Obituary: Paul Martin

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IT WAS Canada's good fortune to have Paul Martin as its Minister of National Health in the mid-1950s when the Salk polio vaccine was discovered in the US, writes Frank Gray (further to the obituary by C. J. Fox, 18 September). His ministry provided funds to help Toronto's Connaught Laboratories undertake production of the vaccine in Canada.

When a batch of the US vaccine went wrong and caused a tragic loss of life among some inoculated youngsters in the US, Martin, his aides and Connaught officials held tense weekend meetings to decide whether to go ahead with the production or cancel it. Assured that the Canadian vaccine was safe, he ordered the programme to go ahead. It was, he said, probably his toughest political as well as personal decision. Martin himself had been partially disabled by polio at the age of five, suffering muscle damage in his left shoulder and leg and losing the sight of one eye.

A short, stout man, he carried himself in such a way that these disabilities were scarcely noticeable; he rarely spoke of them and never complained. In the event, the Canadian vaccine programme proved a success, and was administered all over the country without a mishap.

Even as High Commissioner in London in the late 1970s, he never forgot his old constituents in Windsor, Ontario. On one occasion, he heard that the Royal Warrant was about to be removed from Canadian Club, the rye whisky distilled in his home town. A frenetic burst of telephone calls from Canada House to Buckingham Palace saw off the threat.

Martin knew most key politicians of his time, and he proffered his own Churchill anecdote. Back in office in the 1950s, Churchill took umbrage when advised by the Canadian prime minister Louis St Laurent that 'Rule Britannia' would no longer be played by the Royal Canadian Navy at ceremonial occasions. Other, more Canadian, anthems would be used instead, St Laurent advised the British leader. Churchill protested and threatened to cancel a visit to Canada. Dissuaded, he arrived at Ottawa railway station, alighting to hear 'Rule Britannia' being played. Tears flowed and all was forgiven. Churchill accepted St Laurent's explanation that 'Rule Britannia' might be proscribed from use by the Canadian naval bands, but not on other occasions.

Martin's enduring passion was in preserving the fragile unity of Canada and in promoting its image abroad, a task made easier by the fact that his fruity and flawless English was as extensive as his native French. This was particularly true during the late 1970s when Rene Levesque's separatist Parti Quebecois was in power in Quebec City. Martin, in retaliation, frequently drew strength from the words of his first political hero, Wilfred Laurier, the first of Canada's three French-Canadian prime ministers (in office 1896-1911). In an address delivered before his retirement in 1980, he quoted Laurier as follows:

Three years ago, I was in England, and there I visited one of those great accomplishments of an unerring architect. It was a cathedral, made of oak, of granite and of marble. It is the image of a nation I want Canada to become. For here I want the oak to remain the oak, the granite to remain the granite, and the marble to remain the marble. And out of those elements, I would build a nation great among the nations of the world.

Martin told me later: 'Now find me a better formula of what we want to see develop in our country.' True enough, Laurier's was a hard act to follow then, and so, now, is Paul Martin's.