Long service as a Liberal stalwart in defiantly anti-Liberal Calgary prepared Cameron Millikin for a tougher assignment in even more hostile territory – Northern Ireland.
Born into a Protestant family in Ireland, Mr. Millikin found himself late in life acting as a go-between with some of the hardest men of the Troubles. His role was to assure the people of Northern Ireland that economic investment would arrive from Canada should the warring factions reach a peace settlement.
Mr. Millikin, who died last month at the age of 80, was a gregarious figure with a deep well of stories stretching from his Irish childhood to political shenanigans in Ottawa. He was a bagman who unapologetically described himself as “a Liberal hack,” a political allegiance that saw him advise five Liberal prime ministers dating back to Lester Pearson.
Until his recent retirement, Mr. Millikin served in Calgary as honorary consul-general for Ireland.
The businessman stood a remarkable two metres tall, often squeezing his towering 6-foot-7 frame into a rowing shell. He had been an accomplished boxer and cricketer as a youth.
After finding his way to Alberta, Mr. Millikin went from working oil derricks in freezing temperatures to more comfortable positions in corporate offices in Calgary. He was chairman of Bay Mount Capital Resources, which raised venture capital. He also served on the boards of energy companies and Big Rock Brewery, where he helped founder Ed McNally make deliveries in the brewery’s early days.
“McNally and I had a small flatbed truck and we’d fill up these huge, big heavy kegs and throw them up on our shoulders and carry them into the hotels to deliver them,” Mr. Millikin once told the Celtic Connection, a Vancouver newspaper.
John Cameron Millikin was born in Dublin on Nov. 20, 1932, to Olive and John Millikin. As a young man, he escorted thoroughbred racehorses around the globe, preferring to stay with the animals in transit rather than have them submit to calming drugs.
He attended St. Columba’s College, a bucolic boarding school outside the city of Dublin, before graduating from Trinity College Dublin. He immigrated to New York before coming to Canada in 1956, winding up in Alberta where he found work as a roughneck in the oil fields. He later told his family that conditions were so bleak, he befriended the local jailer so he might sleep in a jail cell warmer than his own temporary quarters.
As a young Liberal in Alberta, Mr. Millikin underwent a crash course in Canadian politics. In 1963, he attended a national Liberal youth meeting in Montreal. A contemporary newspaper account described him as “a bitter opponent of what he called attempts to force the French language onto Western Canadians.” In spite of his concern, he delivered key backing for the successful nomination of Montreal lawyer Michel Robert as president of the Liberals’ youth wing.
Mr. Millikin was elected president of the Alberta Young Liberal Association in 1966, becoming an ardent supporter of finance minister Mitchell Sharp in the party’s national leadership contest two years later. The Albertan handled floor demonstrations at the Ottawa convention for the high-profile cabinet minister. Then Mr. Sharp shocked the convention by dropping out of the race the day before the balloting, throwing his support behind justice minister Pierre Trudeau.
The move caught Mr. Millikin by surprise – he had $2,500 worth of cheques in his pocket for the Sharp campaign. He did not follow his preferred choice into the Trudeau camp, saying the West was “fed up with not having a voice. I was for Mr. Sharp all the way, but now that he’s out of the race I want Mr. Turner to win.” As it turned out, John Turner would wait another 16 years before becoming prime minister.
The Trudeau years were grim for Alberta Liberals, but Mr. Millikin kept the faith through six general elections in which his party failed to elect a single member of Parliament from Alberta.
In the 1990s, Mr. Millikin was appointed the Canadian observer to the International Fund for Ireland by former prime minister Jean Chrétien. The fund provides resources for development projects in Northern Ireland and six Irish border counties.
“My basic role was to meet with key people opposed to the peace process and try to persuade them to join the process,” Mr. Millikin told the Celtic Connection. “My other job was to ensure that the money that the Canadian government had put into the International Fund for Ireland was being spent wisely.”
He met with members of Sinn Fein and the Provisional Irish Republican Army, including Joe Cahill, Conor Murphy and Gerry Adams. A peace was reached in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, setting the stage for a Northern Ireland Assembly to sit at Stormont in Belfast. By coincidence, the parliament had originally been opened by the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) four days before Mr. Millikin’s birth.
Mr. Millikin was returning from a visit to Ireland when he died on June 28 aboard an Air Canada flight, “his heart halfway between the two places he loved,” as the family’s paid death notice stated.
He leaves Susan Patricia (née Coulcher), his wife of 49 years, whom he had met at a tennis club and wed on Christmas Eve in 1963; three sons; and five grandchildren. He was predeceased by two brothers.
At his funeral service, the eulogy was delivered by Senator David Smith, a long-time friend. Among those in attendance were flight attendants from his flight home.
Many of the family anecdotes about Mr. Millikin revolve around his brushes with the famous, whom he invariably failed to recognize. He once met two actors at a London hotel, noting the fickleness of their chosen profession and urging them to have fallback careers. “Sorry, I’ve never heard of you, Miss Roberts,” he told Julia Roberts, adding “I’ve never heard of you either” when she introduced Denzel Washington, her co-star in The Pelican Brief.
Chesley Millikin, his younger brother, was a record-label executive credited with discovering the great Texas guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. He knew many rock musicians, many of whom had open invitations to visit. One day in the 1970s, Cameron Millikin answered his brother’s door, returning alone to announce he had shooed away a Gypsy beggar.
The bell rang again and again, until someone else in the household realized the visitor was none other than Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones. “I don’t care who he is,” thundered Mr. Millikin. “Tell him to get a haircut and a new pair of jeans before he comes into our home.”