Opinion Column

Former reporter excited for return to Pembroke to share links between city and Canada's prime ministers

Arthur Milnes - Special to the Pembroke Daily Observer

Arthur Milnes will be talking Pembroke and prime ministers when he speaks at Algonquin College's Waterfront Campus on Tuesday, Oct. 27.

Arthur Milnes will be talking Pembroke and prime ministers when he speaks at Algonquin College's Waterfront Campus on Tuesday, Oct. 27.

It has now been 21 years that I departed Pembroke and life as an Observer reporter. So, I'm going to let you in on a secret: I can't wait to return to the Valley.

While I deliver a great many speeches these days, researching and preparing my remarks for my Oct. 27 address at the Algonquin College Waterfront Campus has been a particular pleasure. When asked by the college what the title of my address would be, I didn't hesitate: "The Prime Ministers of Pembroke" I said.

I learned a great deal about Canada's Prime Ministers during my time in the early 1990s in the Valley. In fact two very important relationships with past prime ministers that have shaped my professional life had their roots in your city.

The first, of course, is former prime minister Brian Mulroney. When I arrived at the Observer in 1993, already a confirmed politics and political history junkie, I was fascinated to discover that the mayor of Pembroke I was to cover - who remains a friend and is one of the most decent men I have ever encountered in my journey through politics - Terry McCann, had been Mr. Mulroney's debating partner at university. So Art Milnes being Art Milnes, I called the former PM and asked him to give me an interview.

Not about free trade or Meech Lake. Not about the fall of the Berlin Wall or his fight against apartheid. Not in the least. Instead I told his assistant I only wanted to speak to Mr. Mulroney, who wasn't giving interviews then, about Mayor McCann. A few days later my phone rang at the Observer. I remember the moment as if yesterday.

"Arthur," a deep baritone voice said, "it's Bones. I understand you want to talk about Ace."

And so began my first-ever interview with Mr. Mulroney. Years later that very interview helped cement my incredible journey through history as Mr. Mulroney's research assistant for five years on his best-selling Memoirs.

The second prime ministerial friendship of mine that had its roots in Pembroke involves the former prime minister Paul Martin and his Pembroke-raised father, Paul Martin Sr. When I arrived at the Observer I was amazed to discover that nothing, up until that point, had been named after Mr. Martin Sr. Arguably one of the most significant cabinet ministers of the 20th century, this was an oversight I couldn't let stand.

So off I trotted to city council and made an address to Mayor McCann and his colleagues. I argued that Mr. Martin Sr. had to be recognized via a street-naming or something. And then a funny thing happened - council agreed. I went to city all and won. How often does that happen in your life? Only in Pembroke and Paul Martin Drive is there today.

On another occasion, when Paul Martin Jr. was minister of finance, his Aunt Lucille invited me over to her home to watch her nephew deliver one of his budget addresses. To put it mildly, Aunt Lucille believed this was the greatest budget in Canadian history. I still remember the Observer's headline on my story: "Aunt praises 'Little Paul's' budget."

A day or two later CBC Radio Ottawa followed up my story and checked in with Aunt Lucille. So it was I was driving to Petawawa for a story when I heard her over my car radio. The interviewer gently asked the proud lady what message she had for her nephew's political critics, those who might not like his budget as much as she did.

"You tell them that if anyone criticizes Little Paul I'll go down to Parliament Hill and hit them," she said as I nearly drove off the road in a mix of laughter and admiration!

And so a friendship with Mr. Martin was born. Over the years he, like Mr. Mulroney, has gone out of their way to encourage my historical interests and help my career. They are both classy men, leaders who served our nation with distinction and honour and I owe them a great deal.

And for me, it all began with them in Pembroke.

So in my speech I'll be speaking about Paul Martin Sr., the 18th and 21st prime ministers and others. You'll hear about the night Prime Minister Diefenbaker was heckled in town and returned as a good as he got. Then there is the day the man who remains perhaps the most underrated of Canada's Prime Ministers, Louis St. Laurent, came to town, or the time a dashing opposition leader named Laurier took Pembroke by storm and so much more.

I hope to see all my old Pembroke friends on Oct. 27. We have much to catch up on and many war stories to recall.

See you at Algonquin College!

Kingston's Arthur Milnes, a former speechwriter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is a well-known public historian who specializes in the study of Canada's Prime Ministers. He is currently working on his next book, Canada Always: The Speeches of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, to be published by McClelland and Stewart in 2016.