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Politics Donald Macdonald, former finance minister who recommended free trade with U.S., dead at age 86

Donald MacDonald in the royal commission's headquarters in Ottawa on Aug. 15, 1983.

Chris Schwarz/The Canadian Press

Donald Macdonald’s big feet earned him the nickname “Thumper,” but it was his big policies that earned him a place in Canadian history books.

The man who brought in wage and price controls as the federal finance minister in the mid-1970s, and then set the country on the path to free trade with the United States in the 80s, died of Alzheimer’s disease on Sunday morning in Toronto at the age of 86.

Mr. Macdonald, a former lawyer and diplomat who was the Liberal MP for the Toronto riding of Rosedale from 1962 to 1978, was urged to run for the Liberal leadership after Pierre Trudeau resigned in 1979. He responded by saying he thought it was important for prime ministers “to have that little extra quality of royal jelly … I haven’t got it.”

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But there are plenty of people who disagreed, including then-Liberal senator Keith Davey, who sent him a jar of real royal jelly saying: “Now, you do.”

Mr. Macdonald did eventually become a leadership candidate. His campaign ended when the Progressive Conservative government of Joe Clark was defeated and Mr. Trudeau returned to lead the Liberals to another victory.

Adrian Merchant Macdonald, Mr. Macdonald’s wife of three decades, said “he did not have that gnawing in the belly to be at the top of the tree.”

But he was in the highest echelons of Canadian politics for many years.

A graduate of Trinity College at the University of Toronto, Osgoode Hall Law School, Harvard Law School and Cambridge University in England, Mr. Macdonald became 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 said Sunday his father could not speak highly enough about the young Toronto MP. “He took me aside and said to me ‘I want you to know that Donald Macdonald has a brilliant future ahead of him.'”

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, the minister of energy, mines and resources, defence minister and then finance minister.

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In 1975, as the inflation rate hit 10 per cent and showed no signs of abating, he brought in controversial wage and price controls that lasted three years and were derided as a failure.

Mr. Macdonald resigned from cabinet in 1977 and resumed his law practice.

But in 1982, Mr. Trudeau appointed him to chair a royal commission on the economic union and development prospects for Canada. The commission reported back in 1985 and, among other things, recommended free trade with the United States. It was a policy that was adopted by then-Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney.

The Globe and Mail said in an editorial 10 years later that the commission’s findings revealed Mr. Macdonald to be a “visionary” and the commission itself was a “tonic at a time when governments had simply run out of inspiration.”

Mr. Martin said there is no doubt that it was "one of the most important commissions that has ever been given life.”

In 1988, Mr. Macdonald was appointed high commissioner of Canada to Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a position he held until 1991.

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He had four daughters – Leigh, Nikki, Althea and Sonja – with his first wife, Ruth Hutchison Macdonald, who died in 1987. Then he married Adrian, who had seven children from a previous marriage, in 1988.

Mr. Macdonald was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease 11 years ago.

Ms. Macdonald said he went through a slow decline “and he stayed lovely and wonderful and warm and gracious and loving to the end, and funny.”

When asked what, of his many accomplishments, he was the most proud, Ms. Macdonald said he was too humble a person to have thought about his life in that way. “I think his biggest achievement was his four daughters," she said. But “he had an opportunity to serve Canada. He wasn’t a politician, he was a man in service.”

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