||The Honourable Martin O'Connell, PhD, Privy Councillor
August 1, 1916 - August 11, 2003
Chairman of the Council of Governors of the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety: January 1984 to January 1989
The son of an Irish immigrant, Martin O'Connell began his career as a public school teacher in British Columbia. He completed the BA at Queen's University, following which his academic career was interrupted by military service in World-War II, as Captain, RCASC. On demobilization, he continued his education in political economy with the MA. His successful PhD dissertation examined the nationalism of Henri Bourassa. To research the original material, he learned French. He completed his academic career by serving on the Senate of the University of Toronto.
He moved to the financial world in the late 1950s, where he joined Harris and Partners. From the financial world, he became increasingly involved in policy planning at the national level. His intense activity throughout the 1960s included Presidency of the Indian and Eskimo Association. His numerous policy papers included drawing attention to the difficulties faced by Canada's aboriginal peoples and the importance of improving their conditions.
By 1965, he was on loan to, and working closely with, Finance Minister Walter Gordon. As one of the three "Whiz Kids", he participated influentially in the design of the Canada Pension Plan, Medicare, and the Municipal Loan Development Plan.
In 1965 he ran unsuccessfully as a Liberal for the federal riding of Greenwood. In 1968, he won Scarborough East. With the Trudeau government, his first Cabinet appointment was Minister of State. Other positions included Co-Chair of hearings that shaped the immigration policies that followed.
Defeated in the election of 1972, he served as Prime Minister Trudeau's Principal Secretary throughout the minority years. He reshaped the office to bring it closer to the grass roots in Canadian society. Re-elected in 1972, he served as Minister of Labour in 1978-1979, afterwhich he retired from politics and became Chairman of the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS).
Vivid memories endure of his time at the Centre. On his taking up of his duties, we quickly became acquainted with his personal principles, that everything should be done well and with dignity.
We soon learned his preferences, of which one stood out: chocolate cake. Over the five years, we probably overdid the chocolate cake. If we did so, it was our way of showing the affection, the loyalty and the esteem we held for him and that he inspired in us.
As Chairman of the tripartite Council of Governors, he joined the Centre at a critical time. While it had won support at the grass roots, it had not wholly succeeded in gaining acceptance in the higher echelons. He set out to change this, which he succeeded in doing in his own respectful way, which he called facilitation.
Much cross-country consultation was involved, with ministers and senior officials in every jurisdiction, with the leaders of organized labour, and with the senior executives of industry. In making the appointments, the Committee Secretariat, which provided support for him and the Council, had only to mention his name and the appointment was always forthcoming, so great was the respect in which he was held.
He was justly proud of his academic doctorate, which, characteristically, focused on a key topic in the political history of Canada, his nation that he loved so much. But he quietly discouraged us from using the title “Dr”, as he did with his earned honorific, "The Honourable". He wanted to be addressed just as Martin O'Connell. He saw himself as one of us. He treated everyone the same because equity was something he held dear in principle and practice.
To the Centre's staff, with his characteristically quiet humour, he would often describe his Chairmanship at the Centre as after-sales service. Sometimes he would be asked about his political career. His electoral defeat in his Scarborough East riding, he would explain, came about because the electors forgot to re-elect him.
With his style of leadership, he not only succeeded in getting things done, but also in winning friends in the process. One of his achievements concerned litter that accumulated around the bus stop adjacent to the CCOHS building. Over a period of several months, he exerted sustained and ultimately successful pressure to get action to clean things up and for proper attention to the garbage bin. An occasion happily marked the success of his campaign: the Mayor of Hamilton presented him with a garbage can lid.
We saw how his relationships endured in Ottawa. Heading to some meeting, we'd be walking with him on Metcalf or Sparks. This was a slow journey because, at every step, it seemed, he'd encounter people who knew him. Hands of greeting were outstretched and, so often, his was the first. He knew their names. He recalled instantly the things they’d done together. He remembered them because they and what they didwere important to him. Just as weand what we didwere important to him.
At meetings, he was a meticulous note takeralways, it seemed, in pencil and on scraps of paper. He noted what he heard because he sought to understand the thoughts of the people he listened to. He used his notes to formulate the way forwardwhich he would call the "soft ground"because he wanted to move beyond listening and into action, action to bring change.
The image that we the CCOHS team of those times hold most dear in our hearts as well as our minds is from the CCOHS Christmas parties. The image is of Martin dancing with his beloved wife Helen.
This tribute was written by Dr Gordon Atherley who served as President and Chief Executive Office of CCOHS during Martin O’Connell’s term as Chairman of the CCOHS Council of Governors.
Read the Globe and Mail Tribute to Martin O’Connell