Farewell to Maz – Minister of Everything

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Don Mazankowski, known as “the Minister of Everything” in 1992 / Toronto Public Library photo, Keith Beaty

L. Ian MacDonald

October 30, 2020

The first time I had a good conversation with Don Mazankowski was on board an Air Canada flight from Ottawa to Regina in 1985.

We were headed for the First Ministers’ Conference on the Economy on February 14-15, that would inevitably become known as the Valentine’s Day Love-In, the first fed-prov meeting of the Brian Mulroney era.

I was flying out as the national affairs columnist of the Montreal Gazette, definitely travelling economy, sitting in the back row, and fortunate to have an aisle seat in a part of the plane where every row was six seats across.

Sitting next to me in the dreaded middle seat, as it turned out, was Don Mazankowski, the minister of transport. It was a surprise to see him flying commercial–when he could have had his own government Regional Jet–let alone sitting at the back of economy. “Would you like me to tell them who you are?” I asked. “They’ll move you to business class.”

It was the last thing he wanted. As the minister overseeing the commercial airline industry, he did not want it said that he had used his position to get a free upgrade. Even decades before Twitter, that would have been a story. Maz could see trouble where no one else ever did. But more to the point, he enjoyed good conversation and we talked throughout the non-stop flight. My book on the PM, Mulroney: The Making of the Prime Minister, was then on the bestseller list, and he wanted to discuss it.

He also gave me a private briefing on the upcoming FMC and the importance of a new start in federal-provincial relations, one that would respect the constitutional separation of powers between Ottawa and the provinces, which the Liberals had habitually ignored after decades in office. As an Alberta MP who had lived through the confiscatory tendencies of the Liberals and their National Energy Program, Maz knew all about that. And he looked forward to sitting with Premier Peter Lougheed as Ottawa’s ally rather than its adversary.

That was Maz, in the first of his many portfolios that would lead to his becoming known as the Minister of Everything. And for seven years, as Deputy Prime Minister from 1986-93, he was just that. As DPM, he was chief operating officer of the government, COO to Mulroney’s CEO, as the former PM himself put it at Maz’s passing this week at the age of 85.

Nothing got done that Maz didn’t sign off on. Apart from everything else, he was chair of the Cabinet Operations Committee, Ops, that Mulroney created with him in mind. It was very simple. Ops ran the Cabinet, and so it ran the government, and everyone in town knew it. They didn’t have “deliverology” in those days, they had Maz at Ops, and he delivered. And when, in addition to all that, he became Finance minister from 1991-93, it was just the cherry on the sundae.

However Maz was not a power broker in the normal sense, but rather a regular guy, a leader who loved to socialize with his fellow Conservatives, a parliamentarian who was respected and beloved on all sides, and a politician who unfailingly sought the advice and recognized the work of public servants.

Socially in those years, the Conservatives had Ottawa evenings known as “Western Wednesday”, where Maz led musical duos and trios.

“Maz was a fiddler, but he also sang,” recalls Steve Coupland, now a government relations executive in Ottawa but then a young Tory aide. “You could be at the bar and hear this voice singing ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,’ and you’d think, ‘that sounds like Maz’, and turn around and sure enough it was him singing it was ‘Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.’ You know, Janis Joplin singing Kris Kristofferson.”

Lee Richardson knew the Alberta side of Maz for all the years. Richardson was Lougheed’s chief of staff during Maz’s later years in opposition before the Conservatives came to power in the 1984 landslide. As a young Tory, Richardson had done occasional volunteer speech writing for John Diefenbaker and knew Maz idolized the Chief. In the 1972 election, he arranged for a private plane to fly Dief in from Prince Albert to a campaign rally in Vegreville. Maz, running for his second term, never forgot it.

Later, as deputy chief of staff to Mulroney in the Prime Minister’s Office, Richardson would coordinate with Maz’s staff down the hall in DPMO, before being elected himself to the Maz-led Alberta caucus from 1988-93. “We met every morning,” Richardson recalls. But Maz himself hardly ever set foot in what was then the Langevin Block at 80 Wellington Street. It was a standing joke in PMO that Maz was never seen there, but he had people for that, people whose judgment he trusted.

Kevin Lynch, later Clerk of the Privy Council, saw a lot of Mazankowski from the days of Cabinet Ops, when he represented the public service at the DPM’s side. Later, as associate deputy minister of Finance, Lynch helped Mazankowski as his minister steer Canada past the end of the 1990-91 recession back to a period of prosperity.

Wherever they worked, Lynch found that Maz was always taking notes.

“After a meeting,” Lynch recalls, “he would take these sheets of paper with hand-written notes out of each pocket and go over them with us. He wanted to make sure he had heard right, but he also wanted our advice.”

He was always grateful, Lynch says, and known for it throughout the public service.

Just as, in the House, he was known for listening to members of all sides, and being as solicitous of opposition MPs as he was of his own parliamentary colleagues. Lynch also recalls Maz’s attachment to home in Alberta, where his wife Lorraine and three sons still lived. “He would make a point of going home at least two weekends out of three,” Lynch says. “He would fly to Edmonton and drive to Vegreville. I was always blown away by that. Have you ever driven to Vegreville in the dead of winter?”

Apart from Maz’s attachment to home, there was his work in the voluntary sector. Only a year in office in 1985, he founded the Don Mazankowski Scholarship Foundation which has raised and disbursed millions for young students.

And there’s the Mazankowski Heart Institute an investment of more than $200 million since its opening at the University of Alberta Hospital in 2008.

Just before Mulroney left office in June 1993, he nominated Maz to the title of the Rt. Hon. normally reserved for the Governor General, the Prime Minister and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

On June 18, 1993, he was so named at Rideau Hall. Ray Hnatyshyn, their good friend, presided as Governor General.

It was a happy day, and as Mulroney recalled this week, Maz took him aside and told him that “for a car salesman from Vegreville and the son of an electrician from Baie Comeau, when you ask how did we do, I think we’ve done not bad.”

Not bad at all.

L. Ian MacDonald is Editor and Publisher of Policy Magazine.