale. He ran for Member of Parliament in 1962 because no one else would. Everyone thought the incumbent Progressive Conservative MP was a shoo-in. Macdonald won by 594 votes out of 23,806 cast. In the next election, he won by more than 6,000 votes. In all, he was re-elected five times.

As the first MP outside Québec to back Pierre Trudeau for Liberal leader in 1968, the two men became close. Every time Trudeau had a tough job, he’d turn to Macdonald. As House Leader Macdonald put through rules still in place today; in Defence he was unflappable during the FLQ crisis; in Energy he negotiated made-in-Canada oil pricing with Alberta; and in Finance he brought in wage and price controls.

Macdonald’s contributions continued after resigning from politics in 1978. In 1985, the Royal Commission he chaired recommended free trade with the United States, a policy embraced by Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. As High Commissioner to Britain from 1988-1991 Macdonald left his mark there, too, with a monument to Canada’s fallen forces erected across the road from Buckingham Palace. Macdonald was blessed with two bright and beautiful wives, Ruth and Adrian. After marrying Adrian in 1988, he was a beloved father and stepfather to a blended family of eleven children, one of whom was killed in a car accident in 1991.

It was my honour to work twice with Macdonald. In 1985, I wrote Leap of Faith at his request, a slimmed-down version of the two-million-word Royal Commission report that he knew no one would read in full. And, second, I helped with his memoirs, entitled Thumper, published in 2014. And let’s get the origin of that nickname straight. It wasn’t just his size thirteen shoes. The nickname was given to him by a U of T fraternity brother who said that the combination of Macdonald’s toothy grin and big feet reminded him of Thumper, the rabbit that kept thumping his left foot in Bambi, the animated Disney film. A finer man I never knew.


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