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Meet Senator Michael L. MacDonald
October 20, 2020

A long-time political activist and Nova Scotia businessman, Senator Michael L. MacDonald was appointed to the Upper Chamber in 2009 on the advice of then-prime minister Stephen Harper. Senator MacDonald grew up in a family of 10 children with ancestral ties to Nova Scotia’s earliest settlers.

Senator MacDonald sat on the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade and served as deputy chair of the Senate Committee on Energy, Natural Resources and the Environment during the 42nd Parliament. He was a long-time member and former deputy chair of the Senate Committee on Transport and Communications, and is also co-chair of the Canada-United States Inter-Parliamentary Group and a counsellor of the Canadian Section of ParlAmericas.

Senator MacDonald (bottom left) with his parents and siblings in 1984.

Who inspired you to get involved in public life? 

I would say my parents were a big influence. Politics was a constant topic of conversation in our house. We’re a big family of 10 kids. My dad was a union leader for most of his life, a working man. And mom was always involved in politics at the local level. My dad came from more of a Co-operative Commonwealth Federation background, whereas my mother was always a conservative, but by the time I was growing up, with John Diefenbaker and Robert Stanfield in their heyday, we were firmly conservative. I’ve always had a keen interest in history and politics and, with my upbringing at home, it was just a natural fit to get involved with politics as I got older.

Is there something about you that most Canadians might not know?

I have an eclectic taste in music. I listen to everything. I’ll listen to 20s and 30s music and classical music; I’ll listen to what my sons are listening to, all the modern stuff. You don’t want to get my iPod by mistake and go to the gym because it’s all over the place. I can go from country and western to Cape Breton violin, from Enrico Caruso to Avicii.

Speaking of your musical tastes, can you name a guilty pleasure song or album that always makes you smile?

Whenever I hear any song off the album Who’s Next by The Who, I’m always reminded about being 14 years old when I ordered it from the Columbia Record Club. It was the first album I ever ordered and received in the mail. Times have certainly changed, but it’s still a great rock album.

What do you think are the biggest public policy issues facing Canada today?

Right now, it’s going to be the enormous amount of debt that’s coming at us. I believe the economic recovery might be a long time returning, and many marginal businesses may stay closed, taking those jobs with them. Canadians also carry a lot of personal debt, so the true fallout from the COVID-19 experience is yet to be realized. We’ve also lost billions of dollars of foreign investment over the past five years, and there’s no new investment coming in.

There’s also a lot of disunity in the country that didn’t exist a few short years ago in the sense that provinces are treated unequally, industries are treated unequally. There’s a lot of unhappiness in the country. Look at the resource industries. The government is enacting policies that are choking the main driver of the country while our neighbours to the south are going full bore. We have to operate in the same free trade zone, in the same trade circumstances as the United States does. If we’re expected to operate under different standards, it’s going to affect us economically. I think the unity of the country is being undermined, sadly creating a lot of tension, and it’s all unnecessary and avoidable.

Why do you think more Canadians should care about what happens in the Senate?

If you look at how policy is sometimes fast tracked today — even bills are rammed through the House of Commons in a day or two — the Senate’s role of a place of sober second thought was never more important than it is right now. Even if we can’t get the government to change its mind about certain things, we can certainly make the public aware of where the problems are and what has to be addressed. We certainly did that on bills C-48 (Oil Tanker Moratorium Act) and C-69 (Impact Assessment Act). The Senate is often the last opportunity to address deficiencies in legislation.

We’re a country that today has no provincial upper houses. But when the Confederation meetings were held in Charlottetown in 1864, six full days (or 40% of the time), was spent discussing the need for, and the type of Senate. People have to realize: no Senate, no Canada. It was an integral part of the conditions that led to the birth of the nation. It’s a fundamental part of our governance. Even though it may be an unusual body in the modern era in that we are still appointed, it’s still one of the three branches of our government structure and it has an important role to play.

Senator Michael L. MacDonald speaks to 15 students participating in the 2018 Ottawa Internship Program of the University of Michigan’s Department of Political Science. Senator MacDonald is the Senate co-chair of the Canada-U.S. Inter-Parliamentary Group.

What legislative or committee work are you particularly proud of having participated in?

I was really pleased with the work we did on Bill C-69, the Impact Assessment Act, and the work done on Bill C-48, the Oil Tanker Moratorium Act. There was a lot more public awareness of the problems with the bills by the time we were finished studying them. It’s a rare thing to have cross-country hearings on a piece of legislation, but that’s what we did with both bill C-69, and bill C-48.

The Conservatives don’t control the majority of the Senate. It’s not as if we imposed hearings on people the way the government imposed its will on the public with the bill. We were able to construct a consensus on the committees studying the bills even though we don’t control the committees. We got enough people to support our initiatives to study these bills and go around and get some feedback from Canadians. People must understand there are a lot of Canadians unemployed today who were fully employed for decades in the petroleum industry. And it isn’t just people out west losing their jobs. This affects employment across the entire country.

I’m also quite pleased with my work as Senate co-chair of the Canada-U.S. Inter-Parliamentary Group. We’re so historically and economically linked with the U.S. that the relationship must work well. If it doesn’t, it’s a big problem for Canada.

Senator MacDonald attends a press conference on April 10, 2017, for his public bill, S-238, to ban the importation of shark fins.

Finally, I’m very proud of the work done on a public members bill I introduced in the Senate in 2017, Bill S-238, to ban the importation of shark fins. That was a lot of work, but in the end, we were able to accomplish our objective. Canada is now a leader in the fight to end the global shark fin trade, and I’m very proud of that.

What is a hidden gem in your region that more Canadians need to know about?

One of my favourite places in Cape Breton is at Beinn Bhreagh, Alexander Graham Bell’s summer home near the village of Baddeck. There’s a high point of land in the back of the property where Alexander Graham Bell and his wife Mabel are buried. From there, you can see all four counties of Cape Breton. It’s a magnificent view. Cape Breton is a beautiful island, and the scenery around the Cabot Trail, like most of the coastline, is lovely. But I think the most underappreciated part of Cape Breton Island is the interior of the island wrapped around Bras d’Or Lake, which is actually an inland sea. Places like Marble Mountain, West Bay and Iona are surrounded by the beauty of nature.

Senator MacDonald at Beinn Bhreagh with Dr. Martin G. Myers, Alexander Graham Bell’s great-grandson, during the summer of 2009. 

What is the last book you read that you recommended to someone?

One book I read a while ago was a novel written in 1928 by Frank Parker Day called Rockbound. It’s a novel about growing up on the south shore of Nova Scotia but you can apply it to so many rural communities on the coast of the province. The characters in it, the way people lived, the reality of life — it’s a story that could be told about many communities around the province and throughout the Maritimes. It’s a hidden gem of a book.

What sports teams do you support?

Full disclosure — I’m a die-hard Chicago Blackhawks fan. I waited almost 50 years for them to win the Stanley Cup, but they sure made up for it since 2010. My favourite Canadian hockey team is the Ottawa Senators because what choice do I have? I’m an Ottawa senator! I was an Ottawa Rough Rider fan growing up — and I still prefer that name — and I was a fan of the Green Bay Packers in the National Football League. I was also a big Montreal Expos fan. I miss my Expos terribly. I hope major league ball comes back to Montreal.