The dynamic diplomacy of Paul Martin Sr.
Photo courtesy of the Champlain Trail Museum Senator Paul Martin, the former external affairs minister, speaks with Pembroke Mayor George Abdallah during a visit to the city in the mid-1970s. Martin ran three times to become Liberal party leader but achieved many accomplishments on the world stage.
In 1946, Paul Martin had been named the minister of health and welfare. As he was getting acquainted with his new portfolio, a crisis rocked his family.
His eight-year-old son, Paul, had been stricken with the same debilitating polio that he had contracted as a boy. Martin received the news in the middle of an important cabinet meeting. Professional in his dealings with the nation's business, Martin told Louis St. Laurent, then the external affairs minister, that he would wait until the end of the meeting. It was C.D. Howe who insisted his friend go to be with his family.
Martin flew home to Windsor in a government plane, a scarce thing in those days, and rushed to the isolation ward at the hospital. It would be a full year before young Paul recovered, however, he was one of the fortunate ones. Canada had been struck by a severe polio epidemic that killed hundreds of children.
“We were very lucky that our son was not left with any disability,” Martin later wrote in his biography. “It was clear that my personal values and background would dictate the goals that I must strive for in my newest assignment. The benefits of medical science should be made universally accessible; families must be protected against unemployment, the elderly must be given adequate old-age pensions; children should receive the assurance of at least the basic necessities of life and an education that did not come from the beneficence of others. The path was clear and the test was plain.”
With that pledge, Martin made it his mission to drastically enhance public health care. During his tenure he fought to bring about the creation of hospital insurance and introduced federal system of health grants to support general public health services. Martin also instituted tuberculosis and venereal disease control, mental health care, cancer control, and prevention and control of crippling conditions in children.
In 1948, Martin introduced a national health program that saw a series of grants go to directly provide funds to the provinces and territories to support new hospital construction, professional training, and public health. Although Tommy Douglas earned the title of “Father of socialized medicine” for introducing the first universal hospital insurance program in Saskatchewan, many historians have also referred to Martin as a “father of Medicare.”
Later that year, Martin ran for the Liberal leadership which was being vacated by William Lyon Mackenzie King. In the end, the retiring prime minister convinced Martin, defence minister Brooke Claxton and trade minister C.D. Howe to drop out of the race in favour of St. Laurent, who did win the contest.
While St. Laurent kept him on in his health ministry, Martin increasingly navigated to the arena he loved the most – international affairs. At the urging of St. Laurent, he was made a member of the Canadian delegation to the United Nations in 1949 and later served as chairman. In 1955, he was the principal architect of a plan that broke a nine-year stalemate and permitted 16 new members to be admitted to the UN.
Domestically, he continued pushing through progressive legislation such as the federal Old Age Security plan. In 1957, Martin introduced the Hospital Insurance and Diagnostics Services Act in Parliament which was unanimously passed. The act permitted for the reimbursing of one-half of provincial and territorial costs for hospital and diagnostic services administered under provincial and territorial health insurance programs.
Martin held onto his seat when the Liberals were swept from power by the Diefenbaker Tories in 1957. The following year, he ran once more for the Liberal leadership. In a convention that saw only one ballot cast, Lester B. Pearson was elected with 1,074 votes. The only other serious contender was Martin who received 305 votes. When the Liberals under Pearson won back Parliament in 1963, Martin was made the Secretary of state for External Affairs. Back on the world stage, he was once more the dynamic diplomat heading up delegations to not only the UN but the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.
Behind the scenes, Martin engaged in negotiations that resulted in the eventual signing of the Columbia River Treaty and the Agreement on Automotive Products between Canada and the U.S. He also spoke in support of France's continued membership in NATO, negotiated the deployment of nuclear weapons, including Bomarc missiles, on Canadian soil and attempted to get the U.S. government under President Lyndon Johnson to recognize China.
