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Donald S. Macdonald, Liberal MP for Rosedale in Toronto, on May 20, 1968.

Fred Ross/The Globe and Mail

Donald Macdonald’s friends say he would have been the prime minister of Canada had Pierre Trudeau not made a surprise comeback after the Conservative government fell in 1979.

Calm, decisive, fiercely intelligent, ready to take tough decisions, but also funny, and kind and sometimes a bit goofy, Mr. Macdonald was a cabinet minister and diplomat whose work paved the way for free trade with the United States. He died on Oct. 14 of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 86.

He was a big man – 6 foot 5. His friends at university called him Thumper because of his size 13 feet. But, if his feet were big, his ideas were bigger.

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“Donald chose, every day, to create a better world, a better Canada,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told those gathered at his funeral. “Donald was an ideas man, no ambition too grand, no project impossible.”

Donald Stovel Macdonald was born in Ottawa on March 1, 1932, to Marjorie Isabel (née Stovel) and Donald Angus Macdonald. His father was Canada’s last Dominion Forester in charge of federal forests.

He attended private school before graduating from Trinity College at the University of Toronto, Osgoode Hall Law School, Harvard Law School and Cambridge University in England.

While overseas, he received word that his father had died of a heart attack. “I broke down and wept for the man who meant so much to me and set a compass for the life I would lead,” he wrote in his biography.

Mr. Macdonald loved the screwball comedy of the Marx Brothers. But he was also strait-laced.

His first wife, Ruth Hutchison, returned from her first date with him to tell her mother that he “was a nice guy but just a little …” and drew the shape of a square with her fingers.

In his early years, he described himself as a centre-left Liberal. He became the party’s candidate in the Toronto riding of Rosedale when no one else was willing. And he won that seat in 1962, at the age of 30, by defeating a Conservative cabinet minister.

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He was appointed the parliamentary secretary for external affairs in 1967, serving under Paul Martin Sr. who was the minister at the time. Former prime minister Paul Martin says his father "took me aside and said to me ‘I want you to know that Donald Macdonald has a brilliant future ahead of him.'”

Mr. Macdonald got to know Pierre Trudeau in 1966 when, as MPs, they were sent to New York to attend a meeting of the United Nations.

“They just took to each other because they were both highly intelligent people,” says John English, a professor and former Liberal MP who has written extensively about the elder Mr. Trudeau and his government. They also shared a belief that Canada needed to more aggressively recognize Red China, Mr. English says.

When Mr. Trudeau won the 1968 election, Mr. Macdonald was named president of the Privy Council and government House leader. He went on to be the minister of natural resources, and then the minister of energy, mines and resources. As energy minister he engaged in an extended sparring match with Peter Lougheed, then the Alberta premier, over oil revenue and whether it was a provincial or federal resource.

“Don, in those days, was quite an economic nationalist,” Mr. English says. “Don was a pretty vigorous and tough minister and he had horrible fights” with Mr. Lougheed.

Mr. Macdonald next moved to the Defence portfolio, a job he held through the October Crisis of 1970 and the invocation of the War Measures Act.

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Troops were stationed around the homes of people who could be targeted, including Mr. Macdonald, on the same night that Bill Wilkerson, a former president of the Liberal riding association in Rosedale, and his wife had been invited to dinner.

Ruth went out to take coffee to the soldiers and Mr. Macdonald followed with water.

“He had this enormous presence and he would always bend over toward people,” Mr. Wilkerson said. “So he bent over and shook their hands. … In the middle of one of the country’s greatest political and national crises, here is the minister of defence out there really having some laughs with these young soldiers.”

After defence, he was appointed finance minister. It was the portfolio that gave him the greatest challenge. The Liberals campaigned in 1974 against a Conservative proposal for wage and price controls. But, with inflation hitting the double digits and showing no signs of abating, the Trudeau government decided to move in that direction.

Mr. Macdonald was given the job of selling a policy that was widely unpopular, and that his own party had opposed when courting votes. The wage and price controls were in place for three years and were eventually determined to be a failure.

But, in the meantime, Mr. Macdonald had more pressing issues to worry about.

