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'I came here knowing I had it all to learn.' MacAulay reflects on 30 years as MP

OTTAWA — The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Canada’s solicitor general Lawrence MacAulay was yanked out of a gathering of justice ministers in Nova Scotia. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York City.

As he walked into a private room teeming with RCMP officers, a second plane careened into the complex’s south tower. The deadliest domestic terrorist attack in American history.

“Honestly, you would not believe it was true,” MacAulay recalls.

The Prince Edward Island member of Parliament was a cabinet minister in Jean Chretien’s Liberal government back then, responsible for Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He had been an elected MP for 13 years at that point. He has been re-elected in every election since and, on Nov. 21, marks his 30th anniversary as an MP.

Sitting in his Ottawa office overlooking Parliament, MacAulay eyes well up and his voice weakens he remembers the stark events of that day.

“To this day it’s emotional for me to talk about this,” he confides.

Told by Chretien to get to Ottawa right away, a police escort took him to the Halifax airport, where he was stunned to see the runway transformed into a “parking lot of 747s.”

Once their small plane was in the air, the pilot announced it was one of just five planes in North American airspace flying at that moment — two others were the U.S. president’s Air Force One and a decoy.

“We thought we might die,” MacAulay said. “You just wonder every second what might happen. I mean, you don’t know … That was a tough day, I can assure you.”

Over his 30 years in federal office, MacAulay has travelled the world as a cabinet minister in numerous portfolios, sat on the government backbench, and survived his party’s crushing loss in 2011. Now 72, he’s returned to the cabinet as minister of agriculture.

Despite having been part of some of Canada’s biggest national political moments over the last three decades, the farmer-turned-politician turns to stories about his home province of P.E.I. when asked to recall his most memorable milestones.

His eyes sparkle when talking of work that saw the white sandy beaches and forest trails of Greenwich Park become part of the national parks system. This cemented the eastern region of the Island, which he represents, as a tourist destination.

He all but takes credit for the continuation of the ferry service from his riding to Nova Scotia — once the only way to travel to or from the Island before the Confederation Bridge.

“But the most gratifying thing that you can do (is) probably — a single mother on the 20th or 21st of December, to be able to tell her that she’s going to receive her EI cheques before Christmas,” he says, “because you know for sure that’s all that person has.”

MacAulay was first elected in 1988, defeating incumbent Progressive Conservative Pat Binns — who would later become premier of P.E.I. — in an election fought on the merits of Brian Mulroney’s Canada-U.S. free-trade deal.

While knocking on doors during that campaign, MacAulay remembers one windy morning when he came upon a home with about 14 half-ton trucks parked outside — a sign the place was filled with local fishermen, who often feel the sting of regulatory decisions made by Ottawa.

“I knocked on the door and a lady opened the door, and I said who I was, and she said, ‘Oh my. There’s a bunch of people in the other room who would love to see you’, ” MacAulay recalls. “I can assure you I wasn’t too brave walking down the hall to meet those fishermen. I figured they’d be pretty tough to deal with.”

Years later, he came upon the same woman who had opened the door that day. She remarked that whatever he’d said to the fishermen, it seemed to have worked out for him. 

A lot about his job in Ottawa has changed over the years, he says, holding up his smartphone and remarking that he couldn’t have purchased it for a million dollars when he was first elected.

“I came here knowing I had it all to learn. And in my view, it’s a university on world affairs changing basically on a daily basis,” he said. “If you want to stay around, you have to be able to use the social media, you have to be able to deal with the changes that take place.”

MacAulay has had some close elections. In 1997 he won by 99 votes, and in 2000 by a couple of hundred. But in 2015 he soared to an 11,000-vote margin.

He is known for attending virtually every birthday party, anniversary, wake, funeral or event in the district when he’s not in Ottawa. And when he’s away, his wife Frances attends in his stead.

Being “straightforward and honest” is the key to success as a politician, he says — a rule that led MacAulay to a rare personal admission in the House of Commons in 2016.

During an emotional statement paying tribute to a clergyman from P.E.I. who’d recently died, MacAulay shared a story of how the clergyman had helped him battle alcohol addiction before his life in politics.

That history was not difficult to acknowledge, he says, although it’s not something he has addressed publicly in detail.

Pausing for a moment, MacAulay says he wishes all governments would do more to help those battling addictions. After many years sober, he says it’s a fellowship of support he has received over the years that has helped him live a “a totally free life.”

“I could walk in front of a trailer truck or I could take a drink of rum if I wished. But you know, I’m not sure which result would be the worst.”

So why, after 30 years of balancing constituency work in P.E.I., high-stakes politics and gruelling cross-country travel, does he wish to continue?

“Because I like it,” he says. “You can do things that help your own area and that helps the people. And that’s about all there is for me in this world to do.”

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Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press