In 1964, he scored his biggest diplomatic victory to date by proposing the establishment of a UN peacekeeping force in Cyprus as a response to hostilities between the Turkish Cypriots and the Greek Cypriots. Four years earlier Cyprus had gained independence from Britain after a long and sometimes violent campaign by some ethnic Greeks who wanted Cyprus to become part of Greece. Martin felt Canadians had the perfect ideals to be part of a UN force.
“Canadians have demonstrated by their support of peacekeeping actions in...Vietnam, Yemen, the UN Emergency Force in Gaza, in the Congo, and now in Cyprus, their conviction that the United Nations must not fail in its vital peacekeeping function and their determination that Canada shall play its full part in these endeavours,” Martin stated clinging to the belief that the concept of peacekeeping was “the most revolutionary development yet to occur in the field of international organization.”
In 1965, Martin was appointed president of the North Atlantic Council. When Pearson announced his retirement three years later, Martin decided to once more run for the Liberal leadership. This time the field was packed with many party giants including defence minister Paul Hellyer, trade minister Robert Winters, health minister Allan MacEachen and a young justice minister named Pierre Trudeau.
In any other year, Martin could have easily benefited from his status as elder statesman. In many corners, he was viewed as a prime minister-in-waiting. But at the age of 65, he could not match the youth, vigour and enthusiasm that came with the so-called “Trudeau- mania” phenomenon.
The Liberal leadership convention was held on April 3, 1968 in Ottawa. On the first ballot, Trudeau jumped out to a surprisingly first place finish with 752 votes. Martin had tied 39-year-old John Turner, the consumer minister, for fourth place with 277 votes (Turner would go to become the 17th prime minister of Canada in 1984). His campaign team had hoped for 650 first-ballot votes. It was particularly hard on his son, Paul Martin Jr., who had advised his father in this final campaign (Paul Martin Jr. would go on to succeed where his father did not becoming the nation's 21st prime minister on Dec. 12, 2003).
The external affairs minister was shaken by the result. Martin wrote “I have been caught in a generation gap” on the back of a scorecard. Martin withdrew from the race without endorsing any of the surviving candidates, including Winters who was seen as the best chance to defeat Trudeau. Later he reflected on his service to three Liberal prime ministers to that point saying, “I think they were good prime ministers but I would have been a great one.”
His political career as an MP and minister of the crown was essentially over. Prime Minister Trudeau named Martin to the Senate where he served as government leader. Despite his position in the upper chamber, Martin served in the capacity he was best suited. In 1969, he went overseas as a member of the Parliamentary delegations to Czechoslovakia and the Council of Europe at Strasbourg.
In 1972, he led the Canadian delegation to the Third UN Conference on Trade and Development at Santiago, Chile and then the Board of Governors of the Inter-American Development Bank in Quito, Ecuador. The next year, he took the Canadian delegation to the Commonwealth Meeting of Ministers on Youth Matters in Zambia.
In 1974, Martin retired from the Senate and was appointed High Commissioner to Great Britain. It was to be his last assignment in service of his country. In retirement, he kept relatively busy as as Chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University from 1972–1977. He also served as an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Windsor.
In 1976, Martin was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. He also received the Grand Medal of International Order from the French government, the Bnai B'rith Humanitarian Award and the John Diefenbaker Memorial Foundation Award. In a rare honour, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney granted the honorific of “Right Honourable” on Martin despite the fact that he was not a prime minister, Governor General or chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Paul Martin died on Sept. 14, 1992 at the age of 89. His beloved wife, Nell, passed on a year after. His departure marked the end of an era. He was the last survivor of a grand Canadian political era that belonged to men like Mackenzie King, St. Laurent, Diefenbaker, Tommy Douglas, Pearson and Howe.
Paul Martin served almost a quarter century under four different prime ministers and an architect of post-war social policies, such as welfare and health care, that remains an enduring part of our nation's fabric.
Not bad for a kid who once sat on the Pembroke wharf, dangling his feet in the cool waters of the Ottawa River and marvelling at the beauty of the Laurentians.