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“He and I were chatting and he got even a little teary,” Mr. Wilkerson says. “And he told me that Ruth had been diagnosed with breast cancer. And he said, ‘I’ve got to be home, I’ve just got to be home.’ ”

He resigned from cabinet in 1977 and went back to Toronto in 1978 to practise law and to be with his wife and their four daughters – Leigh, Nikki, Althea and Sonja.

He also began teaching law at the University of Toronto.

“He was a terrific teacher,” says Robert Prichard, the chair of Torys LLP who taught the courses with Mr. Macdonald. “He was a serious intellectual with a strong academic background, tremendous respect for the academic community and for the role of ideas in shaping public policy.”

Mr. Macdonald was almost pulled back into politics in 1979. Mr. Trudeau had resigned after losing to Joe Clark’s Conservatives and many in the Liberal Party urged him to run for the leadership.

At first Mr. Macdonald responded by saying it is important for prime ministers “to have that royal jelly. … I haven’t got it.” But he was convinced that Canada needed his service and that he was the right person for the job, says Mr. Prichard, who was among those who convinced him he should jump into the race and that he could win.

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“It was the shortest campaign in the history of Canada,” Mr. Prichard says. Three weeks later, the Conservative government was defeated and Mr. Trudeau returned to lead the Liberals to another victory. The leadership “was Don’s for the asking,” Mr. Prichard says, ”and then Mr. Trudeau came back and that was the end of it.”

Mr. Macdonald never returned to politics.

Instead, Mr. Trudeau appointed him in 1982 to head the Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada, the examination of free trade that came to be known as the Macdonald Commission.

Mr. English says that appointment came, in part, because Mr. Trudeau supported economic independence from the United States and Mr. Macdonald shared that view.

But when the 2,000-page report was eventually presented to the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney in 1985, after 34 months of hearings and deliberations, the commission recommended free trade with the United States.

“I took his report to Harrington Lake and I sat down and read every word of it. And let me tell you it was quite a read,” said Mr. Mulroney, who had already been discussing the possibility of a comprehensive deal with U.S. president Ronald Reagan.

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“He followed his instincts as a visionary leader in Canada and he pulled the plug on all this more trivial stuff,” Mr. Mulroney says. “He laid the groundwork for one of the greatest achievements by Canada, as many have written, in the previous 100 years.”

Ruth succumbed to her cancer in 1987.

A year later, Mr. Macdonald married Adrian Merchant Lang, the former wife of Liberal cabinet minister Otto Lang with whom she had had seven children.

“They adored each other,” says Tim Lang, the oldest of her sons. “It was just a great example of what a husband and wife should be like, and the proof of that is that he put up with suddenly having seven kids coming into his family, and we’re not the quietest bunch.”

Shortly after the wedding, Mr. Mulroney appointed Mr. Macdonald to be Canada’s high commissioner to Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Mr. Mulroney says the Macdonalds made a huge impact in that posting.

“Not often, but from time to time, even Her Majesty mentioned to me how well Canada was being represented at the High Commission,” Mr. Mulroney says. And at a dinner hosted by Margaret Thatcher, who was then prime minister of Britain, Ms. Thatcher thanked him for sending Mr. Macdonald, saying he was an outstanding high commissioner who knew how to solve problems.

After England, he finished his legal career at McMillan LLP in Toronto.

Sonja Macdonald, Mr. Macdonald’s youngest daughter, says her father was an “incredibly gentle man” who provided a clear and guiding hand in the lives of all his children without being imposing.

He loved to do Donald Duck impressions for his grandchildren, even though he wasn’t very good at them, Ms. Macdonald says.

He knew all the words to the songs he loved, including the love songs, says Adrian Macdonald, who calls him “a true romantic.”

Perhaps as a tribute to his father, Mr. Macdonald also became interested in reforestation and spent 30 years planting trees on a family property in Uxbridge, Ont., that was situated on a gravel moraine – a task in which his children were often conscripted to participate.

Justin Trudeau told those who gathered to celebrate Mr. Macdonald’s life that his legacy can be found in every life he touched as a proud parliamentarian, a caring friend, a loving husband, and a dedicated father. “His legacy is, and always will be, a better, stronger, more generous Canada.”

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