Grit: The Life and Politics of Paul Martin Sr. by Greg Donaghy (UBC Press, 456 pp., $39.95).

Review: Paul Martin Sr. biography gives Catholic politician recognition he rarely received

By  Alan Hustak, Catholic Register Special
  • May 29, 2016

If Paul Martin Sr. had won the 1948 Liberal leadership convention instead of Louis St. Laurent, the Martins, not the Trudeaus, may well have been the first father and son to lead the country.

Instead, as described in Greg Donaghy’s long overdue and compelling biography, Grit: The Life and Politics of Paul Martin Sr., Martin toiled for two decades in the shadow of four prime ministers before his son, Paul Martin Jr., finally claimed the top job.

Grit has been nominated as a finalist for this year’s Shaugnessy Cohen prize for political writing. 

Donaghy is head of the historical section at Global Affairs Canada, where he is well placed to uncover the alliances and rivalries that shaped his subject and his often radical, left-of-centre convictions.   

“Race, religion and class” defined Martin, Donaghy writes. 

The book details too many contributions in Martin’s long political tenure to list in a book review, but they were considerable. The prime ministers he served often took the credit for many of Martin’s accomplishments, and Martin often took the blame for their failings. 

Donaghy provides fascinating glimpses into the reality of life as a cabinet minister. He tells, for example, how in the early 1960s, when the Vietnam War began, Martin was branded “a Pentagon Puppet” as he sought to carry out Lester Pearson’s foreign policy.

But he remained steadfast in his loyalty to the party and to his left-wing ideals. 

“I am not afraid to be called a politician,” he once thundered. “Next to preaching the word of God, there is nothing nobler than to serve one’s fellow countrymen in government.” 

A devout Roman Catholic, Martin was one of the most capable ministers in four Liberal administrations. 

He first made his mark as Mackenzie King’s Secretary of State, became St. Laurent’s Minister of Health and Welfare, Pearson’s Minister of External Affairs and distinguished himself as Pierre Trudeau’s government leader in the Senate and as a roving goodwill ambassador. 

His legacy as health minister is seen in the many social programs Canadians now take for granted, including our universal health care system, pensions, supplementary income bonuses and the Canadian Citizenship Act.

It was generally assumed that Martin would replace Pearson as prime minister in 1968. But he lost his third bid to lead the Liberal party to the elder Trudeau, father of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Pierre Trudeau sent the aging political warhorse to pasture in the Senate. 

Paul Edgar Guillaume Martin was born in Ottawa in 1903 but was raised in Pembroke, Ont. When he was four he contracted polio. His mother was convinced that his eventual recovery was due to the intercession of Brother André Bessette, the Canadian saint who founded St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal and who was regarded as something of a faith healer.  

Despite the disability, he was ambitious, stubborn and steadfast. He was educated at St. Michael’s College in Toronto, where he studied philosophy to become “a cultured Catholic gentleman.” 

Martin first tried to get elected to the Ontario legislature in a 1928 Pembroke by-election but lost. He went on to study law at Harvard then made it to Cambridge. He returned to Canada to practise law in Windsor, Ont.

At the height of The Great Depression in 1935 he ran for Parliament on a “youthful, defiant and reformist” campaign. This time he won, and represented the Windsor riding of Essex-East without interruption for the next 30 years.

He was easily lampooned as an old-style politician, as a brazen opportunist who dispensed patronage and cultivated his constituents. 

On Sundays, Donaghy tells us, “he sometimes attended two or three Masses, reportedly sitting in the back pews so parishioners would see him as they went to and from communion.”

Shortly before he died in 1992, Martin, then a Senator, accompanied his son, Paul Edgar Martin, to China. When Donaghy’s biography was launched at the Newman Club in Montreal earlier this year, Martin Jr. recounted that during the trade mission the Chinese interpreter had difficulty translating the concepts “Sr.” and “Jr.” The problem was solved when he introduced Martin Sr. as “The great Paul Martin.” Then he introduced the son, who was then Canada’s finance minister, as “Paul Martin, not so great.”

In summing up Martin’s life, Donaghy concludes that Martin “celebrated politics as an instrument that could bring individual citizens together to reach shared goals. A member of Canada’s French-speaking and Catholic minority, he matured in a culture that embraced accommodation, compromise and tolerance … Simply put, Paul Martin Sr. embodied both his Church’s call to action, and humankind’s obligation to fashion a more just and equitable world.”

The Chinese interpreter got it right.

Grit: The Life and Politics of Paul Martin Sr. by Greg Donaghy (UBC Press, 456 pp., $39.95).

(Hustak is a freelance writer in Montreal.)

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